Stuck in Condoland
In a city where space is at a premium, tiny condos are the new family home. Learning to survive in 700 square feet
Shannon Bury was 27, with a marketing job in the 905 and her own condo in Burlington, when the big city came to fetch her. The company she worked for was acquired by a larger firm, Pareto Marketing, which moved her job to Toronto. She moved along with it and traded up, selling her place in Burlington and buying a 607-square-foot, one-bedroom-plus-den unit in Charlie, a 36-storey tower proposed for Charlotte Street near King and Spadina. She got the unit pre-construction for less than $300,000, which was a steal, because really she’d purchased much more than space: she bought the dream Toronto and its developers have been selling throughout this decade-long boom. She was single in the city, blonde and svelte, with a well-paying career-track job and, soon, a condo on the edge of clubland. Toronto would be at her feet and at her service. It was the spring of 2008.
Then she met a guy. A great guy, Paul LeBrun, a Winnipeg native who’d landed in Toronto with a Bay Street securities job. They met at a mutual friend’s condo in February 2010, at a party to watch the Vancouver Olympics men’s gold medal hockey game. (The running joke among their friends is that Paul still doesn’t know who won; he was too busy wooing Shannon.) Before long they were living together at Yonge and St. Clair, with an eye to moving into her condo later that year, once it was finished. But the construction fell behind schedule, and their life together began to outpace the cranes. They got married in the summer of 2012, and when they moved into Charlie that November, they were already planning their family. “We figured it would take eight months or so to get pregnant,” she says. “Then there’d be nine months of pregnancy, so we’d have time to enjoy condo life before the baby arrived.” She conceived by Christmas.
Jacob, now 10 months old, is busy teaching his parents the true meaning of square footage. To make room for all the baby equipment, Shannon and Paul relegated to storage an armchair, an end table, a coffee table and, most recently, a loveseat. A lone couch remains from their brief childless-couple condo life. “Our time is spent in play dates, and play dates are spent with everyone sitting on the floor anyway,” Shannon says. Jacob’s playtime inevitably spills out into the hallway. The neighbours don’t complain, and neither does Shannon when, for instance, her 20-something party-boy neighbour has friends over for pre-drinks on the balcony before heading out clubbing. “I can’t hold it against him,” she says. “I’d be doing the same thing in his position. I’m jealous, really.”
Everything that happened to Shannon and Paul in the last few years is also happening to the city itself, shaped by forces greater than any of them. Toronto has been swept up in a maelstrom of human and economic migration that has swelled its population in the core. Shannon and Paul bought into the New Toronto brand: the vertical city of luxury living, cultural experience, Momofuku food and trendy boutiques. That’s how the lifestyle is marketed by politicians and developers alike, and it’s incredibly appealing to young adults in all their forms: staid professionals, graduating millennials, hipsters.
Now their lives are changing, in a wave that could turn out to be as big as the one that herded them downtown: they are becoming parents. Downtown Toronto is being reshaped by the latest baby boom. The total number of preschool-age kids is rising fastest where condo towers are going up, and nowhere is the demographic shift happening more intensely than in the crane-addled area south of Queen from University to Dufferin; there, the number of kids under age five has increased since 2006 by a whopping 65 per cent. Toronto is bearing witness to the birth of a new generational phenomenon: the Condo Kid.
And the city is welcoming its Condo Kids, in essence, by putting their cribs in the alcove nursery that condo marketers call a “den.” The real estate tracking firm Urbanation says that, as of last March, there are more than 25,000 condo units under construction in the former City of Toronto, and few of them will have more than two bedrooms. Only 21 of the 50 projects in pre-construction will have three-bedroom units. Even the units with two bedrooms are getting smaller: the average size of a condo in the GTA has dropped precipitously since 2009, from well over 900 square feet to 797 square feet today. Singles in the city are coupling up, having kids and looking for bigger homes, yet developers continue to flood the landscape with ever-tinier units—a situation abetted by a lack of planning and enabled by politicians. A quiet revolution is underway in how Toronto raises kids, one that was perfectly predictable but for which the city has failed to prepare. A whole generation of families are finding themselves stuck in their starter homes.
Baby booms make for good business. Throughout downtown, businesses that once operated on the assumption that they were located in a no-kids zone are now catering to the needs of parents. Many fitness clubs have added mom-and-tot Pilates, aquacise and yoga sessions. At restaurants, the first sitting of the night is often for families, complete with paper placemats and cupfuls of broken crayons. Coffee joints now host regular play dates. The stroller mafia, once confined to neighbourhood avenues like the Danforth and Roncesvalles, is now marking turf along King West and Front Street.
Shannon Bury co-founded her own informal mommies’ group. It started out as just three or four women hosting weekly play dates in each other’s condos, but word spread fast. Now 23 moms, all of whom are first-time maternity-leavers and nine of whom live in Charlie, meet every Wednesday afternoon in the tower’s seventh-floor party room. Normally there would be a fee to book the space, but Shannon convinced the property manager to waive it for them.
For Wendy Kam Marcy and her seven-month-old son, Caden, who live on Charlie’s 29th floor, the mommy group has been a godsend. “All my friends moved to Markham and Etobicoke when they had kids,” she says. “It was a lonely pregnancy for me. I was glad to find a community in my own building.” She is the ur–condo mom, a tech-savvy entrepreneur and networking dynamo. She grew up in the GTA, then lived in Vancouver and New York before returning to settle downtown. She is the vice-president of marketing at WhatRunsWhere, an advertising firm with offices located around the corner on Maud Street, and even though she’s on mat leave she still attends her team’s working lunches every Friday to keep on top of things. She is the co-founder of hipurbangirl.com, a daily lifestyle blog where she continues to post regularly. She is also a co-founder, with her husband, Geoff Marcy, of Adfluent Media, which specializes in affiliate advertising. Both she and Geoff are instructors at CampTech, which offers three-hour seminars on a range of digital media business topics for $70. She does all this between meals, during nap time and in the evenings.
The couple’s unit in Charlie is their third condo. This one is a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,000-square-foot corner suite. Caden sleeps through the screech of turning streetcars and the wail of clubland-bound police sirens. So far he has had a minimal effect on their lifestyle—the ultimate goal of most first-time parents. “We still eat out several times a week, and I am always going to events and taking in attractions with Caden,” Wendy says. The new Ripley’s Aquarium is a favourite destination.
There are two ways to look at the demographic shift toward Condo Kids. Seen through a utopian lens, they are the final developmental stage of a new-urbanist way of life. Condos are a lifestyle choice: a preference for small private spaces and shared public ones; for carless commuting, walkability and public transit; for a life that produces a smaller environmental footprint.
The arrival of Condo Kids is rewriting Toronto’s myth of the Good Life. Toronto’s old tag lines—the City That Works, the City of Neighbourhoods—have specific meaning for parents. They are code for City of Families: clean streets, good schools, low crime, dependable services, early bedtimes, backyards. Torontonians live in apartments until they have kids, then they get a house. In purely practical terms, the chasm between downtowners and suburbanites has always been trifling: whether you own a semi-detached in the Annex or an Etobicoke bungalow, you’ve still got a terra firma freehold with leaves to rake and walkways (and usually driveways) to shovel. For upwardly mobile aspirers in this city, the idea of small-space, yardless, high-rise family living is new.
The skeptical realist lens, however, sees the Condo Kids phenomenon and wonders whether Toronto’s Good Life is being overhauled by choice and changing values or by constraint and necessity. It’s nice to think that all those glass towers are populated by people with a shared vision of how cities should be, but when hundreds of thousands all find themselves making the same lifestyle decisions at the same time, it’s typically because other choices aren’t as available, affordable or convenient.
Condos are the only affordable option when the average detached Toronto home costs $965,670. The reason prices have shot so high is because no one is building new detached or semi-detached homes for the city’s emerging glut of new families. For developers, the payoff of condo construction far outstrips that of detached housing. The lack of supply explains why every empty nester’s house—even a dilapidated gut-job reno that reeks of cat pee—sparks a bidding war when it goes to market. People are still climbing over one another to have that Good Life. Detached and semi-detached homes were purpose-built for kids, or more precisely for adults at the parenthood stage of their lives, and for them the benefits of a lifestyle lived at grade are tangible: lots of private space, including outdoor space, along with quieter streets and less intense traffic. Toronto’s condo boom was not conceptualized around the needs of parents and children, though it was an oversight by city planners and politicians to imagine that so many singles could live in such proximity and not start breeding.
You can still get more space for less money the further you travel from the core, but you’ll pay for it with the time you’ll spend in traffic, a soul-numbing commute that will eat hours out of your week and steal your time from your family. Toronto is choking on its own success. It’s a good thing young parents like high-rise downtown living, because there’s no way out.
The Marcys’ condo feels big, which is due in large part to the window-walls, which make any space feel expansive, but also to the choices they’ve made: white walls and sparse furnishings. When I visited in March, the headquarters of Adfluent Media, then located in their master bedroom, was being downsized to a small desk adjacent to the kitchen so that Caden could take over the biggest room in their home. “It makes sense for the flow of the space, since the master bedroom is adjacent to the kitchen and common area,” Wendy says. “And Caden needs it for his stuff.” It’s not the kind of trade-off that’ll cramp their style: they were already sleeping in the second bedroom, and Geoff is scoping out shared office space for Adfluent, which was always part of the plan.
Another condo couple, Melissa Mahoney and Greg Corcoran, made the same decision with their two-bedroom, third-floor condo in Corktown, handing over the master bedroom to their daughter, Isabelle, now three years old. Like many two-bed, two-bath condos, their second bathroom only has a shower. The kid is the one who uses the tub, so the kid gets the ensuite.
Condo parents are full of small-space tips. Don’t get a Jolly Jumper—many condos lack a suitable door frame, and the downstairs neighbours will complain. If baby doesn’t take to a toy right away, give it to Goodwill. And avoid giant, moulded-plastic contraptions like an ExerSaucer. Every condo family I met uses the Uppababy Vista stroller—a $1,200 unit complete with bassinet—because it easily folds for storage.
“I didn’t realize how little I needed,” says Melissa, a schoolteacher whose daily commute takes her to Whitby. “We survived just fine without many things other families have.” Greg, a communications manager at Scotiabank and a truly liberated condo dad, sums it up succinctly using the latest lifestyle mantra: “We’ve traded stuff for experience.” Imagine the Canadian Tire guy from the commercials, who always seemed uncomfortable in his own garage anyway, finally unshackled from his yardful of junk. “I don’t own a collection of power tools,” Greg says. “I don’t need them. We pay our condo fees and the work gets done for us.” In lieu of solitary Saturday trips to Canadian Tire, Greg spends the time with Melissa and Isabelle at whatever kid-friendly event is happening in the city.
Nearly all the condo couples I spoke to say they love the lifestyle even with kids, but they all admit more space would be better and wonder where to find it. Melissa and Greg are thinking of growing their family, and they’re not sure yet what it means for their living quarters. “Greg and I would stay in a condo if we could find the right one,” Melissa says. “But there are no three-bedroom condos in this city.”
Condo developers generally boost their profits by selling smaller units and more of them. There’s also a tax incentive: provincial and municipal land-transfer tax rates are higher for units valued at more than $400,000, so that price has become a kind of magic number for developers and buyers alike: $399,900 is a de facto maximum price point, discouraging the construction of larger units that would cost more. The dependency on pre-construction sales also skews the market. Developers minimize their risk by selling as many units as they can before they ever put a shovel in the ground—70 to 80 per cent of units must be sold before a lender will provide construction financing. Smaller units sell fast on launch weekend to eager young first-timers. But buyers of larger condos generally prefer to see the unit before they buy it, which means developers must carry the cost and the risk of those unsold units until construction is complete, sometimes years later.
There have been efforts to address the shortage of three-bedroom condos, most notably by former Trinity-Spadina councillor Adam Vaughan, who persuaded developers to build more than 1,500 new three-bedroom units since he took office. But they can still be hard to find, in Trinity-Spadina and elsewhere downtown. Charlie has 267 units and zero three-bedrooms. Likewise, Urban Capital’s River City Phase 2 in the West Don Lands has no three-bedrooms among its 248 units. Great Gulf’s Yonge and Rich development reaches 50 storeys high but has no units larger than two bedrooms plus den. Other developers are doing what their industry is increasingly notorious for: the squeeze. At Bazis’ 1 Yorkville condo tower, you can get three bedrooms and two bathrooms for $582,000—which seems reasonable until you realize it’s all shoehorned into a paltry 797 square feet.
That sardine-tin unit aside, the prices for most three-bedroom condos make a giant leap across the affordability gap. Down at Ten York, another Tridel development, the cheapest three-bedroom unit, in a more reasonably-sized 1,305 square feet, is listed for $935,000, plus monthly property taxes and maintenance fees totalling nearly $1,200 per month. The prices for three-bedroom condos are essentially on par with those for ground-level homes, if not higher. In the search for private space, the real competition for a three-bedroom condo is a classic Toronto neighbourhood semi. It will take a much more substantial increase in the supply of three-bedroom condos to stabilize prices.
Since that’s not about to happen anytime soon, the two-bedroom-plus-den is proffered as the new affordable family home. Architects have designed some clever layouts to separate the den from the living space so that it can serve as a nursery or a toddler’s room. Even so, this represents a sea change in the affordability promise of new housing. It’s one thing when the price of a 1,400-square-foot semi-detached home goes up: the same amount of space costs more. With pre-construction condos, in every new tower that goes up, prices are rising while space is shrinking. You no longer get the same for more; you get less for more. Toronto is presiding over a gradual, deliberate shrinking of its standard of living.
It’s early evening on a sunny summer day. You’ve got 35 minutes to spare before supper and an energetic four-year-old to entertain. What do you do?
This is the scenario Sybil Wa describes for me to illustrate the difference between horizontal and vertical living with kids. It’s a dilemma she knows first-hand from both her work and her life: she is an architect with Diamond and Schmitt who lives in a condo in the Entertainment District with her husband, Adam Parkin, a financial analyst, and three kids, ages four, eight and 12. While downtown living scores high on walkability to things like transit, restaurants, workplaces and dry cleaners, it fails the proximity test for child’s play. “When you live in a traditional home you have a backyard, a front yard, a neighbour’s yard and maybe a park down the street,” she observes. “You have lots of options within less than five minutes.”
Downtown has many capital-D Destinations for families—Toronto Island, Canoe Landing, the ROM—but they all require a significant time commitment just to get there. Meanwhile, in some parts of the condo jungle, there’s nowhere to take kids on the block they live on. “What we need is lots of small, kid-friendly spaces where there’s residential growth,” she says, from condo rooftops to plazas to parkettes. In their absence, kids and parents will create play spaces out of built forms intended for other things. In Wa’s search for a safe place for her kids to play on their scooters, she realized the top level of her building’s parking garage was empty during the day. She now takes her kids up there to ride around while she stands sentry for oncoming cars. Wa calls it “guerilla parenting.” She also lets the kids burn energy in the PATH system and on the fenced-in lawn of Osgoode Hall.
As private living quarters shrink, the use of public amenities, from parks to libraries to community centres, increases and intensifies. The Toronto Public Library has noticed the change: whereas typical visitors used to spend 20 minutes picking out a book to take home, they now settle in with their kids and laptops for stays of an hour or more. The library has been able to adjust by reconfiguring its spaces, expanding children’s areas and installing more desks with nearby electrical outlets for recharging. But parks are a different story: there’s not enough of them, and the city lacks both money and space to build new ones. Parks that do exist are under intense population pressure. Berczy Park, just west of the Gooderham Building on Front Street, was intended as a place for nearby workers to get some sun over lunch hour. It’s now surrounded by condo towers with more than 4,000 units.
It kind of defeats the purpose of stepping out for some fresh air if you merely end up fighting for elbow room outside. Liberty Village Park, that neighbourhood’s tiny central green space, is also surrounded by thousands of condo dwellers, many of them dog owners who flood the park after work. “This past winter was the worst,” says Gregor Davidson, who lives in a Liberty condo with his wife, Adriana Girardi, and their two-year-old son, Max. “There were land mines”—dog droppings—“everywhere, hidden by the snowfalls.” The problem was raised with the local city councillor, Mike Layton, to no discernible improvement. Davidson and Girardi are committed condo-lovers, but they are now planning a move to a new condo or townhouse just north of Liberty Village, in a quieter neighbourhood.
Park spaces aren’t the only ones in short supply. The lack of daycare spaces is a chronic problem everywhere in Toronto, but the steep cost of downtown real estate contributes to exorbitant daycare costs while also acting as a barrier to the creation of new spaces. At the Downtown Kids Academy, situated among the new condos of King West, the number of kids on the year-long wait-list grew in the past year by 30 per cent. Rather than spend $1,800 per month to put Isabelle in a local daycare, Melissa and Greg opted for a daycare near her job in Whitby—where childcare costs a thrillingly affordable $1,000 per month.
Daycares are merely the canary in the coal mine for the next stage of kids’ lives: schools. Ogden Junior Public School, near Queen and Spadina, was threatened with closure 10 years ago. Today, it’s nearly full, and enrolment is growing so fast that it will surpass 140 per cent within the next four years. Last October, the Toronto District School Board gerrymandered its catchment areas to redirect Ogden’s overflow—essentially all the kids at CityPlace—to Ryerson Community School. That will have to suffice until the TDSB builds a new school on the railway lands, south of the tracks at Bathurst. That school is expected to be fully subscribed from the day it opens in September 2018, as is the Catholic school slated to be built next door.
As the Condo Kids get older, there will be another wave of infrastructure needs: soccer pitches, basketball courts, ice rinks and swimming pools. It’s unclear how many facilities the city will require, how they will get built, or who’ll operate them. Garrison Point, a new Diamondcorp development just east of Liberty Village, includes a spacious new park linked by footbridge to Fort York. The developer has offered to build an outdoor pool on part of the site, but city hall is leery of committing the annual funds needed to operate it.
Toronto can no longer afford to put off such decisions. The city has reached a moment when no conversation about urban development should proceed without putting the needs of children and parents at the forefront.
Natasha Persaud and Jeremy Swampillai are at a crossroads. Until now, their lives, individually and together, fit a common generational pattern. She’s 40 and of West Indian descent, born in Montreal and raised in Cambridge; he was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Welland; they both found success and love in the heart of the city. She is a genetic technologist at SickKids; he is 44 and an IT consultant. They got married in 2004 and bought a two-bed, two-bath, 1,000-square foot condo at The Element, a Tridel development just outside CityPlace at Front and Blue Jays Way. They bought it pre-construction, along with parking, for $350,000 and took possession in 2007. It’s a great building full of local celebrities, notably professional athletes. “I tried to get Joffrey Lupul to play on my rep team one night,” says Jeremy. “He politely declined.” He and Natasha love to entertain, and one of the highlights of their social calendar is their Christmas appetizer party, where friends bring both food and drink, and talk into the night.
Last September, they joined the Condo Kid phenomenon, welcoming their son, Xavier, into their world. Xavier was the star of their Christmas party last year at barely eight weeks. He went to Momofuku Noodle Bar for dinner at 10 p.m. and was an angel. He went to the Trump for drinks and hated it. He enjoyed Crocodile Rock on Adelaide, though he got a few strange looks. Some parents could not stomach taking their infants on any of these outings. Natasha surprised even herself. “Jeremy wanted kids more,” she says. “I thought I was going to be a nervous mom.”
Natasha and Jeremy know they’re headed for a reckoning once Xavier learns to walk. “Our place is very adult-centric right now,” Jeremy says. “There’s lots of technology in our home, wires everywhere. We’ve got two laptops floating around. We’ve got a full bar. There’s a lot we need to address.” The plan is to address it with a new home. They just don’t agree on what that home should be. Jeremy thinks a ground-level house outside downtown would be best, and he’s open to going well outside city limits.
Natasha is more conflicted about it. Her first reaction reflects the Old Toronto ideal. “I think a home with a yard would be best. A neighbourhood with kids across the street, playing in the park.” Then, gently, almost without realizing it, she dismantles that ideal piece by piece. “Jeremy’s work takes him to different places downtown on different days,” she says. “He doesn’t have a regular commute. I’ve been at SickKids for 14 years, and I like working there. It’s a 20-minute walk from here. I am not interested in commuting on the GO train and transferring to the TTC.” Distance commuting, whether by car or by rail, makes people feel like cattle. Walking to work is a tonic.
Then she talks about the other moms she’s met. Natasha’s first four months of maternity leave coincided with a brutal winter that kept her cloistered inside. Now she’s got a full schedule of classes and drop-ins and play dates, which have broadened her social circle. She made two new friends at swim class and another at fitness class, who’ve in turn introduced her to others. “A lot of the girls live in CityPlace, which is just around the corner,” she says. The moms there have banded together to turn a coffee shop’s patio into an unofficial playground. “There’s lots of moms my age.” Natasha clearly believes she’s found her peer group of moms, not merely in terms of age but in terms of lifestyle. The next words out of her mouth are: “If we move to the suburbs, it won’t be the same.”
Natasha has hit upon a crucial truth, which is that human friendships can enrich any landscape and even transform it. Her peers are downtown, they’re likely staying, and it hardly matters whether they’re staying because they love condo living or because they can’t find an affordable home with a yard—they’ve begun to form a community. The condo towers weren’t built with families in mind, but they’re being repurposed on the fly by sheer force of numbers, the new rules of happiness being made up as they grow.