Six hundred square feet isn’t huge. But Emily Pickles figures her new condo in Burlington will be larger than anything she could afford downtown.
“Where the market’s at right now it’s a little scary. It was surprising to see what I could get for my budget — it’s not much,” said the 22-year-old TTC customer communications and special events co-ordinator.
When Pickles moves into her place next year, she will join the one in five Toronto Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) households that live in condos, according to the latest census data. That proportion is about the same in Burlington although it’s not part of the Toronto CMA.
For first-time millennial buyers like Pickles, condos have become the de facto starter home, an answer to ownership in the face of big city prices.
But in Toronto, high rises come with questions about whether we’re building the right kind of housing. If not, how do we sustain vibrant high-rise communities suitable for all ages?
In Canada, 13.3 per cent or 1.9 million households live in condos and the Toronto region accounts for 445,650 of those, according to the census.
In Vancouver, nearly one in three households live in condos. Even some smaller cities such as Calgary and Kelowna, B.C. — where the numbers are 21.8 per cent and 21.5 per cent, respectively — have proportionately similar condominium populations to Toronto.
In Toronto the trajectory of condo development is clear. It’s less straightforward in the 905 communities, according to information provided by the city.
“The proportion of households living in condominium units is likely to rise,” said Michael Wright of Toronto planning.
“The bulk of the city’s potential housing supply includes condominium units. For the five-year period ending June 30, 51 per cent of the proposed development projects in the city’s pipeline involve at least one condominium application, and these projects represent 85 per cent of the residential units proposed, under construction or recently built,” he said in an email.
Although condos can range from single-detached homes, town houses and low-rise apartments, the majority of units in Toronto are high rise and, even in the 905, where municipalities are building population densities around the region’s expanded transit system, there’s a clear push to the sky.
For Pickles, who is living with her parents until her unit is ready, the move means home ownership near enhanced transit service on GO’s busy Lake Shore West line.
She put down 30 per cent on the $307,000 apartment, and figures her payments, including condo fees, will still be less than rent downtown.
“Rent is insane,” she said, citing friends whose leasing costs are so prohibitive they struggle to afford the city amenities for which they’re paying a premium to be close to.
Condominiums, which provide about a third of the City of Toronto’s rental stock, have been an effective response to the problem of affording a starter home in Toronto, particularly for millennials. They’re also evidence of Toronto’s oft-touted world class status, said Phil Soper, CEO of Royal LePage.
“One third of housing stock we’ve added since 2011 is condominium. When I was a kid (in 1980) it was 6 per cent. That’s a dramatic change. Clearly we’re adjusting the product people buy into. It’s clear we’ve joined other global cities in a changing social norm where many people don’t expect the white picket fence,” he said.
And condos work for millennial consumers — until there’s a second child in the family.
“When they have that second child, there’s a switch that’s thrown in the direction their lives take for home ownership and they will head to the suburbs just like their parents did,” said Soper of the key millennial consumer segment. “What they’re not doing is buying their first home in the suburbs.”
The potential migration of young home owners to the suburbs could put the city’s vibrancy at risk. But it’s a risk that can be addressed by governments putting the right incentives in place to encourage the development of bigger condos.
The census provides more ammunition for building the housing that planners call the “missing middle.”
Those are the attached town homes and mid-rise apartments that are priced and sized somewhere between the region’s glut of high-rise and single-family detached homes, said Marcy Burchfield, executive director of the Neptis Foundation, which has been studying Ontario’s anti-sprawl growth plan.
It’s housing that accommodates struggling middle- and middle-lower income families, she said. That’s key in a region where the census showed 26.7 per cent of home owners and 47 per cent of tenants are spending more than 30 per cent of their household income on housing.
That’s a clear indicator of financial stress. Add the cost of commuting to the high cost of housing, and the affordability challenge grows again, she said.
“Moving the needle on changing the composition on the dwelling structure of our region is one way of doing that,” said Burchfield.
“That is where we need to focus our efforts. It’s got to be around current transit and where we’re building all this high capacity, high speed transit around the GO stations. That is really where we’re going to start to see movement around this affordability issue,” said Burchfield.
Location near a GO station was a key selling point for Pickles because it puts her on a more frequent train service and it’s a reprieve from the noise of downtown.
“It would be nice at my age to live downtown but I wasn’t fully ready to do that,” she said.
At the same time, owning a home of her own was a priority.
“I wanted to get my foot in the door. I wanted to own my piece of property,” said Pickles. “I wanted to be building something up myself.”