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Building a better apartment: How Canadian rental living compares

The Hammarby Sjöstad development in Stockholm, Sweden. It features apartments, condos, shops, transit, a school and green space. ERA Architects

Rental housing doesn’t have to be boring.

Or ugly, or remote, or lacking in amenities.

At least that’s the conclusion reached by two Canadian architects who have recently travelled the world, looking at how rental and social housing is built in other countries.

It’s an issue that matters to many Canadians who live in the country’s biggest cities. As homes become less affordable, many people are living in rentals: about half of Toronto’s and Vancouver’s households rent. And many of those households rent apartments in isolated, aging concrete towers or low-rises built between the 1960s and 1980s.

As the rental market tightens, some cities and developers are looking at building more apartments.

Here are some experts’ ideas on what new rental developments should look like.

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Mixed population

“A good population is a mixed one,” said Avi Friedman, director of the Affordable Homes Research Group at McGill’s School of Architecture. “The lesson that I learned is not to congregate the same type of people in the same location.”

This means that you want a mix of incomes, ages, family types, and of recent immigrants and longtime citizens. Cramming a lot of similar people into a tall tower leads to problems down the road. “There are some locations that are known to have a hotbed of social challenges. And the reason is that they were wrongly built,” said Friedman.

“What has sort of happened is the 60s apartment housing, the first wave, it was all developed or most of it, was built for the same demographic,” said Graeme Stewart of ERA Architects, who is involved in Toronto’s Tower Renewal neighbourhood improvement project.

“When you look at advertisements for apartments from the 60s, it’s like condo ads today. It’s people driving convertibles and drinking martinis and stuff.”

An ad for an apartment from the May 1974 edition of Toronto Life magazine. Toronto Life, May 1974
A newspaper ad for apartments in Toronto's St. James Town from the October 19, 1972 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star, October 19, 1972
An ad for a Toronto condo development from the March 7, 2015 edition of the Toronto Star. Toronto Star, March 7, 2015

The sexy singles and couples moved out when they had kids, and these small apartments have since become the default affordable rental housing in Toronto, he said. “So they have now shifted and become family housing.” And what you find, he said, is two- and three-bedroom apartments with two families and up to 12 people living in them.

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Obviously this isn’t ideal for anyone.

Mixed use

Not only do you need a mix of people, you need a mix of land uses in the neighbourhood or within the development itself, say the architects.

“You need to provide outdoor spaces for kids to play, parents to engage, and there needs to be within the vicinity, a daycare. There needs to be good food stores,” said Friedman. There also needs to be a gym or other location for physical activity and a community centre for children’s activities, he said.

“We don’t have them and unfortunately it is those other services and amenities that are so needed by those on very low budgets. Those who need to have their kids placed in daycare when they go to work. Those seniors who need to meet other seniors and get together to exchange words and bring that magic social network that old people, lonely old people really need,” he said.

A seniors’ residence in Malmo, Sweden. The development includes seniors from various income levels and is situated in a mixed neighbourhood. The glass dome is a sitting area for seniors in winter. Avi Friedman
“If a parent [has] a place to put the child, the parents will have an easier time looking or applying for work.” Similarly, if apartments are close to public transit, then people won’t need to spend their limited paycheques on a car.
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These things aren’t just for rich people either — many such developments in northern Europe include social housing and subsidized rents.

“The term I like to use is it’s a ‘flat’,” said Stewart. “Think of a flat in London or Berlin or Copenhagen or wherever — it’s a place where you can imagine spending your whole life. There’s room to grow, there’s outdoor space, there’s a sense of longevity and it’s not just a commodity that’s you’re going to flip in three years.”

Family-friendly

Aside from access to daycares, schools and the outdoors, the units themselves need some improvements to make them more conducive to family life.

The 500-square foot open-concept condo isn’t the answer here, Stewart said. Family-friendly apartments don’t have to be huge, he said, but they have to be more cleverly laid out. Having windows on more than just one side of the unit is a start. So is dividing up the space so that there is a separate place for work, for kids’ toys, and for laundry, rather than having these things all jumbled up in the same room.

A lot of the examples he’s seen in northern Europe tend to be low rises with a generous terrace and a design that can evolve with the family: from a swinging single, to a couple, to children, to retirement.

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The GWL-Terrein development in Amsterdam. It includes both rental and ownership housing, with an emphasis on larger units for families and lots of green space. ERA Architects Inc.
An outdoor patio area in the GWL-Terrein development in Amsterdam. The development is largely car-free. ERA Architects Inc.
A housing complex in Copenhagen, Denmark, which includes a playground, terraces and bicycle parking. ERA Architects Inc.
An apartment building in the new Orestad development in Copenhagen, Denmark. This development includes social housing as well as private rental and ownership. File/Avi Friedman
A public plaza in Vällingby, Sweden, a planned suburb of Stockholm. There is both commercial and residential development in the area. ERA Architects Inc.

“I think it’s about an attitude. About what amenities are offered. Maybe instead of the rooftop hot tub, it’s something else,” he said.

Culture change

“We are now in the midst of a very, very interesting transformation in Canadian real estate,” said Friedman.

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“We are becoming Europe.”

“Each city and each region of the world has sort of its own expectations,” said Stewart. “And definitely we’re of a culture that wants to own the house with the backyard. And that’s been a big part of what success is determined to be and sort of shaped how the housing market has gone.”

This is why condos and apartments are targeted at young people and retirees. “And so we’re totally missing this huge gap, which is about the time you have a newborn to the time you move out of a house.”

The assumption that you would raise your kids in a house with a yard worked when single-family homes were affordable, but now, families with children may have to consider alternatives if they need to stay in the city for work.

“I think there really is an opportunity for people and developers to be innovative and offer something that would be useful,” said Stewart.

“I have to say that in this regard we are in the dark ages,” said Friedman. “The reason is that what we have done, unfortunately, is left housing to the private sector.” In places with successful rental and affordable urban housing developments, he said, the government has been more hands-on.

He sees this as an investment: if cities can attract smart, young people and immigrants, then those people contribute to innovation and the city’s overall prosperity, he said.

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But this might require a shift in culture: where a house with a yard isn’t seen as the only place to raise a family.

“The way you move culture is you provide good examples,” said Stewart. “There are enough people in the city who would be more than willing to entertain living in some sort of multiple housing with their family.”

“There is a demand there, and if you provide for that demand and then other people see, ‘Hey that makes sense, I could live there,’ then a generation goes by and you’ve got a whole different thing happening.”

With files from Jamie Bradburn