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The Globe and Mail

Most GTA home buyers would live downtown – if they could afford it

A northbound Spadina streetcar picks up passengers near Front St West in downtown Toronto on February 27 2012.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As the debate continues in Toronto over whether it's better to raise children downtown or in the suburbs, a new study suggests urban centres are considered too expensive for families with two or more kids.

Most GTA home buyers would make such downtown virtues as walkable access to amenities and rapid transit their priority in choosing a home if they could afford it, according to an RBC-Pembina poll released Monday.

When money was a factor, 59 per cent of respondents with two or more children said they would prefer dwelling in large detached homes in car-dependent neighbourhoods. When price wasn't a factor, it was only families with three or more children that preferred the larger dwelling (just over 40 per cent).

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Jen Amoroso, who lives in downtown Toronto, said she and her husband kept their two-bedroom condo after their son was born a year ago for convenient access to shops and transit. She takes her son outside for a walk or to play every day, "and not in the street," she noted, making reference to a comment made by Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday.

Mr. Holyday started a furious debate with his comments Friday about how he wouldn't want to raise his kids "on King Street or Yonge Street."

"I can just see it now," he told council. "'Where's little Jenny? Well, she's downstairs playing in the traffic on her way to the park.'"

Ms. Amoroso said whether the family stayed downtown or not would depend on whether they remained a single-child family.

"I'm not worried about safety, but it's almost impossible to find a bigger place that we could afford," she said. "If we had another kid I think we'd consider moving either east or west to a house with more space."

The release of the RBC-Pembina study following Mr. Holyday's comments was coincidental, said Pembina Ontario policy director Cherise Burda, but points to a demand for affordable family-friendly housing in urban centres.

If price were not an issue, 81 per cent of respondents said they would prefer to live in a smaller home in a "location-efficient" neighbourhood where they can walk or take rapid transit and achieve shorter commute times over a larger house or yard, according to the poll.

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Home prices are the driving force behind neighbourhood choice, with 79 per cent of respondents saying affordability influenced the location where they lived.

"The discrepancy between where respondents currently live and where they would prefer to live suggests that what may be driving some home buyers to car-dependent neighbourhoods is cost rather than preference," the report said.

"We shouldn't have to live in the type of city where you live in a condo as a single person and move out to the suburbs as a family and move back to the city as seniors," said Ms. Burda, the study's author. "We should be able to have the types of diverse housing that can accommodate all demographics and be affordable to do so."

The city council debate centred on a proposed 47-storey condominium on King Street that is the subject an Ontario Municipal Board appeal. Under a proposed settlement, the project would have 10 affordable housing rental units, and 10 per cent of all units would have three bedrooms.

The poll, conducted by Environics Research Group, canvassed 1,014 adults in the Greater Toronto Area between May 1 and 8. Respondents were asked about their preferences for location-based amenities like access to transit, walkability, commute times, house and yard size and privacy. They were also asked about how home prices influence these preferences, but the poll did not ask about specific neighbourhoods.

A one-way commute to work less than 30 minutes long was one of respondents' top priorities when considering where to live, the poll found. When house prices are a concern, comparing the costs of commuting to work versus living downtown can help lifestyle preferences with affordability, said Claude DeMone, director of client strategy for home-equity financing for RBC.

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"If you're paying $5,000 a year to service a car and pay for the insurance and the fuel but you live closer to work and you don't have to pay that, you can take those cost savings into consideration when you're doing your mortgage financing and looking at your cash flow and budgeting," Mr. DeMone said.

Although all age groups indicated a preference for location-efficient living, seniors 60 years and older strongly prefer location-efficient living. Of those surveyed, 70 per cent prefer compact and walkable communities despite the higher cost of living, compared to 50 per cent of all other respondents.

As seniors and single-child households begin to outnumber larger families, Ms. Burda said cities should make it easier for developers to build affordable townhouses and attached homes in downtown areas.

"Right now we're still continuing to build in subdivisions around the green belt and farther away, but it's not necessarily what people want," Ms. Burda said. "Looking at the census data, families are getting smaller, so we need to think about who we're building homes for."

At 34 per cent, people living in suburban neighbourhoods with a mix of housing, shops and businesses comprised the bulk of the poll's respondents. City dwellers in residential neighbourhoods and those living in suburban neighbourhoods with houses only weighed in almost equally at 28 and 22 per cent, respectively. Thirteen per cent of respondents live downtown in an area with a mix of offices, apartments and shops, and three per cent of respondents live in a rural area where a car is needed to get to amenities.

Because the sample is based on those who self-selected for participation online, no sampling error can be calculated. However, a probability sample of this size would yield a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 19 times in 20.

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