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Feb 2020 | January-February Issue

The Future of Housing: Community Design for the New Decade
Sloane Sweazey, PSD Research
In the past decade, the Canadian housing market boomed: demand for rental properties outpaced growth in supply, and housing prices – most considerably in large urban areas – soared whilst incomes stayed static. The boom has led to housing affordability becoming more constrained, with many Canadian cities experiencing an affordable housing crisis. Vancouver neared the top of the Global Living 2019 list as being the fourth most expensive housing market in the world, while Toronto was ranked 12th.  
 
The housing market has a significant impact on shaping the ways in which people are living, and where. The type of housing you live in, dependent upon affordability and availability, fundamentally affects core lifestyle choices, such as whether (and when) you choose to have a family, how often you can travel, how engaged you are with your community, what type of career path is suitable to your location, and the list goes on. Ultimately, people are living differently now as a result of trends in the housing market. 
 
Entering the new decade, we will see how communities respond to these new styles of living and how community planning aligns with the new realities people face in response to expensive housing markets in large Canadian cities. One of the first communities to lead the way in new community design is the Town of Innisfil in Ontario. The Town is beginning development on The Orbit, an innovative urban design that disrupts the notion of traditional community planning.  
 

I. The Canadian Housing Market

 
The increase in population has been one of the main factors affecting the Canadian housing market. The last decade saw Canada’s largest population increase in one year from August 2018 to July 2019, a growth of 531,000. Canada’s population growth is the highest among G7 countries, in large part due to international migration. As the law of supply and demand predicts, this population increase puts a strain on housing availability and subsequently, affordability. Additionally, incomes are also not rising as quickly as housing prices: the Frontier Centre for Public Policy reported that house prices have risen three times that of household income since 2000. 
 
In a 2019 study, Zoocasa analyzed how feasible it is to purchase a home in 15 Canadian cities based on the median Canadian income. The findings show that in only eight cities did a median income suffice in affording the required down payment within less than a decade, and that’s based on an individual saving 20 percent of his or her income.* The cities that made the list were: Regina, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Halifax, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa and Greater Montreal. For buying a home in the remaining seven cities, it would take anywhere from 10 to 25 years to afford a down payment with a median Canadian income.
 
Even more, Zoocasa’s 2019 National Housing Survey reported that 84 percent of Canadians find that housing affordability is a major issue. Likewise, 70 percent of first-time home buyers reported rising real estate prices as the main obstacle to owning a home, followed closely by earning enough income and saving for a down payment as additional hurdles.
In reference to rental prices, the Global Living Report ranked three Canadian cities as having the highest global rental growth from 2018 to 2019: Vancouver placed sixth with a 6.8 percent increase, Toronto ninth with a 4.8 percent increase and Montreal tenth with a 3.9 percent increase. To provide a real-world snapshot of rental increases over a decade, in their 2020 report “Toronto After a Decade of Austerity – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” Social Planning Toronto reported a rent increase between 2010 and 2018 of 39.8 percent for bachelor units, 33.7 percent for one-bedrooms, 31.6 percent for two-bedrooms, and 23.6 percent for three-bedrooms. So, while low-income earners continue to struggle with access to affordable housing, so too do median income earners.
 
As housing becomes more costly, Canadians are adjusting living situations to adapt to what they can afford. These adjustments range from living with parents longer, cohabiting with roommates, and opting for smaller living spaces, to more negative consequences such as overcrowding, unhealthy living conditions, and illegal evictions. One of the biggest implications of rising housing costs is the trend of individuals leaving large urban areas to live in smaller communities. For example, Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development reported that Toronto lost 30,000 people a year between 2016 and 2018 to more affordable markets.
 
As styles of living continue to change alongside rising housing prices, it begs the question of how community planning will evolve in step.
 

II. 2020 Community Design Planning: The Orbit

 
In 2019, the Town of Innisfil revealed their vision for a new community development called “The Orbit.” The Orbit is comprised of multi-story buildings and mixed-use spaces that will host a variety of retailers, public and private amenities, and residences, all orbiting around a newly built GO Station – part of a regional public transit system of commuter rail trains and coach-style buses. The design is as futuristic as it is appropriate, aligning to the demands of millennials moving away from large urban centers to seek affordable housing elsewhere, as well as retirees no longer wanting to maintain large acre lots. 
 
Community design has profound effects on the way that people live and The Orbit is a sharp shift away from traditional suburban planning. The suburban design was first created by the US Federal Housing Association as early as the 1930s and has been the prevailing community design built by developers, not only in the United States, but in Canada as well. Suburban planning focused on single-family homes and was car centric. However, as housing becomes less affordable for a large majority of the population, suburban planning centered upon single family homes and transportation by car is no longer compatible with new lifestyles. PSD’s Sloane Sweazey spoke with Lynn Dollin, Mayor of Innisfil, and Jason Reynar, Chief Administrative Officer to discuss The Orbit, the vision behind it, and how it differs so greatly from traditional community planning. 
 
Image 2. Aerial View, The Orbit. Source: Town of Innisfil
 
First and foremost, the GO Station is the core component of The Orbit’s design plan which will allow residents to conveniently commute to larger urban centers for work, all while being able to live in a market that is more affordable. Lynn states, “We want to provide a quality of life that is really second to none and yet still have connectivity to the airport, downtown Toronto, but live in a community where everyone knows their neighbours.” The GO Station will begin construction this year. 
 
Important to Innisfil during the planning and design process of The Orbit was to ensure that Innisfil upheld the small-town rural roots of the community. One of the core pillars of The Orbit is mobility, ensuring that trails and paths will allow for connectivity throughout the community without having to add a lot of roads and highways that bring with them an urban feel. Because The Orbit design involves densifying upwards as opposed to outwards, development will only be across a few kilometers, as opposed to three or four hundred lane kilometers of growth across subdivisions. Not only is this type of densification better for mobility, but it will also be significantly cheaper to maintain and rehabilitate infrastructure in the future.
Furthermore, The Orbit is being developed on land that currently has little development and a low population, knowing very well that if development took place in an area already highly populated, there would be a lot of pushback from community members. When asked how the existing community is responding to the new community plan, Lynn responded:
 
“We don’t want any part of Innisfil to feel like they are being left behind or that any part of the Town is more important than another. It is important to the people living here now that the character and the heritage of their community is upheld – we are not trying to assimilate everyone into a certain vision and we must let everyone be proud of what they want to be proud of.”
 
 
Beyond connectivity and transportation, Dollin and Reynar emphasized how new condominiums will offer different housing options that are more applicable to a variety of potential residents. Mayor Dollin shared that Innisfil is currently in a growth pattern right now – the Town is located approximately 60 kilometers north of Toronto – yet currently does not have many residential offerings beyond single detached homes. The Orbit will bring a variety of residences ranging from condo buildings spanning six to eight stories up to 25 stories, all circling the GO Station. Reynar stated, 
 
“That’s the beauty of The Orbit – in your retirement years, if you want to move from your large acre lot, you can move to condo living and go south in the winter. We’re also thinking of young professionals who maybe don’t need the space and aren’t interested in collecting a lot of material things – they want to collect experiences.”
 

III. Conclusion

 
The Housing Affordability issue in Canada is quite daunting. In the past decade, we have seen the effects of rising housing costs, but like all generations before us, populations adapt and adjust. We can only hope that community planning does too, and it seems like The Orbit is doing just that, providing a community that has a variety of amenities and connectivity to large urban areas, but with housing options offered at a price tag that is much less than can be found in bigger cities. 
 
On a final note, Dollin and Reynar extend an invitation to all potential partnerships to help bring the vision of The Orbit to life. “We would love to hear from people – there are so many great ideas out there and we don’t claim to have all the answers, but we know where we want to end up and we hope that people will come with us on the journey.” 
 
Contact orbit [at] innisfil [dot] ca to learn more. 
 
SLOANE SWEAZEY, MA completed her master’s degree from the University of Guelph in Political Science, specializing in Canadian Public Policy. Sloane’s responsibilities include sourcing and editing content for Public Sector Digest, alongside writing and editing corporate material for PSD. She can be reached at ssweazey [at] psdrcs [dot] com.