There is a painful need to end Suburban sprawl. Sprawl segragates cities – ghettoizes inner cities (or in some or the worst examples, like Scarborough, the ‘burbs themselves) and creates middle class wastelands on the edge. The energy crises of the new city, as well as the urban crises of the last, are begging for two main changes to cities – intensification of population density, and a better mix of people and income groups.

The solution which has exploded onto the North American market is the condominium. In many ways, it’s the best of both worlds – it allows for the strict borders and exclucivity of a high end condo, with the space requirements of an Effort Trust appartment tower. Unlike those concrete towers, though, are often a melding of classical (neighbourhood appropriate) and ultra-modern architecture and landscaping. Condos can be carved out of old buildings, or built new. And they’re so hip, trendy and cool that it hurts.

Hamilton is currently seeing an explosion of condo development, much like the rest of Southern Ontario. And this is going a long way towards bringing the lower city “back to life” economically. But beneath the veil of press releases and construction fence, there’s a lot of shady deals and big money.

I have to ask: why condos? Why does such a large share of our new urban residential housing follow this model? And why is everyone so excited about them?

The answer is money. While I can’t really ever see myself living in one, the attraction of selling one is clear. A condo represents the best of both worlds when it comes to housing markets – rental and sale. Not only is it a tremendous source of cash up front (selling each apartment-sized unit for the price of a house), but also operating the building as if it were a rental property, complete with hundreds a month in “condo fees”. As a developer, this is a sheerly ridiculous amount of profit, both long-term and short, per foot.

I know many people who live in condominiums. And even in Hamilton, where prices are a fraction of what they would be in Toronto or Mississagua, it sure isn’t cheap. One friend who lives in the Pigott building pays more in condo fees than I did for my (larger) appartment several blocks up the street, as well as paying off a mortgage which would easily buy the house I now live in (and both my appartment and house were/are split with two others). On top of that, she just finished paying a $900/month “special assessment” (for six months) to pay for repairs to the brickwork, mostly to the adjoining SunLife building. Though she’s made money on the purchase price, she’d sure love to move.

Others I know, even millionaires in some of the fanciest condos you can imagine, have been left “couch-surfing” for months when they sold their homes, expecting their new, paid-for units to be ready on time. Or there’s the notorious issues with building quality and sketchy contractors and investors – best described by Vancouver’s “Leaky Condo” crisis. I worked for half a day at a certain infamous James South Condo and walked off the job for safety concerns I couldn’t believe existed in the first world (no safety equipment at all for exterior building work, and all the tools I was given still had dollar store price tags).

Behind the styrofoam and stucco facades of many of these projects lies a host of shady deals, shoddy work and long-term maintenance issues. They can be dressed up as “green”, “heritage” or “multi-use”, but all too often fall back into the same patterns as suburbs and tenement towers before them.

City bureaucracies love condos and condo developers because they make everything very simple. High-end residential developments, manicured and big. There’s no need to deal with hordes of silly citizens trying to make renovations to their own homes to raise the value or accommodate more people. And even if the building stood derelict for a decade before it was developed, or likely will for another decade (like the “Loffts” on Dundurn, by the LCBO, or Howard Johnson), everyone can still point to it as “urban renewal”. The bias here is more than subtle – the Pearl Company, for instance, was zoned residential and fought tooth and nail against that for years, despite the fact the building was clearly commercial/industrial and had never been used for housing. Wanna speculate on what they were hoping would move in? Or how about the West Harbour? If and when it is finally cut loose from the stadium planning process, wanna place a bet on one of the first suggestions for an alternate use for at least some of the site? There’s a clear preference for condo projects which not only allows brownfields and derelict buildings to rot for decades in the hopes of condos (and over more reasonable uses), but also fast-tracks their approval without a lot of skepticism.

This is one place where I feel the NIMBY crowd has a very good point. Would you want something like this in your back yard? Given the way condos often build up when lower buildings with larger footprints would be more appropriate, as well as the massive demographic shift they often entail, and often years of disruptive construction, there are many reasons to be skeptical. I’ve lived next to one of Hamilton’s new condo projects (when I was on James North), and if there’s one predominant feeling I got it was snobbery. They weren’t a part of the neighborhood fabric at all, but instead mostly spent their time harassing the local homeless folk (who never caused us much trouble).

Given that so many people in neighbourhoods targeted for “renewal” are filled with tenants who have little say in the future of their housing (such as myself), there are a lot of reasons to be worried. I have many friends in Vancouver, and one couple I know was evicted three times in a year for new condo developments in their former buildings. While there are certainly crime and drug addiction problems in our communities, I get very scared when I hear people talking about how a certain building or area is filled with “bad people” who must be removed. Just because one unit of a building is occupied with people that some neighbours think are drug dealers or prostitutes doesn’t write a blank cheque for developers to evict all the other poor families in it or around it, as so often happens.

So what’s the alternative? That’s a question that digs deeply into the fabric of our property laws, and has a lot of consequences for other forms of housing. If all the units in a building are “owned” individually by those who live there, is there not a cheaper and more democratic way to manage hallways, roofs and parking lot maintenance? The condominium model proves that people are more than eager to live in these kinds of buildings, but charge far in excess of what they actually cost to build or maintain. By running buildings directly, residents would save enormous sums annually in “administration costs”, as well as being able to tackle the realistic expenses (like building maintenance) in a far more cost-effective way (ie: without profit margins that rise if the work isn’t done). Our incorporation laws easily allow for something like this, and financially such systems would make it very easy to finance further building conversions with the “bank accounts” of ones already in operation. And it allows an option for many multi-unit rental properties, which pay more than enough in rent alone to manage a system like this and see little benefit from their far-off property management companies or absentee Toronto landlords, as well as people seeking to convert old buildings to new uses that don’t require one large buyer with deep pockets.
The price of housing needs to fall. There’s an enormous gap when it comes to new housing – if you’re looking for something nicer than city-sponsored housing projects, there isn’t a lot (especially in the city) before you get into the high-end market. And that’s flat-out ridiculous when you’re talking about units which often have less space than some suburban garages. Many housing co-ops already operate with townhomes, why would an apartment block be so much different? It would give residents a chance to decide the future of their buildings, as well as maintaining a share of the building equity (one of the main attractions of condo livng). And by bringing it into a reasonable price range, we make reasonable high-density urban living something that’s possible and attractive more more than just the rich.
So while I do laud anything that gets people away from the suburban mode and model, I have to say that we still have a long way come before we see housing that really makes sense. As long as there’s a big investment scheme involved, I’m always going to be skeptical of the motives, as you should be to. Equating a high-density development, or several, with sensible urban densification misses many of the subtleties of who ultimately owns, controls and profits from these developments. Cities need to be designed by the people who live there, not just small cabals of property developers and financiers, and that’s true whatever form the houses take.