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Five outside-the-box housing ideas that Toronto should try, according to report

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Toronto needs to think outside the box — or the condo tower — when it comes to solving its housing challenges. Put another way: “It’s time to hack the condo model,” says the executive director of the Ryerson City Building Institute.

Its latest report surveys ideas that are creating more middle- and lower-income housing in other cities and at home — notions, Cherise Burda says, that bear further exploration.

Options for Homes, a social enterprise that helps home buyers with down payments, and a new modular design being considered in Hamilton, are among the ideas Toronto needs, according to a report from the Ryerson City Building Institute.
Options for Homes, a social enterprise that helps home buyers with down payments, and a new modular design being considered in Hamilton, are among the ideas Toronto needs, according to a report from the Ryerson City Building Institute.  (Gillian Foster photo)

“I’m tired of the same old conversations about supply, supply, supply,” she said. “It’s time to start thinking creatively. If you just keep doing things the same way, you’re just going to end up with the same housing.”

Architect and developer Heather Tremain agrees the housing industry needs to step up its game. She is CEO of Options for Homes, a social enterprise that builds what it calls “below-market ownership housing.”

“For us, one of the challenges is we work in a market context. Everything is more expensive — exponential increases of land values. Last year construction prices rose 12 per cent. All of those things make it really hard to deliver something affordable in this market,” she said.

It’s the reality in the gentrifying city.

“To some extent we are becoming more of a luxury market,” said Tremain.

Changes in the way people are living and creating families provides an opportunity for the real estate market, she said.

Here are five ideas that could help Toronto confront its housing affordability challenge, according to the City Building Institute’s “Rethinking the Tower” report.

Naked House affordable housing offers the finished shell of a house or apartment and furnish it at your own pace and price.
Naked House affordable housing offers the finished shell of a house or apartment and furnish it at your own pace and price.  (nakedhouse.org)

The Naked House

Most Toronto-area pre-construction homes are sold with a base package of fittings, fixtures and finishes with the opportunity to pay extra to upgrade features from flooring to countertops. But what if you could just buy the finished shell of a house or apartment and furnish it at your own pace and price?

A British-based not-for-profit, Naked House is supported by grants, investments and access to public land. It keeps building costs down by providing buyers with a nearly bare box at about 20 to 40 per cent less than standard market price. Purchasers get a livable home built to code with basic plumbing and energy-efficient electrics.

There are income qualifications, and purchasers have to live in the part of London where the housing is being developed. They must also demonstrate they have the know-how or money to finish their unit.

The Naked House website promises that the lowest-priced homes are affordable to those earning the London median income of about $59,000 (Canadian) and should never cost more than a third of the buyer’s gross household income.

It calls its target market “generation rent” — those with too much income to qualify for publicly assisted housing but not enough to buy a home at the going market price.

Mod cons’ calls for 250-square-foot lots to be sold, allowing buyers to purchase one or more to create units of up to about 1,000 square feet.
Mod cons’ calls for 250-square-foot lots to be sold, allowing buyers to purchase one or more to create units of up to about 1,000 square feet.  (superlofts.co)

The new ‘mod con’

Although it resists being labelled as “modular” construction, developer JvN/d’s design for a Hamilton apartment building calls for it to be sold in 250-square-foot lots, allowing buyers to purchase one or more to create units of up to about 1,000 square feet.

“The main word is flexibility,” said director John van Nostrand.

The concept — still in the planning approval stage — means the lots can be purchased individually or in multiples to create units. The lots can be individually titled under a mortgage so they can be purchased and sold separately, giving the owners the option of using the space differently at different stages of their life, including subletting parts of their units.

Van Nostrand calls it a vertical subdivision and says it’s similar to the way office space is sold and leased — with a recognition that uses and needs change.

It gives young adults the option of staying in the city when they might otherwise have children and look for a house somewhere else. It also provides an ownership opportunity for people with incomes in the $60,000-to-$80,000 range, less than you need to buy a typical condo in Hamilton.

All the units would be fitted up to building code standards but buyers would have the option of purchasing a unit finished or unfinished.

There are variations in other parts of the world. Pocket Living in London is using factory-made housing modules that are assembled on the building site for homes that sell for 20 to 40 per cent below market price.

Amsterdam’s Superlofts by Marc Koehler Architects is fitting a building shell with modular units that can be designed to the taste and budget of the occupants.

The line on assembly

Factory construction where some elements are built off-site can reduce construction cost by 25 per cent and reduce timelines by as much as 50 per cent, said Burda. That was the case with a Scarborough seniors home where 413 exterior wall panels were built by PCL Construction in Etobicoke.

“With windows pre-installed, the prefabricated wall panels reduced the number of building trades required on the construction site and increased worker safety overall,” said the City Building Institute report.

Prefab components also make it easier to work on smaller, harder-to-access building sites, Burda said.

“It’s like Lego. Some of these companies can build a floor a day because they build them off-site in a controlled environment. They’re energy-efficient modules. Then they transport them and they assemble them on site,” she said.

Family condos can also be brought down in size if the amenities in the building are the ones families need.
Family condos can also be brought down in size if the amenities in the building are the ones families need.  (Facebook)

Scaling down

The micro-condo has arrived in Toronto. But in many cases those small units come with a cost per square foot that veers toward luxury living because of the amenities. Burda suggests that family condos can also be brought down in size if the amenities in the building are the ones families need.

She likens it to the way families want to live in a single-family house.

“It’s a yard, a garage for your stuff and a play area for kids. That’s really becoming the thing for good co-living to build a big playroom for the kids that everybody can share and keep their toys in; outdoor spaces, and a lot of places provide a workshop, the alternative to a garage where adults can build stuff and fix your bike,” Burda said.

The report profiles a purpose-built rental in Vancouver that includes a DIY workshop, individual garden plots and a dog-wash, but with relatively small individual units.

At the Ollie at Carmel Place in New York, affordable units for low- and middle-income residents are integrated with micro-units at market rents. There was no city money in the project but the builder saved through modular construction, some relaxed unit size standards and sped-up timelines.

Options and shared equity

Options for Homes has already built 2,750 homes in 11 buildings throughout Toronto, including the first residential units in the Distillery District. It’s been around for 25 years and it’s the kind of program Toronto needs to expand, Burda says.

The social enterprise works with its not-for-profit Home Ownership Alternatives financial agency to provide loans that banks recognize as equity. Buyers don’t have to pay interest or repay the second mortgage until they sell their unit. The homes offer base finishes — carpets and ceramic tile — and appliances aren’t included, although they can be purchased as part of a group buy. Some buildings have basic amenities such as workshops and children’s playrooms.

Options’ latest project includes a building that is 60 per cent two- and three-bedroom units suitable for families, Tremain said.

“You would never have seen that even a couple of years ago,” she said.

Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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