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Event summary produced by The Globe and Mail Events team. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

How can Canada solve its affordable housing crunch? More than 200 people gathered at The Globe and Mail’s National Housing Innovation event in Toronto on December 6 to tackle the question.

Speakers from Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Toronto and Ottawa agreed the solution lies in gentle density, or allowing multi-unit housing in neighbourhoods zoned for single families. The condo boom in cities such as Toronto has added housing units, but hasn’t helped with affordability, said Cherise Burda, executive director with the Ryerson University City Building Institute.

“Condo prices have doubled in the past decade,” said Ms. Burda. “What the condo market is delivering is expensive and it’s not always suitable for families...Only 38 per cent of condo units in the pipeline in Toronto are two bedrooms or more…Families face the choice of squeezing into a condo in a tall building or coming up with over $1.2 million for the average house in the ‘416’, or driving to qualify for a more attainable home with a long commute.”

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Cherise Burda, executive director of the Ryerson City Building Institute, calls for affordable 'missing middle' housing at the National Housing Innovation event.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

A gentle density approach would convert single-family homes in walkable neighbourhoods to denser designs such as duplexes, triplexes and mid-rises, she noted. It would allow seniors to downsize their homes while remaining in their neighbourhoods, and reinvigorate communities where schools are under-enrolled.

However, gentle density must be married to strong municipal policy, so the new housing - typically built in established, desirable neighbourhoods within the city - remains affordable.

“How do we ensure the missing middle doesn’t become boutique middle? The market is currently not delivering affordability on its own,” Ms. Burda said.

Density push-back

Speakers pointed to ‘not in my backyard’ or NIMBY-ism as one of the biggest barriers to gentle density. Homeowners in single-family neighbourhoods may balk at the idea of a mid-rise appearing on their street, while lower-income residents might object to gentrification in their communities, said Heather Worthington, director of long range planning with the City of Minneapolis.

“Engagement is incredibly important. We had close to 150 community meetings,” she said. The city has diversified its housing stock beyond single-family homes, adding density and flexible options including accessory dwelling units such as converted garden houses.

“Leadership cannot be over-emphasized,” said Ms. Worthington. “Our city council carried this. They fought for it, they believed in it and ultimately their support and their work is what made it happen.”

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Heather Worthington, director of long range planning with the City of Minneapolis, is working to reverse inequality in the city's housing market.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Allies were found in groups such as Neighbours for more Neighbours, aiming to liven up single-family communities with more people and street activity. Citizens concerned about climate change were also onside, she said. “A denser city is a more environmentally-friendly city in many ways.”

How do Canadians feel about gentle density? The Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) has conducted research showing eight in 10 Canadians support the construction of 500,000 affordable housing units in the next 10 years.

“We have a housing supply problem…The [Greater Toronto Area] has 100,000 missing units,” said Michael Bourque, CEO of CREA. “We’re proposing an assertive approach…the supply side is key to tackling the problem.”

Changes in L.A.

Christopher Hawthorne, chief design officer with the City of Los Angeles, spoke about policies in the late 1970s in California that served as a disincentive to build affordable housing. The single-family home was idealized both from an architectural and lifestyle perspective. As a result, the development of denser, more affordable housing units fell away, leading to L.A.’s homelessness and affordability problems today.

Policy makers in L.A. have panned some of the bolder ideas to densify single-family neighbourhoods but seem to agree on moderate approaches.

“There has been other progress happening,” said Mr. Hawthorne. “The governor signed a bill called AB 68 just a couple of months ago…which will allow triplexes in single-family zones across the state of California as of January 1.”

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Christopher Hawthorne, chief design officer with the City of Los Angeles explains how the idealization of the single-family home impacted the development of affordable multi-unit housing.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Hawthorne is also launching a design competition to invite gentle density housing ideas such as four-plexes in single-family zones. Other changes include loosening policies around accessory dwelling units.

“We have tiptoed around the question of single-family zoning. Now we need to confront it head on,” Mr. Hawthorne said.

Sense of urgency

Regardless of the approach, conditions couldn’t be better to plan and build additional housing, at least in Toronto, added Michael Cooper, president and chief responsible officer with real estate company, Dream.

Government landowners in Toronto and Ontario are starting to explore ways to open up land for housing development through leases and partnerships, with a requirement for affordable units. Financing mechanisms created by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) are also in place.

“When you put it all together, this is a moment where we could build 100,000 units quickly,” Mr. Cooper said. “If interest rates go up it’s not going to happen. This is the moment now…We need to come up with homes for a million people. Toronto is getting a lot of immigrants and it’s making our city better and better. I think we have a duty and a responsibility to make sure we have housing for them.”

Evan Siddall, president and CEO of the CMHC said gentle density is an idea worth supporting, but cities such as Toronto and Vancouver will need to go further.

“We need to move the needle much more significantly. Gentle densification is a place to start but to make housing more affordable…aggressive, even disruptive densification is necessary [for cities] to continue to serve as economic engines of economic growth, innovation and job creation,” said Mr. Siddall. “House prices will increase unless density is increased.”

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Evan Siddall, president and CEO of Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) calls for an aggressive approach to densification in cities.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

He pointed to NIMBY-ism, zoning restrictions, density limits, and development fees that favour single- family homes as obstacles government and industry will need to overcome.

Affordable housing will also require more access to government land for housing development, said Jennifer Keesmaat, CEO of The Keesmaat Group, founding partner of the event.

“Land is kind of the golden goose… All levels of government have land. Many of them, including the Ontario government, have land near transit stations...But we’re having trouble unlocking that land. We’ve been talking about it for almost 10 years and it hasn’t happened yet.”

She cited the Oakville GO station as a prime example of land used primarily for structured parking. “It’s an incredible missed opportunity to be building housing right on transit,” she added.

The morning event provided both a glimpse into success strategies in other jurisdictions, along with an accounting of Canada’s housing opportunities, provided the right supply, policy and partners are in place.

View video highlights

The December 6 event was the first in a series of three summits. Visit the National Innovation Housing Event Series page to learn more about the second event: “Innovations in Housing Design,” taking place in Vancouver on February 13; and “Innovations in Housing Financing,” taking place at The Globe and Mail in Toronto on April 17.

The event series is organized by The Globe and Mail and presented by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), with support from Dream and the Canadian Real Estate Association. The Keesmaat Group is a founding partner of the series.

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