Cory Morgan: To Fix Housing Crisis, Let's Use Canada's Abundant Space Instead of Urban Densification

Cory Morgan: To Fix Housing Crisis, Let's Use Canada's Abundant Space Instead of Urban Densification
New homes are constructed in Ottawa on Aug. 14, 2023. (The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)
Cory Morgan

Canada is experiencing an affordable housing crisis in almost every region of the country. The nation needs to examine actions from reducing immigration levels to reducing red tape while fast-tracking new home construction in cities in the immediate term. In the longer term, it’s time for Canada to examine how the country is settled and populated.

Cities have been dominated by civic politicians and urban planners obsessive in the pursuit of urban density. The term “urban sprawl” is used as a pejorative to describe suburban developments while the densification of urban centres is applauded. The theory is that having more people packed in per square kilometre will reduce infrastructure needs and thus reduce the cost of living. In reality, the cost of housing only gets higher as urban density increases.

The two most expensive cities in Canada in which to find housing, whether renting or buying, are Toronto and Vancouver. Vancouver has a population density of 2,661 per square kilometer while Toronto has a population density of 3,088. The average home price in Vancouver is $1.23 million while in Toronto it's $1.08 million. Calgary’s real estate market has been considered superheated lately, yet the average home price is $522,000. Calgary’s population density is well below Vancouver and Toronto at 2,100 per square kilometre. The relationship between urban density and home prices is undeniable.

When looking at the United States, the trend is the same. While the economies are strong in Houston, Phoenix, and Dallas, homes remain affordable as the cities have low urban density and grow outward. In high-density cities such as New York, San Francisco, or Boston, real estate prices are exceedingly expensive.

Montreal is an outlier as it has high density with relatively low home prices. That is more a reflection of the province than the city, as homes are more affordable throughout Quebec. There is reduced demand in Quebec as its population growth lags much of the country. That said, housing prices in Montreal are more affordable in the suburbs than in the higher-density city centre. That trend is the same in all cities.
In Calgary, the city council is battling over rezoning to allow more densification in existing neighbourhoods through tearing down older homes and building infills and multi-family dwellings. While those efforts may revitalize older districts, they also make the cost of housing rise. While the average older inner-city house is worth around $640,000, the average inner-city infill is $1.7 million.

If cities want to maintain housing affordability, they must plan to grow outward.

Dense downtown business centres are no longer as important as they used to be. Commercial vacancy rates in major city centres have been growing as more people choose to work from home and more companies downsize or move to business campuses in suburban areas. Modern communication and logistics have made the old downtown business model obsolete. Documents can be sent electronically, meetings can be held digitally, and a growing number of people can do their jobs without coming into the office daily. City centres need to change, and trying to preserve the old models only hinders the evolution of city growth.

The most plentiful resource Canada has is space and it needs to use it better.

While housing costs less in the suburbs of a major city than downtown, it's even more affordable to live in a smaller city nearby.

While it’s tough to find a home for less than a million dollars in Vancouver, the nearby city of Abbotsford has an average home price of $775,000. A home in Oshawa is 20 percent cheaper than one in Toronto, and one in Strathmore Alberta can be 35 percent less than one in nearby Calgary.

In moving just 50 kilometres from major urban centres, a family can realize substantial savings in home prices.

Rather than continuing to pack more people into a small number of massive urban centres, we should examine ways to encourage people to migrate outward to smaller cities. There aren’t many services in a city of over a million people that can’t be found in a city with a population of 100,000. We don’t need to cluster into dense, urban communities anymore.

It would take time, planning, and incentives from all levels of government to foster growth in Canada’s smaller cities. By better balancing the population of the nation and spreading it around, Canada could improve its standard of living while reducing its costs. The benefits expand beyond price. Smaller cities don’t suffer from the crime and social disorder larger cities do and they often have a healthier sense of community.

Canada needs to move beyond the ideology of pushing urban density and use its abundance of space. Outward growth will make the country stronger and more prosperous.

In other words, the nation needs to stop being so dense.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
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