High-density housing: The next frontier in low-rise

For the doubters out there, Toronto’s housing landscape is proof that Darwin’s theory of evolution is, in fact, the real deal. As single-detached houses join the list of endangered species here in the 416, we’re seeing the emergence of new forms of high-density housing, made to survive this storm of rising prices and dwindling supply, all by virtue of their very design.

What’s behind the housing crisis?

Depends who you ask. Some cite population growth while others point the finger at overseas investors, NIMBYs or government policy. The latter, argues the home-building industry, has all but halted new single-detached development, straining existing supply and pushing prices ever higher.

The Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) reported just 1,001 new lowrise homes available for sale in builder inventories as of the end of February. This includes single-detached homes, semis and townhomes. Ten years ago that number was 17,304. BILD president and CEO Brian Tuckey called the scarcity of single-family lowrise homes “almost inconceivable.”

On a national scale, the Canadian Home Builders’ Association (CHBA) further identified a need for, and a lack of, high-density lowrise homes geared toward families. The CHBA calls this shortfall the “missing middle.”

The CHBA report, The Housing Supply Deficit – Not Enough Homes for Families with Young Children, points to a significant and growing mismatch between housing demand and what home builders are able to supply, given planning and zoning patterns and the lack of available serviced land.

“CHBA’s research shows that current patterns of urban development fail to address the needs of young families,” says CHBA CEO Kevin Lee. “This is the ‘missing middle’ in our largest and fastest-growing communities.”

The CHBA report carries with it a warning: if current trends continue, Canada will see a shortfall of 300,000 family-oriented homes in the next 10 years.

In the meantime, prices continue to rise. The average single-detached home in the GTA increased to $1,205,815 in February 2017, according to the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB). And you can expect prices to continue their upward trajectory, with an expected increase of 10 to 16 per cent this year, TREB predicted in its Review and Outlook 2017. This is on top of the 17-per-cent price growth in 2016.

So, what can we do about it?

Again, it depends who you ask, but with no end to rising prices in sight, a necessary evolution is a likely outcome. And it’s already happening.

According to one developer, the answer to the housing shortage is stacked townhomes, for a number of reasons. Cost is certainly one of them.

“The fact that more units can be built and sold per acre allows all costs to be better distributed across a greater number of units,” says Joseph Alberga, director of sales and marketing at Lindvest. The developer is currently offering stacked townhomes at Brownstones at Westown in Toronto, and building Grand Cornell Brownstones in Markham, which is sold out.

Cost savings include wood-frame construction no need for expensive elevators, and omitting amenities like pools. “All contribute to keeping the unit sale price more affordable, not to mention significantly reducing the shared monthly condominium maintenance fees,” Alberga says.

“Stacked townhomes provide a way to achieve greater density and still provide homebuyers with a housing style which very much feels close to the ground and still provides each homeowner with their own front door.”

The rise of high-density lowrise

Missing middle” homes, like stacked townhouses, are more complicated and expensive to build per square foot, explains Frances Martin-DiGiuseppe, architect and principal at Q4 Architects. This explains why developers haven’t showed much interest in them – until now.

“Due to the increased cost of single-detached homes, exploring new forms of high-density development is changing the conversation,” Martin-DiGiuseppe says. “And, with a second mini baby boom underway, we need to examine new forms of high-density development, like stacked back-to-back townhomes, laneway houses, and small mixed-use main street buildings that will help provide entry-level housing for young families.”

While alternate lowrise concepts are largely uncharted territory in the GTA, these more practical, less costly ground-oriented homes have already caught on in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, “where four- to six-storey newly constructed buildings are common,” Martin-DiGiuseppe points out. “If Canadians can learn how to do these smaller buildings well, we can really cater to young families by creating and transforming neighbourhoods into much more vibrant and safe communities.”

Ground-oriented, high-density housing is already a thing in Vancouver, which has been feeling housing price pains for some time now.

“Laneway homes and stacked townhomes have been well accepted in Vancouver as a form of ‘gentle density’ as relative to higher density condominium housing forms,” says Bob de Wit, CEO of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association. “Laneway homes in particular have been very popular in the City of Vancouver proper, and now are beginning to roll out to the surrounding suburbs as land prices continue to climb. A great next step will be when cities begin to stratify and/or change tenure arrangements, so that homeowners can transfer ownership of laneway homes or carriage houses. That’ll open up wholly new opportunities for families to gain access to certain neighbourhoods.

“The great thing about gentle densification is that it provides ground-oriented housing that is family-friendly for buyers who cannot afford a traditional single-family home,” says de Wit. “For most purchasers, I would think, the price and location advantages outweigh the party-wall issues.”

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