multi-suite residential

Mixed-use developments may stifle diversity

Study finds Toronto neighbourhoods with mixed residential and commercial projects are unaffordable for many people
Friday, February 16, 2018
By Rebecca Melnyk

Mixed-use developments in Toronto are transit-friendly, amenity-rich places to live, work and play, but the very factors that make them desirable are also creating neighbourhoods that are unaffordable for many people.

A new study from the University of Waterloo, published in the Journal of the American Planning Association, examined neighbourhoods in Toronto between 1991 and 2006. The research team found that housing in mixed-use zones remained less affordable than housing in the rest of the city, catering mostly to high-income earners working in white-collar professions and shutting out those with lower-wage jobs.

“In a moment where the economy has shifted so much to knowledge-based work, which is high wage and high skilled, we need to be thinking very carefully about the other parts of the economy—how all people live or can afford to live in those areas where this is happening,” says Tara Vinodrai, lead author and associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Management.

As mixed-use developments reinforce a growing income inequality arising from this occupational transformation, governments continue to withdraw investments in affordable housing.

The study suggests planners consider a range of policy measures, such as inclusionary zoning, density bonuses and housing trusts—policies which haven’t seen much uptake in the city for various reasons.

“Housing affordability is something that used to be perceived as an issue for the more marginalized community—very low income,” says Markus Moos, lead author and associate professor in the School of Planning. “As more and more middle class struggle with affordability, the issue has made its way onto the political platform in recent years. On the upside, it suggests we may see more action on affordable housing policy.”

On the downside, he adds, with affordability becoming a middle class issue, there’s the question of whether policies will be implemented to help those who have always struggled within the low-income dimension. One affordability policy doesn’t work for everyone on the spectrum of homelessness to ownership.

While inclusionary zoning “isn’t a silver bullet,” according to Moos, Ontario will soon require developers to include a percentage of below-market units when planning mixed-use developments.

But according to the proposed Ontario legislation on affordable housing, which is still being clarified, this percentage would temporarily account for five to 10 per cent of building units that are only condos and not purpose-built rentals. And below-market rates don’t necessarily mean they are affordable for most or even larger families. The City of Toronto would also pay developers 40 per cent of the cost of units or exempt them from funding community necessities like child-care spaces.

“There’s also concern it may push up the market rate of housing if developers push up the cost, subsidizing the low-market unit with higher-market prices for the remaining units,” says Moos.

Such policy could also help address long-term issues like sustainability.

“It might start to address other challenges people in cities complain about, like congestion and traffic, because all of a sudden there are more people able to walk to their jobs or use transit, rather than people having to pour in from other places in the city,” says Vinodrai.

There are already measures that city planners can use to push developers to provide additional housing, Vinodrai points out. One such policy is density bonuses, where, for example, a developer can add extra storeys if they create on-the-ground amenities like parks.

“Municipalities could have stronger teeth on that,” she says. “Cities could say we want you to put in this development, but we would like you to include affordable housing.”

There is also need for more government investment. Co-op housing, another way to increase the availability of affordable housing as prices go up, often involves lengthy application processes and an average waitlist around four years. They offer a solution, but are not being expanded across Toronto.

Neglecting the affordability issue means the city itself suffers. Doing so strays far from Jane Jacobs’ mixed use ideal referenced in the study—the proximity of different social groups in established, walkable neighbourhoods having access to amenities and services.

“What Jane Jacobs had in mind when talking about the diversity of neighbourhoods is not what we created when it comes to some homogenous inner city neighbourhoods of high-rise coffee shops with yoga studios on the bottom,” says Moos.

Areas that get too expensive lose the diversity and vibrancy that made them initially attractive to city-dwellers.

“We should be concerned for the people who can’t afford it, but also for those who are able to afford it,” says Moos. “Over time, they won’t see the city that drew them there in the first place.”

The study by Moos, Vinodrai, Nick Revington, doctoral candidate in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo and Michael Seasons, urban planner with Dillon Consulting Limited in Toronto, can be found in the Journal of the American Planning Association, in the first issue of 2018.

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