EDITOR’S NOTE: Today we introduce RENX’s newest column contributor, Toronto-based architect, urban designer and urban planner Naama Blonder. Naama is the co-founder of Smart Density, and via this new Design, Policy & Canadian Cities column will share her views and expertise.
In architecture school, I spent some time living in Paris as an exchange student. We lived in a small studio since we didn’t have children back then, but Paris was full of couples raising their children in an urban environment.
In Paris, kids stroll or sit in cafes with their parents and teens move around independently by transit or Bixie bikes (the Parisian bike-share system) and walk to school.
Parisian families don’t live in houses – they live in two-, three- and four-bedroom condos and apartments.
This is not unique to Paris in any way.
In almost any large city, families who live in central areas live in condos and apartments. Outside of North America, there is no such thing as detached and semi-detached in the city centre or right next to a subway station.
Canada and single-family homes
With that, you can understand how surprised I was when I moved to Toronto and realized how single-family houses occupy vast areas of the city core and are also near most of the subway stations.
But here, single-family homes are the way a family should live. So much so that if you don’t raise your kids in a house with a backyard, it is almost natural to assume that something is just wrong.
The belief in living in a single-family home is so strong people choose to raise children in a house even when it requires paying a high personal price.
Many of our friends moved to single-family homes once they had their first child. However, as housing prices were going up, the places to which they moved were increasingly distant from their workplaces, and from accessible transit.
For them, it just was the thing you do.
For me, a far-away area poorly served by transit is the counterintuitive choice: you have much less time to spend with your kids when you have a long commute, and when they grow, their independence will be extremely limited by the need to be chauffeured around.
But that’s their choice, and they were willing to pay the price for it.
The condo option
For the rest of us who don’t care that much about having a backyard, the straightforward solution to the affordability issue is a condo.
At a higher density, a piece of land can accommodate more units and this allows us to easily build enough housing for everyone in the most accessible and desirable areas.
Unfortunately, this choice is not available. Few units are large enough for families, and when they are, they are very expensive.
Why is it so?
There are two ways to answer this question.
The obvious answer is economic. Since condos are expensive, developers don’t build large units as they are hard to sell.
Condos in large cities are expensive because building them is only allowed in a handful of locations, and they require costly underground parking and indoor amenities.
But these factors are very simple to overcome; we could have solved the problem long ago. It’s as simple as allowing development in all areas with good transit access and removing requirements for parking and amenity areas. It doesn’t even cost much to the public.
But it’s not about simple economics.
Why is there a bias against condos?
The second answer to the unaffordability of family units is our cultural bias against condos.
The thing is, this bias is not limited to people’s personal decisions about where they are going to live. It is deeper – it’s about deciding for others how they are allowed to live: it’s not only my choice to live in a house, but others too must live in houses.
And if there are going to be condos, they should be kept away from us the good people; maybe put them in some leftover place facing the freeway.
This is why today, we “protect” (the exact term from Toronto’s Official Plan) these houses from intensification and maintain the status quo even as we face crises of housing affordability, congestion and municipal infrastructure funding.
Of course, if you want to live in a single-family home, it is a choice that’s as good as any. Most of the land in Canadian cities is not central enough or well-connected enough to justify much more than single-family homes.
But don’t assume this is the only right way to live.
If you can afford to live in a single-family home in a large city and it is located in one of the few areas with access to good transit – congratulations, because you enjoy a great luxury.
But it doesn’t entitle you to prevent others from making more of a very limited resource.