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Saturday, September 23, 2023
Arch-i-text: A new look at affordable housing
An Affordable House Solution from our history. (Supplied)

Although you may not have noticed yet, in the face of 10 interest rate hikes since March 2022, the building industry has been slowly grinding to a halt.

A year ago, contractors and their subs were so busy they would ignore calls from folks looking to give them new business. Today, that is no longer the case and even the best trade companies are starting to consider layoffs due to a lack of work.

The old saying, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”, is completely descriptive of the Bank of Canada’s actions, particularly with respect to the last two or three interest rate hikes.

The fact is, they are so completely focused on curbing domestic inflation (when the principal drivers of our inflation are international) that they are inevitably driving the country into a recession with marginal effects on that inflation.

At the same time, this country requires a significant level of immigration to provide an offset for our aging and retiring workforce, adding to an already drastic shortage of housing for first-time buyers.

At the Ontario provincial level, the Ford government’s response, with the More Homes Built Faster Act (Bill 23), has been to largely double down on perpetuating the traditional sub-division development model.

This has not and will not address the housing shortage for first-time buyers where the need is for truly affordable housing, both for purchase and rental.

Interestingly, according to a recent media survey, the purchaser demand and readiness for committing to a new home purchase has not gone down – but the stumbling block for this demographic is affordability. 

And, to be clear, I do not believe it is necessary nor reasonable to revisit the failed 20th-century examples of publically built housing.

Bluntly, the government is incapable of successfully managing a works budget (I cannot find a single example of a government works budget in which the costs have not wildly escalated out of control and timelines to completion were not drastically extended).  

In this column over the past couple of years, we have looked at a number of different potential solutions that could, with the proper support, be undertaken.

In the Jan. 13, 2022 edition of this newspaper, it was suggested that using the blueprint of Canada’s Wartime Housing Limited – a company that could complete the build of a modest house from start to finish in 36 hours – and the efficient permitting and inspection process the government put in place on their developments, would be a logical place to start.

One single trained crew could construct 240 affordable houses per year: multiply that by 100, 200 or 300 crews and you have 24,000, 48,000 and 72,000 (respectively) new homes that first-time buyers could actually afford being introduced into the market annually.

In the same period, we also looked at the example of the land-lease corporation in Martha’s Vineyard who, with the partnership of a local bank writing mortgages, are quite effectively building houses and rental accommodations to answer the affordable housing needs of the folks employed in their hotels, restaurants and other service positions.

These are dwellings built at cost plus on land that the owners of the houses do not have to pay for; two factors which go a long way to making their homes “affordable.”

Amongst other solutions, this column has explored the concept of cellular neighbourhoods and, more recently, highlighted The Village as an example of New Urbanism through traditional neighbourhood development which created a development that was at once sympathetic to the town at a much higher density.

And, while The Village cannot be said to represent affordable housing, these same principles could easily be employed in that category of development.

At this point, I’m going to step out of our neighbourhood for a quick visit to The Waters development in Alabama’s Montgomery County.

Originally this development on 1,250 acres was designed in accordance with standard “sprawl” planning criteria with the usual limited access closed loop streets on which 800 typical cookie-cutter houses would be constructed. However, this plan thankfully was junked and re-imagined.

In its place, the new plan for development was laid out as a necklace of hamlets and villages (neighbourhoods) around the large lake, with most of the land preserved as fields, forests, and waters.

Where the previous sprawl plan represented a density of 0.64 units per gross acre (or about one unit per net acre), the new plan not only preserved most of the naturalized land, but the build was much more compact (think of The Village example).

They were able to achieve over 2,500 units in the development on a lot less acreage with a density of about six units per gross developed acre.

Further, comparing the new plan to the sprawl plan, this density resulted in substantially lower infrastructure costs and increased efficiencies.

Interestingly, the developer did not mass-grade (that’s the standard developer practice of removing all the trees and topsoil to flat-grade a building site) the sites which not only preserved the old trees but actually resulted in a cost savings of over a million US dollars per each neighbourhood!

And this was not the only standard practice this developer rethought to come up with new, novel approaches that achieved cost savings.

The final note I’d like to make on The Waters is a quote from Steve Mouzon (Common Edge 07-05-2023), the individual responsible for its planning:

“We were able to achieve a 15:1 range of values at The Waters, running from cottages to mansions and including a number of missing middle housing types …  And consider this: doubling the range by building mansions twice as expensive is hard; doing the same thing by building homes twice as affordable is much easier, and is a much more powerful tool for tackling the housing crisis.”

Why can’t we do that?

Brian Marshall is a NOTL realtor, author and expert consultant on architectural design, restoration and heritage.

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