September 04, 2019

What does the future of affordable housing look like?

Innovative Housing Solutions

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I have been in love with the homes along Wellington Crescent for as long as I can remember. I would demand that my parents drive past the large character mansions—especially at Christmas when the lights illuminated the neighbourhood.

These homes inspired the houses I designed in Sim City or built with my extensive Lego collection. However, as I grew up, these homes diminished in desirability and functionality for me. I realized I didn’t need a yard or a three-door garage to be happy. Now, I prefer living downtown because I’d rather bike or walk to places. I live in an apartment right now, but hopefully one day in a condo in the Exchange.

Yet, regardless of whether my preferred housing was a million-dollar home or a chic loft condo, the real issue I faced (and continue to), like many people my age, is the ability to afford a home. In other words, to own real estate instead of renting it.

According to Eric Alini for Global, “In 1980 the average price of a house in Canada was five times the average income. Today, it’s around 10 times.” It also doesn’t help that for renters “the minimum wage it takes to afford a two-bedroom unit has risen from just over $17 per hour in the 1990s to $20 an hour after adjusting for inflation—and that’s excluding the private, and much pricier, condominium rental market.”

Furthermore, Canada’s population is expected to grow by seven million people by 2050, and one can see how an increase like this without appropriate housing can cause chaos in our cities and towns. To build Smart Resilient Communities that can address an influx of people has to start with proper housing options that meet the needs of a diverse group of individuals.

My colleagues Joshua Heron and Malvin Soh have commented on the housing shortage and housing affordability crisis in Canada and how designers and planners can address it and the many other issues that stem from it such as stagnating salaries, increasing populations and ageing-in-place.

What these concerns illustrate is a housing system that is no longer feasible for the average Canadian. Our net worth is much lower than our counterparts in the 90s, meaning we’re climbing uphill against the wind with the ground slipping out from underneath us. While you might find this analogy somewhat melodramatic, it does feel like that.

So, how do we fix this crisis in a way that addresses affordability for a wide range of people? Not to mention, a solution that also addresses other factors like accessibility and shortages?

Well, modular or manufactured housing presents one solution that has had positive in housing affordability in the United States. According to the Manufactured Housing Institute, 22 million people in manufactured homes with the average price of the house being $70,600 and the average median household income being $30,000:

“The affordability of manufactured housing is due to the efficiencies of the factory building process. Manufactured homes are constructed with standard building and are built almost entirely off-site in a factory. The controlled construction environment and assembly-line techniques remove many of the problems encountered during traditional home construction such as weather, theft, vandalism, damage to building products and materials, and unskilled labor. Factory employees are trained and managed more effectively and efficiently than the system of contracted labor employed by the site-built home construction industry.”

The process of building these homes offer greater flexibility to meet a buyer’s lifestyle and needs, providing homes for people outside the typical city or small-town grid-like remote areas up north.

Moreover, manufactured and modular housing has less of an impact on the environment than on-site constructed homes. As per the Modular Housing Association Prairie Provinces, manufactured housing has:

  • Climate controlled factory conditions, and assembly line procedures optimize thermal insulation and air/vapour barrier installation, resulting in a tighter and better-insulated envelope that requires less energy to heat and cool.
  • Homes/buildings arrive at the destination in one or more large modules that are 85% or greater complete. On-site construction activity and time frame thereof is reduced by 80% or more, as is pollutants contained in heating fuels, toxic adhesives, other waste materials, and general impact on the surface environment and neighbouring properties.
  • The consolidation of labour and most building materials at the construction factory, usually within 150 KM of the building site, results in a reduced car/truck traffic, noise, pollution and quality of life impacts, and in a shorter construction time frame than in areas where site construction of new homes and other buildings occur.
  • Manufacturing facilities purchase large quantities of lumber and other building materials, much of which is ordered to exact fitment requirements, there-by reducing waste. Waste that does occur is 50-70% less than when a building is constructed on-site and can readily be recycled or disposed of properly.

Affordability and environmentally friendly should not be conflicting expectations in the future of affordable housing. We must work smarter rather than harder as we confront and address issues that impact Canadians across the country. Governmental entities and land developers should look to manufactured housing as a solution that doesn’t hinder or work against beautiful communities, but a necessary process that is critical to the future of homeownership.