Policy tools could help GTA neighbourhoods adapt to changing market and demographics


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York Region’s resale home market has grown at a blistering pace recently

After a roller-coaster ride, the local real estate market seems to be coming back to earth, but the landscape sure looks different than it used to.

Fifteen years may be a long time, but it seems like only yesterday that my wife and I bought our first house in Thornhill, when there were still “starter homes” in the area. Today, there are still plenty of young families, but it has definitely changed.

We nearly started instead in Thornhill Woods, where construction was just underway and which quickly became the hot new place for young families. But the way prices have gone the last few years, it’s not easy to buy a first home there any more either.

It’s a pattern one can see even more in Toronto where the population is definitely growing downtown but shrinking in many established neighbourhoods.

When I go back to where my parents still live, in North York, the dearth of young kids playing in the streets is impossible to miss. We used to play baseball in the cul-de-sac, ride our bikes down into the ravine and build snow forts in the mountains the plows left behind. 

I never see any of those things when I visit now. My parents and many of the old neighbours are still there, long after the kids have moved out.

It may be hard to imagine Thornhill Woods or Rouge Woods could similarly one day have empty playgrounds, but they too are fast becoming places where prices put them out of reach for many people looking for that first family home in the suburbs.

Affordability isn’t just some airy-fairy social issue. 

When you take it away and fail to adapt to how our cities are changing, you rob them of life.

A few months ago, I was briefly encouraged as I drove past the Promenade and noticed that development signs had gone up on the five acres of scrub that’s been dormant just south of the mall for as long as anyone can remember.

Instead of trying to squeeze 30-storey towers onto the site or even modest mid-rises, the proposal is for 85 townhomes, a gentle increase in density that blends well with the existing neighbourhood. 

Then, a few weeks later, the developer put up their first sales sign advertising the townhomes, “Starting from over $1 million.”

The whole point of having more townhomes and condos is to provide alternatives to the expensive detached homes that dominate the landscape and exclude many homebuyers. But if they start at over $1 million, it doesn’t help so much.

We say we want our communities to be diverse and inclusive, but they’re becoming trapped in stasis, victims of their own success. If you bought a starter home up here, it’s unlikely whomever you sell to will be in the same situation.

Of late, the province’s policies have cooled the housing market, and it’s a reminder that (for good or ill) public policy says a lot about how we live. When the governments of the 1970s offered tax breaks to apartment builders, we saw a boom in rental housing, and when those programs ended, the shift to condos began.

So what’s next? 

One possibility is inclusionary zoning (IZ). 

It’s a policy tool used elsewhere that the province legalized late last year. Simply, it allows municipalities to require a certain percentage of units are “affordable” in any new development.

If it were in effect in Vaughan now, it might require that townhome developer to make 15 or 20 of those homes affordable (a term itself subject to definition). 

The industry counters — and not unfairly — the net effect is that those other 65 townhomes just end up selling for more. Making IZ work is a tricky balance, and it can be too blunt a tool if not done properly, but when you have municipalities like we do with almost no affordable housing at all you have to use what tools you can.

No Ontario municipality has implemented IZ yet, but Toronto is getting close, and our municipalities would be wise to follow, crafting solutions specifically geared to the needs of Markham, Vaughan and Richmond Hill.

On balance, our communities are healthy and growing, but I think we all hope our kids will at least have a chance, and a choice, to live in neighbourhoods like the ones in which we brought them up, and that won’t happen if we’re complacent and failing to see the consequences of our success.

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Post City Magazines’ columnist David Fleischer is a long-time journalist and currently an urban planner living in York Region.

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