Ottawa's Maturing Neighbourhoods

CRITERIA FOR HEALTHY GROWTH AND CHANGE

Affordability of Shelter

Housing affordability and the cost of shelter are complex problems that over simplified solutions will not help fix.  The purchase price or rent of any dwelling type in any location in Ottawa is dependent on the entire real estate mix within the City and not specific to the cost of building and servicing the new construction.  This is the result of the dynamics of real estate investment, the availability of property and development land, the distribution of property taxes, development charges, and infrastructure investments throughout Ottawa. This is compounded by the household cost of living in any location, which is not only a matter of rent or mortgage payments; housing costs include a long list of other incidental costs such as utility bills, cost of daily travel (cars, their insurance, and/or transit), cost of childcare, the loss of work time resulting from limited childcare, the cost of local food and household items, and also the availability and cost of community and recreational services/facilities.

Given these complexities, I propose letting go of impacting shelter affordability one project at a time (though any who do this are to be commended).  Let us dedicate ourselves to collectively taking action on all fronts that would curb escalating housing costs for all.  And, as a wise women once told me, "always go for the low hanging fruit".

Following is a list of strategic moves that have been demonstrated to have significant impacts on housing affordability.  It is time to take action on all these fronts.

House Size and Household Demographics -- Allow 'Rightsizing'

For over a hundred years our households have been shrinking in size.  Fewer and fewer people are living in each household, but our housing typologies have stayed the same.  Some of our older neighbourhoods have seen populations cut in half or more, becoming unable to sustain the small corner shops that used to animate street intersections.  And according to a recent survey (https://www.point2homes.com/news/canada-real-estate/how-large-are-canadian-homes.html) most Canadians indicate that they would prefer a home that is smaller then their present home.  Within the existing housing stock we can't find homes that are of a modest enough size to meet our needs. 

The Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis (CANCEA), in their study "Understanding the Forces Driving the Shelter Affordability Issue" stated that by right-sizing older adults we could set back housing affordability to levels seen in 2000.  But this just isn't possible with today's housing stock.

In CANCEA's same study, they also identified that a significant increase in rental housing stock in transit served urban places would turn back housing affordability to the 1990's.

So why don't we have smaller units on the market for people to purchase or rent?  Part of the answer is that our housing industry is very tightly regulated, producing housing typologies that have not evolved for decades, despite our changing demographics.  Regulations limit the number of options possible which prevents developers from building to meet demand. 

 

If we dare to be honest, our culture idolizes the dream of the 'good life' and of 'home': two loving adults caring for 2.5 kids + pet in a house with one car, one minivan, a play set in the backyard and a swing on the front tree.  Many of us struggle to imagine a young family by any other description.  Our neighbourhood regulations are designed to perpetuate this model, in spite of the demographic and economic reality of our population and households.  As a result we do not have the housing stock we need and are forced into homes that are larger than we desire.

 

It's time to let go of this outdated dream but we must not let go of the families with kids, so they can continue to live on inviting and quiet neighbourhood streets, and aging adults can remain living there too.  Single family houses sized for 4-8 people do not need to be part of this new vision.  It is an expense that most of us can't afford.  

Today many households choose to be over housed in order to live within a low density neigbhourhood on a neighbourhood street, rather than in an apartment building or on a busier street where smaller unit sizes are more common. 

 

Our neighbourhoods need more smaller dwelling units for rent and purchase.  As well we need multi unit buildings with underground parking that allow aging adults to park safely in the wintertime.  And these buildings also need to be located within neighbourhood fabric, so that aging adults can right-size and remain in their communities.  These new smaller units and housing types need to be located on neighbourhood streets, but without detracting from the street character that is so highly valued.  

Smaller homes are more affordable.  They can be designed to meet our needs and to satisfy our sense of belonging in a community. All of this, but also be on a neigbhourhood street. 

Reduce Car Dependence

The cost of owning a car makes much of our sprawling city very expensive for low income families.  Living without a car can reduce household expenses by as much as 30%.  The cost to build parking in urban locations adds $30,000-100,ooo to the cost of a dwelling unit, or hundreds of dollars in parking costs per month. 

 

What's more, the cost of personal vehicles to our City is vastly higher than most of us are aware.  The cost of personal vehicles has to be carried by the whole population in the form of increased property taxes and development charges, which impact our monthly housing costs.  Walkable neighbourhoods would have a huge impact on housing affordability by reducing the need to purchase and use a car to complete daily household tasks.

Criteria for Growth:

  1. Walkable

  2. Socially engaging

  3. Diverse (both in income and household demographics)

  4. Ecologically responsible

  5. Affordable (individually & collectively)​

“Affordable housing is a cornerstone of inclusive communities.”

The building Blocks for a Healthy Ottawa, March 2019

“Prioritizing affordable housing options through diverse housing forms and tenure types helps ensure that we are building communities for everyone.”

The building Blocks for a Healthy Ottawa, March 2019

“20% of Ottawa rental households spend over 50% of their income on rent and utilities.”

The Building Blocks for a Healthy Ottawa.

"...increasing the productivity of land that is already serviced would be a more cost effective way of producing appropriate housing stock without having to open up new land supply farther afield from employment centres, which is generally unproductive."

Understanding the Issues Driving the Shelter Affordability Issue, by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis

"Affordability is largely driven by average household size (which is shrinking) and average wages (which are growing, but unevenly). For example, a very small change in average household size (say 2.6 to 2.5) would necessitate a very large increase in housing stock (= 3.5 years’ worth of construction)"  

Understanding the Issues Driving the Shelter Affordability Issue, by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis

"While household occupancy was falling, ironically the size of our houses was growing... this growth in size is tied to more and more remote locations, as people have accepted longer commutes to find larger, more affordable home. From an energy standpoint, both home size and distance translate directly into greater carbon emissions, environmental impacts, and household expenses. From a cost-of-living standpoint, the long commutes more than offset the saving in home cost, but that calculation seems to elude both home buyers and banks."

Peter Calthrope, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

“We choose to subsidize highways rather than transit and in so doing commit the working poor to own several cars. We choose to make building mixed-use neighbourhoods difficult because of single-use zoning and mortgage underwriting standards. In addition, many communities blatantly practice exclusionary zoning establishing minimum lot-size requirements or simply by limiting new construction. Changing these policies and practices not only will begin to resolve some of our affordable housing problems but also can break the logjam of traffic congestion, deteriorating air quality, and loss of open space...”

Peter Calthrope, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

"These neighbourhoods [with single family homes] accomplish several historic feats: They take up more space per person, and they are more expensive to build and operate than any urban form ever constructed. They require more roads for every resident, and more water pipes, more sewers – more power cables, utility wiring, sidewalks, signposts, and landscaping. They cost more for municipalities to maintain. They cost more to protect with emergency services. They pollute more and pour more carbon into the atmosphere. In short, the dispersed city is the most expensive, resource-intense, land gobbling, polluting way of living ever built."

Charles Montgomery, Happy City.

Build on existing Urban land

Our housing market is flooded with housing typologies that are expensive to build and very expensive to service. Single famiily homes are large and costly to build, but even more significant is the cost to service them.

Servicing costs, to build and to maintain servicing to suburban and urban neighbourhoods, is carried by the city's whole population and paid for by everyone's taxes regardless of our individual housing choices.  Sprawl is very expensive and we all collectively pay the bill. 

 

Some suggest that high density is the solution, but towers cost 30-60% more than wood frame construction.   They are built of concrete and steel, with fire safety features to allow safe existing. They are also seismically designed to prevent damage in the event of an earth quake.  That additional cost is passed from the developer directly to the purchaser, or in the case of rental units, from the owner to the tenant.  In addition, high density developments require large expensive upgrades to existing underground city services, a cost carried by all.

Low-medium density development on urban land that is already serviced is much more affordable for a city.  This type of development can reduce the burden on sewers by replacing older buildings that are  connected to city sewers incorrectly, and by providing storm water storage on site.  When located in walkable neighbourhoods, this type of development does not significantly increase the traffic burden on streets, which equates to a huge savings for the City as a whole. The larger tax base in the already developed areas also allows their tax dollars to be spent on servicing streets that may be in desperate need of upgrades.

Build homes that are less expensive to construct

3.5 storey wood frame buildings containing multiple smaller units are most affordable to build.  They are constructed largely out of wood with simple fire and safety features as a result of being ground oriented.  Savings are significant when units are grouped together under one roof, and share walls and foundations. 

Build homes that are less expensive to Heat and Cool

This also means homes that share walls and sit one on top of the other, sharing heat and cooling.  Multi Unit Buildings are vastly more efficient to heat and cool than singles, even singles with lots of insulation.

I'm not going to speak to building materials and features designed for energy efficiency and R values, as others are better equipped to describe the available cost savings that these upgrades represent.  But when it come to affordability we must always remember... low hanging fruit.  Some items that have a great bang for the buck:  additional rigid insulation on the outside of walls above grade, rigid insulation on the outside of walls below grade or ICF construction (this creates a better long term investment in half basement dwelling units that are much less likely to become moldy and require expensive remediation), and green roofs.  Green roofs do not just save home owners heat and cooling costs, but save the city in storm water management and, by helping to cool the air, save healthcare costs related heat exposure.  

Avoid Development Land Sacristy

Scarcity drives up prices. Zoning must allow for a wide variety of development options on a vast number of infill properties through the Ottawa.  Allowing small multi unit buildings in all R1 to R4 neighbourhoods would constitute a level of land supply that would curb inflation due to speculation.

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