Now Is the Time to Embrace Density

Written by Kyla Tanner

June 12, 2020

The New York Times published an opinion article entitled, Now Is the Time to Embrace Density in mid-May. The article begins with an air of hope, stating that the economy will recover from the COVID-19-induced recession. The recovery will begin in cities that were thriving before the pandemic. The question we’re faced with is whether the recovery will create opportunities for all – including those with the lowest incomes – or will it serve to gain only a few? The answer depends heavily on whether enough affordable housing is built and the way to do this is through density.

The article has similar messaging to what we have been hearing in conversations at Cahdco and CCOC and with our clients. It has also been heard through the Ottawa urban boundary expansion debate and this report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University entitled More for Less. Two key messages that have been repeated are:

  • Government should invest in afford housing infrastructure as a way to bounce back from a recession; and
  • Make cities denser through policy changes like loosening restrictive zoning (such as for single-family homes), permitting more homes on existing single-family lots, building apartments near transit, and dedicating underused public property (parking lots) to new housing.

The article was written by Carol Galante, the faculty director of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley. During the Obama Administration she was the Assistant Secretary for Housing and Federal Housing Commissioner at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Prior to this, Galante worked for a non-profit housing developer (at BRIDGE Housing) and was a city planner early in her career.

Investment in Infrastructure

Galante states that bouncing back from this recession will take building affordable housing in cities that have opportunities for employment. Part of her argument here is that there have been decades of “underbuilding” in cities that have employment opportunities. This has led to higher-income entrants to the market outbidding everyone else for the limited housing options, exacerbating longstanding inequality. This pushes lower-income households out of the region or inhibits them from moving there in the first place, despite the employment opportunities. Those who must live in the city, such as service and essential workers (who we’re relying on heavily during the pandemic) face untenable and unjust rent burdens.

Looking back historically, the last time we had a huge need for housing was in the post-WWII era. The federal government spurred construction of a large number of homes, keeping housing affordable. While Galante’s point of reference is the US, the same holds true in Canada. While this investment was a positive, we ended up with sprawling single-family dwelling subdivisions, which has only continued since this time. She states, “subdivisions are contributing to an environmental and human disaster, requiring people to commute by car, sometimes two hours each way, while spewing carbon emissions.” Galante notes that we cannot allow the pandemic to be a “rallying cry” for further sprawl.

  • The problem with that strategy, as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Richard Rothstein have written, is that this era of single-family and suburban development was shaped by discriminatory policies including government redlining, racial zoning and restrictive covenants. These policies led to segregated communities with unequal access to opportunity.”

Therefore, while we want government to invest in infrastructure, it should be focused on affordable housing for all. A key way to accomplish this is by making cities denser, as cities where most of the employment opportunities exist.

Change Policy to Make Cities Denser

The article includes several suggested policy changes that will help create denser communities. The first step is to, “loosen restrictive zoning that effectively blocks less-affluent households and stop mandating that lots meet large minimum-size requirements, leading to sprawling, sparsely populated neighborhoods.” This doesn’t have to be done through tower development. Cities could permit more homes on single-family lots. Apartments can be located near transit. Underused public property like surface parking lots can be used for new housing.

The second step is to, “reduce the cost and uncertainty of getting a housing project built”. Galante stated it takes years to get permission to build (we also heard this from developers in Vancouver). Long timelines and delays throughout add cost and risk to projects, which only serve to increase the price of the housing.

The author cites the City of Vancouver allowing small cottages in the yards of single-family homes. Los Angeles has a Transit Oriented Communities plan that reduced parking requirements, leading to over 20,000 new apartments, 21% of them affordable housing. New York City has “as of right” zoning that allows developments to proceed with minimal review except when changes to zoning are necessary. Galante recommends that federal infrastructure funding (in Canada this would come from CMHC through the National Housing Strategy, discussed in this blog post) be tied to these types of actions.

Opening up building opportunities will stimulate the industry, and it doesn’t require extra funding. This allows for more people to work, provides safe and affordable living, and allows for property taxes and other revenue to local government for community services. Now is the time to reduce restrictions and build denser communities.

  • This pandemic is reminding us that we need communities where teachers, child- and elder-care workers, nurses, doctors, janitors, construction workers, baristas, tech executives and engineers all share in the prosperity and the comfort of an affordable home.”

Kyla Tanner

Project Manager

June 12, 2020