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Stuck in condoland?

Toronto Life recently published an interesting article called Stuck in Condoland. A lot of people have mentioned it to me, so there seems to be a lot of interest in the topic. It basically profiles the lives of a few young families who live downtown and are trying to raise young children in relatively small condos (think 700 square feet).

I thought it was interesting because I like the idea of small and efficient living. The average post-war bungalow in Toronto was probably less than 1,000 square feet. And so this modern notion that you need a big house in order to properly raise a family is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although we’re a richer city today and that’s what happens when people become wealthier: they consume more.

But the article also makes it seem that developers only want to build small condos and that larger condos and single-family homes just aren’t profitable enough. Thus the reason all these families are being forced to into tiny shoeboxes in the sky. But that’s not really true.

Look, just like every other for-profit business on the planet, developers are concerned with making money. And so they will always look for ways to increase efficiency, drive down costs, and so on. But there are certain realities of the market that developers don’t have control over.

First, developers aren’t building new single family homes in the city (at any sort of meaningful scale) because there’s no land to do so. And because the land use policies in place and the current thinking around how we can more sustainably build our cities for the future dictate that we should be building more intensely. In other words, building up. So it’s not a question of developers not wanting to build single family homes; it’s a question of not being able to.

Second, trust me when I say that if the market wanted large 3 bedroom family units, developers would build them. Mandating them is a useless exercise if people don’t want them or are unable to afford them.

The challenge we face is that a reinforced concrete condo tower is more expensive to build than a wood-framed single family house. So until land values get to a point where single family homes become the more expensive option (compared to condos), I don’t think we’ll see a huge rush towards 3+ bedroom suites.

This is my hypothesis at least. Because when you buy house, you’re really buying two things: the house itself and the land. If the house itself (wood) is cheaper to build on a per square foot basis than a condo (concrete), then the variable that will make a difference is the land. And as people like to say: “buy land, they ain’t making any more of it.”

So what I’m saying is that I just don’t think the situation is as simple as: “developers are bad, all they want to do is build tiny condos and make lots of money.” It’s more complicated than that. But I do believe the question of how families are going to live in the city is an important one.

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