There are problems with Toronto’s condo construction, but don’t tread on David Mirvish’s King Street plans. If we want to see more reasonable prices, we need to build more housing. That’s what condos are.
David Mirvish certainly knows how to start a conversation. His announcement this week of a proposed mixed-use condo, arts, and shopping complex near King and John shifted the civic discussion, even if just for a few days, from Rob Ford’s etiquette to urban development.
Some people, like me, had their breath taken away by the prospect of adding three unique 80-storey towers to the skyline—a bold set of landmarks that would redefine that stretch of King Street in the same way Mies van der Rohe’s TD towers redefined the financial district in the late 1960s.
Some screwed up their brows at architect Frank Gehry’s conceptual model, which appeared to have been set upon by toilet-paper-wielding vandals. Still others were upset that the plan would demolish the Princess of Wales Theatre, a big McMusical venue not yet 20 years old.
And then there were the straight-ahead condo haters, whose outrage over the prospect of new neighbourhoods in the sky is the most predictable element of any discussion about Toronto development. But if we’re really worried about the affordability of housing, people need to stop having these violent knee spasms whenever someone proposes constructing lots of it.
There are problems with how we’ve been building condo towers. But rather than focus the conversation on addressing those problems, we waste a lot of time on condophobia, and the strange idea that these slickster towers are fancifying the city and making it more expensive.
Here’s the thing: Housing is so expensive in Toronto because there are more people who want to live here than there are places for them to live—especially downtown. When demand exceeds supply, the price goes up. So if we want to see more reasonable prices, or even if we want prices to rise less quickly than they otherwise would, we need to build more housing. That’s what condos are.
Many people have a myopic tendency to immediately start shouting that high-end condos do nothing to help those who can’t afford them. This is like saying that draining water from the deep end of a swimming pool won’t affect the shallow end—the high and low ends of the real estate market are in the same pool, are only high or low relative to each other, and are intimately connected.
This even applies to the rental market. There are good reasons to think the booming market in new condos keeps rental prices down: Some people who’d otherwise be tenants buy condos instead, and many condo units—about 22 per cent right now in Toronto—are put up for rent. According to CMHC data analyzed in the Toronto Community Foundation’s Vital Signs report released this week, rents in Toronto as a percentage of income dropped through the condo boom of the ’00s. In 2010, rent cost tenants less of their income than at any point since the early 1990s. (Though rental costs have been rising since 2010, as the young-adult population has driven demand through the roof.)
Of course, for genuinely poor residents, no amount of supply will ever address affordability. As the Vital Signs report points out, there’s a waiting list of over 68,000 people for subsidized government housing in Toronto, and just around 1,000 units of affordable housing are built every year.
There are ways to leverage the condo boom for our most vulnerable citizens: Inclusionary zoning is one of them. In cities like Vancouver, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., developers can be required to build affordable units. In Vancouver, for example, developers have to set aside 20 per cent of land for affordable housing.
In Toronto, the city has no power to compel developers to do the same. Some have agreed to do so in their zoning negotiations—for example, CityPlace will include a Toronto Community Housing building—but the city has no authority to insist upon it.
But it could, and should. NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo has a private member’s bill before the house that, if passed, would allow for inclusionary zoning.
Inclusionary zoning won’t solve the problem here, but it would help. And maybe it would move us past condophobia toward a conversation about all the ways to make these towers better. A good place to start, I’d suggest, would be the kind of well-built, magnificent architecture that Mirvish proposed this week.