We can’t solve affordability while ignoring wellbeing

Demand for great communities is pushing up prices and displacing residents. We must build more great communities.

The Hydrostone Market in North End Halifax. (Photo credit: Tristan Cleveland)

Oct. 22, 2019

By Tristan Cleveland

Rodney Small has seen the stereotypes about his neighbourhood flip within his lifetime. He grew up in a low-income, predominantly Black area of the North End of Halifax, Canada.

“Ten years ago, funny enough, when most students came to university, they said, ‘don’t go there, don’t go there.’ Now, it’s the first place they go to look.”

Students, and anyone looking for housing in Halifax, have good reason to choose the North End. The area has elements of urban form that, research shows, nurture health and happiness. It features a mix of local businesses, bars, and restaurants, all easily accessible on foot. It has parks and excellent access to transit. The homes are low-rise and human-scale, and there are lots of places where it’s easy to bump into friends and make new ones.

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Rodney Small, Acting Director of Common Good Solutions in Halifax’s North End. (Photo credit: Tristan Cleveland)

“We always knew we were prime,” Rodney tells me. But now that everyone else knows it too, housing prices are soaring. In the last two years, rental prices have jumped 9% and vacancy rates are down to 1%. Rodney himself bought a house outside of town, far from the community he loves.

“For many of us, unless we win the lotto, we can’t afford a home in and around our own neighbourhood.”

Our cities have created an impossible dilemma for policymakers who care about human happiness. On one hand, we should celebrate that more and more people recognize that tightly-knit, walkable communities tend to be better for their mental and physical health. However, we have built far too few of these places. So now, as people flood into them, housing prices are spiking, pushing many low-income people out into distant communities.

Displacement is a disaster for happiness. People who live in communities the longest tend to have strong social connections and a greater overall sense of wellbeing. When residents are forced to leave, it can tear this social fabric, putting them in situations where they may be isolated and with less economic support. All this is worse when people are evicted, putting families at greater risk of poverty and depression.

How can we ensure that the growing demand for walkable, complete communities doesn’t displace low-income people?

There are many important strategies for preventing displacement in a place like the North End, such as social housing, land trusts, and eviction protections. But one strategy that needs more critical attention is the clear need for cities to actually build more of those great places. Few are doing so.

Today, most cities seek to add housing by building towers or sprawling outwards, but neither of these options can quench the growing demand for liveable places. We don’t just need more homes. We need more well-designed communities to put those homes in.

Supply strategy #1: building up

The debate between people who oppose towers and those who want them in their low-rise neighbourhoods is extremely divisive. Proponents argue that while towers may change a neighbourhood’s character, it’s worth it, because the new homes can help meet housing demand.

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(Photo credit: Elinayozgonul, Wikimedia Commons)

A win for either side could torpedo wellbeing. Having too few homes excludes low-income people from living in desirable communities. But having too many towers risks undermining the very reason people want to live in these communities in the first place.

Towers darken sidewalks and increase wind speeds. They undermine human scale (meaning structures are no longer designed with human size in mind), making streets feel less comfortable. Tower residents have fewer social connections and are less likely to know their neighbours than people who live near the street. And so with some exceptions, people living in most towers report lower overall wellbeing.

Towers are certainly appropriate in some places, like downtowns, and they might be worth the cost if they can fix the affordability crisis. But economists Andrés Rodríguez-Pose and Michael Storper find that even if desirable neighbourhoods, like Halifax’s North End, were fully saturated with towers, there would still not be sufficient housing to make homes affordable for everyone.

It is possible to build homes and add density without creating wind or making streets dark, by mixing townhouses, secondary suites, and low-rise apartment buildings. These building types also tend to be far less isolating. If we can build more homes without undermining wellbeing, we should certainly do so. But in most cities, there are simply too few walkable communities to make room for new homes there for everyone. If we can’t solve this problem by building up, what else can we do?

Supply strategy #2: sprawling outwards

Houston has built homes faster than most other cities because it places few restrictions on construction on the periphery of the city. As a result, the price of homes is low. But few of Houston’s new neighbourhoods offer the benefits of living in a community like Rodney’s.

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(Source: David Shankbone, Wikimedia Commons)

Residents of low-density, car-dependent neighbourhoods experience high levels of stress while commuting and have few friendships outside of work. Long commutes reduce time spent with family and put marriages at risk. Car-dependent neighbourhoods are also associated with high rates of physical inactivityobesity, and diseases such as stroke and diabetes. Relying on a car for all trips is also expensive and difficult for low-income families, erasing any apparent benefit for affordability.

In any case, for most cities, emulating Houston’s strategy would not address the underlying causes of gentrification and displacement. Building unwalkable communities does nothing to meet the growing demand for walkable communities.

The solution: build more happy, walkable communities

The Brookings Institution finds that people are willing to pay two thirds more for homes in walkable communities on average, than in car-dependent areas. Cities cannot meet this growing demand by building sprawl, or by cramming all new homes in the few existing walkable communities. Brookings estimates that for cities to meet demand, they must expand the number of walkable communities by 62%. Most cities, however, are still choosing to pursue the extreme options, either building towers or more sprawl.

Minneapolis has provided a foundation for a better strategy. The city enables triplexes, small apartment buildings, and commercial retail along major transit lines across the municipality. This provides much more land for development, and enables more neighbourhoods to become convenient, walkable places.

However, allowing retail and higher-density homes does not itself create great communities like North End Halifax. Imagine someone being able to walk along a sunny, safe, leafy street to visit a friend in a cafe or breakfast restaurant. For this to be possible, the street, buildings, and sidewalk must all be designed for human safety and comfort. An attractive main street and effective transit are also critical.

If the demand for this kind of quality of life is growing, we cannot meet it by simply building more homes. We must build the full package: streets, buildings, and parks designed for human comfort, convenience, and social connections.

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Left, Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood achieves very high density with 2-to-3 story row housing. (Photo credit: Gene Arboit) Right, a building in Halifax’s North End, Saint Joseph’s Square, adds considerable housing while maintaining a people-friendly, sunny street. (Photo credit: Tristan Cleveland)

Cities that want to create new great places must do two things. First, they must design new communities with human-friendly streets, buildings, and parks. Second, they must retrofit the suburbs. This second option is the most important, but also the most difficult, as residents of single-family neighbourhoods often passionately oppose local shops or any new kind of density. Long term, however, we have no other choice: we cannot provide sufficient housing that offers what people want if nearly all neighbourhoods outside city centres are immune to change.

Alone in managing change

Rodney Small doesn’t resent people wanting to move into the neighbourhood he grew up in. “One thing about the North End is we’re welcoming, we’ve always been welcoming.”

He’s the acting director of One North End, an organization that seeks to better integrate the neighbourhood’s new arrivals and long-time residents. One of their goals is to ensure the local community has a stake in the area’s growth. The organization works with new businesses, for example, to hire community members.

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(Photo credit: Tristan Cleveland)

If communities have time to absorb change in this way, local residents can benefit from greater access to job opportunities, which can reduce the rate of displacement for low-income families, according to recent studies.

However, almost nothing is being done in Halifax to change other communities so that more of them can help absorb the growing demand for walkable housing. The North End therefore stands isolated in facing change. If this goes on, perhaps one day none of the people who helped make the North End will actually live there.

No one can fault a person for wanting to live in a place that supports their happiness. We should, however, blame cities for failing to build communities that support happiness for all residents. We can only solve the housing crisis if we do more to meet people’s desire for a high quality of life.

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