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E-BLAST: What I Learned on my Summer Vacation


I know that summer is far from over, but I want to talk about something I saw while vacationing. I think it has important lessons for how we should start to look at housing options here in Toronto.

A couple of weeks ago, we headed out west to visit my sister-in-law and parents-in-law in Vancouver, masks, wipes, and Purell in tow. My dear sister-in-law, Nancy, is always on the lookout for anything that might be interesting to me on the municipal or urban planning front. Way back in 2012, she took me for a walk in her neighbourhood and showed me a construction site. She had been to a meeting and heard that this property, formerly three single family dwellings in the middle of a residential avenue, was being turned into something called ‘cohousing’.

The architect's rendering of the cohousing complex I visited in Vancouver.

Ten enterprising community members had come together to develop this property into a small complex of 31 individually owned housing units with a communal activity centre at the rear. The housing units would be self-contained with kitchens, bathrooms, and everything else a person would need, only a bit smaller. Together, the residents would run the communal spaces which include a workout room, laundry room, craft studio, children’s playroom, and a generous sized communal kitchen, dining, and living room.

On our recent visit, Nancy suggested that I go take a good look at the finished product. Residents have been happily ‘cohousing’ here for over seven years now and their little complex is quite beautiful. As I stood in the back alley taking a photograph of the communal building, a resident drove up to the underground parking entrance and asked what I was doing. When I explained that I was a Toronto City Councillor, she beamed with pride and said, “Well, come on then. You’ll be wanting a tour.”

The underground parking entrance at the back of the complex. Above is one of the community common spaces.

My tour guide proceeded to show me around the entire housing complex. She took me on a tour of the many communal spaces, showing me the laundry area, the children’s playroom, and the gorgeous communal kitchen. I asked if each family really does keep their commitment to the co-housing responsibilities. She answered “Absolutely!” without a moment’s hesitation. The few residents who found that cohousing wasn’t to their liking have moved, easily selling their units at a profit as there is a waiting list to get in.

You won’t see pictures from inside her own unit, as I felt photographing that would be a bit too invasive, but she was delighted for me to see it. It was a lovely one bedroom apartment with a gorgeous kitchen and a walkout patio lined with flowers.

My tour guide on the left, and the communal kitchen space on the right.

I also noticed something quite telling when she took me up to the complex’s rooftop garden. From our vantage point, I could look down at the next couple of blocks in the neighbourhood. Renovations were underway or completed on many properties, and it took me a moment to realize that these renovations looked different than what we typically see in Toronto. None of the renovated properties I could see were a ‘Monster Home’. The newer builds tended to be only slightly boxier and larger than neighbouring homes. The big difference was that almost every new property also included a new laneway home at the rear.

My tour guide pointed out one property where she knew the owners. These owners had moved into the new laneway home and their main house, once renovated, was rented out to their daughter’s family and a basement tenant. “That is a very common scenario in these homes,” my tour guide said. When I looked further down to the main arterial avenues, I realized that there wasn’t quite as much high-rise condo construction underway as I remembered from my last trip to Vancouver four years ago.

A view of the complex from the rooftop garden.

I’m sharing all of this with you because it relates to the tipping point we find ourselves at in Toronto with respect to the high-rise building boom and neighbourhood densities. Many of us are fed up with massive development projects of 30 and 40 storeys. At the same time, we vigorously oppose any change to conventional, single-family dwelling neighbourhoods. The cohousing complex I visited in Vancouver provides a shining example of some of the creative solutions we need to embrace to address our housing shortage here in Toronto. From the street, you can barely tell that this is a 31-unit building. The architects designed it to fit in almost seamlessly with the surrounding neighbourhood.

A picture of the front of the cohousing complex.

Cohousing is not technically an affordable housing project. However, the land the former three houses sat on was cheaper to buy and construction costs far less than a high-rise building, so the units ended up costing less than usual market value. Unit owners help with gardening and communal space management, allowing them all to pay a more affordable maintenance fee. Lastly, Vancouver planners required the group to include two affordable rental units in their project and these units generate a small source of income to be used towards the complex’s communal costs.

Cohousing also provides an excellent example of how we can create opportunities to age in place in our communities. My tour guide was the perfect example of that. Still a firecracker at age 75, she was able to downsize from a single family home and stay in her beloved neighbourhood. She’s found an extremely tight-knit community in her cohousing complex, and loves being surrounded by a mix of renters, families, and older adults like herself.

We have a housing shortage here in Toronto just like Vancouver, perhaps even worse. The difference is that creative solutions are visibly addressing the challenge out west. What I saw on my vacation were innovative residents maximizing the potential of single-family properties while maintaining or even enhancing the quality of the neighbourhood. Moreover, with every new home they created by adding gentle density, they seem to be slowing the need for rapid high-rise condo development.

An illustration of what cohousing could look like here in Toronto.

I wonder if we have it in us, Toronto residents, planners, and politicians, to reward those that propose housing solutions that are somewhere in between the mega-high-rise and the monster home. Cohousing doesn’t exist in Toronto right now, but there is a small group trying to make it happen. Cohousing Toronto is currently in the process of searching for a site to build 15 to 30 cohousing units. If they were to walk into the North York planning office and say, “We have purchased three properties on a residential street and we are going to create a community of 30 units of housing and manage it by consensus,” what would the planner say? What would the neighbours say? How would the local politicians speak to the matter?

Would these reactions be any more or less angry than they are when a 31 storey building is proposed nearby? Would they be any more or less angry than when a single family renovation designed to look like a four storey building spilling into the ravine is proposed? Or, would we have it in us to open our minds to hear the possibilities?

Without new approaches, Toronto’s housing crisis will continue to gather steam and our ward will continue to be inundated with high-rise condominium applications and proposals for monster homes. Perhaps it’s time we start to move away from our Toronto housing extremes and start to look at something in between. If we want positive change in our neighbourhoods, we have to be open to these new ideas and maybe change a bit ourselves, too.

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