Challenging the myths about millennials and housing

Conventional wisdom suggests millennials have been squeezed out of the housing market in cities like Toronto and Vancouver.

They can’t afford the single-detached homes that make up big chunks of older neighbourhoods in those cities. They don’t want to raise children in tiny two-bedroom apartments or condos in high-rise buildings in the downtown core. They are either “stuck” in high-rise condos or have to endure the long, congested commute from surrounding suburban municipalities to afford a single-detached home.

It’s time to challenge some assumptions.

There is indeed a large area of older, predominantly single-detached homes surrounding the City of Toronto. These areas offer a prime opportunity to transform them into higher-density, transit-accessible yet still ground-oriented housing for millennials as they move out of apartments or their parents’ homes and seek housing in coming years.

The forever young city

Currently, more millennials are living in smaller apartments in the downtown areas of major metropolitan cities than was the case for previous generations of young adults.

Many eventually move out of the higher-density areas as they get married and have children, and new young adults move in.

I have called this process the youthification of higher-density neighbourhoods, which seemingly stay “forever young.”

Moving away

Some will stay due to growing preferences for downtown living, but as millennials are getting older, more of them are beginning to move away from areas dominated by high-rise condos and apartments.

This is causing a dilemma for the future sustainability of our communities.

There is a large body of evidence that points to the need to increase the density of our residential areas: Higher-density housing has been shown necessary to reduce the urban sprawl that’s associated with economically inefficient infrastructure development, traffic congestion and a host of environmental ills.

But higher-density housing, in the way it’s been built in most North American cities, is also often deemed too small for households larger than three or more people. This is because most new, higher-density housing is being built in the form of one or two-bedroom apartment units in high-rise buildings.

As such, high-density living is often considered only suitable for millennials without children or their aging parents — the downsizing baby boomers — and not for households with kids.

There are several problems with this argument.

How much space do we need to live?

First, how much housing space we need is subjective. There are a growing number of people who are living comfortably in smaller homes.

Second, the notion that apartment living is not suitable for raising children reveals a cultural bias seemingly ignorant of the large number of people globally who live and raise families in apartments, and increasingly in our own cities as well.

But most importantly, millennials are offered a false choice in the debate on housing — puny condo/apartment in a high-rise building, or a detached “family” home far outside the city and requiring a long commute.

What’s overlooked is that housing near urban amenities and places of employment can still be sufficient to accommodate larger households, including those with children, if built in the form of attached, ground-oriented housing. The choice does not need to be between single-detached homes in far-flung suburban municipalities and small, high-rise condos in the downtown.

‘Missing middle’

There is growing awareness of what is now often called the “missing middle”. That is, a lack of ground-oriented yet attached housing in existing built-up areas. A number of observers have pointed to the large swaths of housing in greater Toronto, largely consisting of single-detached homes, as a prime area for building more of this “missing middle.”

Some have even called the area surrounding the old City of Toronto the “yellow belt” due to its zoning designation primarily for detached housing that planners generally colour in yellow on their maps.

Although the context differs, similar opportunities exist in other Canadian and U.S. metropolitan areas as well.

The challenge in practice is that these homes will have to be built in existing neighbourhoods, not on what’s known as greenfield sites — previously undeveloped land, generally located in faraway suburbs. New developments on greenfield sites are difficult to serve by transit because they are far from existing infrastructure. They are also encroaching on valuable environmentally significant lands.

Yet even most of our existing neighbourhoods are still too low-density to be adequately and efficiently served by public transit. More people will have to take transit if we are serious about reducing congestion that is increasingly impacting our quality of life, as well as to meet climate change reduction goals.

This means we need to densify existing areas.

There will be a backlash. In fact, there are already examples of strong opposition to what’s known as infill development —building more housing in existing built-up areas.

Tough decisions

But the future sustainability of our cities will depend on whether we’re willing to make the tough decisions required to open up existing neighbourhoods dominated by single-detached homes to infill development.

Some have recently claimed that millennials are “stuck in condos.” This argument seems flawed.

There will be low-density housing stock available to millennials due to a combination of continuing development of single-detached housing on greenfield sites and the freeing up of homes as people who currently own homes eventually die.

Those who make claims about millennials desiring single-detached dwellings are also forgetting that for many, this is seemingly their only alternative to high-rise apartment living.

While some may be able to afford housing à la carte, most of us are stuck eating what’s offered on the menu. Sadly, the Canadian housing menu does not yet offer much choice. If in the market to buy, we’re generally choosing between small, high-rise apartments or affordable houses with long commutes.

Many millennials have grown up in large metropolitan areas, spent much of their time in amenity-rich neighbourhoods, going to school with access to transit passes and experiencing the convenience and health benefits of walkable and transit-oriented neighbourhoods during their young adult years.

This lifestyle can and should be accommodated in the suburbs of the future, not least for sustainability reasons. Millennials will live in the suburbs, closer to transit, in higher-density housing, if we build this new kind of suburb with and for them.


Markus Moos – Associate professor, University of Waterloo

Disclosure statement

Markus Moos’ current research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Province of Ontario’s Early Researcher Award, and University of Waterloo Housing & Residences.

This post was originally published at The Conversation.

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