The “drive until you qualify” approach to finding housing that you can afford is a well established practice. Anecdotally, I can tell you that I have friends who are right now looking for a grade-related home under the C$1 million mark. This constraint, as most of you know, is pushing them to the outer reaches of Toronto’s suburbs. But if it were up to them, it would be their preference to stay in the city. According to the “two millennials” behind The Habistat, the average distance of an entry level detached house from the Toronto core (defined as a 3 bed, 1 bath under $800,000) is now 81.8km.
There’s a lot to be said about this. For one, home prices across many/most markets are way up. Earlier this week on the blog it was mentioned that the average price of a US home is up about 19% year-over-year. This is likely unsustainable. We are coming off of a period of easy money policies and at some point things will normalize along with the broader economy. Looking at the equity and crypto markets, it may be happening right now, but I don’t really know. (Fred Wilson wrote a post last year calling this “one of the great asset bubbles of modern times.”)
We know that the centralizing forces inherent to most cities have been weakened during this pandemic. For periods of time, they were completely off. So it is no surprise that we have seen greater decentralization (sprawl) than what might have ordinarily happened. I was in a (zoom) meeting this past week with somebody who has spent the last two years traveling around South America while working remotely. It sounded like a lot of fun and I was admittedly a little bit envious of her adventures. But as I argued at the beginning of this year, I think most people are going back to offices and this centralizing force will have an impact on real estate.
Because “driving until you qualify” is a function of an affordability constraint, it tells you certain things about consumer preference, but not all things. What I mean by this is that it tells you that somebody is willing to trade the cost of a commute for more space and/or the housing type of their choice. This has been an easier trade during COVID because the cost of commuting has been relatively — albeit temporarily — low for many people. So less of a discount for distance. But what I think this doesn’t tell you is what true consumer preference would be if all things were more equal and we increased housing supply and options in other areas of our cities.
At the same time, there’s a very real question of whether the measuring stick in the above chart should be a grade-related detached house? Is this a reasonable expectation in the same way it was for prior generations? I am not a fan of dictating what people should and shouldn’t do. But maybe 100km away from the core becomes untenable. And again, maybe if we increased both supply and options, we would find new housing preferences revealing themselves. I am specifically thinking of those who would prefer to stay in the city, but can’t find something they think is suitable.
At the end of the day, we can’t ignore the fact that we are profoundly hypocritical when it comes to the delivery of new housing. We acknowledge that we’re in a housing crisis and we acknowledge that we need more affordable housing (both for sale and for rent), and yet we continue to make it systematically more difficult and more expensive to deliver it. The development charges, parkland fees, and many other costs that continue to increase and get applied to new housing are a real worry to those in the industry.
It is a worry because we’re all wondering how much price elasticity is left in the market. That is, how much more can consumers afford before they stop buying and renting? It is a worry because it means that new rental housing, which has always been a challenge to pencil in our market, is now completely infeasible in many more submarkets. Our solution to all of this is to mandate a certain number of affordable units in new developments. But this is yet another tax on new housing.
To be fair, the delivery of new housing is subject to countless competing interests. This is arguably why it is such a tricky problem to solve and why there are no easy answers. But that’s what we do around here. We explore new ideas. And maybe, just maybe, there are other options besides just driving until you qualify. Next up (or soon up): A look at the competing interests behind new housing.