Plan for Affordability

Taking a stab at a topic like affordable housing in Canada feels a bit like bringing a piece of string to a knife fight. At least it did for me when mapping out the research material and angles of approach for this issue’s cover story. One piece of research, however, stuck out to me as both a shock to previously held planning doctrine yet entirely logical. It turns out that making the buildings in neighbourhoods more diverse through mixed residential and commercial developments also makes it too expensive for many people to live in.

Peter Sobchak, Editor. affordability
Peter Sobchak, Editor.

A University of Waterloo study of Toronto neighbourhoods found that the increased cost, which was further heightened by the retraction of government support for affordable housing in mixed-use areas, led to the neighbourhoods becoming less diverse. “Making mixed-use neighbourhoods was done with the best of intentions for our health, happiness and the environment, but as communities become more attractive places to live, demand to live there increases costs,” says Markus Moos, a professor at Waterloo’s School of Planning. “Walking to a nearby fancy coffee shop is nice, but the premium people pay for that luxury means the barista can’t afford to live near their job.

“While mixed-use areas were intended to make things more affordable, factors such as the shift to a knowledge-based economy reduced social diversity in the absence of policies designed to keep housing affordable.”

The study examined neighbourhoods in Toronto between 1991 and 2006, at a time when mixed-use developments were prescribed following a rethinking of previous planning that led to decades of urban sprawl. It incorporated existing research on mixed-use developments, as well as housing affordability, classified as spending no more than 30 per cent of one’s income on accommodations.

“Mixed-use neighbourhoods aren’t inherently misguided. In fact, they do achieve many of their intended outcomes,” says Tara Vinodrai, a professor at Waterloo’s Department of Geography and Environmental Management. “But, we’re asking who benefits from this? It’s not people in low-income groups or in low wage jobs.

The study, conducted with Waterloo graduate students Nick Revington and Michael Seasons and published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, found that housing affordability improved over time in Toronto’s mixed-use zones, but only for those in the management, business, technical, and health occupations, whose incomes allowed them to pay the rising housing costs. Housing affordability, however, stagnated or worsened for those in social and public service, trades, cultural, sales and service, and manufacturing occupations.

In order to make sure that mixed-use zone housing does not become affordable only to those best positioned to pay increasing housing costs, the study concludes, among other things, that planners must recognize these issues and advocate for explicit housing affordability policies as an integral component of mixed-use zoning. “What’s needed now is good policy to follow good planning. This includes inclusionary zoning, density bonuses linked to affordable housing, affordable housing trusts, and other relevant methods,” said Vinodrai.

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