A condo that fits families

When Elad Canada began marketing the latest phases of its nine-tower, 3,000-unit Emerald City master planned community near Sheppard and Don Mills in Toronto’s North York earlier this year, the firm decided to eliminate bachelors and significantly boost the number of larger (800–1,000 square foot) two- and three-bedroom condos on offer. In fact, one tower, The Point, will have a three-bedroom apartments on each of ten upper floors.

The reason, said Dror Duchovny, Elad’s director of marketing, sales and business development: “A lot of the buyers [who] are looking for an alternative to ground-related [housing] are families with kids.”

Elad’s project, located in the Parkway Forest area, has many elements attractive for buyers with children or teens — easy access to transit, proximity to parks, schools, shopping and other local amenities.

There’s nothing novel about families living in high-rise apartments in big cities, of course, and Toronto’s 1960s-vintage slab towers have housed tens of thousands of families with children for decades.

But among GTA buyers who might have been able to acquire a starter home as recently as a decade ago, demand for larger units suitable for kids seems to have perked up, if only by default. “We’re a generation behind,” said Lirad Kligman, director of sales and marketing for Metropia, which is targeting such buyers in projects at Yonge and Eglinton and another in a townhouse/tower joint venture with Toronto Community Housing at Bedford and Davenport Road.

“We were not condo people coming into this place,” said Charlotte Morrison-Reed, a freelance editor who moved into 1970s-vintage 1,000-square-foot condo on Broadview Ave. with her husband and young daughter after they recently relocated to Toronto from Barrie. “This is working out better than we expected.”

“Families are looking for condos because of the cost of housing and work-life balance,” said city of Toronto senior planner Annely Zonena, who has overseen new development policies, unveiled in recent months, to introduce the “Growing Up” design guidelines as well as core-area planning regulations, both of which are meant to push builders to construct projects better suited to families with children.

For instance, the new TO Core plan, adopted by council in September, encourages developers to take steps such as installing playgrounds to common areas if there’s no municipal park nearby, or designing interior amenity spaces that allow for all-ages programming, including children and seniors.

Yet many Toronto builders have been hesitant to focus on this market segment, even as skyrocketing real estate prices and the prospect of lengthy suburban commutes push more and more millennial families to consider settling down in two-plus or three bedroom condos. “Very few developers we spoke to are marketing to families,” noted the Growing Up report.

Many developers believe that daunting price-points for large condos deter most buyers, observed Mr. Duchovny. Other factors also play a role, such as timelines: people with young children who want or need to move often aren’t able to endure the three- or four-year wait between signing a purchase agreement on a new project and taking possession.

It’s more common for families with young children to buy or rent existing units, especially in somewhat older buildings with larger apartments.

But there’s also strong evidence that the supply patterns have shifted significantly in the past several years. As the price gap between the average detached house and the average condo widened from $200,000 to $600,000 in the past decade, the proportion of units under development with two or more bedrooms has fallen steeply, from 67 per cent in the 1990s to just 41 per cent today, according to a Ryerson City Building Institute/Urbanation study released last month.

That report also pointed out that other family-oriented housing types — especially so-called “missing middle” forms such as mid-rise projects and townhouses — were far more common in the 1990s. They have given way to high-rise towers dominated by small studio and one-bedroom units, many of which are purchased by investors as income properties.

Moreover, while the number of three-bedroom units has increased slightly in the past few years due to political pressure from city council and municipal planners, the newest units tend to be very expensive, with the average resale prices in the $900,000 range. “Any of the more recent projects with a higher three-bedroom unit count over the last couple of years were in no way targeted towards families,” says Pauline Lierman, Urbanation’s director of market research.

In the case of Elad’s Emerald City project, the larger units have been selling in the $700,000 to $800,000 range. The buyers include empty nesters and retirees.

While the price point is obviously a big issue, city officials are focusing on getting more three-bedroom units into the city’s housing pipeline. In a Lifetime Developments project slated for King and Dufferin, for example, the city has added a requirement that a quarter of the units will be either two- or three-bedrooms.

Lifetime declined to comment on the project as it was still pending city approvals. But sensing both a changing policy environment and shifting demographics, a few other Toronto developers have begun to tweak their marketing to include images of children or parents with strollers, says Ms. Zonena, citing King’s Club, a 700-unit CapREIT project near Liberty Village. “It’s very unusual.”

However, design considerations, at both the unit and building level, are far more significant considerations. Planning officials and development observers point out that builders that have worked on Toronto Community Housing projects — in City Place (Concord Adex), Regent Park (Daniels) and Lawrence Heights (Metropia) — are parlaying some of the more family-oriented design techniques used in those ventures into their market projects.

These include features such as ground-floor bathrooms and foyers that can be used as casual meeting or hang-out spaces. Mr. Duchovny said Elad’s latest projects include an indoor “family play lounge” for parents with young children, an amenity that has begun to show up in other new projects.

The Growing Up guidelines, however, cite a range of other ideas, including clustering families on lower floors, ceiling heights that can accommodate bunk-beds, and more durable finishes in common areas to allow for activities such as birthday parties or messy homework projects. Said Ms. Zonena, “We’re seeking partners in the development industry.”