City or Suburbs? Ontario Residents Prefer Downtown
by Jim Adair
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
A recent study says that if money were no object, most people in the Greater Toronto Area would rather live in a smaller home close to amenities than in a car-dependent home with more space and a big backyard.
Realtor Marnie Bennett, founder of Bennett Property Shop Realty in Ottawa, says this is part of a national trend that sees the population in a "reverse migrate" back to city centres, creating a boom in condo development and a surge in demand for office space.
"Gone are the days when employees will work in the suburbs in some out of the way commercial park and gone are the employees who commute hours to their places of work and are then trapped in an environment that does not provide restaurants, shopping and bars," says Bennett. She says younger generations "more than ever before, want access to public transit, a great 'play' lifestyle, green surroundings and socialization."
However, the survey also found that 59 per cent of families with two or more children preferred the larger suburban homes.
The key real estate mantra of location location location would be better expressed as money money money, because that's the No. 1 consideration when people are looking for a place to live.
Now the Pembina Institute, which describes itself as "a national non-profit think tank that advances sustainable energy solutions" has come up with five policy tools designed to "make it easier and more affordable for developers to build in locations where homebuyers prefer to live," says the institute. "The proposed changes also would address many of the downsides of urban sprawl, such as traffic congestion and long commute times," it says.
Communities that are location-efficient are cheaper to service and offer more environmental benefits than the current suburban development model.
"It's not about downtown versus the suburbs," says Cherise Burda, Ontario policy director at the institute. "It's about building more affordable, family-friendly homes in mixed-use, walkable communities with good access to rapid transit."
The first policy tool suggestion is developing a "location cost calculator" to educate consumers about the true cost of living in the suburbs. It says research suggests that homebuyers who buy in the suburbs may be underestimating the cost of living far from a city centre, and trading short-term affordability (a lower house price) for longer-term housing and transportation costs that could make them worse off overall. It says the mortgage assessment process "may undervalue the available cash flow of buyers of location-efficient homes who have fewer cars and lower transportation costs, while overestimating the cash flow of those who spend less on a home and more on transportation. This may increase demand for sprawl and greenfield development."
The report says that a calculator tool would measure and compare costs for homes based on location. "Lenders and real estate agencies could be required to provide this information to prospective homebuyers as part of sales materials, or leaders could take the lead on developing the tool and offering the service," says the Pembina report.
The second recommendation is a change to the way development charges are applied. They are currently based on the type of building, even though cost of servicing depends mostly on the location of the development, says the report.
"A better solution would be to assess development charges based on zones that correspond to average service levels within different areas of a municipality. This policy option recognizes that the costs of providing certain services, such as roads and sewers, will tend to be similar, on average, for similar building types in specific zones."
The third recommendation would see surface parking lots taxed based on area. The report acknowledges that "parking tax reform for residential or commercial development is politically challenging, although important in the long term." Free parking is a key advantage of suburban locations, because it's rare in urban centres.
But taxing the parking lots would "help correct cost and land usage disparities between location-efficient and sprawl developments, and reduce the tendency for land owners to hang onto underdeveloped location-efficient land."
Parking is also the focus of the fourth recommendation: removing or reducing minimum parking requirements for new developments. The report argues that in some location-efficient areas, fewer parking spaces are required since many residents rely on public transit and don't own a car. "This type of automobile-oriented standard prioritizes space for cars over other uses such as public space and additional resident or commercial space."
Finally, the report recommends using transit funding to support location efficiency – for example, by requiring areas around mobility hubs to be pre-zoned to support density before transit funding is approved.
The Pembina-sponsored survey says that the ideal "dream location" for many people would be a detached home in a location-efficient neighbourhood, either urban or suburban. The survey says the most important consideration when choosing where to live is being able to live in a single-family home. But respondents also want to be within easy walking distance to shops, restaurants and other services, easy access to public transit and a commute to work of less than 30 minutes.
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