Archive for urban lifestyles

Solving the rental housing shortage and price challenge

Many dynamic cities throughout North America have a housing challenge.  Prices are high, whether people wish to rent or own.  In some neighbourhoods escalating prices may be pushing out people who have lived in the community for years, even helped to build it into a great place that is now desirable. Many communities may also be becoming less economically diverse as the minimum income needed to move in may be well above the regional average.

While some suggest trying to forbid any redevelopment or even substantial renovations to homes and buildings (that is, stopping gentrification), I don’t think this is a solution.  Communities are like organic entities. They grow, evolve and change constantly.  Trying to hold them back would be like magically making your cute 3 year old stay in her cute state forever–very quickly she would stop growing and developing, which is actually the very thing that makes her interesting and cute at any one stage.

What can help keep neighbourhoods more economically diverse, with housing for everyone, is greater density and greater flexibility of housing types in those communities where prices are escalating fast (that is, where demand to live there exceeds supply).

In the Vancouver metro area, and in many cities across Canada (and the world) people are starting to increase the value they place on: short commutes, walkable communities, transit-oriented communities, and living a more sustainable lifestyle (less auto use, for example).  If you want a healthier planet and environment, this is a good thing.  But it has the consequence of higher housing prices.

 In my view, the challenge in all of these cities is and will be two fold:

First, get people in existing walkable,’hoods with great transit to accept greater density: more neighbours. This can be what I’ve called “stealth” density (homes you don’t really see from the street) like laneway houses, basement suites, front-back duplexes, etc. It can, of course, also be apartment towers which are appropriate in certain places, or condos/apts over storefronts on busy streets.  If the supply of housing can increase, it will help prevent prices from rising further and maybe help them come down in a few places. And the city will also have to welcome proposals to provide more housing through a variety of creative approaches including reducing parking requirements for new homes in walkable, transit-oriented places.

 Second, steps need to happen to convert suburban areas that are currently more auto-centered into more walkable areas with amenities nearby.  This will also mean existing residents in these places accepting more density and even some new commercial uses in their areas.  You don’t get the customers for successful organic grocers, coffee bars, clothing stores, etc. without a lot of people living nearby, but increasingly you don’t get people wanting to live nearby without the grocers and cafes.  

 And housing of any type is helpful in making rental accommodations more affordable to those of modest means.  We need more purpose-built rental, more owner-occupied homes, more co-ops, more co-housing projects, more subsidized housing plans, and anything creative in between.  This will help push down prices, or at least stop their escalation in places with growing populations or growing demands.

Sometimes I hear renters’ rights groups protesting a city planning department giving a concession to a luxury rental project, claiming it doesn’t help the poor and middle income.  It does.  Any new housing that can pull people with high incomes out of existing lower-cost rental will help make room in a lower priced building for someone else who can’t afford the luxury options.

If we want lower cost housing, or at least housing prices to stop escalating, we need more of it–where people want to live.

Tax incentives vs fixing urban spaces first

What would be more effective in attracting a new cluster? Tax incentives? or improved urban infrastructure to attract and retain more people?  Or both?  What’s working (or not) in your city?

The province of Ontario (Canada) has announced tax incentives in order to build a digital animation cluster to rival those in Vancouver and Montreal.  This sector includes video game programming as well as movie special effects / post production work.

Presumably, they expect the focal point of this cluster will be in Toronto.  As nice as St. Catherines and London ON are (where a couple bigger animation firms are currently located), young computer graphics whiz kids will probably prefer to live in more urban, higher density and amenity-rich Toronto.

In fact, according to my friends at the Martin Prosperity Institute, people with creative occupations in SW Ontario disproportionately live in Toronto along the metro line corridors–yet I’ve heard most of them don’t take transit.  MPI’s map:

And I wouldn’t blame them for not taking the metro. To me it feels “scary old.”  It’s dark, dirty and rickety and I wouldn’t want to take it every day (and I’m a metro lover: I’d happily take Vancouver’s 25 year old sky train every day; I’ve lived in Mexico City and done that Metro every day too).  As a result of under investment in this system, I suspect many more people in Toronto drive than would do so if a clean, modern metro existed.

This further contributes to the crippling congestion in the Toronto area. The drain on the economy and quality of life must be enormous.  If I were a company considering taking the government up on their tax incentive offer, I would worry about retaining workers.  Toronto is a cool place, attracting talent to give it a try shouldn’t be a problem (plus a company can recruit from students at the local universities and technical colleges).  But will these people stay if their commute option is gridlock, old ricky metro, or a long go-train commute from a suburb (or a combination of drive in gridlock and go-train).

If the Ontario government has money to spare, and can subsidize industries, perhaps they can kick in a little more to partner with the city of Toronto and fix the transportation infrastructure.   This would also benefit their goal of being a more prominent global financial centre.

Should “Urban Studies” be a mandatory high school course?

More than half the world’s population lives in cities, and that percentage continues to grow.  Yet, how well do urban residents understand cities?  Do they know where housing comes from? what about food? or clothing?  How much does they average urban resident know about how cities are governed?  Or what legislation or bylaws affect their daily lives? (and how to get them changed?)

Too often lately I’ve been reading comments or quotes in the newspaper that suggest an otherwise intelligent, well-read person doesn’t fully understand how cities work.

Maybe, graduating from high school should require passing a course that includes (or is substantially) “urban studies.”

Here are some topics that I’ve learned about from life, work (or this blog), that many more people should understand.  And I certainly could have benefited learning about by age 18.  Feel free to add more suggestions in the comments.

1. Housing and housing costs.  Why are houses or apartments or condos in some cities and locations more expensive than in others?   Although there are complicated nuances worth elaborating on in a course, in essence it comes down to supply and demand.  If there are not enough homes where people want to live, then prices tend to go up (whether rents or purchase prices).

Too often lately I’ve read comments that suggest people don’t understand this basic issue.  High housing prices are not caused by greedy developers or landlords.  They charge what people are willing to pay (and most people try to find the best deal).  When the market is flooded with homes (look at many places in the US), prices go down.  When the government stops individuals from building or renting homes for profit, they don’t do it.  And the homes that remain become more expensive.

2. Container shipping by boat, rail or truck is how the food and clothes and other things we need and use in cities get to us.   Trying to stop container terminals, logistics facilities, and trucking routes, for example, without figuring out an alternative ways to nourish and clothe the people in cities, is pointless.  Sure, one location may not be appropriate and citizens can speak out, but they need to suggest alternatives that make more sense and show they grasp the consequences.  Preventing a logistics facility in one area might result in more truck traffic (and pollution) if goods have to be transported further. Similarly, stopping truck traffic on one main street diverts it, and may result in longer routes, more pollution, and higher prices.

3. Congestion.  Although on the surface building more roads seems like a solution, all the evidence points to the opposite.  The more roads, the more vehicle traffic.

These are three topics worth covering in a mandatory course.  Yes, they can be controversial and have multiple political sides–but so do most topics covered in history classes.  A student emerging from high school understanding both sides of the issue (or all three or four sides, in some cases) is far more prepared to be a productive, helpful person making our cities function better than someone who has no idea there even is a side or an issue–than someone who has no clue how the apple in her lunch or jeans on her legs got there.

Turning off WIFI and plugging into cities

Cities are changing along with the role of the internet in our lives.  Consider this:

Some of the hippest coffee bars on the continent are shutting off their wifi Internet service.  What initially drew in customers is now hampering the growth of business for the cafes with great food, coffee, and locations — at least in prime time.

When one person sits at a table, slowly sipping one cup of coffee for 2 hours while surfing the net, it can repel other customers, especially those that come in small groups and order food as well as espresso beverages.

There are a couple significant developments for urban life to note in this shift.

First, WIFI has become so common in “third place” businesses like cafes and fast food restaurants that in many ways its a “unique offering” to not offer it.  It suggests that this cafe is for food, coffee and socializing, as well as being “unplugged” and thinking without the distraction of constant information.  Kinda retro, if you will, or maybe chic depending upon the establishment.  And also very urban–after all, why are people in cities if not to experience other people.

Second, freeloading internet access off restaurants and cafes may start to become very “low brow” or “un-hip.”  This may make the access at libraries and other civic spaces more utilized and valued.  It’s okay to sit in the library for hours reading books or magazines or newspapers–always has been.  Now it will also be a place where it’s okay to freeload internet access for the day.  This could help rejuvenate libraries.

Third, from the popularity of working in third places, like coffee houses, it seems that many urban residents actually need a place where they can get out of their house or apartment, meet the occasional customer, and have a coffee while working.  Starbucks isn’t always the right venue as it can get loud, parents with crying babies can come in, etc.  Maybe there is a need for a more professional, business centre that looks a bit like a coffee house with a variety of seating options, serves coffee (employs a barrista) but also offers a printer, a scanner, fax and other services.  Perhaps you pay by the hour to be there, or a monthly membership and the latte is included.  Maybe such a place already exists.

As more people live in dense areas, and as more people work freelance or are permitted significant flexibility by their employer, urban spaces for working and collaborating and unplugging continue to change.  What’s next?

Building suburbs in “the city”

Are some cities starting to transform into suburbs?  Here’s how I see the dynamic (and then I welcome your responses):

Aside from their frequent auto-dependence, suburbs often offer the characteristic of “sameness.”

  • Homes in each subdivision all tend to be the same, or at least very similar.
  • The same type of people tend to purchase them–one subdivision will be popular with young native-born middle-class families while another will attract more immigrant families and still another older families or empty nesters.
  • The nearby retail, chain-based big box or strip centers.

This is often contrast with life in many traditional inner-urban neighbourhoods:

  • Homes reflect a variety of architectural styles, stemming from the different decades in which they were built.
  • Because of the different eras when various owners bought into the neighborhood, a wide range of people live there.
  • Retail also may have evolved gradually, with ownership fragmented into small units, often family owned, which tends to support more independent retailing and fewer chains.

More recently, to combat sprawl, many cities are re-zoning large swaths of industrial or commercial land into high-density residential.  But what gets built in many ways resembles the suburbs in character.  Buildings and units look very similar; everyone buys in at the same time so will tend to be of similar backgrounds; and the large retail chains scoop up the retail spaces.  Put all this together and you get a suburb in the city, even if the residents take transit to work and live in condos.

My question to urbanistas is whether this matters?

My thought is that it  could. Recent research on Generation Y suggests that this cohort group prefers to consume from smaller, independent businesses and organizations.  This new generation of talent may not be as attracted to vertically-oriented suburbs as they are to more authentic neighbourhoods.    Moreover, if the knowledge economy really needs creative inspiration, are you going to get it in these new milieus?

On the other hand, this style of development may be the only way to quickly offer more housing options in the city. Perhaps it’s not ideal, but it’s the way cities will develop.

Renting in dynamic cities

Richard Florida’s work, The Great Reset, has launched a great discussion about the place of home rental in American life and the American economy.  I’ve been doing a lot of research and thinking on apartment renting myself, and have a few thoughts on what could be happening now, and in the future.

I would argue that high rates of home renters (vs owners) is a sign of a dynamic economy, rather than the cause.  Places like New York, San Francisco (and in Canada Vancouver & Toronto) are places with jobs, especially “creative” knowledge and service/experience economy jobs.   These cities attract tens of thousands of both national migrants and international immigrants annually to work in and experience the dynamic financial, high-tech and artistic clusters (these are typically well educated immigrants and migrants).

Newcomers to cities (almost any place, actually) have high propensities to rent–especially in expensive places, which these cities are.

Many of these migrants are probably not intending to stay when they relocate to these cities.  They are coming to experience them.  Creative, smart people are attracted to these dynamic cities because they are full of other creative, smart people (interacting with other smart people makes you smarter [Ed Glaeser]).  They are also full of great amenities and interesting — even unique — clusters.

Young, smart people go with the idea of experiencing the jobs and amenities for a few years, and then perhaps moving “back home” or at least closer to family.  Therefore renting is ideal.

A concern for the future: 

In the past, if they did decide to stay, they might have bought a place in nearby suburbia, or perhaps a condo or townhome closer in.  This made room for more newcomers in the rental, which helped to keep these cities’ economies humming.

If suburbia becomes less appealing, because of fewer amenities and poor transit and automotive congestion, will these newcomers along with born-and-raised residents end up renting for much longer periods of time?  Even if they want to buy a small urban home, this will not be cheap.  Tighter mortgage lending rules may mean saving for much longer before buying, or making it impossible for some.

This will mean fewer rental spots for newcomers, which might end up serving as a break on economic growth in that city. It will also drive rental rates up further, creating an additional social, political and economic challenges.

What other challenges will the rental society bring?

An overlooked technology in shaping the city

The birth control pill turns 50 this week.  This technology has arguably been a key ingredient in shaping 21st century North American and European economic and urban life.  And yet, I don’t ever recall hearing urban theorists mention it.  So here’s the argument for the Pill as a key technology in shaping the new urban geography emerging today.

Since coming into widespread use in the 1970s, the Pill has allowed women to choose when or whether to have children, and how many.  This in turn has allowed women to imagine themselves in professional careers–and to fulfill those dreams.

Here are four ways the Pill has been re-shaping urban life.1. The fertility rate has dropped from 4 children per woman in her lifetime in Canada in the late 1950s to 1.6 children per women in Canada (and likely similar in urban areas of the US).    Women working in all variety of professions (not just nursing and teaching), is one of the drivers reshaping North America’s cities.

2. The knowledge economy built on collaboration and communication; psychologists will readily tell you that more women than men tend to excel in these areas.  Can you imagine a knowledge economy company with no women working there?  Women now earn more than half of all Bachelor’s and Masters degrees, which has been key to many knowledge occupations.

3. Experience economy–increasingly people have become more interested in consuming experiences rather than goods.  People from most income backgrounds today will spend money on fine dining, the spa, travel, a concert, etc.  Having the spare money and time to indulge in these is a direct consequence of having children later in life and/or having fewer of them. This allows both women and men some disposable income and time with which to have experiences.

4. Apartment and condominium living in dense, walkable and amenity-rich areas has been growing in popularity.  Living in small spaces suits a family of 3 much better than it would suit 6 people.  Suburbia made sense when having 4 or more children was normal.  Plus, living in an apartment near where both parents work, allows for more family time instead of commuting.

In his book The Great Reset, Richard Florida describes a new urban geography emerging in response to the growing “creative” economy (just as suburbia emerged in response to the industrial age).  Unless I missed it in reading the book, he doesn’t mention the Pill as perhaps the greatest labour saving technology for women (pun intended)–having fewer children to mother means more time and energy for contributing to the knowledge economy and makes dense urban living work much better.

Households as both renters and owners

Several friends of mine own a condominium unit but don’t live there.  Instead, they are renters when it comes to their family home (a larger condo, a townhouse, or the main floor of a small house).

Is this a uniquely Vancouver experience, or the start of a broader urban trend in North America?

Here’s how it has happened in Vancouver.  A young couple together buys a condo in the downtown area (Yaletown, Coal Harbour, etc.), maybe a 1 bedroom unit.   They love living and working in close proximity and in the walkable, amenity-rich milieu that higher density neighbourhoods can offer.

A few years later they decide to have a child or children, and quickly the 1 bedroom unit is too small.  Suburbia and long commutes offer no appeal and really nor does having that suburban house (with lawns to mow, gutters to clean and other time and money sinks).  They like being able to get to-and-from work quickly, allowing for more family time.  Plus, they have lots of friends with children downtown–this is their community.

But, if they want another, larger, downtown unit, the costs of selling the one bedroom and buying a larger condo or a townhouse is quite high (in part because of market lift since they first bought in).  By contrast, the cost of renting that larger condo or townhouse is much less, especially when offset by the rental income they can achieve from leasing their owned 1 bedroom unit.  (For example, rent out the well-located 1 bedroom for $1700 and then rent a larger place for $2200/month; by contrast buying the larger place might cost $3200/month–or more–in mortgage and condo fees; if they moved to a slightly less expensive neighbourhood still near downtown, they might be able to rent a large 2 bedroom place for the $1700).

They keep owning the 1 bedroom unit, as an investment.  The rent covers most of the mortgage and carrying costs initially, and over time as they pay down more of the principle, the rent fully–or more than–compensates for the carrying costs.

This scenario allows the family the benefits of old fashioned home ownership where they have a nest-egg at the end of 25 years, or equity should circumstances change and they wish to buy a different home.  It also allows them the flexibility of renting in terms of being able to move should employment needs change or if they need to relocate for children’s schooling.

Owning the 1 bedroom is also an investment in the city, to which they are also contributing as citizens who work and play there.

So what do you think? Is this a bizarre Vancouver anomaly? A once-in-a-market-cycle phenomenon? Or something that is happening or could happen in many other cities going forward?

(P.S. I’m now on Twitter)

Do a Jane’s Walk!

 Jane Jacobs was an urban thinker ahead of her time.  When the great thinkers of the day were promoting freeways and auto-centric suburban development, she spotted what was being lost.  To her, the best cities and neighbourhoods were organic, constantly evolving communities, or networks of relationships.  People knew each other and looked out for each other.  Walkability was a key component in her vision of what made a city livable.

One of her famous lines was that to know a city, or to know a neighbourhood, you needed to walk it.

She died just a few years ago, in her adopted home of Toronto.  To honour her, friends in Toronto began the tradition of prompting people to host walks through their neighbourhoods, pointed out what they like, or what Jane might have liked.

In a recent interview that discussed neighbourhoods and Jane Jacobs, Richard Florida offers some reasons why we might love our home area:

So in essence a neighborhood is not just a set of individuals, but a set of relationships. I think that’s right. And the relationships are fluid. Some are longstanding and some you can plug into and play. And the places that enable those relationships to form are the places that do better.

Every time we come back to these neighborhoods that are exciting, that are great, there’s a long history behind them. 

A Jane’s Walk is a chance to learn more of the local history and relationships that made local history.

I’ve attended walks the past two years.  The experience of learning dozens of new things about your own city, and how cities work at the ground level is amazing.  This year I’ll also try the experience of hosting, and sharing some recent history of my own neighbourhood.

Find one in your city, or offer to host one… Click here for Canada or global cities. In the US try this direct link.  They will happen simultaneously across North America and around the world on May 1 and 2, 2010.

What will make Toronto better

As discussed in my previous post, I find Toronto fascinating and enjoy visiting.  But it’s also a city with some immediate challenges that are perhaps holding the city back.

So what changes will improve Toronto and help it evolve faster into a global, international knowledge-economy hub?

#1.  Better transit.  The metro system hasn’t been upgraded since 1967, apparently.  Certainly feels that way to ride it.   The entire system needs an overhaul.  The stations each need a facelift and the network needs to go more places like Pearson Airport, “downtown Mississauga” (Square One) and York University.  This will help get people out of their cars and prolong the life of the existing freeway system.  If oil returns to $170/barrel, or more, I worry about how the automobile-centred suburban ring around Toronto will function.

#2 Simultaneous with better transit, the city needs to deal with certain freeway bottlenecks like the Gardiner Expressway exit by Union Station into downtown.  New condo and office towers opening and pending in the area will surely generate more traffic.  It’s insane now. I hope the city has a plan to deal with this.  Maybe congestion pricing? electronic tolls?

#3 Better recognition within the business and political community that Toronto’s future economic growth may need to be less centred on the financial services and traditional manufacturing sectors, and more based upon knowledge-economy production, including information technology, business services, or new media.

For people who live in Toronto, there is probably a list that might involve parks or schools.  But I can’t comment on that (however, feel free to do so in the comments if you live there).  This is the outsider’s perspective of what seems to be holding the city back–and it’s a list that would apply to many cities that also need better transit, solutions to automotive gridlock and a broader recognition of new economic growth possibilities.

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