ICYMI – Week of August 25, 2017

  • Millennials are moving to the suburbs after all, reports Bloomberg. This has always been a strange battle between the demand side (industry) and the supply side (policy-makers). Of course the more rational answer is that it’s both, but identifying an underlying cause for why Boomers embraced sub-urbanization and why millennials haven’t (thus far) hasn’t been as straightforward as many would think. My answer has lain in the demographics – millennials are starting families much later than our parents did, so the desire for a suburban lifestyle has been more delayed than completely replaced. Additionally, it’s also been less an issue of personal choice, as the economic fallout of the Great Recession has definitely played a major role in many young people’s abilities to afford the suburban lifestyle (buying a house and a car). As the economy has recovered and young people are finding gainful employment again, they seem to be embracing the suburban lifestyle.
  • Japan, ever struggling with an aging population, also has to contend with rising urbanization and what it means for smaller towns and rural areas.
  • The NYTime wrote a piece on “co-living spaces” – communal housing units where resident apartments are limited to the basics (bedroom+bathroom?) and other spaces, such as kitchens, dining, living areas are all shared. The most interesting bit of the article, for me, though is “You won’t find much of that outside the building, which is why this Urby is essentially a vertical — and interior — neighborhood.”
  • I’ve often wondered about the intersection of the technology industry and urbanism – will we have a resurgence of the old “company town”? Considering many of North America’s major technology hubs are in existing cities, it might be a different evolution. In that theme, the Seattle Times wrote about Amazon’s footprint on the city.

ICYMI – Week of August 4, 2017

  • Citylab (referencing this report by the National Association of Realtors) takes another look at foreign investors (specifically Chinese investors) in the US housing market. Key point: “As a group, [Chinese buyers] surpass top buyers from Canada, the U.K., Mexico, and India. Between April 2016 and March 2017, Chinese buyers purchased more than 40,500 housing units, worth a total of $31.7 billion. That’s up from of 29,000 units and $27.3 billion the year before. Sixty-seven percent of those units were single-family homes, and 61 percent of all sales were made in suburban areas.” What’s really interesting, however, is if you look at the data in the NAR report. After Chinese buyers, the biggest foreign buyers in the residential market in the US are Canadians. Makes me wonder, if Canadian investors are willing to spend this much money on real estate in the US with the exchange rate where it is, how much are they spending on investment properties in Canada? It’ll be interesting to see how this rolls out with the new measures as well as further measures coming up (Globe and Mail did a quick take).
  • The bike-sharing evolution continues with more dockless bikeshares popping up. Dockless systems are really going to be the key to shifting more people to cycling. They just provide that ease and convenience; you can pick it up anywhere (provided there’s one nearby) and drop it off anywhere. I wonder how this affects the services operations when bikes need to be relocated to keep up with high-demand areas.
  • Bisnow has a good discussion on the role that neuroscience is playing in the design of cities. The article is an overview of the relationship between urban design and behavioral psychology. It’s been fascinating to watch psychology take over the field of economics and slowly make it’s way to other disciplines (one of the pioneers in behavioral economics, BEWorks, is hosting a “nudgethon” for public transit in Toronto in September). While the recognition is new, the notion that urban design ought to follow user experience rather than imposed design goes as far back as Jane Jacobs, who promoted an observational and ethnographic approach to urban planning in The Death and Life of Greater American Cities. Since then, planners have called for a rejection of rigid land-use models (such as euclidean zoning) and promotion of flexible uses (such as mixed-use and form-based zoning). Architect David Galbraith takes it a step further and encourages designs that allow for organic development. As he states in the post: “Cities of the industrial age looked mechanical, cities of the information age can look like fractal networks — like nature.” His solutions seem to echo how Japan manages its zoning code (for reference, in a simple video).
  • On the tech side, one of the really exciting things coming up mostly-behind-the-scenes is proptech (property+technology), or the intersection of real estate and technology. A classic case of this is how traditional realtors have been embracing tech, though it’s still focused on helping people find a house to purchase (I’m sure I can find more interesting examples if I actually search around). Here’s an interview from ZDnet with a data scientist from Zillow if you want a little case study. Now I’m not too familiar with Zestimate, but if anyone wants to get into the weeds, Kaggle has a competition on improving the error rate for the Zestimate.
  • The Toronto Star reports on renting in Toronto, where rents for housing have reached highs comparable to London and Brooklyn. The article describes how people feel like apartment hunting has become similar to dating, where everyone must now create a profile to attract landlords and get them to “swipe right”.

ICYMI – This Week on the Internet – July 7th, 2017

Some quick thoughts about a few of the articles I’ve been reading and following this past week:

  • Toronto’s housing market is always in the news with the wild swings as the powers-that-be try to gain some control of housing prices. After a lot of fanfare about a number of new measures as part of the Fair Housing Plan (including a foreign-buyer’s tax and more stringent rent-control measures) a first cut on housing sales activity has been released and it’s showing a drastic reduction in sales. However, the initial reports on foreign-buyer activity shows the number of foreign-buyer purchases in the Greater Golden Horsehoe is less than 5% of the market (though John Pasalis at Realosophy did tweet that this figure is an average and it’s likely higher and lower for specific sub-markets). This is in-line with what industry had initially been saying when the tax went into effect. So if the foreign-buyer component is so small, what’s causing the slowdown in sales? The simple answer is that it’s not any one thing. The Fair Housing Plan consists of several measures, including more stringent rent-control rules that also affect domestic investors, and there was an overall sense in the market that the Bank of Canada would be raising interest rates this year. Overall, housing market activity has been incredibly heated over the last two years before slowing down in the summer when policy measures were announced and sentiments towards an interest-rate hike became more certain. On a bit of a side, but related, note: Following on the heels of its foreign-buyers tax last year, which cooled down the market for only a few months before it picked up again, Vancouver introduced an empty homes tax this week.

 

  • Let’s talk a bit more about housing in a broader sense rather than the whacky GTA real estate market sense. One thing that’s striking is that housing prices are soaring everywhere (well, major cities anyway). That’s led to a lot of people proposing different ideas of what constitutes a “home”, as people increasingly find themselves priced away from the traditional notions of home ownership (a detached house with a yard in much of North America). In the thought experiment sphere, a group of young upstarts in the UK are trying to redefine notions of a “house” for generation-rent by unpacking traditional layouts and looking at the functional value not just of space but also of furniture. Following tight on the micro-condo/container housing craze, a developer in Sacremento, California, is testing the MicroPAD (Micro Prefab Affordable Dwelling). The City of Sacremento is hoping to use it as a strategy for providing affordable housing for homeless residents. Modeled on similar prefab housing solutions in Sweden, the modular units are manufactured overseas (China and Poland) and snapped together on site. As a result, a MicroPAD costs significantly less than a similar unit built on site using traditional construction methods (as they do).

 

That’s it for this week.