If there was a stinging criticism of the provincially imposed greenbelt, designed to curb the Greater Toronto Area’s (GTA) urban sprawl, it was the concern that homebuyers would be determined to pursue the dream of low density, detached homes and would leapfrog over the two-million acres of protected land to the promise land of outer exurbia.
Headline stories of desperate families sleeping in their cars for days in mid-winter to get a slice of cul-de-sac nirvana became proof points of failed land use policies forcing higher densities in the GTA. Home buyers want their wide lots, and all that progressive land use policies were doing was pushing sprawl even farther out and car dependence further up. In other words, a public policy backfire.
New data from the Altus Group suggests that these fears may be overstated. Altus reveals that conventional, suburban detached homes sales in the non-GTA Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) comprised just 36 per cent of new sales between January and August, as compared to 52 per cent in 2015 and 48 per cent in 2016.
All nine of the largest cities in the outer edge of the region are showing an increase in medium and high-density land acquisitions in 2017 over 2016. 58 per cent of the new housing products brought to market in the GGH were townhouses and condo. That’s up from 48 per cent and 54 per cent for the same period in 2015 and 2016 respectively, reports Phong Ngo, Director of New Homes Research at Altus Group.
No doubt this shift reflects the reality of the land economics as our buoyant real estate market ripples outward. But it would be impossible to ignore that the plans for expanded transit service to such locales as Barrie and Kitchener-Waterloo are now exerting influence. The emergence of improved transit, even if some years away from operational reality, can have a significant impact on these outer ring housing markets. If the market trusts that this infrastructure will be built, it often reacts quite nimbly. In other words, a public policy success.
Positive as these recent data indicators are, it will be important to track the total balance of sales and supply in these outer ring municipalities against that of the urban GTA. Altus data also shows that while the rate of growth in the non-GTA municipalities was lower than the GTA this year versus 2016, the rate of growth in 2016 was higher than the previous. Facilitating higher percentage growth beyond the greenbelt, no matter the density, would not be a policy outcome worth celebrating.
However, if we are re indeed turning the corner away from post-war sprawl as the dominant housing typology in the most distant reaches of our urban region, the skeptics will have been proven wrong. New home buyers in all corners of our region seem to be settling into a new dream. If lasting, it represents a surprising and encouraging trajectory for the development of our region.