June 13, 2019 | Toronto real estate
Toronto real estate is changing fast. And it’s been changing fast for a long time. I could go back to the 90s, a time when I used to go rock climbing at Joe Rockheads in Liberty Village and ride my bike home to Cabbagetown where I rented an apartment. Liberty Village was not even a neighbourhood then – mostly warehouse buildings with one pub for TV people after work. I used to cut through the many parking lots downtown to get home. My rent was less than $500.
But you don’t need to go back that far in time to know that Toronto changes fast. Significant change can happen within a year here. I am in my car in many Toronto neighbourhoods as a real estate salesperson. But as much time as I spend driving around, I still have times when I have a brief moment where I’m not sure where I am. It may be a familiar area I’ve driven through, but the landscape of some streets change so rapidly I barely recognize where I am at times!
Torontonians are constantly keeping up with the new normal of their changing city. The new normal of higher rents. The new normal of higher prices. The new normal of density in some rapidly transforming neighbourhoods that go from neglected to bohemian to luxurious in 15 years.
Like any real estate market, prices rise and fall, but mostly rise.There’s something at play here that really doesn’t have an historic reference point. We like to look at patterns from our past, but there’s really no example in modern times that explains the rapid gentrification of certain growing cities like Toronto.
Cities older than Toronto have changed over time. Older cities like London or Paris or Istanbul have had neighbourhoods completely replaced over the centuries. Gentrification happened in those cities, though they may not have called it that at the time. But even back then, cities were for everyone: rich, poor, for artists and revolutionaries.
The difference, I suspect, is the speed of gentrification now. In many ways gentrification can be a good thing. If your city is not growing and improving, then it’s shrinking and falling apart.
We have seen these shrinking cities in much of the Rust Belt in the United States since the 1950s. They don’t grow and change. Subsequently, many neighbourhoods fall into disrepair. Jobs are low paying, and citizens leave the city – mostly the middle class and rich. Poverty prevails.
In Toronto, neighbourhoods have been revitalized. Gentrification has allowed them to grow as communities. Take the Wychwood Barns as a community hub. Consider the impressive rise of Leslieville and the Junction where many independent businesses grew, and where community involvement in the local schools made them better. Consider toxic industrial land turned into development for condos creating more housing and revenue for Toronto. There’s no doubt that gentrification has made Toronto, in many ways, a more interesting and more beautiful city. And the amount of good restaurants is now so impressive, it’s impossible to keep up.
Still, gentrification has its downside. It has made affordability an issue.
Housing has become a crisis. Homelessness has become a crisis. The problem with rapid change is that the fallout from that can take much longer to work itself out. That’s why there is more homelessness in a richer city and more crowded transit in a growing city.
Gentrification, I think, is not really something you can fully control. You can pass certain legislation, on rent controls for example, but it won’t improve affordability. At the end of the day, people want to live here, and the demand pushes gentrification and rapid change. Not just here in Toronto, but in a lot of other cities like Hong Kong, Melbourne, Barcelona and Buenos Aires.
But where do we go from here if we continue on this speedy gentrification growth? Well, let’s look at San Francisco. Why there? Because it’s probably one of the most gentrified cities in the world over the past 20 years. It would make Toronto’s gentrification seem rather humble. It’s technically a city of less than a million people, but the influx of wealth into Northern California has created an uber-gentrification (pun intended). The incomparable teck boom of this area has put gentrification on steroids. A town once known for hippies, artists, outcasts, gold rush pioneers and a city to move to after you come out to your parents has become a city with the highest concentration of wealth in the world. It’s an area of high paying jobs, soaring real estate prices that would make Toronto feel like a bargain. It also has booming residential and commercial construction and a vibrant street life.
Here’s a few things on San Francisco to prove my point:
- There is a shortage of social workers, waitstaff, and teachers (paid less in the U.S.) because they cannot afford to live there. It is difficult to find simple shops like a hardware store, a shoe repair store, dry cleaners and an indie music club because commercial rents are so high. It has the lowest percentage of children, 13.4 percent, of any major American city, and is home to about as many dogs as humans under the age of 18. As a dog owner with no kids, I’m ok with this stat, but it does indicate that it’s difficult to raise a family here.
- A median $1.6 million U.S. ($2,160,000 CDN) for a single-family home and $3,700U.S. ($4995 CDN) monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment.
- A very visible homeless crisis of 7,500 residents in a city of 882,000.
- Billionaires are everywhere. In fact the Bay area has more billionaires per capita than anywhere else in the world. One out of every 11,600 residents.
I don’t think Toronto will ever become this extreme. Toronto has room to grow unlike Vancouver and San Francisco. Tech is an important and growing part of the Toronto economy, but hardly as big as the economy in San Francisco and Sillcon Valley. Still, we may become more like this in the near future unless we make some changes. Why? Because Toronto is growing. It is currently the fasting growing city in North America and the second fastest region in North America. More details here. And we have no real plan on how to bring in more people. I do think a growing city is an envious thing for more cities, but we do have to accommodate the change.
One change would be to address our own affordable housing crisis. You can have laws, that Toronto is contemplating, like New York or Montreal, where developers include a certain percentage of affordable housing in each new build. See what Montreal is doing here.
Better transit in and out of the city will also help. We’re not landlocked. There is a lot of room to grow inside and outside the city. I rarely agree with Doug Ford, but his government is wise to allow for more height around transit hubs. We need to connect our region much better. We in Toronto have really messed up transit since 1970, but there does seem to be some political will to move it forward, even though there is a change in transit planning with every change in government. I do still believe that gentrification can be a good thing. But it’s not all good, and if we are willing to recognize the speed of our changing city, then we can better adapt to what’s coming. It’s going to be in Toronto’s best interest to have a city that functions for everyone.