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Editorials Globe editorial: The dream of a big home in the city is dying, and that’s okay

Its most famous passage has hardened into fridge-magnet cliché, but the so-called Serenity Prayer, written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, still contains plenty of insight for those with eyes to see it.

You know the one: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Many people living through an ordeal, or opening a fridge, have felt the resonance of those words. But if you are on the verge of a particularly intense “Amen,” you might just be living through the madness of Canada’s housing market.

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It is rough out there: Serenity, strength and wisdom are all at a premium.

The average Toronto-area home sold for more than $800,000 in April. In Vancouver, the benchmark price was more than $1-million. And that is after a period of price cooling spurred by tougher mortgage rules and local and provincial policies targeting foreign buyers and “shadow flipping.”

In Toronto this year, it was considered good news when the real-estate board announced the average January sale price of a detached home in the city proper had declined four per cent from the previous year – to $1,283,981. Fortunes have been lost betting against housing bubbles but, in the country’s biggest cities at least, house price corrections do not seem to presage a popping sound. The fact is, a big brick pile in Toronto or Vancouver is worth seven figures and probably always will be.

When those cities were built, as provincial Commonwealth suburbs, sprawling shady streets lined with family homes made sense. Now that these same cities are exciting world hubs, such housing is the height of decadence.

Consider a couple ensconced in Toronto’s middle-class High Park neighbourhood. They live a five-minute walk from the east-west subway line of Canada’s financial and cultural capital in, say, a prewar three-bedroom house with a chestnut tree in the front yard and a parking spot for their minivan – suburban comforts in the heart of North America’s fourth biggest city.

This setup seems normal to generations of Canadian urbanites. More than normal, in fact – it’s a birthright. But the truth is that owning a big house in a city the size of Toronto or Vancouver is a weird anomaly in our world. When you factor in those cities’ low crime rates and multicultural richness, it represents one of the highest standards of living any large class of people has ever enjoyed.

It’s little wonder the burghers of Canada’s biggest cities still hope to live like their parents, despite soaring prices. A survey last year found that 69 per cent of aspiring Toronto homeowners wanted a house with three bedrooms or more.

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Alas, a big slice of this wishful cohort will be denied their dream. Toronto, like other Canadian cities, is over-saturated with houses: 62 per cent of Toronto’s residential area is already zoned to prevent the building of anything but detached single-family homes. Schemes to build more end up in the realm of destructive unreality, like Ontario PC leader Doug Ford’s swiftly abandoned pledge to develop chunks of the region’s Greenbelt.

Of course, everyone would like to live like a king. But that isn’t possible – or even desirable. Even if we could build enough suburban manses to satisfy demand, it would be a terrible idea. The environmental and social costs would be too great.

Changing regulations to encourage denser forms of housing is a good way to begin getting around the impasse.

But a change in outlook on the part of buyers is even more important. Montrealers, not to mention city dwellers from New York to Berlin to Hong Kong, have gotten used to raising families in condos and apartments. They aren’t miserable – they live in some of the world’s most vibrant places.

That’s Toronto’s future, and Vancouver’s, too. There are early signs that residents of those cities are accommodating themselves to this new reality: Vancouver just saw the weakest April market for detached-house sales in decades.

But we still read too many sob stories about people who feel their dreams of owning a house on a leafy street have been crushed by Chinese capital or the Greenbelt or some such villain. Well, time for members of Canada’s middle-class to bone up on their Niebuhr. They need the wisdom to recognize that a less luxurious housing future is something that can’t be changed – and the serenity to accept it.

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