After decades of courting the young and single, Toronto condo developers finally find themselves in a family way. They’re still attached to those 600 square-foot units that only a millennial could love let alone live in, but lately builders have begun to realize two things: (1) even millennials eventually grow up and (2) there’s life after marriage and kids. Though condos with two or three bedrooms units aren’t common, they are more of them than ever.
There are several reasons; first is that a growing number of young families want to live downtown. Second is that the cost of the much sought after single-family home has reached the point where spending upwards of $1 million on a decent sized condo makes fiscal sense.
But there’s more to it than that. Developers are designing units specifically for families and including kid-oriented amenities — playrooms, playgrounds, pools and the like. They are also learning how to approximate the experience of living in a house by building two-storey units, adding garden-like terrace balconies and the like. Most important, perhaps, developers are devising creative ways to finance condo ownership. Daniels, for example, has come up with a “deposit structure” that allows buyers who can’t afford a down payment to pay over time.
Whether this all adds up to a full-fledged cultural shift is debatable. There are voices on both sides. Regardless, the fact remains that families living in condos no longer feel the stigma they would have decades ago when high-rise living was for adults only. The suburbs, which is where young families were expected to live, are still popular. But the desire for urban life has reached the point where it has become a major market force.
“I don’t think it’s a big societal shift,” says the Lash Group’s Larry Blankenstein. “It’s about affordability. It’s all relative to the cost of low-rise housing. Developers are becoming more efficient; we have learned to build three-bedroom units under 1,000 square feet.”
Brandon Donnelly, vice-president of development at Slate Asset Management, agrees that demand for family-friendly units is “very strong.” But, he notes, “the market is largely driven by economics. Our sense is that it’s really a question of affordability. We try to position our condos so that they’re competitive with low-rise housing. If you do it well, you can create value. The response has been very strong.”
Though Donnelly admits there’s a “cultural bias” against families living in condos, he says that the best way to overcome this prejudice is with good design. To that end, Slate’s Junction House, a mid-rise condo/townhouse project now under construction in Toronto’s west end, includes two-storey units that have large terraces with water and gas connections so that these balconies can be used for more than storing bikes. It also means every bedroom has a window and that interior walls have noise reduction features.
As originally designed by local architects, Superkull, Junction House had seven townhouses facing a laneway as well as a 12-storey mid-rise building. Then city planners got involved. Unable to see beyond height, they decided not to encourage an enlightened proposal and instead chopped it down to nine storeys. In this way, the city made another small contribution to Toronto’s housing crisis.
Camrost Felcorp director of development, Joseph Feldman, is also excited about the idea of the condo tower’s switch from singles to households. “It’s been a pleasant surprise how quickly people are making the move to family-sized units,” he says. “I think there’ a big opportunity within this segment of the market. There are still only a few developers building this sort of family-sized units. For the past 20 or 30 years, there’s been a big focus on selling micro-units. That’s partly because we need to hit pre-sales targets due to the quick sales cycles required by Canadian banks’ stringent rules.”
Feldman’s point is that families tend to take their time before they commit to buying a condo. Investors, on the other hand, typically make up their mind quickly. For the former, a condo is a place to live, for the latter, it’s a place to park your money. Choosing a home for your kids is not a business decision.
“Toronto is becoming like New York,” notes Cara Hirsch, director of sales and marketing at the Milborne Group. “All those people who bought condos some years ago in their 20s or 30s are now starting families. That’s why a lot of developers are open to building family-oriented units. I really do feel it’s becoming a trend. People are also leaning to convenience. They want to be close to work and transit.”
“Demand has been incredible,” says Dominic Tompa, vice-president of sales at The Daniels Corporation. “I think the trend will continue. You’re going to see more and more people raising their children in condos. The genesis is affordability, but 15 or so years from now, affordability will have nothing to do with it.”
If Tompa is right, in the future, families will choose condo living out of choice, not out of necessity. But, he warns, “It’s not as simple as building three-bedroom units. They have to be judicious in their layout and you have to create complete kid zones. You have to have indoor and outdoor spaces for kids and their parents.”