By Annie Koo
Since 2001, Toronto has seen record growth of intergenerational households, but housing options for downtown living currently fall short for many families. Hampered by a limited number of multi-bedroom units, Toronto families sometimes become “condo hackers” — packing far more people into a one-bedroom condo than is comfortable or desirable.
It’s clear that growing families who might once have chosen the suburbs are willing to trade space to live in the city for its diversity, amenities, and culture — if they could only find apartments the size they need, or the right community support.
In cities around the world — including Toronto — new housing innovations have emerged to address these trends and keep a more diverse set of people (including families) living downtown. Building on these ideas, our Toronto Tomorrow proposal outlines a set of initiatives meant to provide families with a range of downtown living options that are both affordable and comfortable.
Provide more bedrooms and more affordable options
As a starting point to providing more options for families, our proposal commits to making 40 percent of all units in Quayside “family-sized,” with two, three, and four bedrooms. The housing plan for Quayside goes beyond size to expand affordability, too, both for families that rent as well as those that wish to own.
As part of a housing plan with 40 percent of units at below-market rates, 5 percent of proposed units in Quayside would involve a shared equity program that enables middle-income households to own part of an apartment, providing a path to build equity while renting. This shared equity program would help address a common barrier to home ownership for middle-income families: the need for a significant down payment.
Consider a young family that is tired of “condo hacking” a one-bedroom rental and finds a three-bedroom condo for $600,000, hoping to obtain more room for their children. In a traditional scenario, the family’s down payment might be as high as $120,000, with a monthly mortgage of roughly $2,500. In our proposed shared ownership program, the family could put down just $24,000 for a 20 percent down payment on a 20 percent ownership stake, paying rent on the rest for a monthly total of $2,100 ($500 in mortgage payments and $1,600 monthly rent).
If they decide to sell in Year 5, the family stands to make up to $20,000, assuming 3 percent annual appreciation on their unit. And they have room to live comfortably.
Support all family sizes with flexible walls
Family size can change over time — new babies are born, older kids go off to college — and housing needs change with it. To enable residents units to expand (or contract) in response to household needs, Sidewalk Labs plans to build flexibility into residential units.
The first step towards creating residential flexibility is creating flexible wall panels. Construction innovation in digital electricity and mist-based sprinklers can reduce the systems that are typically embedded within walls, accelerating renovation. For example, if a family expands, a built-in panel could be removed to create a new passage between rooms. The same panel could be reinserted if the additional room is no longer needed. Either process could take roughly half a day.
The second step is intentionally designing floor plans to accommodate the easy addition or subtraction of adjacent units. For example, by aligning the kitchen and bathroom corridors (known as “wet boxes” in development speak), a three-bedroom could more easily be converted into two smaller units if a child leaves for college; conversely, smaller units could be combined into a larger one with the arrival of a new baby.
This flexibility supports a family’s ability to “grow up” in Quayside.
Creating “affordability by design”
Creating homes that are more efficient, flexible, and shared can make dense urban living more appealing — and affordable — to a wider group of people, including families. Our proposed unit designs rethink space to create higher-quality, efficient spaces that deliver more value for residents.
These units would exist at a range of bedroom sizes — all the way up to four bedrooms — and cross all income levels. They would allow residents to tailor their home to meet their unique needs, offering features such as:
- Dynamic furniture and spaces, enabling families to make the most of their in-unit space, such as the ability to convert a living room to a large dining room for a weekly dinner party.
- On-demand storage delivery to enable families to store things they use rarely or seasonally, thus reducing the need for costly in-unit storage space that can clutter up everyday life while still enabling quick access to their items.
- High-quality interiors, including tall ceilings, daylight penetration, and warm wooden interiors, to create a more comfortable and healthy daily environment.
- Customizable features that make it cost-effective to tailor homes to the individuals that live in them, even while renting.
- An extensive public realm — usable more of the year thanks to weather-mitigation systems — means families can spend more time outdoors.
Not only do efficient units respond directly to the changing needs of families, they also improve overall affordability by enabling developers to increase the total number of housing units on a site. In our proposal, for example, we can create 87 more units in Quayside, generating $37 million in value that can be applied towards below-market housing.
Strengthening community with co-living spaces
A co-living model combines efficient unit footprints with community-based programming and shared spaces designed to bring residents together.
Around the world, and with a few early examples in Toronto, co-living has gained popularity with younger professionals who enjoy the prospect of living in well-designed units, with access to common areas filled with more shared amenities than a typical apartment. But co-living could also be built for families with young children needing additional bedrooms or child-related amenities (such as shared playrooms) and services (such as daycare options).
Sidewalk Labs plans to dedicate space in Quayside to co-living initiatives. A key feature of this housing option would be shared building space and community activation: communal areas could include co-working space, cooking and dining areas, exercise rooms, child recreational areas, and potentially a communal guest room that could be shared among residents.
These spaces would be designed to encourage social interaction among residents seeking a stronger community.
Providing access to essential services
Beyond the residential unit and building, a well-designed neighbourhood supports families in other ways by creating access to essential social infrastructure from the start. The development plan for Quayside includes a number of these features:
- Elementary school and child-care. The Quayside plan allocates space for an elementary school (which would be operated by the Toronto District School Board). A portion of the ground floor space of the school site could also be allocated for a child-care facility.
- Health and well-being. The Quayside plan sets aside a central space, called the Care Collective, which would co-locate health care and community services alongside proactive health programming, activated by local partners. (Sidewalk Labs would not be a direct service delivery provider.)
- Parks and water access. The Quayside plan includes three main public spaces designed to draw in families, including interactive water features at Parliament Plaza, all-ages recreational spaces at Silo Park, and water access around Parliament Slip.
- Safer streets. The Quayside plan prioritizes street safety through low-speed streets, curbless designs that improve accessibility, “green waves” for cyclists, and shorter crossings for pedestrians.
Taken together, these approaches can help Toronto provide housing options that meet growing family needs — and, we hope, show the way forward for other cities facing similar challenges.
Annie Koo is Associate Director of Development for Sidewalk Labs.