Canada’s housing boom was recently hailed as one of the longest in the Western world. But as 2011 drew to an end, housing market experts issued dire warnings that the housing market is cooling. Merrill Lynch, the Bank of Canada, TD, Royal Bank of Canada and the Bank of Montreal have all said that Canadians could face challenging markets for the next two years, particularly in BC and Ontario.

Despite Toronto’s red-hot market, Rob Carrick of The Globe and Mail says one of the best ways to build wealth in 2012 is to avoid “drinking the housing market Kool-Aid”. Among his other tips: “Explore your inner renter” (Gen X and Gen Y, and Boomer editions). Carrick is one of many experts advocating renting over housing as the market destabilizes. US apartment vacancies hit a ten-year low in December at 5.2 percent as rising foreclosures, tighter mortgage lending standards, and low housing starts made rental housing the best-performing segment of commercial real estate for two straight years. In addition to traditional low-vacancy locales like New York City, low vacancy rates abound in New Haven, CT, Minneapolis, MN, Portland, OR, and San Jose, CA; rents rose the quickest in Chattanooga, TN and Austin, TX. Canadians, holding on to the dream of homeownership with the grim desperation of Americans before the mortgage crisis, remain unmoved.

Last month, The IMF (that’s the International Monetary Fund, not the Impossible Missions Force) called for a review of the rules that govern Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, one of the largest financial institutions in the country, which operates without formal oversight. The IMF suggested the crown corporation needed stronger risk management because CMHC backs mortgages with less than 20% down through mortgage insurance, Canadians have record levels of household debt, and some cities have housing-bubble prices. With household debt at a record 150 percent of disposable income, the IMF warned that a drop in housing prices would be a blow to indebted consumers. The Canadian economy, which grew by 3.2 percent amid global financial meltdowns, is expected to weaken this year.

With the country in its 13th year of rising home prices, experts have been predicting a price adjustment for many years. CMHC has taken several steps to tighten mortgage lending and last year the federal government made changes to the National Housing Act to compensate the government for the risk it is taking through CMHC’s mortgage insurance. With the US housing market still in recovery and the Chinese government taking steps to prevent a housing collapse this year, Canada is poised for a tumultuous 2012.

The home building industry may not have recovered in the US, but apartment construction is making a comeback. Within a few short years of the foreclosure crisis, everyone from architects to developers to planners have begun turning back the clock to a time when renting apartments and living in rooming houses were affordable, socially acceptable alternatives to homeownership.

Recently, journalist Neal Peirce advocated the return of rooming houses to address the need for smaller, more affordable units for young people, who have been adversely affected by the US recession (“Bring back the rooming house?” citiwire.net, November 12, 2011). Like other notable writers (Edward Glaeser, Richard Florida, Mark Hinshaw, Joanna Pachner), Peirce argues that it’s time to turn a new page on the postwar suburban single-family home:

“Unquestionably, tens of millions of oncoming youth will disconnect from the American vision of home as a “homestead”–the self-contained units of our American forbears, translated since World War II by a suburban home occupying its own lot.”  Neal Peirce, Washington Post Writers Group (citiwire.net)

Among the reasons young people will need new, affordable housing options: lower salaries, lower employment rates, delayed marriage resulting in more single-person households, a desire to live in mixed-use neighbourhoods near transit, and lower car ownership (does this sound familiar?) In Canada, the rising demographics (youth and young adults, immigrants, single-person and single-parent households, seniors) would probably jump at the chance to live in rooming houses, worker housing or affordable rental units, considering housing prices across the country. For example, where do you live if you’re an immigrant in Canada on a temporary worker permit? Your only real choice is renting a market-rate apartment, likely sharing with people you scarcely know. Downsizing senior? Good luck finding a condo that costs less than your house once maintenance fees are added in. Young adult working in your first job? You’ll be forking over about one-third of your salary to rent, even if you live in a mid-sized city.

Hinshaw, a Seattle-based architect and planner, argues that the recession has forced cities to think about Smart Growth rather than rushing forward into new development faster than public investments can be made (“Recession is producing a needed reset on land use”, www.crosscut.com, September 30, 2011). Now, cities and counties have the time to decide how and where to move forward. Some areas where local governments have made progress, according to Hinshaw: economic development through the construction of shared public spaces, redesigning streets to encourage different travel modes, and the development of rental housing.

“For far too long, elected officials and citizen groups have treated apartment developments like a pariah, relegating them to noisy arterial streets or slamming them behind strip malls. It’s as if only decent folk are those who own single family homes. If we learned anything from the past five years it is that the American ideal of home ownership has been cruelly oversold.”  Mark Hinshaw, www.crosscut.com

Changing development conditions (stricter lending standards, foreclosures, and a rapidly growing rental market) have made investing in multi-family rental housing a safe move for developers who, just a couple of years ago, would have built high-rise condos. Increased demand for rental units has resulted in rent increases in many cities that can provide developers a reasonable return on their investments (“Demand for Denver apartments exceeds supply”, November 29, 2011, NPR). NPR reports that this could be a lasting trend; one that harkens back to an era of when renting was more common than owning in many countries. In Canada, for example, pressing postwar housing needs were met through a boom in apartment construction during the 1950s.

If only Canadian provincial and federal governments would enable developers to build rental housing, rooming houses, granny flats and other housing types that would provide alternatives for various demographic and income groups. We’d have to turn back the clock to the 1970s, when experiments like co-operative housing became popular in Canada as foreclosures and interest rates rose. It seems that during economic crises, homeownership loses its rosy glow. Renting, co-housing, co-operatives, rooming houses, and rent subsidies make more sense to policy makers, developers, and planners during economic downturns, when few can afford to buy and governments are too poor to subsidize ownership. And yet, as all the authors cited in this article point out, North Americans still display a slavish dedication to the “dream of homeownership”; most have long forgotten that the “dream” was enabled by dirt-cheap postwar mortgages, artificially-low interest rates and government incentives for first-time homebuyers. If the current rental housing trend persists for more than five years in the US, and Canada finally passes its national affordable housing strategy, we might see the beginnings of a paradigm shift to rival the one that gave us single-family suburban homeownership in the first place.

The City of Vancouver Housing and Homelessness Strategy, approved Thursday July 28th, is a bold move in the context of Canada’s increasingly unaffordable housing markets. The comprehensive, ten-year plan calls for the creation of 38,900 affordable homes in the city: 7,900 supportive and social housing units, 11,000 rental units, and 20,000 condos and “ownership” units. To help finance construction, the city intends to offer $42 million in land and capital grants to developers. 3650 of the supportive and social housing units will be built in the next three years. 1,700 of these were previously announced, but 1,950 are new developments which the city will build and run with BC Housing and non-profit associations, a model that has worked for decades in Vancouver. BC Housing will contribute 276 of the units, developers will build 205 (mostly due to density bonusing) and the city will seek funding for the remaining 319.

Until now, the city has remained in limbo in terms of building affordable housing, despite millions of dollars in contributions to its Affordable Housing Fund through density bonusing and a 20% social housing requirement for major rezonings of lands to multiunit residential use. Leaving construction of affordable homes to private developers hasn’t worked, so the city will partner with developers by providing grants and land in exchange for social and supportive units. The city will also lever its land resources and capital projects against funding from provincial and federal governments. The plan also calls for the city to approve more laneway housing and secondary suites. New affordable rental units have been achieved recently through the City’s Short Term Incentives for Rental Housing (STIR) initiative.

Like many municipalities tired of playing chicken with upper levels of government, Vancouver now has its foot firmly on the accelerator. The housing affordability crisis in Canada has reached ridiculous proportions, but we’re still working on the national affordable housing strategy (Bill-C-400), which replaced Bill C-304 from the previous session. Industry warnings of a housing market collapse have been circulated. And yet, the price of renting has increased much slower than the price of ownership over the past twenty years, as Canadian Business illustrated recently (“Rental Complex”, July 14, 2011). This article, the latest in a series of pieces in the popular press exploring the follies of ownership in today’s market, exposes the increasingly doomed love affair Canadians seem to have with homeownership:

“With widespread warnings that we’re approaching the peak of the housing boom, with Canadians more indebted than ever…why aren’t more of us re-examining the math? The reasons are cultural and emotional, backed by ill-conceived public policy. This Canadian Dream is an expensive delusion. There’s never been a better time to rent.” Joanna Pachner, Canadian Business

Along with increased acceptance of renting, the fallout from the US mortgage crisis includes recognition that the suburban, single-family home is no longer in huge demand: households without kids will increase by 90% from 2010 to 2020, according to Arthur Nelson, professor of planning at the University of Utah. This means far fewer buyers than sellers for single-family housing and an increased demand for multi-family and rental housing. As demographics and attitudes towards housing shift, the City of Vancouver is once again on the leading edge of policy innovation, though the plan is not without its critics. Hopefully elements of the plan will be evaluated throughout implementation, and discussed in other municipalities, which could help accelerate Bill C-400–the absence of a national affordable housing strategy has been holding up programs and funding between all three levels of government.

“Why doesn’t the president of the United States ever get up and say, ‘You can be a full-fledged American citizen and rent an apartment — it’s OK.” David Wessel, economics editor, Wall Street Journal

Americans now pay more for housing than ever before, according to a report by Harvard’s Joint Centre for Housing Studies. In its annual report The State of the Nation’s Housing 2010, researchers write that 18.6 million Americans spend more than half their incomes on housing, up from 13.8% in 2001. While this figure includes both owners and renters, 45.1% of renters are in the bottom income quartile. Homeownership is at a historical low, household income barely increased in the past decade, and rental vacancies are at a historical high. No wonder the authors are calling calling the first ten years of the 2000’s “the lost decade.” But housing “unaffordability” isn’t anything new, nor are our solutions to the problem.

While the Harvard researchers blame falling wages and high unemployment (9.9% in April 2010), high rental vacancy rates and low supply of the most affordable and smallest units are also major issues. Fewer homes were built in the US in 2009 than in any year since WWII, particularly multifamily homes: 62% fewer multifamily developments were begun in 2009 than in 2008. Demolition and conversion of existing low-income rental units is also a major cause for concern. Lower immigration rates are also taking their toll: there was a sharper decline in the number of foreign-born households under the age of 35 than in native-born households from 2009 to 2010. Minority households have been hit hard by the mortgage crisis. In 2009, minorities accounted for 37 percent of householders aged 25–44 and 39 percent of those under age 25. The minority homeownership rate is still expected to increase by 2020, despite lower incomes among foreign-born and minority households and lower immigration rates due to the economic recession.

Some progress has been made in terms of rental housing: rental conversions from foreclosed housing has already been done in many cities, but Housing and Urban Development (HUD) considering introducing market-rental units into its publicly-funded affordable housing developments in order to help pay for much-needed maintenance on the buildings. And the pro-homeownership policies keep coming, including the renewal of the federal tax credit for first-time homebuyers (and its expansion to repeat homebuyers) and Federal Reserve purchases of mortgage-backed securities to help keep interest rates low. But with the expiration of the tax credit program in April 2010, Harvard’s Joint Centre for Housing Studies warns that any good news may not be long-lasting. The problem, they say, is that there is unusually low demand for new homes. The ratio of housing and transportation costs to income has risen steadily over the past fifty years (see Figure 30 and 31 of the report).

As I’ve written before, without massive government programs to support homeownership and assistance for low-income renters, housing has ever been a good deal. Check out the CBC’s digital archives on the development of suburbs. In a video clip from 1954, the narrator explains how expensive homes are for the average person and how far people have to live (up to 50 miles from the city center) to afford them. In 1953, the average Canadian earned $971/month before taxes. Don Mills, the first suburb in Canada, had house prices beginning at $11,000 all the way up to $100,000. Rental rates at that time were $300/month for the average apartment in Toronto (already hovering around 30% of the average Canadian’s income, the level most housing authorities classify as affordable) and $100/month for a basic three-bedroom in the city centre. In the new market-rate high-rise apartment complexes in the suburbs of Toronto, apartments went for less than $100/month. In Montreal, then the largest city in the country, 70% of homes were apartments and the going rent was $70-100/month, only slightly more than the rents in Winnipeg ($80/month). A house in Vancouver was $2,000 cheaper than in the east at the time. While 1950s housing solutions (demolition of existing older housing to make room for low-income public housing developments in city centres, massive concrete high-rises in the suburbs) may have been questionable, they were quite desirable at the time: the wait for affordable housing, like the still-under-construction Regent Park) was 2 years for a $29-90/month rent-geared-to-income apartment. The average rent at Shannon Heights, a 1950s assisted rental development in Halifax, was only $90/month. Commuting to the city became a new drag, and buses quickly replaced streetcars and trains, steps were taken to make commuting more enjoyable. A 1963 video clip records a housewife saying that the lack of transportation options in the suburbs mean she spends considerable time driving her teenagers around; another says her family moved to the suburbs because that’s where they could get a mortgage.

Whatever housing problems we face today, whether it’s affordability or commute distance, they’re nothing new. Solutions to these problems, like artificially stimulating homeownership through tax incentives and policies, are likewise nothing new; housing affordability problems persist. Recently, researchers at the The New York Times compared the cost of living in a suburban house to an urban apartment in the New York City metro area, and found that the suburban option cost a surprising 18% more (“High-Rise, or House with Yard?” July 2, 2010): the big difference was the higher property taxes, and their comparison didn’t include the cost of home repairs. Even the The Wall Street Journal is publishing articles saying homeownership doesn’t work (“Is the Homeownership System Broken?”, June 22, 2010): WSJ economics editor David Wessel is quoted as saying, “So now we have a system where a lot of people own homes but don’t have any equity in them, which means you don’t get any of the virtues of investing in them. And the government has been forced to take over the mortgage financing system, which suggests that it wasn’t a very strong one if the government has to take it over.” This is quite a turn of events. Could North Americans be forging a new path in housing policy?

I’ve often felt that homeownership is not the rosy American Dream that it claims to be. I find homeownership limiting, both economically and geographically: my parents and their friends, and now friends my own age, seem to sacrifice anything and everything in order to make mortgage payments. The years I worked at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, taught me how the federal housing agency was created partly to help sell the idea of homeownership right after WWII and enable it through a series of government-backed programs and policies. Then there’s my own research in the area of immigrant settlement and housing choice, which included a serious look at Canadian federal housing policies that have slowly eroded rental housing, co-op housing and social housing as options while supporting homeownership through numerous incentives. Let’s just say that it’s no surprise that at age 36, I’m still a renter, bucking the DINK and yuppie trends, a little cynical about the myth that renting is just “throwing your money away.” After all, renting has allowed me to remain flexible, pick up and move to different cities, travel, and live in neighbourhoods I never could have afforded if I had bought.

It appears that Richard Florida agrees with me. Higher rates of renting, public transit use and residential mobility are all key themes in Florida’s latest book, The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity, released two weeks ago (read a review of the book, and other Florida works and quirks, on Urbanophile). Florida belies the myth that housing is a good investment, particularly when it’s held for 20 or 30 years: the rate of return on housing in the US has generally been quite low, in fact from 1890 to 1990 it was exactly zero. We’ve all seen how difficult it can be to sell a house in recent years in the US, and in earlier recessionary times in Canada: my parents’ current house was bought for $20,000 less than a similar house a few blocks away because the owner had lost her job in the 1990s recession and had to sell quickly. A friend’s parents sold their house in 2007 for almost the same price they paid for it in the early 1980s because the mill in their town had closed, leaving most of the residents out of work.

Overinvestment in housing has decreased investment in other areas like medical technology, software and alternative energy. Florida has written before about the dangers of putting too many eggs in one basket: at the height of the mortgage crisis in the US (in a November 28, 2009 article in the Globe and Mail), he wrote that the mortgage system was directly responsible for the crisis, and that the era of overinvestment in homeownership and car ownership were over. Interestingly, Florida also applies his argument to individuals: Canadians carry more mortgage debt as a percentage of their disposable income than Americans, meaning we have far less to spend on other things. A friend of mine who works in mutual funds and investments tells me the average homeowner pays for their house two and a half times due to interest. This is probably no surprise to those of us living in the country’s biggest cities, where housing prices are astonomical and have not shown any decline in growth since the US mortgage crisis. In fact, housing prices in Canada increased 20% last year.

Florida argues that in cities with higher homeownership, unemployment is also higher because homeowners are less likely to pick up and move when things get tough. He believes that mobility is often the key to employment, and more flexible housing choices are key in times of economic instability. It seems there are other people out there like me, who prefer the flexibility of renting because we want to remain mobile and have no desire to live in one place for twenty years. We aren’t all that uncommon either: 40.1% of the Canadian population moved within the past five years, according to the 2006 Census; 14.1% moved within the last year. Florida correctly predicted that rental housing would play a major role in stabilizing the US economy after the mortgage crisis: families were able to move into foreclosed properties that were renovated and re-marketed as affordable rental housing. This was because the Obama administration wasted no time in investing $4.25 billion on the creation of tens of thousands of federally-subsidized rental units using the federal Making Homes Affordable program.


Vintage 1950s matchbooks featuring real estate ads

In his May 3rd article in the Globe and Mail, Florida goes as far as saying that “home ownership is an impediment to Canada’s long-term prosperity” because high house prices, low interest rates and lax government policies in Canada could spell trouble for the housing market. Even though people have been talking about the “bubble” for over fifteen years, Edward Jones’ recent report predicts Canada’s is about to burst. The federal government recently made it more difficult to get a mortgage and is considering other measures to tighten mortgage availability in order to protect the market from collapse. They eliminated the no down payment mortgage option before the US crisis began, but there is still a 5% down option. What is particularly interesting to me as a non-economist is how the housing market has historically been used to maintain or even increase consumer spending to stave off or recover from economic recession: besides the post-war era, we saw low interest rates brought in after the 1989 stock market crash in Canada and after 9/11 in the US to encourage people to keep buying homes. I guess there’s a fine line between “removing barriers to homeownership” to encourage spending and bringing on an economic meltdown by letting anyone with a a couple of bucks buy a house.

Massive marketing was required to sell the idea of homeownership as a stable, more respectable lifestyle choice. Let’s not forget that those first homes were practically given away at very low prices and low mortgage rates, their construction highly subsidized by federal governments in both the US and Canada. Those cherubic children, war brides and returning vets in 1940s suburban home ads were so convincing that most of us still believe homeowners are somehow better than renters: even Florida hints that switching from homeownership to renting might have “unforseen social costs” for cities and regions. Our own values and biases about homeownership drive the market. Yet a mere 60 years ago, renter households were the majority in both our countries.

The classic French text Un chez-moi à mon coût (2000) (edited by Eric Brassard), which I read at the urging of a fellow renter working at CMHC, carefully dissects all the economic myths of homeownership, arguing that it is often the non-economic factors that are the most influential. The book presents case studies of housing choices of a variety of professionals, both renters and owners, who argue that there is no sound economic argument for homeownership or against renting: it just comes down to personal preference. But we’re so invested in the homeownership ideal that investing in rental housing, or convincing middle-income families to rent, would take a lot of work. The tide may be turning in the US, but with high housing prices and fairly easy access to mortgages, we may not see this shift in Canada until our own mortgage crisis rears its ugly head.

There has been a lot of debate and policy discussion in Metro Vancouver over the increasing suburbanization of businesses over the past two decades. The issue is a concern for planners for many reasons: the dispersed locations encourage urban sprawl and greenfield construction. Because business parks are often far from existing transit infrastructure, they can also increase trips by single-occupant vehicles (SOVs). But for many business owners, the cheaper land and lower taxes in fringe areas are too good to pass up. Many municipalities favour office and business park construction in their fringe areas because the new employers add to their tax base and also provide local jobs. This trend still seems to be alive and well in Metro Vancouver, despite policies supporting mixed-use centres throughout the region, but in some American cities the tide seems to be turning.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Ania Wieckowski writes that “suburbs have lost their sheen” as both younger and older worker are increasingly choosing to live in denser, mixed-use communities with better transportation options. In the last US Census, 64% of 25- to 34-year olds said they looked for a job after choosing a city in which to live. Businesses like United Airlines and Quicken Loans recently announced that they would be moving their headquarters from suburban to urban locations: United will locate in downtown Chicago and Quicken Loans in Detroit. Many CEOs are realizing that if they want to remain competitive, they need to contribute to more vibrant central cities.

Walgreens at Madison Avenue and 41st Street in the 1930s. Image from the NYPL Digital Gallery.

New Orleans Canal Street location

Such a shift means that there would have to be all kinds of changes in the ways national retail chains locate and design their stores: the big-box and strip mall architectural styles will need to evolve to fit more urban settings…or evolve back to the city, as Wieckowski puts it. Walgreens, which recently acquired the Duane Reed chain, used to be a staple on small town main streets. We have seen this trend in Canadian cities, with some big box stores choosing to locate in inner city areas: Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Future Shop, and the like. Vancouver actually has some great examples of these, like the Shoppers Drug Mart/Future Shop on West Broadway near Burrard Street. But we certainly don’t have any examples of major employers relocating to the city: as Tom Hutton frequently writes, Vancouver is still reeling from the losses of the major forestry headquarters during its transition from a resource-based economy to a finance- and service-based economy.

As the American shift back to the city is happening at a time when housing choices are also skewing urban, it’s again time to reflect on the differences between their cities and ours: while we certainly have urban sprawl and suburbanized employment, the level of disinvestment in our cities is still not the same as it is in the US. In particular, without the high levels of segregation and massive public housing projects located in many American cities back in the 1950s and 1960s, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, and even smaller cities like London and Kelowna have been able to maintain competitive housing prices in inner city neighbourhoods. Too competitive, in fact: housing affordability is a major problem in our the first three cities, and even in smaller cities like Kelowna and Vernon, BC. Whereas in the US, the recent shift back to cities as a place for business location may be tied to the recent trend to live in urban centres, which I discussed in a previous post. The current housing crisis means that in many American cities, housing is affordable even in inner city neighbourhoods, and with the new emphasis on rental housing there are more options available for those wanting to live urban lifestyles. These types of choices are less available in Canadian cities because the demand for urban housing never decreased, even during the US mortgage crisis: witness Marcelle Czerny’s recent article in the Globe and Mail on the quest for an affordable home in Toronto and her unwillingness to leave the city for the suburbs.

As many of you know, there have been some very interesting developments in American cities over the past couple of years. Some cities have experienced decreased car ownership, there was a decrease in Vehicle Miles Travelled in 2008, and even the American Dream of homeownership has taken a left turn. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that the proportion of homes being built in central cities has doubled since 2006.

The EPA report Residential Construction Trends in America’s Metropolitan Regions summarizes a study that examined residential permit data over 19 years (1990-2008)  in 50 metropolitan regions. In roughly half of the regions, there has been a dramatic increase in the share of new residential permits built in inner cities and older suburbs.

Among the cities that saw a substantial increase are New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, Miami, Chicago, Denver, Portland, Seattle, and Fort Worth. But even smaller centres like Birmingham, Milwaukee, and Kansas City saw substantial increases in the share of residential permits in their inner cities. Cities with low increases include St. Louis, Detroit, and Salt Lake City, while Cincinnati, Cleveland, Hartford, Providence, and Buffalo all had slight decreases. Particularly interesting are the graphs which show detailed trends for specific metropolitan regions, contrasting urban fringe, 1st tier suburb, and city permits. In many cases, we can see the beginning the mortgage crisis on these graphs: between 2004 and 2006, urban fringe areas began their decline and cities began their ascent.

A lot of this has to do with housing type: national data confirms that the proportion of single detached housing permits decreased from 71% in 2000 to 59% in 2008. Townhouses remained relatively stable, while condos increased from 4% to 7%, rented condos from 16% to 24% and large multifamily buildings from 11% to 23%. I find these numbers surprising: little by little, the American Dream seems to be crumbling before our eyes. We have to remember that not all of this change can be pinned on the dismal housing market, since the trends persist over 19 years.

The EPA cautions that, while the data reveals a substantial shift in residential patterns, a large percentage of construction still takes place on previously undeveloped land. While the share of residential permits increased in many regions, in some these still account for less than half the overall share at the regional level. They would like to do further research on what is driving the shift: real estate market fundamentals or public sector policies? What type of residential units are being built on previously-developed land, and what percentage of these are transit-accessible? However, they did feel safe in saying that, “This acceleration of residential construction in urban neighborhoods reflects a fundamental shift in the real estate market,” citing lower crime rates in urban areas and increased demand for homes in walkable neighbourhoods close to jobs.

An interesting development has been sweeping away the iconic ideal of homeownership in the US. It isn’t a new idea, but in recent years it has certainly been an unpopular one: renting. With the housing market so unstable, many Amerians are turning to renting for an affordable and, surprisingly, more stable housing type.

Mark Whitehouse reported in the Wall Street Journal (“Default, then Rent”, December 16, 2009) that many homeowners have recently discovered that “giving up on the American Dream has its benefits”. If this sounds shocking, read on: Whitehouse writes that even as the housing bust “tarnishes the near-sacred image of homeownership, it may be clearing the way for economic recovery.” This is mostly because of mortgages that by far exceed the value of homes and bargain-basement rents, which free up lots of money for struggling families. As the US sees is lowest homeownership rates in twenty years (currently 67.6%), homeowners are seeing major benefits from shedding their mortgage debts and starting over. In fact, even efforts by the Obama administration to get banks to lower mortgage rates to keep households from foreclosing have been criticized as influencing families to make decisions that are not in their best interests.

In many places, such as Palmdale Arizona, luxury homes are being converted to rental properties using the federal Making Homes Affordable program. Former homeowners note that some of the benefits of renting include: not paying property tax, homeowners’ insurance, or dealing with repairs or maintenance.

While foreclosure still carries a stigma, and many feel taxpayers are paying for those who foreclose and can afford to pay their mortgages, these new renters are transforming the real estate market in many areas. Rental managers are being more flexible about who they take on as tenants, knowing the majority are “good people who just got loans or bought at the wrong time,” to quote a rental agent in Palmdale. Since the Obama administration committed $4.5 billion in economic stimulus money to the creation of these types of rental units, renting has become more commonplace.

Housing prices are stabilizing in the US but experts say they will not reach their boom levels again for years, if not decades. In his New York Times blog, Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economics professor, writes that the price of a house should be about the cost of building a home in most parts of the country where land is abundant and there’s less regulation. In the denser, larger cities, land is more restricted and regulations are stricter. Glaser writes that Americans should “stop thinking of your home as an investment that will yield comparable returns to the stock market. Housing is a form of consumption that yields benefits in the form of a more pleasant life, not a bigger balance sheet.” With so many houses glutting the market, it will be awhile before prices start to rise.

These are fascinating developments in the US, where homeownership has been the mantra for sixty years. It’s too early to predict if the changes in housing tenure will last, but they certainly give us food for thought. In Canada, the affordable housing bill (C304) has again been stalled by the Prime Minister’s proroguing government, but as a private member’s bill (Vancouver East MP Libby Davies introduced it) the committees will resume their discussions once Parliament restarts in March. We still have a long way to go, but breaking away from a one-size-fits-all model for housing is a good start.

We live in momentous times: currently, a very significant piece of legislation is making its way towards adoption. I outlined the reasons for the creation of a national housing strategy during Homelessness Action Week. Housing has a profound influence on the planning of our cities and regions, and housing provision in Canada has been subject to a litany of policies and programs that have decreased housing choice, made homeownership the only viable choice for most Canadians, and undermined the ability of developers to construct rental housing.

The Secure, Adequate, Accessible and Affordable Housing Act (Bill C-304), was proposed by Vancouver NDP MP Libby Davies in February of this year. It has been a long time coming: similar bills were introduced in 2008 and 2006, but the instability of minority governments prevented them from gaining any serious ground. Parliament voted to move ahead with Bill C-304 on September 30, 2009 (this second reading passed with a vote of 147 to 138) and now it must go through a House Standing Committee Meeting before being brought back to the House of Commons for a 3rd reading. Some significant passages from the bill:

  • “Whereas the provision of and access to adequate housing is a fundamental human right according to paragraph 25(1) of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights…”
  • “Whereas Canada’s wealth and national budget are more than adequate to ensure that every woman, child and man residing in Canada has secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing as part of a standard of living that will provide healthy physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and social development and a good quality of life…”
  • “Whereas improved housing conditions are best achieved through co-operative partnerships of government and civil society and the meaningful involvement of local communities…”
  • “3.(1) The Minister shall, in consultation with the provincial ministers of the Crown responsible for municipal affairs and housing and with representatives of municipalities and Aboriginal communities, establish a national housing strategy designed to ensure that the cost of housing in Canada does not compromise an individual’s ability to meet other basic needs, including food, clothing and access to education.”
  • “3.(2) The national housing strategy shall provide financial assistance, including financing and credit without discrimination, for those who are otherwise unable to afford rental housing.”

Under the specific requirements, the Act ensures the construction of housing that “includes not-for-profit rental housing projects, mixed income not-for-profit housing cooperatives, special-needs housing and housing that allows senior citizens to remain in their homes as long as possible”, housing for the homeless, temporary and emergency shelters. They even managed to include standards for sustainable and energy-efficient design. The Act prioritizes housing for those who haven’t had access to stable, secure affordable housing over an extended period; those who have special needs due to family size or status, or mental or physical disabilities; and those who have been denied housing due to discrimination.

The Act requires the federal housing Minister to work with the provincial ministers of housing and municipal representatives, and (s)he is required to convene a meeting of these within 180 days after the passage of the Act to develop standards and objectives for the strategy, set targets for the commencement of programs, and develop principles of agreement for implementation of the programs. The Minister “may take any measures that the Minister considers appropriate to implement the national housing strategy as quickly as possible.” The Minister is required to present a report of this meeting “before each House of Parliament on any one of the first five days that the House is sitting following the expiration of 180 days after the end of the conference.”

Like many Canadians, I’ve been following Bill C-304 rabidly. Legisinfo provides the latest updates so stay tuned: the House Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities met on Nov. 5th and will meet again on Nov. 17th. They need to report on their debates to the House of Commons before the 3rd reading of the bill. To quote Chris Brown, the NDP MP for Hamilton Mountain, “It is about rights. It is about dignity. It is about investments. It is about jobs. It is about time.”

No matter what your profession, you’ve probably been to your share of conferences. From professional to academic, trade shows to think tanks, conferences are still the most popular way to share your research and ideas with a larger audience. In academia, paper presentations and face-to-face networking with other academics are still the norm even in our increasingly wired society. Similarly, practicing planners share their policies, plans and tools with each other at the Canadian Institute of Planners/American Planning Association conferences, and their provincial and state equivalents.

I confess that while I gain a lot from these events, and often meet other interesting researchers in the field, I find the whole thing a bit draining. Several days of listening to presentations and networking is tiring. The other thing is that there seems to be a divide in the types of people these conferences attract: practicing planners go to one conference and academics to another. It’s rare that you have that blend of practicing planners, academic researchers, and those working in municipal, regional and federal policy development.

Last March, students at SCARP organized such an event on sustainability, and I wrote in an earlier post about the success of this one-day symposium and our PhD panel on research dissemination. SCARP repeated the success of this event with another one-day symposium on affordable housing funded by the BC provincial government and several key sponsors like VanCity and the Planning Institute of BC. Papers were presented by both Masters and PhD planning students, municipal planners, housing developers, architects, and more. It was a rare confluence of research, policy development and practical planning tools that have impacted the construction of affordable housing in Canada. Some of the sessions I attended included Haley Mousseau (BC Non-Profit Housing Association) on the long-term survival of non-profit housing units in the province; Andy Yan (Bing Thom Architects) on the impact of empty condos on Vancouver, and Vanessa Kay (internship for the City of Vancouver) research on the long-term costs associated with amenity spaces in Vancouver condos.

The breadth of experience in the room was palpable, and it was easy to strike up conversations over breakfast, lunch, and the cocktail hour with (in my case) the director of a shelter, a housing provider in a suburban municipality, a planning consultant working extensively on housing development, an academic researcher looking at sustainable neighbourhoods, a PhD candidate in geography at UBC, and a Masters student who had travelled from northeastern US to attend the symposium. Best of all, the one-day format kept things moving and packed a lot of information into a short amount of time. The only problem I overheard participants discussing was that there were concurrent sessions, so it was impossible to hear all the presentations.

It’s easy for us to become entrenched and isolated in our little silos, whether it’s a municipal department of planning or an academic faculty. Events like this provide a rare opportunity to share our work with a wider audience and to learn from a variety of different viewpoints. The short length of the symposium effectively limited participation to those within a short distance of the host city, forcing people to develop better ties in their own locality. While there is a place for big conferences, and connecting with people over continents who share our interests, it’s a sad fact that few of us have the time to create or maintain local research/practice networks outside the context of our immediate projects.

Next week I’ll be attending another rather unconventional conference, or rather “un-conference” called TransportCamp, which uses multimedia techniques to foster dialogue between participants. A similar event was held in Toronto in April 2008. I’m skeptical, but I’ll let you know how it turns out.