In Canada, it’s time to challenge the myths about millennials and housing

Homes for sale in Alberta, 2009. Image: Getty.

Conventional wisdom suggests millennials have been squeezed out of the housing market in cities like Toronto and Vancouver.

They can’t afford the single-detached homes that make up big chunks of older neighbourhoods in those cities. They don’t want to raise children in tiny two-bedroom apartments or condos in high-rise buildings in the downtown core. They are either “stuck” in high-rise condos, or have to endure the long, congested commute from surrounding suburban municipalities to afford a single-detached home.

It’s time to challenge some assumptions.

There is indeed a large area of older, predominantly single-detached homes surrounding the City of Toronto. These areas offer a prime opportunity to transform them into higher-density, transit-accessible, yet still ground-oriented, housing for millennials as they move out of apartments or their parents’ homes and seek housing in coming years.

The forever young city

Currently, more millennials are living in smaller apartments in the downtown areas of major metropolitan cities than was the case for previous generations of young adults.

Many eventually move out of the higher-density areas as they get married and have children, and new young adults move in.

I have called this process the youthification of higher-density neighbourhoods, which seemingly stay “forever young.”

Moving away

Some will stay due to growing preferences for downtown living, but as millennials are getting older, more of them are beginning to move away from areas dominated by high-rise condos and apartments.

This is causing a dilemma for the future sustainability of our communities. There is a large body of evidence that points to the need to increase the density of our residential areas: higher-density housing has been shown necessary to reduce the urban sprawl that’s associated with economically inefficient infrastructure development, traffic congestion and a host of environmental ills.

But higher-density housing, in the way it’s been built in most North American cities, is also often deemed too small for households larger than three or more people. This is because most new, higher-density housing is being built in the form of one or two-bedroom apartment units in high-rise buildings.

As such, high-density living is often considered only suitable for millennials without children, or their aging parents – the downsising baby boomers — and not for households with kids.

There are several problems with this argument.

How much space do we need to live?

First, how much housing space we need is subjective. There are a growing number of people who are living comfortably in smaller homes.

Second, the notion that apartment living is not suitable for raising children reveals a cultural bias seemingly ignorant of the large number of people globally who live and raise families in apartments, and increasingly in our own cities as well.

But most importantly, millennials are offered a false choice in the debate on housing — puny condo/apartment in a high-rise building, or a detached “family” home far outside the city and requiring a long commute.

What’s overlooked is that housing near urban amenities and places of employment can still be sufficient to accommodate larger households, including those with children, if built in the form of attached, ground-oriented housing. The choice does not need to be between single-detached homes in far-flung suburban municipalities and small, high-rise condos in the downtown.

‘Missing middle’

There is growing awareness of what is now often called the “missing middle”: that is, a lack of ground-oriented yet attached housing in existing built-up areas. A number of observers have pointed to the large swaths of housing in greater Toronto, largely consisting of single-detached homes, as a prime area for building more of this “missing middle”.

Some have even called the area surrounding the old City of Toronto the “yellow belt” due to its zoning designation primarily for detached housing that planners generally colour in yellow on their maps.

Although the context differs, similar opportunities exist in other Canadian and U.S. metropolitan areas as well.

The challenge in practice is that these homes will have to be built in existing neighbourhoods, not on what’s known as greenfield sites – previously undeveloped land, generally located in faraway suburbs. New developments on greenfield sites are difficult to serve by transit because they are far from existing infrastructure. They are also encroaching on valuable environmentally significant lands.

Yet even most of our existing neighbourhoods are still too low-density to be adequately and efficiently served by public transit. More people will have to take transit if we are serious about reducing congestion that is increasingly impacting our quality of life, as well as to meet climate change reduction goals. This means we need to densify existing areas.

There will be a backlash. In fact, there are already examples of strong opposition to what’s known as infill development – building more housing in existing built-up areas.

Tough decisions

But the future sustainability of our cities will depend on whether we’re willing to make the tough decisions required to open up existing neighbourhoods dominated by single-detached homes to infill development.

Some have recently claimed that millennials are “stuck in condos”. This argument seems flawed.

There will be low-density housing stock available to millennials due to a combination of continuing development of single-detached housing on greenfield sites and the freeing up of homes as people who currently own homes eventually die.

Those who make claims about millennials desiring single-detached dwellings are also forgetting that for many, this is seemingly their only alternative to high-rise apartment living.

While some may be able to afford housing à la carte, most of us are stuck eating what’s offered on the menu. Sadly, the Canadian housing menu does not yet offer much choice. If in the market to buy, we’re generally choosing between small, high-rise apartments or affordable houses with long commutes.

Many millennials have grown up in large metropolitan areas, spent much of their time in amenity-rich neighbourhoods, going to school with access to transit passes, and experiencing the convenience and health benefits of walkable and transit-oriented neighbourhoods during their young adult years.

This lifestyle can and should be accommodated in the suburbs of the future, not least for sustainability reasons. Millennials will live in the suburbs, closer to transit, in higher-density housing – if we build this new kind of suburb with and for them.

Markus Moos, Associate professor, University of Waterloo.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


How the rise of anti-crime politics caused lasting harm to Black Americans

"I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become," James Forman Jr. says. (David McNew/Getty Images)

The police killing of George Floyd, and the protest movement that emerged from it, has reinvigorated a national conversation around reinventing criminal justice policy in the United States.

At the same time, reports that violent crime is rising in many US cities have resurrected talk of the much-disputed “Ferguson effect,” a theory put forward by law enforcement professionals, and some researchers, who argued that police slowdowns in the wake of the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests resulted in elevated rates of violent crime. President Donald Trump is trying to weaponise this narrative, paired with images of federal officers clashing with protesters in the streets of Portland, to wage a 1968-style backlash election campaign.

“People who want to mobilise a lock-them-up style of either policing or prosecution have tried to weaponise those short-term increases,” says James Forman Jr., professor of law at Yale Law School. “Criminologists will say you have to be very, very cautious about short-term movement [in crime statistics]. We don't know whether or not what we're seeing right now [with violent crime increasing] is going to sustain itself. But the fact is, it's here and people are talking about it.”

In 2018, Forman won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for his book Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. Drawing on his experience as a public defender in Washington, DC, he traced the emergence of anti-crime politics in late 20th century Black communities. Forman showed how newly empowered Black politicians fought for policies they believed would protect and uplift Black Americans, but inadvertently contributed to mass incarceration. 

CityMetric recently caught up with Forman to discuss crime trends, where he sees reason for hope in this moment and how the Black political class’s attitude toward crime and punishment has shifted since the latter part of the 20th century. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

There is talk right now about a resurgence of crime and violence in American cities. We saw similar, more localised concerns after the initial 2015 Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Do you fear this could reinvigorate the kind of politics you describe in your book among segments of the Black community and political class?

I fear that it could be reinvigorated nationally and also in the Black political class. Look at the political conversations that are happening in Atlanta right now, for example, a city that also has seen a short-term uptick in crime as it is a site of a lot of protests about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor on the national level, as well as Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery more locally in Georgia.

I think that you can already see in some of the language of the local elected officials this idea that we have to be very careful about pulling back. [They are saying] “while the protesters may make some valid points, we can't risk returning to the ‘80s and ‘90s.” Those decades really traumatised the United States, and particularly traumatised Black communities. There's a deep fear about returning to the levels of the violence that we saw in the crack years.

You write a lot about class divides among Black Americans, where middle income and elite Black people don't suffer as much from extremely punitive policies. They also have closer ties to the politicians who are creating these policies. There are very specific groups of people, even in marginalised communities, whose voices are heard.  As a result of these dynamics, you write about Black politicians fighting for things like mandatory minimum prison sentences or against decriminalising marijuana. Is there still that disconnect between those who suffer the most from criminal justice policies and those who are actually heard in political discourse?  

Let me just say a caveat, that when we talk about class divisions in the Black community it's important to hold two truths in our head at the same time. Bruce Western and others have shown the way in which class, educational status, income can dramatically reduce the likelihood of being hardest hit by the criminal system – namely incarcerated. Middle class and upper middle class Black people get some measure of protection. It's also true at the same time that Black people of all classes are worse off relative to their class counterparts in the white community. 

One area where class is least protective is policing and police stops. The police do not know how many degrees you have. They don't know how much money you have in your bank account. I want to be very clear that in making this point about class, I'm not making the argument that race or racism don't matter in this context. 

In terms of how it plays out now, I see an awareness that has developed in the Black community in the last 10 years or so about how deeply racist the criminal justice system has become. Twenty or 30 years ago they had a consciousness, but there's levels of understanding. Many of the people I write about in the book wanted to promote the interests of the Black community. They weren't motivated by indifference or callousness. When presented with mounting evidence of how awful this system has been in Black lives, they're reconsidering and recalibrating. 

Lots of former elected officials have said to me some version of “I didn't know at the time and I appreciate that you showed us in our full complexity. I appreciate that you showed the pressures we were under. If I had known then what I know now, maybe I would have been less quick to go along with some of these harsh measures.” 

The second thing that has affected the Black political class has been the emerging movements, led by Black people in particular and led by young people. They not only educated leaders, but pressured them and made them understand that there is a political cost. If you're not moved by the moral argument, then you'll be moved by the political argument. You'll be moved by the people protesting outside the office of District Attorney Jackie Lacey in Los Angeles, for example, where Black Lives Matter LA has held, I believe, a year of consecutive protests against a Black district attorney who has had really some of the worst practices.

From what I can tell, she's been pressured by the movement to change some of her positions on important issues like prosecution of low-level drug offenders, for example, and the aggressiveness with which she prosecutes police officers for acts of violence.

What do you make of the calls to defend or even abolish the police?

What I find so compelling about abolition, initially in the prison context and extended to the police as well, is that it shifts the conversation and forces us to go through experiments in which we imagine what it would take to build that world. I think that exercise is very important, because it pushes us further than we are naturally inclined to go. Cultivating a broader imagination is an incredibly important part of this work, because as you know from my book, often it was lack of imagination that caused people to fall back on [punitive policies]. 

That's what caused D.C. Councilmember David Clarke to call the police rather than public health experts when he was overwhelmed with letters about heroin addicts in public space. He was anti-drug war, but he couldn't imagine responding to a call for help with heroin addicts with anything other than police. That's a very common move from even really good and progressive people. 

People who are for defunding, for abolition, are absolutely right about reinvesting that money into alternative structures that support communities. But the reinvestment part doesn't follow naturally from the terms. We might want to come up with a term that captures the new stuff we want to do. I think that's particularly important because one of the reasons Black communities have ended up supporting more police is that Black communities have always wanted their fair share of the resources.

Then, the evidence suggests the United States has too many police officers doing prophylactic, preventative, or stop-and-frisk style policing. The style of policing that leads to district level harassment, pulling people over for no reason. But we have too little investment in the parts of police departments that investigate unsolved crimes. I'm talking about the investigator or the detective who comes to your house after there's been a robbery, an assault, a rape, or homicide. 

As compared to European countries, in the United States we actually underinvest in those parts of our police departments. Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside shows this in dramatic detail. She describes an LAPD that's stopping and frisking Black drivers wantonly and yet the homicide detectives are still relying on a fax machine and the fax machine is broken. They have to go with their own money to Staples to buy a printer. Meanwhile, other aspects of the department are kitted out in this ridiculous riot gear that makes them look like they're in Fallujah. 

That under investment is particularly damaging to Black communities because we're disproportionately victimised by crime. Because of racism and this allocation of resources, the police are less likely to respond in Black communities. The kids I used to work with in the charter schools in DC, we talk about no snitching, but one of the reasons they would never call the police after they'd been victimised by crime is they would say, “They're not even going to come. You're wasting time.” 

I did a Q&A with Jill Leovy too and her argument is one I've struggled to articulate in our present moment. She argues the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence in low-income Black neighbourhoods, because investigations of violence are deemphasised and crime victims or their loved ones often take retribution into their own hands.  But right now, establishing or preserving the state's monopoly on violence isn't an appealing talking point. 

Yes, this is another thing nobody's talking about. Whatever we're going to do instead of the police has to be accountable to the public. The best, most direct way to have accountability is to have the individuals be public employees. As long as we have 300 million guns in this country at least some of those state employees are going to themselves be armed. It's unreasonable to ask them to do the job without it. Not as many need to be armed as are armed now, but some of them need to be. But they can't be hiding behind union contracts or civil service protections which make it impossible to remove even the worst performing, most abusive officers. 

We can not call them police if we want to. That's semantic, but maybe symbolism matters. But those people have to be state employees. They can work with community-based nonprofits, but there are also communities that don't have as robust of a nonprofit network, and they deserve protection too. These [community] groups have to be accountable to the state and, when they don't exist, the state has to be there. 

Progressives get all the points I just made when it's applied to education. The notion that things be public and accountable to the state is understood when it comes to schools. It's exactly why so many people on the left are opposed to charter schools, because they say they don't have public accountability. They want these things to be a state function. But this point about the difficulty in removing this entirely from the hands of the state is, I think, one that liberals and progressives understand from other contexts.

Jake Blumgart is a staff writer at CityMetric.