Monday, May 30, 2016

History of Housing: why it cost $1M to get into the Toronto housing market

Paul Godfrey
I've been reading How We Changed Toronto, the political memoir of former one-term Toronto mayor and permanent civic-reform advocate John Sewell.  I suspect he may have wanted to call it How We Saved Toronto , and he could have made a case for that.

Sewell's very readable story celebrates the success of the late '60s upsurge against the idea that the only role of city planning was to enable the development industry to makes as much money as possible. It turned out that protecting neighborhoods, preserving and reusing existing buildings and streets, promoting non-automotive transit, encouraging downtown living, and other Reform proposals  -- all wildly unorthodox in the development-oriented civic politics of the day -- really were good for cities.  (Richard White pushes back against some of the extremes of this view in his recent Planning Toronto, showing that planning was not quite so new an idea as the 60's reformers believed.).

A couple of hundred pages into his book, Sewell makes a case that quite early on, he moved from saving downtown to looking at broad regional planning. On that front his defeat was comprehensive.

There was a thing called the Toronto Centred Region Centred Plan.  One of its tenets was resistance to permitting wide-open urban expansion north of Steeles Avenue.  (For non-Torontonians, Steeles is a nondescript street that marks the northern boundary of Metro Toronto.  Academic types may know it best as the northern edge of York University.)  The Plan's idea was there was lots of room for infill development south of Steeles, and providing services running endlessly north would be expensive and wasteful.  New urban clusters farther north would become possible, but simple endless suburban expansion would be discouraged.

The development industry, obviously, preferred a free hand and space to develop.  Paul Godfrey, chair of Metro Toronto when Sewell was mayor of the city of Toronto, sided with the developers, and Godfrey won. In the mid-1970s water, sewage, and other essential public infrastructure were extended north of Steeles. Endless suburban sprawl erupted.  Today the real northern boundary of Toronto is not Steeles Avenue but Lake Simcoe, a hundred km farther north.

So, lots of new housing for the growing population?  Sure, but it is almost all extremely low-density suburban housing, which means there is not nearly as much of it as there might be, and it is all relatively expensive because it is spread so thinly and is expensive to service.

Sewell has numbers.  In the early 1970s, density in central Toronto was 82 people per acre. York had 58, East York 49, North York 33, Etobicoke 30, Scarborough 30.  That is, Central Toronto has nearly triple the density of the suburbs.

The developers' victory north of Steeles meant that the low density pattern would continue forever. There would never be enough housing, and it would always be expensive.  The situation now set for the future -- that is, a few people will have very expensive spacious detached homes, and most people will live in fairly expensive apartments or equally expensive homes in remote suburbs forever -- could have been replaced by more people living in a much greater quantity of affordable single-family homes, in a much more livable urban environment, perhaps.

Never happen now.

 Active History on Sewell on Toronto

Update, May 31:  I was dubious about this post as soon as it was up, suspecting it was wildly simplistic even for a blog post. But it seems inappropriate -- and maybe impossible -- to make a blog post disappear, so I let it live.  Now I'm grateful to Andrew Stewart of Strata Consulting for adding nuance and context in the nicest way:
I appreciated your “History of Housing” blog the other day -- a very important issue, and not just an historical one. Although I understand what you mean when you say “The developers' victory north of Steeles meant that the low density pattern would continue forever.” It sounds a bit like “the end of history” – something I hope is a turn of phrase rather than prophetic.
Urban sprawl is certainly an historical pattern in Ontario that shows only superficial signs of slowing, despite the Greenbelt Act. Developers and land speculators still have the upper hand, with local councils willing to accommodate to their interests and political donations. In his Toronto Star commentary the other day, Tim Grey of Environmental Defence convincingly opposes the developers’ argument that the Greenbelt causes higher house prices.
A new generation may yet reverse the sprawl trend – people like Jennifer Keesmat, Toronto’s head of planning, though it’s places like Brampton and Barrie that are the problem now. The Province’s Growth Act addresses the problem, but not strongly enough. There is opportunity for every citizen to influence the revision of this all-important Growth Act, now under way (until end of September).
On the whole, I'm rather encouraged to stick with my newly formed counter-intuitive notion that sprawl itself causes housing scarcity and high cost. Andrew, I think I meant forever mostly in a geographical sense -- ever moving outward.  But you are right to urge optimism about a reversal.

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