Rethinking the Tower Lunch N’ Learn

Written by Jana Bawaba

August 1, 2019

As part of the Cahdco Lunch ‘n’ Learn series, I looked at a report called Rethinking the Tower by Ryerson University’s Ryerson City Building Institute (CBI). The report studies innovative methods of creating affordable and attainable housing in many global cities in order to understand what could be effectively implemented in Toronto.

The information in this report provided great opportunities for discussion between staff and friends at Cahdco/CCOC. We were able to draw benefits and drawbacks of many of the ideas presented, and thought about concepts that could apply here in Ottawa. Overall, I think many of the innovations suggested in this report can be applied, or have already been implemented, in Ottawa, and learning and drawing from examples in other contexts is always a good idea.

The report profiles 21 case studies grouped into four innovation categories: micro living, shared space, home unbundling, and equity options. It then identifies important takeaways from each category for the Toronto market, and ends by suggesting ideas to support innovation in Toronto.

Micro Living

Shared Space

Home Unbundling

Equity Options

Micro Living

Micro units are small, self-contained studio apartments, which may be beneficial in central locations where higher land costs can be a barrier to affordability. The report presented case studies for both rental housing and homeownership.

Across countries and cities, micro units have a lower net cost overall to rent or own than more traditional units in the area, but costs on a per square foot basis are higher. Experiences in Seattle have highlighted the importance of ensuring that micro units are adequate in terms of size and provisions.

Modular construction involves off-site factory construction of modules that are then assembled at the development site. Modular construction can help reduce costs, reduce construction time, reduce machinery/disruption to the neighbourhood, and allow for construction on difficult-to-access sites.

Takeaways for Toronto based on the case study findings:

  • Omitting the bells and whistles – forgoing non-essential amenities, rather than providing upscale amenities/services, in order to achieve greater affordability.
  • Ensuring livability by developing standards, e.g. minimum unit size, daylighting requirements, storage, soundproofing, etc.
  • Factory friendly – modular construction can allow for well-designed developments at a lower cost.
  • Encouraging energy-efficient micro design in order to lower energy costs for end users.

Shared Space

Co-living involves reducing personal space in favour of shared amenities and services. The report focuses on four types of co-living: hotel-style, family-style, affordable, and roommate-style.

Hotel-style co-living offer high-end rental co-living with generous amenities and services. These are generally not affordable, both in terms of net cost and per square foot cost. The lack of affordability at hotel-style co-living developments is considered a trade-off for networking opportunities, convenience, and central locations.

Family-style co-living developments provide the types of spaces/activities that typically exist in single family homes in vertical developments located in central locations.

Affordable co-living aims to leverage land and construction cost savings of co-living developments with smaller units and shared amenities in order to create more housing and more diverse options.

Roommate-style co-living is an alternative to traditional roommate living, with pre-selected screened roommates living in individuals bedrooms in shared multi-bed units, with shared amenities and services.

Toronto Takeaways:

  • Prioritising attainable co-living developments that demonstrate affordability benefits over high end products.
  • Addressing real needs in the market by providing unit types/sizes that are lacking in the local context.
  • Matching needs (of individuals/families) – providing shared amenities tailored to the needs of residents.
  • Building community in co-living developments, which can entice particular demographics.

Home Unbundling

The increasing market competition in Toronto has led to an “amenities war”, where developers attempt to outdo each other by providing more extravagant amenities. Extravagant amenities and high marketing costs increase the cost to develop, and therefore, increase the cost to buy.

Unbundling amenities, finishes, appliances, etc. from a unit’s price can lead to greater choice and affordability for homebuyers.

Toronto Takeaways:

  • Prioritising essential amenities – providing amenities that are most needed/desired, rather than non-essential/undesired amenities.
  • Saving more to build more – the unbundling approach allows for homes to be built at a lower cost, thereby allowing developers to create more homes.
  • Creating flexibility in both the built form and payment options in order to accommodate various changing needs and budgets.

Equity Options

Accessing homeownership, particularly in Toronto, is becoming increasingly difficult. Some equity programs have been created across the globe in order to alleviate the burden of building equity and help households access homeownership.

Equity loans to aid with down payments come in many forms, including government equity loans, not-for-profit shared equity developments, and private shared equity financial agreements. These organisations provide down payment loans as a percentage of the value of the home, and, in exchange, receive a proportional value of the home once it is sold, whether it has appreciated or depreciated.

Renter equity programs can allow residents to build some degree of home equity or investment through rent payments. Community land trust models can help maintain the affordability of homes by establishing formulas to determine future sales prices of homes. Finally, co-operative housing models can allow for a wide range of pricing options within a development.

Toronto Takeaways:

  • Leveraging long-term leases, e.g. leasing public land to not-for-profits.
  • Housing that builds more housing by generating ongoing and long-term revenue.
  • Protecting affordability, which allows for homeowners to continue to build wealth and receive Return on Investment (ROI), while remaining affordable.
  • Fair sharing, e.g. shared equity program providers receive a ROI equal to the percentage of its investments.
  • Building rental equity in Toronto’s hot market – an option for Toronto suggested by the report is a model that enables a mix of market and below market units and a form of rental equity program.
  • Weighing public funding strategies to understand the benefits and drawbacks of different forms of investment, such as shared equity programs or buildings more housing units.

Ideas to Support Innovation in Toronto

The majority of the report looks at specific innovations and case studies, and draws out ideas that could be applied in Toronto. Many of the ideas presented and the ‘Toronto Takeaways’ are certainly applicable in Ottawa.

The report ends with broad suggestions for supporting innovation in Toronto (and Ottawa!) through land use and policy. The following are ideas to support innovation covered in the report:

  • Leverage – don’t sell – public land for a mix of housing.
    • Joint developments between public agencies and private developers can be successful.
    • Leasing to not-for-profits allow for continued public ownership of land while delivering affordability.
  • Support modular housing.
    • Modular construction can help reduce costs, reduce construction time, reduce machinery/disruption to the neighbourhood, and allow for construction on difficult-to-access sites.
    • As-of-right zoning specific sites can improve the feasibility of developing on small lots and difficult-to-access sites.
  • Encourage zero-parking near transit.
    • Minimum parking requirements increase project costs and reduce affordability.
  • Remove attainability barriers.
    • Cost savings should be passed on to renters/homebuyers.
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Jana Bawaba

Development Project Coordinator

August 1, 2019