Quality of life, the working poor and the urban core

AACI, FRICS | Vice President, The Regional Group of Companies Inc.
  • Jul. 25, 2013

John ClarkThere was an excellent article in the Financial Post recently by Tristin Hopper, “The incredible shrinking home: Why Canada’s houses are getting smaller.” But outside of downtown condo towers in cities like Vancouver and Toronto, the average new home in Canada still has a lot of shrinking to do before it can be considered small.

Hopper’s article charted the growth in the average size of a Canadian home from a mere 1,000 square feet following the Second World War (when the average family was much larger than it is today), to a peak of 2,300 square feet in the mid-2000s.

The hook of Hopper’s article is that this trend has begun to reverse itself, with the average home size having since fallen to 1,900 square feet. But still, the economic and urban planning heartburn will take a long time to fade away.

In 1945, my father, a teacher with an annual income of $2,000, bought our family’s first home for $6,000. There are few good housing options in the urban core today that can be had for only three times annual pre-tax household income.

Young workers and young families have been priced out of the market in many cities across Canada. They must either endure hours of commuting every day from the ‘burbs or beyond to find more affordable housing, or compromise on size or privacy by buying a cramped condo or sharing rent to live in a more central location.

Not everyone is well-educated with a high salary

The fate of this younger generation has been portrayed in case study form in many recent newspaper articles. The subjects of these stories are often educated young people, with solid careers before them.

But the demographic that is suffering the most from our housing bloat are those of more modest means and education. It’s not realistic to think everyone will be well-educated and have a high-paying job.

The people I am referring to are often labelled the “working poor” and many are, even if they are making significantly more than the minimum wage, if they must bear sky-high housing costs in the city core or high commuting costs from the urban fringe.

The gentrification of many old neighbourhoods in city centres across Canada, while a positive in many ways, has nonetheless compounded the problem. Older housing stock that may have been relatively affordable is being bulldozed for new mixed-use developments and condo towers.

To maximize space, we are seeing the growth in popularity of condo units as small as 400 square feet in Toronto and Vancouver, but for someone making $15 an hour, these still carry too hefty a price tag.

But we need these people in the city. It is they who take retail, food service, janitorial and cleaning jobs. They may also work in semi-skilled manufacturing, warehousing and shipping jobs.

Our society can’t function without them. They are crucial to the commercial property management business. And yet, we are reducing them to slum living or a poor quality of life.

What these people deserve are more affordable options that allow them live in dignity where it makes the most sense for them to live relative to where they work. We once had (and still do, although to a far less degree) something called a rooming, or boarding house.

A form of shared lodging

It is a form of shared lodging, where individuals have private rooms, but may share a bathroom and other common areas such as a dining room. This is a model we as a society should perhaps consider reviving alongside the trendy 400-square-foot condo as a way to provide more people with decent, respectable and affordable housing options in the city core.

This requires three things:

• A supportive regulatory environment that governs building codes to make it acceptable for residents to share amenities.

• A willingness on part of developers to build such housing.

• A change in our societal attitudes about shared amenities and how much living space is considered enough for an individual.

This is very much an issue of our society’s preoccupation with material things and having the biggest McMansion on the block. I remember the cleaning lady who used to work for my parents.

She lived a quite frugal existence for most of her adult life in modest accommodation, but she managed her money well and was able to take a two-week trip to Europe every few years. It was all a matter of priorities.

This kind of supportive environment is important both to people with limited employment opportunities and to the economy as a whole by the jobs they are able to fill.

To discuss this or any other valuation topic in the context of your property, please contact me at [email protected]. I am also interested in your feedback and suggestions for future articles.

John Clark is Vice President with The Regional Group of Companies Inc. He has more than 33 years of experience in the real estate appraisal field, is a fully accredited…

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John Clark is Vice President with The Regional Group of Companies Inc. He has more than 33 years of experience in the real estate appraisal field, is a fully accredited…

Read more

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