Census versus reality

Census versus reality

Riddle me this, Poindexter: in my neighbourhood housing prices are through the roof, you can’t walk the Danforth without dodging a stroller every ten paces, and it’s impossible to get daycare for kids. So how can it be that, according to the census, my federal riding, Toronto-Danforth, has one of the fastest-declining populations in the country?

Being a numbers egghead myself, this discord has been rattling around inside my head for the past 48 hours. To look at the rankings, Toronto-Danforth is hollowing out faster than dying forest-industry towns in ridings like Madawaska-Restigouche and Cariboo-Prince George. (Download Statscan’s map to see the decline in colour-coded detail.) If that’s true, there shouldn’t be so many Second Cups and Starbuckses in such close proximity, and parking should be plentiful, and I should have been able to buy a house for dirt cheap. Odder still: even though the population’s been shrinking, there are 2,000 more housing units in the riding than there were five years ago. On paper, it looks like a housing glut. In practice, real estate values have never been higher, and bidding wars are the norm. I got sucked into one and overpaid for a real fixer-upper.

What gives? My first guess was that the neighbourhood had already reached the apex of its regeneration, and was heading back down the other side so fast no one except the census-takers had noticed it yet. (This reaction was fueled by first-time homeowner’s panic). Thankfully, U of T planning professor Larry Bourne calmed me down with a much more rational explanation. “When a neighbourhood gentrifies, its population goes down,” he explained. He admitted that it seems counter-intuitive, given all the real estate activity that gentrification brings. Ultimately, though, the relatively benign trend towards smaller households is largely behind the decline.

“Think of it in terms of households,” he said. “A generation ago, an area with 1,000 housing units would have housed, say, 3,000 people. Today the same 1,000 units total only 2,000 people.” And when gentrification occurs housing is, in essence, passed on or sold from one generation to the next: people who have recently become empty-nesters, and perhaps lost a spouse, sell their homes to first-timers like me. And rooming houses for 10 people get renovated for a family of 2.1 people. Heck, the trend can be reduced to my house and the two on either side of it. Five years ago, these three units housed twelve people. Today they house half as many: our family of three, the single urban professional to the west, and the gay couple to the east.

Adds Bourne, “You have to build an awful lot of new housing units in order to make up for the population decline” —especially when you’re building condo units suitable only for one person and their cat. “The North American trend is towards declining populations in downtowns and their older suburbs. So I think it’s a success story that Toronto as a whole hasn’t shrunk. It grew modestly, but it grew.”