TRREB’s Insights on Strengthening Communities Across the GTHA

As the CEO of the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board (TRREB), John DiMichele is a trusted advisor and leader in real estate innovation. He offers unparalleled insights into the challenges being faced in the Greater Golden Horseshoe and works closely with government agencies to improve livability across the region. In the article below, John identifies key issues impacting housing affordability in the GTHA and what it will take to implement change in our cities.

Artifact created by cartoonist at the R-LABS/PwC Next Gen Event.

According to a report from CD Howe, homeownership is the fourth pillar of retirement income – but how obtainable is that dream in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA)?

Five years ago, we started research into housing affordability, supply and the “Missing Middle” – a term coined by TRREB to describe the lack of right-sized housing in urban centres. What we found came as no surprise: we cannot meet or sustain housing demands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe based on our current model.

TRREB’s April Housing Market Charts showed that the average home price has risen to nearly $875K while the number of new listings remains stagnant. Today’s market also echoes the 1989 Housing Affordability Crisis, with the average household directing 50% of their income towards housing costs. And challenges of homeownership will only intensify as a projected 3.4 million people look to migrate to the Greater Toronto Area over the next 25 years.

We need to acknowledge that our current approach to housing isn’t working, and the time to address our problems is now.

At TRREB, our mantra is to help people have a high quality of life, and we’re committed to moving that dial. We’re using evidence-based insights to identify opportunities in real estate and champion change across the region. Based on our most recent research, we’ve identified three key areas that we believe will be instrumental in improving housing access and building stronger, healthier communities in the GTHA.   

Right-Sized Housing

People want to live in the Greater Golden Horseshoe for all the right reasons – but finding the right-sized home no easy feat.

From the downtown core to the suburbs, there is an urgent need for housing diversity in the GTHA. The lack of options already made it difficult for prospective homebuyers to obtain right-sized housing, and the current climate has only exacerbated the problem. Some people may now be looking for a permanent home office, while others may need additional bedroom space to accommodate elderly family members. The reality is that our housing needs are more complex than ever, and we need to rethink how we will meet the unique needs of our communities.

First and foremost, we must become more flexible in what we bring to market – especially as government policies shift our focus towards higher density builds. A studio or one-bedroom condo is an excellent choice for a first-time homebuyer or down-sizer, but that’s not going to be the right fit for all people.

It’s time to think more inclusively about right-sized housing and how we can improve housing markets across the Greater Golden Horseshoe. At TRREB, we’re advocating for new construction provisions that address the missing middle and represent the diverse needs of families and individuals in Southern Ontario. Until we resolve the lack of mid-density housing, we will continue to deal with the bottleneck that prevents homebuyers from moving up the housing ladder.

Transit-Oriented Communities

In our experience, people who want to own a home will find a way to meet their goals. But the question is, how far will they drive to qualify? And at what cost?

A 2020 study from the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis (CANCEA) found that while more than half of the GTHA’s commuters travel more than 30 minutes to their place of work, access to transit remains a major issue in the region. This is particularly problematic for lower-income households:

“Since these households are most at risk of being priced out of a given housing market, their transportation expenses are closely tied to housing costs and these are therefore best considered together. For instance, a low-income family who can no longer afford to pay rent may have to move to a neighbourhood further from the wage-earner’s workplace with poor connections to public transit to afford rent.”

People who can’t afford to live downtown would like to consider moving to more affordable areas, but they still need to get to work – and our current system simply doesn’t support that. When we look at transit in some of the GTHA’s most affordable markets, we find that commuters are spending up to four hours a day on public transportation. That time is an added cost that we don’t often consider when talking about housing affordability.

Because of this, TRREB is advocating for transit-oriented communities that will simultaneously tackle the housing affordability crisis and challenges in our public transit system. We’re working with the Government of Ontario and organizations like Metrolinx and the Pembina Institute to ensure growing communities have access to a variety of transportation options. Over the past few months, we’ve shared our insights with the Ontario Ministry of Transportation and will continue to support their Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Program.

Working with Municipalities

While we have seen positive changes in recent years, there are still several obstacles between public and private institutions that we need to overcome: delays in policymaking, restrictive zoning bylaws, excessive red tape, and shortcomings in the existing infrastructure.

What has become abundantly clear is that the siloed approach of the municipalities isn’t working. They need to work closely with other levels of government and each other if they want to implement real change.

This division between policy-makers, municipalities, and developers has stifled real estate innovation in both the residential and commercial markets. If we want to create better communities in the GTHA, we need to increase collaboration between public and private organizations.

Specifically, we’d like to see a structure where public and private advisors are empowered to make decisions and take action. Rather than scrapping plans or creating 40-year strategies, this type of collaboration would allow us to become much more decisive, efficient, and purposeful in community building. We’ve spent too much time trying to navigate the system to implement change. It’s time to get the right people to the table and start building solutions.

On the flip side, we should also be challenging ourselves to think creatively about our cities. A great example of this is the work being done at R-Hauz. They looked at the guidelines in Toronto and found a way to create housing supply within the existing parameters. While we’d love to see greater efficiency and effectiveness in the system, we also can’t sit around waiting for change. There is a real opportunity to create something special in the GTHA and across the Greater Golden Horseshoe, and we need to jump on it.

The Time Is Now

Housing supply and affordability is a complex issue that will require a combination of innovation, collaboration, and a willingness to take action – today.

I get frustrated when I hear reports that talk about, “by the year 2041, we will have solved this problem.” These elongated plans are vital to healthy, vibrant communities, but they often fail to solve the issues we’re facing right now. By 2041, the GTHA population is expected to increase by 41%, and our problems will only get worse. We know that government policy can’t curb the growing demand for housing in the Greater Golden Horseshoe, so we need to think about what we can do now to boost our housing supply and accommodate the growing population.  

My advice to innovators is to be more focused on what is happening around us and take action before it’s too late. Ask yourself how we can work together to help people lead better lives through homeownership. Get involved with advocacy groups and policymaking. Collaborate with industry partners to bring your ideas to life.

The world won’t wait for you to catch up – the time for change is now.

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