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Is Toronto’s urban growth boundary really making the city less affordable?

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This morning the Globe and Mail published an article by Toronto’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, called Greenbelts make cities more livable, affordable and transit-friendly.

The headline immediately caught my attention because conventional economic wisdom would suggest that supply constraints – whether natural or artificially created – generally have a negative effect on housing affordability.

To be clear though, I support Ontario’s greenbelt. I think an urban growth boundary is the right thing to have if we want to build sustainable, walkable, and transit-oriented communities. But I’m also not blind to some of the potential (negative) externalities.

However, Keesmaat’s article got me wondering just how prevalent those externalities might be and to what extent our greenbelt is actually impacting housing affordability in Toronto. In her article she cites a recent report by the Pembina Institute that very clearly argues the following:

“There is no shortage of land throughout the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] to build single-family homes for decades to come, but this land is predominantly located far from the City of Toronto and other established centres of employment in the GTA.”

More specifically, the report found that of all the land available for development in the region (within our growth boundary), 81% of it is projected to still be unused by 2031. This got me thinking: it’s not that there isn’t land still available in the region; it’s that there isn’t land in the areas where demand is the greatest.

Put differently, young families aren’t clamoring for single family homes in High Park and Leslieville because the greenbelt has restricted their ability to find new housing. They’re doing so because they want to live in neighborhoods like High Park and Leslieville.

If you dive into the data, the report shows that in 2004 the average price of a detached home in Toronto was about $117,000 more than the rest of the Greater Toronto Area. As of 2013, that spread had grown to about $200,000. And indeed the data shows that it’s the core of the city where home prices seem to be appreciating the fastest.

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So when it comes to housing affordability and supply, the greenbelt may actually be a red herring. Releasing it would not increase the supply of housing in areas where demand is already high, which is probably why this same report also found that – with or without an urban growth boundary – most Canadian cities are seeing similar increases in home prices.

So what should we be doing?

I think we should do two things: (1) focus on accommodating more growth in the areas that people already want to live in, and (2) figure out ways to transform the less desirable areas into more desirable ones. This second one will be the hardest, because it’s likely going to mean changing car dependent areas into transit-oriented ones, which is no easy task.

The good news though is that we are already doing these things. There’s more that I would like to see happen, but we’re headed in the right direction.

If your city has a greenbelt or you have experience with greenfield development in the Toronto region, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. This is an area of development that I’ve never really been involved with.

Image: Flickr

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