For most of the last century, land has been relatively inexpensive in Edmonton. However, over the last decade, we’ve seen the price of housing double, and then nearly double again. Incomes have risen too, but not as fast as housing prices. This has caused real pressure for change in the housing market.
The dominant form of family housing built in Edmonton for many years was single-family detached housing, but it surprises many people to learn that for the last three years attached forms of housing (townhomes, condos, etc) have outsold detached housing in Edmonton’s newer neighbourhoods.
There are lots of factors, but affordability is the main one. For many Edmontonians, particularly first-time buyers, side yards are becoming a luxury.
Speaking to some homebuilders, they have been pleasantly surprised to find an unanticipated market for duplexes and town homes: downsizing baby boomers, who like having less yard to mow, less sidewalk to shovel, and would rather buy new than renovate their existing homes. Taken all together, it’s been a very fluid time in the housing market.
Back in my first term, before the boundary changes when I represented the fast-growing Southwest, a number of builders saw this trend coming and approached City Hall about revisions to the RF5 zone, which is the main ‘row-housing’ zone (or Townhouse or Brownstone, if you prefer). They had been experimenting with some Direct Control zones, which are like custom zones, but which are time consuming and costly to negotiate. The main issue was that the RF5 rules were written for housing projects with courtyards and internal parking lots, not for housing oriented to the street, which is proving more and more popular.
Clearly the City needed to update our conventional zoning to implement what we’d learned from the custom zoning pilots, to make it easier for builders to serve the changing market. Discussions had started between industry and City planners but they were moving slowly, so I got a motion passed to in July of 2009, that generated a report in September that year, and culminated the following year with Bylaw 15632 which improved the zoning. The process also led to the creation of a new zone called Urban Character Row House, which is a high-end brownstone zone: think the Huxtable’s place in Brooklyn on the Cosby Show. There are lovely homes like this, built under custom zoning in the Griesbach neighbourhod in Edmonton, which have that old-world feel.
Fast forward to this year, I bumped into a fellow I went to high school with who now runs Kimberley Communities, and we get to talking about housing choice, and my specific interest in facilitating innovation with attached housing. Turns out they were buiding this year using the new street-oriented provisions. Naturally, I was interested in getting out into the field to see how it was working in practice.
He took me for a tour of their site in Larch Park, in McGrath. It looks great, but we also discussed some of the challenges and unintended consequences of the new rules – which is good, these regulations need to be regularly reviewed and improved upon. That’s just good regulatory process. But I think this is good progress based on what we can see being built.
I strongly believe this is going to be an increasingly desirable form of housing in Edmonton over the coming years. Yes it’s attached, but that means the land cost is lower, which makes it more affordable, and/or allows for higher level finishes or options than the same square footage versus detached housing. One of the key outcomes of the zoning revisions is that these can more easily be sold as standalone properties – meaning no condo association, which turns some buyers off of attached housing. Shared walls also reduce construction cost and increase energy efficiency. That they face the street also builds better streetscapes and improved urban design.
Nobody’s saying everyone has to live in attached housing, but why shouldn’t more Edmontonians be able to live like the Huxtables if it works for their family’s lifestyle? I’ve heard feedback recently that this kind of housing is very scarce in the central parts of the city, so clearly we can learn from some of the good work we’ve done in the suburban areas. I think we have similar work to do to create more housing choices in some mature neighbourhoods where it makes good planning and aesthetic sense, and where there is community buy-in. Enhancing housing choice is a city-wide project, but we’re making progress.