As the city prepares to develop the north downtown and aspires to make significant progress toward Mayor Don Atchison’s plan of having 15,000 people live downtown, it also has the opportunity to deal with another problem: Making Saskatoon a lot more affordable place to live.
A recent StarPhoenix story quoted lobbyist Wendell Cox of Demographia saying Saskatoon is among the least affordable cities in Canada.
This might be an expensive place to live, but I am not sure that I agree with Cox’s idea that we can sprawl until we hit mountains. Unlike Cox, I don’t lobby for the auto industry, or oppose the expansion of public transit.
His point is valid that densification of cities drives up property values and home prices. There come to be more amenities as more people move in, and people pay more to be close to the things they love. If you doubt me, check out the housing prices in Nutana near the Broadway business area. You pay more to live on or near a great street or urban village.
With a north downtown plan that will bring more people and more companies to the area, the same thing will happen to housing prices there. People will pay more to live close to work and play, and it’s already being reflected in rising prices in City Park, Caswell Hill and, more recently, Riversdale. This will only intensify when there are more people downtown. We all expect better transit, more restaurants and maybe even food trucks.
In many cities, the market dictates the most expensive kind of housing or condos that are created.
The result is that high-end condos win out, which is great for developers and owners. The wealth in the city centre also adds to the downtown street life and culture.
Where the market fails is in producing the lower-end rental suites that make a city affordable to live, and to a degree puts some downward pressure on the market. As a city grows more prosperous, these kind of bachelor and single-bedroom suites become more scarce.
The economic result is that it hurts a city’s creative and startup culture. It also hurts the very businesses that move into a downtown core because it’s hard to retain staff who can’t afford the commute. I see that when I find myself in an unaffordable city centre where there are a surprising number of “help wanted” signs, even in a poor job market.
When staff can’t easily get to their jobs, they quit when they find something closer to home. We see that happening even in Saskatoon. Why commute downtown when you can find work within walking distance?
There are ways to deal with this.
Mississauga, Ont., just built a massive and ugly affordable housing project that has created such an outcry that the city is looking at how to fix what it has done. One councillor called the project an “industrial prison.”
It’s spacious housing, but no one is ever going to want to call it a home. Like most such large-scale projects, this one won’t age well and will be part of the problem within a couple of decades.
The other approach being taken in some other cities with a dearth of affordable apartments is to start building micro apartments which cost less but are still of good quality. These are 270-to 350-square-foot suites at an affordable price. Having seen videos of a 78-square-foot apartment in Manhattan, the 270-squarefoot ones look like an expansive ranch house and are the size of many bachelor suites in Saskatoon.
While such a micro suite would be cramped to hold a decent Super Bowl party this weekend, it could provide the essentials of life at an affordable price. Half of Saskatchewan’s residents say they spend less on groceries in order to make the rent payment. This changes that.
By going small instead of low quality, micro suites provide affordable housing without competing against other types of housing, and are targeted at single people who often are overlooked.
Such housing allows artists, fledgling entrepreneurs and low-income earners a chance to live and get ahead.
If we don’t have this kind of creative housing, we risk missing out on the next wave – whether that be the arts or the birth of a new industry. Other cities have made this mistake and have paid for it.
Developing the north downtown could be as big for Saskatoon as River Landing. We all know there will be some amazing spaces built there, but let’s also hope there are some amazing and affordable spaces being built as well, even if they are on the small side.
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