The Toxic Myth of "Density Creep"
Torontoist has been acquired by Daily Hive Toronto - Your City. Now. Click here to learn more.




The Toxic Myth of “Density Creep”

Residents involved in NIMBY causes across the city may have already gotten their isolationist wish—to the potential detriment of their own property value.

Canada Square building at Yonge & Eglinton  Captured by Tony Lea via the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Canada Square building at Yonge & Eglinton. Captured by Tony Lea via the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

“I’m really concerned about my property value going down” is not a statement that’s going to garner much sympathy in Toronto these days. In a city where a detached home costs over $1 million and low vacancy rates are pushing rental prices higher and higher, thousands of families are struggling. More than 78,000 households are currently waiting up to 10 years for affordable housing, hoping to land a place where they don’t have to choose between paying the rent and putting food on the table.

That’s not the case at Yonge and Eglinton, though. As yesterday’s article in the Toronto Star revealed, a group of residents in the affluent North Toronto neighbourhood are so concerned with maintaining the value of their million-dollar homes that they have banded together as the Density Creep Neighborhood [sic] Alliance to fight a new development proposal. It’s not a towering condominium that’s got them up in arms, but rather a four-storey townhouse complex where units will sell for an average of $500,000.

It would be comforting to think that this kind of upper-class entitlement is limited to only a small pocket of the city. But as the Star notes, similar battles against mid-rise developments are currently being waged elsewhere on Eglinton and in Leslieville. A half-million-dollar price tag hardly counts as affordable housing, but even if it did, the Density Creep Neighborhood Alliance’s fears would be unfounded. A significant number of studies have demonstrated that affordable housing developments have either neutral or positive effects on the property values of the surrounding community. Not-in-My-Backyard (or NIMBY) sentiment, however, is rarely grounded in evidence. Instead, it trades in the euphemistic language of neighbourhood “character” and “community,” while hiding a dark undertone—one that is increasingly reflective of the Toronto we already live in.

David Hulchanski, a professor of housing and community development at the University of Toronto, has spent years documenting how Toronto evolved from a mixed-income city to an increasingly segregated one. His “Three Cities” research [PDF], which was updated earlier this year, shows that from 1990 to 2012 the average household income in a number of neighbourhoods, such as North Toronto, increased by more than 20 per cent. In roughly the same number of neighbourhoods, though, average household income declined by 20 per cent. Meanwhile, the number of middle-income communities, which accounted for the majority of Toronto in 1990, dropped to less than a third of all census tracts.

This means that groups like the Density Creep Neighborhood Alliance are already winning, even if they don’t know it yet. Wealthy Torontonians are increasingly concentrated in downtown and midtown enclaves, while low-income residents are relegated to the inner suburbs, with limited access to transit, grocery stores, and other essential services.

Yonge Eglinton at a distance  By Kiril Strax from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Yonge-Eglinton at a distance. By Kiril Strax from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

It is important to note this segregation has a racial element, too. Residents in Hulchanski’s high-income “City 1” neighbourhoods are 82 per cent white, compared to the low-income City 3, where 47 per cent of residents are black, Chinese, or South Asian. The percent of residents who are foreign-born is more than twice as high in City 3 than in City 1. It comes as little surprise, then, that all the folks pictured on the Density Creep Neighborhood Alliance website and Facebook page are white.

Meanwhile, south of the border, anger over decades of racially segregated housing policies is reaching a boiling point. A recent New York Times editorial argued that in order to rectify America’s legacy of segregation, affordable housing must be created in “low-poverty, high opportunity neighborhoods”—neighbourhoods just like North Toronto.

There are a number of approaches that could help return Toronto to a city of mixed-income communities with diverse residents. Inclusionary zoning, wherein all new private developments have to include a percentage of units that are affordable to low and mid-income households, has had some success in increasing housing affordability in American cities, as well as Vancouver and Montreal. (The City of Toronto is currently restricted from adopting inclusionary zoning without the approval of the Province, but efforts are underway to make this possible.) Increasing government investment in existing social housing assets, which are badly in need of repair, and creating new, vibrant social-housing communities throughout the city would help diversify communities. And incentives for mid-rise developments, which are limited to six storeys on narrow streets and 11 storeys on arterial roads, have been touted by experts from the Pembina Institute to Toronto’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat as key to boosting the amount of affordable housing.

But none of these options are likely to please the Density Creep Neighborhood Alliance. These residents, and those involved in NIMBY causes across the city, want to isolate themselves from “transients” and other Torontonians that they deem undesirable. They want to erect a wall, as one member of the Alliance proudly stated, similar to the one in the Game of Thrones series, which will keep them “safe” from outsiders. The sad thing is, they’ve already gotten their wish.

Wyndham Bettencourt-McCarthy is a policy analyst in the affordable housing sector and a former Torontoist contributor.