Downtown attractions, short commutes and affordability appeal to families
Vince Talotta / Toronto Star
With mom Wai-hin Chan and dad Kirby Hom in the middle, 5-year-old Aaron gets a hand over to brothers Carson, 7, and Preston, 10, on the sectional in their downtown condo. "We've grown to love and appreciate the convenience," Chan says about city life in their 1,385-square-foot home.
It’s rare that Wai-hin Chan works from home, but this day the research manager and mom of three is waiting on delivery of a new sofa.
Such effort for a sofa purchase, even if it is a pretty blue-grey sectional, may seem overdone to some but for Chan, her husband Kirby Hom and their sons, the right sofa can make or break the living area of a downtown condo.
Chan preps dinner as she talks about the pros and cons of living en famille in 1,385 square feet. When they bought in 2001, the couple had differing viewpoints. “I could envision having a family in a condo downtown,” says Chan. “But I think Kirby always assumed we would move when we had children. We’ve grown to love and appreciate the convenience, though, and don’t ever want to move.”
There are downsides, she admits, like being very close to noise-sensitive neighbours. As if on cue, the three boys burst through the front door, chattering excitedly about the new sofa, then descend on a cake sitting on the kitchen counter before Chan pushes a plate of veggies and dip in front of them.
Perched on kitchen chairs, the boys give their opinions about life downtown. Ten-year-old Preston thinks the view is great. Everything to 5-year-old Aaron is “good.” And 7-year-old Carson is gleeful: “ACC, Rogers Stadium, sports!”
While Chan and Hom are not unique in living downtown with children, the number of families grows slowly. But Toronto city councillor Adam Vaughan, who’s been using political means to secure larger family units, sees change: “It used to be when I ran into constituents who were pregnant, they’d be moving out. Now they’re staying — and looking to effect change for a more family-friendly downtown.”
The incentives are there. With the building boom of the past decade (50,000 condo units are being constructed south of Bloor St.), the increased density is attracting everything a family needs: grocery stores, restaurants, green space, events, libraries, schools.
A big incentive is time. Chan figures she saves at least 90 minutes a day by living closer to work. One of her friends, who lives in Markham, spends four hours a day commuting, what with daycare drop-offs and taking the GO train and buses. Another, who lives east of the city, leaves work an hour before Chan but arrives home later.
The trade-off for lifestyle and time saved is the high cost of space, although this isn’t just a condo issue. With the price gap between lowrise and highrise at $226,000 (in 2004, it was $75,000), and lowrise home prices in the GTA expected to increase 30 to 50 per cent over the next decade, condos offer about the only entry point for most first-time buyers. Condos now account for 69 per cent of home-ownership rates, up from 60 per cent in the 1970s.
Bryan Tuckey, president and CEO of Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), says land price is only part of the affordability issue. Government fees levied on new housing developments, which help pay for infrastructure, ultimately come out of the homeowner’s pocket. “BILD estimates that more than $1 billion in development charges was paid by new home buyers and collected by municipalities in the GTA in 2012 alone,” he says.
Developers have looked to design for answers. “If units are well designed and well thought out, families can live comfortably in a more compact space,” says Gabriel Leung, vice-president of Concord Adex. He’s found that flexible layouts — a bedroom open to the living room by day and closed off at night — are particularly efficient.
Developers have also begun reducing maintenance fees per square foot on townhomes, which are popular with families because of the larger size, says James Parakh, a city of Toronto urban p