The lingering death of the family house
If you don’t own a house by now, there’s a strong chance you never will. That’s the central, disturbing fact about the most widespread—and least understood—social revolution of our times
FOR GENERATIONS IT’S been a Canadian tradition for every middle-class young couple to save hard and buy a house of their own. It’s become an integral part of the Protestant Ethic — a cornerstone of the values of the society we live in. The young couple have children, and over the years they trade up to bigger and better homes until finally they’re installed in a house every bit as comfortable as the one their parents had. At least, that’s the way it used to be.
For the lucky few—those with imagination—there are still solutions to the housing crisis. Some popular ways out: At right, a renovated central-city house bought in a gamble that the area would improve. Below, the country home just outside the city
If this idea is still vaguely hanging around the back of your mind today, in the year 1967, you’d better get rid of it fast. For the idea of a separate house for every middle-class Canadian family is just about extinct. Suddenly, no one can afford it any more.
You may have grown up in a substantial upper-income home — a Shaughnessy Heights mansion in Vancouver, a rambling Rosedale brownstone in Toronto, or a fine old frame house in the Maritimes. You may be earning far more than your father did when he was your age, and you may have every expectation of reaching an income level he could never have dreamed of. It doesn’t matter. The chances are you’ll never own a house even nearly as good as your parents’, and
perhaps you may never be able to own a house of your own at all.
For what is happening amounts to nothing less than a full-scale social revolution. It is bursting upon us so suddenly that we are only dimly beginning to perceive its implications. In Canada’s great urban centres it has already happened — the idea of a separate house for everybody is dead. It is a startling change in our life-style; even now it is affecting every young couple setting up a home, and a good many older ones, too. Already, buying a house is beyond the reach of most Canadians. Soon it will be only for the very rich. The dream of every man in his split level or townhouse or suburban mini-mansion is fast changing into a financial nightmare.
All this is not just a temporary trend. True, the newspapers have been full of stories on Canada’s housing “crisis” — a shortage of homes caused mainly by tight money. But the overall situation is not really a crisis, if you define a crisis as something that comes and goes. What is happening to the individual house is an irreversible, long-term trend. The conventional house is simply out of date, oldfashioned, unsuited to our contemporary urban way of life.
Like all social change, the death of the individual house is painful. For those caught in the squeeze it is little consolation to know that what’s happening is the birth of a new life-style.
“I don’t like the idea of renting,” says Douglas Newell, 24, a Toronto advertising man with one child and another on the way. “I feel it’s just pouring money down the drain. But how can I save a down payment? It will take years.”
Newell’s is just one of the thousands of young families caught in the squeeze — the gap between the end of the era of the little house and the emergence of new forms of housing.
Already, across Canada the story is the same. In the big metropolitan centres — Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal — the swing away from the house is already pronounced. In the medium-sized cities — Regina, Winnipeg, Halifax — the signs are that it’s coming soon.
In Vancouver the average price of houses last year was $15,200 — up from $13,964 the year before. Houses in better areas — West Vancouver, West Point Grey or parts of North Vancouver — which sold for $28,000 three years ago now fetch $42,000 and up. High prices are forcing more and more / continued overleaf continued / families to rent, and an acute apartment shortage is developing. Apartment hunters wait outside the Vancouver Sun offices to grab the first edition with the want ads. Said one eagerly waiting woman, “A five-minute head start can make all the difference. If you wait at home for the paper you don’t stand a chance.” Each day’s paper lists perhaps four or five unfurnished houses to rent; this is in a city area of more than 800,000.
Four-bedroom houses in the posh central residential Shaughnessv district rent for $350 a month; luxury two-bedroom North Vancouver suites for $250 a month and up. One retired civil servant cashes in orr the rental boom by renting his three-bedroom West Point Grey house for $285 a month; he lives in Mexico and banks his pension.
Others arc not so fortunate. David Bliss, 23, a low-income dairy worker with two children says, “We’ve spent weeks driving around Vancouver looking for something. Most places are way beyond what I can afford, and those that aren’t won’t take children.” Distress cases among low-income families are becoming alarmingly frequent. Mrs. Jean Victor, a separated mother of seven, was forced to han$ her children over to the Catholic Children’s Aid Society. “I love mÿ kids,” she explains, “but what can I do? It’s bad enough trying to find a place for a small family — with seven kids it’s impossible.”
In Toronto, the Real Estate Board reckons a man must eartT between $1 1,000 and $14,000 a year to afford an average suburban three-bedroom bungalow. Average price of all houses sold this yeas will be more than $30,000; two years ago it was around $20,000. Yet in Toronto less than five percent of the population earn more than $10,000 a year. One of the few who does is David Russell, 26, an $ 1 1,000-a-year marketing analyst. “Me?” he says. “Own a house? You must be kidding. I pay $250 a month for an apartment downtown — it has to be fairly large because I’ve got three small kids. How on earth can I save up a down payment?” For thousands canting less, public housing is the only hope. But more than 7,000 families are now on the waiting lists — 18 percent more than last year.
In Montreal, housing starts were down nearly 50 percent last year and a serious apartment shortage is looming. Heavy demand due to Expo is inflating rents as landlords seek to cash in on shortterm rentals. Says one real-estate man, “Hell, nothing’s going to stop rents going up for Expo.”
In the Prairies cities the housing shortage is less critical, but disturbing signs are appearing. Regina is probably typical; average prices of houses sold last year were around $12,400, about the same as 1965. But prices in better subdivisions arc edging up — a 1,200square-foot Whitmore Park split level went from $16,500 to $18,500 in less than a year. At a given moment, fewer than one percent of Regina’s apartments are vacant and available for rent. Rents are around $1 15 for a one-bedroom and $125 for a two-bedroom apartment in a new block.
Bill Blenkin, president of the Regina House Builders’ Association, says, “The situation is much worse than these figures suggest. Many builders were caught by cost increases last year after they’d fixed their prices. Now we’re costing to the last penny before pricing.”
In the Maritimes, the shortage is worse. Halifax building starts declined from 1,655 in 1965 to 1,133 last year. Three hundredfamilies wait on the city’s list for public housing. House prices are about the same as Toronto, which is stiff for a traditionally low-income area. H. Bond Jones, city welfare administrator, says the city is short at least 1,000 low-rental homes and apartments; many families are now living in substandard housing. Frank McNaught, a 53-year-ofd casual laborer reckons he’s lucky to get steady work at $60 a week; he pays $95 a month to house his family of five in a basement apartment. “All I can do is wait for the city to build more low-rental,” he says. “I can’t really afford to pay $95 a month, but what can I do?”
The Toronto Real Estate Board’s economist, Donald Kirkup. sums up the whole national housing scene by saying, “The average man today should no more aspire to owning a house than he should aspire to owning a Cadillac. Besides, for most people, Volkswagens are perfectly adequate.”
His words are echoed by Dr. Albert Rose, a University of Toronto professor of social work and one of Canada's foremost authorities on housing. Says Rose, “There's no doubt about it — we're heading to the point where the family cannot expect a single detached housing unit.” What will Kirkup's “Volkswagen” housing of the future be like? Will it be mass-produced factory housing, shipped in sections to the site and then assembled in days? Or will it be more massive apartment blocks, condominiums and highdensity row housing? The answer, experts say, will likely be a combination of all these. But most people wonder why we can’t build enough houses right now to satisfy the existing demand. The builders and developers are there. There’s no shortage of building materials. And, in most places, there’s no shortage of labor. What we are short of — apart from the present artificial shortage of money — is land.
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We’ve got materials and labor—it’s land we’re short of
Dr. Rose explains: “We alw'ays assumed somehow that we had unlimited supplies of land here in Canada. Suddenly we found we haven't.” What Dr.
Rose is referring to is not so much just plain ordinary land — there’s still plenty of that left — but serviced land: land with all the costly municipal services — schools, sewers, water — that must be available, or at least in prospect, before you can build. Our cities have simply reached their boundaries and, in most cases, it doesn’t pay them to continue to expand. The extra assessment revenue they get doesn’t cover the enormous cost of expanding their services to cover new areas. And in the few instances where municipalities are still expanding, the trend is overwhelmingly to high-density, multiple accommodation. In the Toronto suburb of North York's northeast corner, now under development, only one third of the population will live in houses; two thirds will live in apartments or row housing. Says Mayor James Service, "We’ve got to resign ourselves to high-density living and drop the idea of a little house for everyone.”
The result of the squeeze on serviced land is, predictably, skyrocketing land costs. In Toronto the price of a serviced lot has gone up more than $3,000 in the last year alone. Average price is now around $10,000. H. W. Hignett, president of Central Mortgage and Housing Corp., the federal government's housing agency, says, "A serviced lot should not represent more than a quarter or one third of total property value. But in Toronto already they're putting $ 10.000 worth of house on a $10,000 lot." Private dwellings, says Hignett. “will never be the ideal again.” On this one point — the death of the detached family home — almost everyone concerned with housing agrees. What they don’t agree on is how best to cushion the
transfer, how to fill the gap between the death of the small house and the emergence of new types of housing.
Experts appear to split into three main schools of thought when it comes to finding ways to fill this housing gap. The first school could he summed up along these lines: “If we humble along just as we always have, things will straighten themselves out sooner or later. And besides, it’s the other fellow’s joh to get off his backside — not mine.” This approach is exemplified by federal Labor Minister Jack Nicholson, the cabinet minister responsible for housing affairs. (The fact that it's the labor minister
— there's no federal housing minister
— probably says something about Ottawa's attitude to housing in itself.)
Nicholson explains that Ottawa only got involved in housing because of World War 11. Thousands of servicemen were returning from the
war to a conspicuous lack of homes fit for heroes. Ottawa set up the National Housing Act, and its mortgage agency, the Central Mortgage and Housing Corp., to provide guaranteed funds for home building. “Constitutionally speaking,” says Nicholson, "we shouldn't be having anything to do with housing at all.” The initiative to bring down the cost of land and housing must come from municipalities and provinces, he says.
Nicholson came in for a stiff dressing down from home builders and mortgage men when he took this line at a February conference called by the CMHC in Toronto to tell the industry about Ottawa's new “flexible" NHA interest rates. David Mansur, a former head of CMHC and now boss of a Toronto mortgage company, lashed out at Nicholson’s optimistic cverything's-all-right speech. Mansur said that in the last year Canadians' incomes have gone up five percent, yet the cost of housing has increased 20 percent. He said Ottawa's flexible NHA interest rates had resulted in builders holding off because they believed the rate would come down. And in any event, said Mansur, there’s little point left in building houses because people simply can't afford to buy them anyway.
The 350 builders, developers and mortgage men at the conference repeatedly interrupted Mansur's remarks by shouting, “Tell ’em, Dave!” and, "Keep going, Dave.” Every time Mansur sat down, the builders urged him to stand up and give Nicholson another earful. The conference fizzled out in an atmosphere of recriminations and finger-pointing. Nicholson left looking very unhappy.
The second current approach being taken to the housing crisis is a variation of the official Ottawa line, except that it's a bit more sophisticated. It could be called the philosophic or academic approach. It goes something like this: “Well, this whole problem of housing is so complicated that it's impossible to look at it from any one point of view. New social trends are emerging — the Pill, for instance, is leading to smaller families — and maybe young people don't want to own homes any more.”
As Professor Albert Rose of the University of Toronto explains, “A young couple gets married today and everyone says. ‘Here's this lovely young couple and soon they’ll have a lovely little baby and how the hell are they going to be able to buy a house?’ Well, the answer’s simple: they’re going to have to live in an apartment like people do everywhere else in the world.”
Rose says we should be reconsidering certain fixed ideas we've had about families and housing. “The postwar three-bedroom bungalow has become a sort of dream. You know, the family that prays together . . . and all the rest of it. But do families really do this today? Do their children really live within the family circle the way they used to?”
Rose says the answer is that they don’t. “Kids today are so fantastically mobile — they don’t need nurturing within a family circle.”
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THE FAMILY HOUSE continued
Unless the house changes drastically, prices won’t drop
Then too, says Rose, fashions in families come and go. It appears that we've just passed through a phase of large families — “people having kids right and left” — anil that now we’re heading inio a small-family cycle. “People arc so mobile today,” says Rose. "Young couples want to buy cars, go abroad, live it up. They don’t want to he tied down by kills.”
Rose believes that although the housing situation may be bad now, in certain respects it will straighten itself out in the long run. The trend away from having children, new forms of high-density urban housing, development of commuter railways opening up new tracts of outer-urban land, new forms of co-op and condominium housing — all these factors. he believes, will lead to supply and demand balancing out.
The third approach to housing could be called the practical attitude: "For heaven’s sake, let’s build more housing.” This is invariably the line taken by builders, developers, some local politicians, and often (and not surprisingly) the public, who want somewhere to live. Members of this school of thought tend to he uninterested in all the theorizing about root causes of the housing shortage. They're concerned with the practical reasons why they can’t build or get suitable housing. Things like the shortage of mortgage money: municipal regulations that don't allow septic tanks; bylaws that forbid woodframe construction; land speculation; the reluctance of provincial governments to pay more of the cost of education, thereby reducing home taxes; selfish and narrow-minded local councils that don’t want vulgar development intruding into their comfortable semirural fiefs; all the bickering little clashes of self-interest that are combining to prevent houses from being built.
The biggest factor right now is the shortage of mortgage money. Lawrence Shankman, head of Consolidated Building Corp., one of Canada’s largest home builders, says, “With the government turning mortgage funds on and off, we never know what’s coming. We can’t plan far ahead; I don’t know of any other industry filled with the uncertainties we have to face.” Shankman’s Consolidated built 300 homes in the Toronto area last year; he’d planned on closer to 700. “We just couldn’t get the money,” he says.
Builders are not alone in disapproving of the way the government hits the construction industry hardest in periods of deflation. The Economic Council of Canada in its annual review last November strongly criticized the government for its “up and down” housing policy. The council pointed out that the industry is plagued with instability. The solution, it suggested, is to draw up a long-term plan for housing in Canada — decide how many units will be needed annually for, say, the next decade. Then the government could budget to make available sufficient mortgage funds over a long-term period, and control the ups and downs of inflation by other methods.
As to the cost of housing itself — the value you get for each dollar spent on actual construction — builders claim their industry has gone as far as it can in reducing costs. W. G. Connelly of Ottawa, president of the National House Builders’ Association, says, “Unless the house, as we conceive of it, changes drastically, we can’t reduce the building cost much.”
Connelly, the CMHC, the National Research Council and the NHBA set up a research project house at an Ottawa subdivision. They wanted to see how much they could save on the cost of a typical house by scrimping and saving and taking advantage of every modern technological development. They ended up saving only $367 on a three-bedroom bungalow costing about $18,000 with land. Building costs were $10,476. Polyethylene under the basement floor instead of crushed rock saved $53; substituting spruce for pine in basement stairs saved $14. and so on. Nowhere did the researchers find it possible to make any sensational saving or breakthrough using the latest available technologies.
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The high standard of fittings demanded by government and private mortgage lenders before they'll finance houses is another seriously restricting factor on Canada’s home production. It is these regulations, and the resulting difficulty in qualifying for mortgage money, that particularly frustrate the manufactured-housing industry. One of the industry’s spokesmen is Sol Burke, of West Hill, Ont., past-president of a fledgling organization called the Canadian Home Manufacturers’ Association, formed three years ago to promote the idea of manufacturing houses. Instead of building by the laborious, centuries-old method of piling one brick on top of another, Burke and the house-manufacturers believe in applying modern massproduction technology to home building. The house-makers build their houses in factories and then ship them in sections to the site. It takes two or three days to put the thing up. and another month or so to finish everything. This way it's possible to build a perfectly adequate house for $7.000 and a luxurious one for $15,000, plus the cost of the land.
Burke is vice-president of Colonial Homes Ltd., of West Hill, and last year his company’s plants at West Hill. Hawkesbury, Ont., and Halifax turned out about 1.000 instant houses. But, says Burke, “for every house we finally put up we had to cancel three or four other orders because we found local bylaws or building codes or mortgage regulations wouldn't allow manufactured housing. We could triple our annual production almost right away if these antediluvian regulations were changed.”
Possibly the most significant housing technology breakthrough has been made by the Aluminum Company of Canada with its $10.000 factory-made house. ALCAN has spent around a million dollars over the last few years perfecting a series of thoroughly modern prefab houses. Production of 100 units a month is expected to start at an as-yet-unnamed Ontario location this September, and within the next five years ALCAN hopes to have a string of plants across Canada churning out thousands of these homes. The houses will be towed out of the plants on a special undercarriage gear; once at the site they can be erected in a matter of days.
“We’ve been getting a lot of very pathetic letters due to publicity about these houses,” says ALCAN spokesman Roland Rudd. “People keep desperately asking us when they’re going to be available: many say they're putting off buying until they can get an ALCAN house.” The faci is, he says, the first houses are liable to be snapped up pretty quickly and it may be years before the company can come close to meeting demand. Company officials have put a limit of $4,000 on the price of lots to go with the houses: more expensive lots they feel, don't make sense with a $10,000 house. This rules out the houses being built in high-price land areas, such as Toronto.
The other possibly bright spot in the housing picture is the increased interest being shown in the concept of housing called condominium. This is an own - your - own - apartment-ortowmhouse scheme which has already won wide acceptance in the United States. Unlike co-op housing, where the tenant buys shares in a project (usually w'ith an agreement to sell them back to the owner when he moves), condominium units are sold outright to purchasers. The owner pays a small fee to cover the cost of operating mutual services such as elevators, lawns and corridors.
British Columbia already has legislation to permit condominiums; other provinces, such as Ontario and Nova Scotia, are studying it. Costs can be substantially reduced: Halifax developers are already talking of selling towmhouse units for $17,000 with $2,500 down, and two-bedroom apartments for $14,000. This is in a city with one of the highest national housing costs — average new' home price last year w'as around $30,000.
But so far no condominium housing has actually been built anywhere in Canada. The same goes for the other housing breakthroughs — ALCAN's $10.000 home, new forms of highdensity housing — they're all not yet actually here.
Other fast ways to bring dowm the cost of housing — provincial relief for home taxes, for example — are also slow in coming. Manitoba and New' Brunswick are planning now to assume significant portions of the cost of education, thus relieving property owners. Other provinces so far are reluctant to follow suit. In Toronto, municipal and school-board taxes on a modest downtown house can come to $1.000 a year easily, enough in itself to make home purchasing prohibitive for most potential buyers.
In Ontario, the province plans to try another approach. Premier Robarts is introducing a plan called HOME — Home Ownership Made Easy—whereby the province will buy tracts of land and then lease lots to home owners. Economics Minister Stanley Randall says this could cut the cost of a $25,000 house to around $15.000. Down payments could be halved.
The provincial government housing agency, Ontario Housing Corp., already acquired some 2,000 acres in Metro Toronto and about 4,000 in the rest of the province. But already Opposition critics are charging the plan won’t work, and that it’s just a front to avoid really tackling the housing shortage.
All these new developments will do something to ease the painful move away from individual home ownership. But as is usual with any far-reaching social change, there’ll be nothing neat and well-defined about the transition into the cities of tomorrow. The University of Toronto’s Dr. Albert Rose sums it all up when he says, “I suppose one way or another we'll muddle through, making all the mistakes before the thing straightens itself out. One thing's for sure, though: the idea of every man in his own little house is out, and life isn't going to be quite the same again.” ★