Stuck in Condoland

A few weeks ago I wrote a brief response on my personal blog to a Toronto Life article called Stuck in Condoland. If you haven’t read either my blog or the Toronto Life piece (and aren’t going to), the article 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 initially read the article and decided to write about it because I like the idea of small urban spaces. As I wrote on my blog:

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 I also wrote about it because it’s clear that the article is capitalizing upon a seemingly widely held belief that developers and speculative investors are fueling a push towards tiny condo units and that nobody wants to build larger suites:

@sustaincities @donnelly_b Condos being built with investors (speculators) as the target, not end users – hence why 3 bdrs not built.— ac_eco (@ac_eco) July 3, 2014

However, I don’t think it’s that simple. I didn’t and I don’t deny that developers–like any other for-profit business–are concerned with making money. But there are a number of challenges facing developers should they want to build larger, family-sized condo units in Toronto. I’m going to focus on 3 of them here, then I’ll talk a little bit about some of the things we’re doing here at TAS to counter them.

The first challenge is affordability — large suites cost real money. Reinforced concrete condo towers are more expensive to build on a per square foot basis than wood-framed low-rise housing. So if somebody is deciding between a condo and low-rise house in the suburbs (where land is also cheaper), that a more spacious house will almost always seem less expensive. The reason I say “seem” is because I think that a lot of people tend to overvalue the direct costs of homeownership (i.e. the price of a home itself) and undervalue many of the indirect costs, such as transportation costs, commute times, and so on.

The second challenge is a cultural one. Here in Toronto, I still get the sense that a lot of families feel you need a ground related housing unit with a backyard and a garage in order to raise children. It’s ingrained in the North American psyche. People also look at the size of our country and ask why on earth we need to be crammed into small spaces in city centers? But our cities are doing quite well at serving what I think of as either end of “the dumbbell.” If you’re young with no children or an empty nester, city centers are a great place for you. It’s the section in the middle–families–that we’re still getting our heads around.

Lastly, there’s a timing issue. Depending on the size of the project, it might be 3 to 5 years from the time a condo starts selling to the time occupancy begins. It’s in the developer’s best interest to compress this time frame, but construction takes time and unexpected events happens. Yet, for a lot of people, it’s understandably difficult to predict where your life will be in 5 years. Will I be married? Will I have children? Will I have sold my startup to Google and be living in a tax haven? Who knows, and so sometimes it can be difficult to commit to a larger 3 bedroom condo.

But listen, I’m not complaining. I’m just sharing with you what I think a lot of developers would say are the challenges facing them as they look to build bigger condo suites. However, for every problem there are solutions.

At TAS we’re exploring everything from affordable homeownership programs to “knock-out panels” that would allow suites to be easily combined as resident needs change in the future. In our latest project, Kingston&Co, we’ve made a deliberate choice to focus on larger suites. We’re also more than happy to accommodate requests, where possible, to combine suites should people want even larger units.

So what I’m saying is that if you want a large 3 bedroom condo, come and talk to us. We’re not out to only build small investor units. In fact, our agenda is the exact opposite. We believe that healthy cities and neighbourhoods offer a diversity of housing options so that everyone from first-time buyers to families and retirees can enjoy the benefits of city life. We see ourselves as creating homes for people, and if you tell us what you’d like, I promise we’ll listen.