This Old House
Delving into the question of why the region is sprawling out, part the discussion must begin with the historical legacy of housing in our region.
As the table above illustrates, Windsor’s housing stock is substantially older than other parts of our region. As a result there are challenges in aligning these homes with modern need and preferences. When people think of older housing in Windsor their thoughts tend to drift to stately, heritage homes of Old Walkerville, Sandwich and Victoria Ave downtown. In fact the homes that we are speaking about are more likely to look like are these:
The first home (left to right) is the house my dad grew up in. On Byng Rd. south of Tecumseh, it featured 2 bedrooms plus a attic room where 4 kids were raised with 1.5 baths. On the fringe of Windsor in the 1960s (now it is near the geographic centre of the City), the house featured a steep staircase to get into the basement and up to the second floor and 4 steps to get in the front door made the house nearly unworkable for my grandmother prior to her passing. Those same staircases forced a closed layout that didn’t allow for an open concept on the main level and only the decision by my grandparents to blow out the back wall of the house and build a porch did they get access to their backyard. A furnished basement added some additional living space and was home to the extra half bath, unfortunately it was (and I suspect still is) susceptible to flooding.
The second house is my home in West Windsor. With no basement and knee-walled upstairs the 1200ish sq ft. are great for my wife and I with our dogs. I would call this a prototypical “starter home” but I’ll be honest, if we were to have kids (or get more dogs), it would be hard to stay here despite being a block from a school. Both my wife and I work at home; she uses the second bedroom as her office while I used the former dinning room. A single bathroom is never ideal when two adults have to be places in the morning.
The third home was my mom’s mother house on Janette Ave. Although the largest and oldest of the three houses, it featured only one bathroom and an unfinished basement with a 7 foot ceiling making almost unusable other than storage. Much like my dad’s house stairs played a major role in the design and it was these stairs that forced my grandmother from her home over a fifteen years ago.
Although these homes have worked (and continue to work) for families in our community, times and preferences have changed. Compare these older homes to the “needs and wants” of many modern families. A room for every child, on-suite bathrooms, home offices spaces, separate TV rooms, open concept floor plans, energy efficient designs and appliances, a backyard, 2000+ sq ft, a garage, etc. Windsor older housing leave a lot to be desired for a significant portion of the population. Without a doubt there is another segment of the population that these amenities don’t appeal to, but the question that has to be asked is whether they represent a significant enough portion of our community to drive political and economic decision making is another question.
Impact of this Misalignment
The impact of this housing misalignment is partially illustrated in the map below.
Taken from home sale data from 2005 and 2015 that was collected as part of the Neighbourhood Market Value Study by the City of Windsor. The map illustrates the price change by equal count categories. When digging through the raw data, of the 379 DAs where data was available, 168 saw the median sale value in a neighbourhood decline over the decade, while another 29 DAs saw their values increase at a rate of less than inflation during that 10 year period (2.45% annually). The geographic concentrations of these swings are at least partially based on the fundamentals of the stock and not cyclical economic factors, especially since this data was snapshot pre/post the recession. More evidence emerges from the Windsor Real Estate Association data from 2014 and 2015.
The above shows how different neighbourhoods/communities residential prices changed year over year. As averages there were certainly some outliers and as we know that prices have continued to rise. What is clear is that the greatest growth in housing prices are emerging in areas of the city where the stock is newest. I myself bought by home built in the 1950s in West Windsor for $118,000 in December of 2016. What is important to takeaway is that not every neighbourhood is valued equally which many advocates in our community fail to account for and is largely the reason why developers have avoided building in the core without subsidies.
Looking at home buyer preferences and matching them to Windsor’s housing market a general disconnect becomes clear. Although there are plenty of denser designed single family homes in Windsor’s core, unfortunately many of them are older, smaller and misaligned with modern tastes in housing which would require expensive renovation. Examining millennial housing preferences (other sources: here, here ) outside of walkable neighbourhoods and/or transit density they want things in a home that many houses in the city’s core don’t easily provide. Of course affordability is important but given that Essex County is one of the most affordable regions in Canada that point is of less importance than in the GTA or Vancouver. As a result millennials are looking for turn key, low upkeep, energy efficient, technology enabled, homes with open floor plans, modern appliances and home office spaces for their side hustle. When I think of downtown housing, although pieces of this are present in particular houses, they are not present at scale.
Shifting demographics to seniors, looking at best practices in senior housing design, existing housing stock in Windsor’s core fails to meet many standards. My aforementioned grandmother had to leave her home due to not being able to climb the stairs to enter/exit her house while her laundry and chest freezer were largely out of reach. Doorways not wide enough for walkers or wheel chairs, non-accessible showers or bathtubs, lack of main floor laundry and a desire for a low/no maintenance dwelling much of the housing in the core of Windsor fail to meet these best practices and desires. Generally seniors like millennials are looking for turn key accommodations not moving into a downsized home that then needs tens of thousand of renovations.
Research out of CMHC from BC point to another key point, downsizing seniors still want space. For their “future home” 73% of seniors want a 2 bedroom or larger home, 34% identifying a single family home as their ideal dwelling followed by apartments/condos at 27%. Although from a different province the survey was a statistically significant sample and when I look at these numbers I see the new builds of ranch style homes in LaSalle or Lakeshore as being more compatible to these desires than a 20+ year old home in Windsor’s core.
The City of Windsor Market Value study pointed out that in portions of the city, developers simply couldn’t make a profit, this is was justification for the reduction of development charges in core areas of the City and the implementation of the Downtown CIP. The result of that lack of profit making ability we saw an outward push in development as new greenfield homes do turn a profit. Data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation shows suburban County is out stripping the City in new home construction.
Following Jan 2018, CMHC changing how they reported this data (because I can’t have nice things), from Jan to Oct 2018, the City of Windsor saw another 287 new units started, while the rest of the CMA saw 487 units. Unfortunately I haven’t be able to find a comparable breakdown of how these units are allocated as they become available only after a year is completed. It does appear that there is some shift in the style of housing towards semi-detached town homes, but they are still being built, at scale on greenfield sites.
Greenfield construction seems to be here to stay based on this data and even without including the Sandwich South Development Lands, the rest of the CMA has lands for thousands, if not tens of thousands of new homes. LaSalle’s (now former) mayor stated on Windsor Morning the town plans for 50,000 people north of Laurier parkway; new sewers have been approved in Amherstburg to “spur development”; Tecumseh suspending fees on certain development and the Town of Essex investing in Harrowby removing development charges.
This outward construction has not helped the rental situation in the City of Windsor. When looking at the ratio of household ownership to rental by ward you see clear patterns. Concentration of rental households in core also impacts that overall housing market.
From a profit standpoint it is both cheaper and easier to build homes for sale than apartments for rent. At the same time there is a strong correlation (0.64) between renters and low income prevalence within the city. This does help paint some of the implicate outcomes of research on rental properties impacts on housing values (another here) that shows correlations with overall property values of a neighbourhood depending on the concentration, state and form of the rental housing. Hence the battles between NIMBY homeowners against density and rental/affordable development. Even if those battles aren’t apparent (here as well) in our region they are baked into the process through which housing developers decide to build, they take the path of least resistance.
The census provides us another view of our regions development patterns. The following table shows the change in occupied housing type between the 2016 and 2011 census for each municipality and the Wards of Windsor. Definitions of the housing type can be found here.
Ward 7, 9 and 10 are all home to large sections of development lands which is targeted for suburban development in the City of Windsor but these development levels pale in comparison to the nearby LaSalle and Lakeshore for single detached homes. The decline in single detached homes in Ward 2-4, I would suspect result from both the conversion of homes into rental properties and rooming housing, and the removal of some blighted properties.
So why are things happening this way?
Windsor Ugly Housing Issue
Fundamentally the City’s core is largely landlocked. Although there is plenty of vacant land, very little of it is connected in a manner that allows it to be assembled to build a subdivision that allow economies of scale. Generally a developer doesn’t want to build one or two houses, they want to build twenty or thirty as that is where there are increased profit margins. In addition, as much of the available land is some form of brownfield or has a vacant buildings already on it, the cost of that remediation for many lots in the core must be factored into the developers mind.
Despite there possibly being a latent desire for additional urban options in housing, broader statistics show that existing housing stock in Windsor is misaligned to the desires of many demographic groups. The recent CIP fueled announcements for the downtown core do offer promise new development but they still need to provide perceived value. One of the larger projects a 16 story, 120 unit building has been proposed downtown and supported through the CIP isn’t a done deal and still faces some hurdles in my opinion.
The above numbers are an estimate based on publicly available information and they assume no profit making, construction delays, added costs or revenue to cover future maintenance. These numbers also don’t include the potential benefit of the subsidies offered by the City. Although very basic in its assumptions with the per unit cost being over $90 per month more then the average rental rate in Ward 3 before the owner makes his money back. The question becomes who lives here?
If these units come in a $900+ per month or are selling as condos for $275,000 or $300,000 are existing residents able to afford that? At that price point and a few hundred dollars more in monthly payments, you could own a home and live the suburban dream instead of rent. The price you would pay is having to put up with one of the shortest commutes in the country to get to and from where you need to be.
My house in West Windsor, certainly has appreciated in value in the past couple of years that I have owned it. In that time I’ve spent about between $8,000 and $10,000 in renovation and repairs despite doing a number of these projects myself. The simple fact that older homes require more work to maintain is a factor that may be driving people away from Windsor’s core.
The structural challenge of Windsor’s housing stock is one of the biggest barriers facing our city. This aged and misaligned housing stock has contributed to a segmentation of the housing market and the populations that live in neighbourhoods. At the same time, home ownership remains an aspiration for many in Windsor. Issues of poverty, asset inequality and access to services will only be solved when this housing asymmetry is tackled.
Developers won’t build homes in the core without subsidy due to a lack of economies of scale and profit potential. They won’t build apartments in outer areas of the city due to the political risks. This creates incentives to perpetuates existing development patterns that exacerbates the structural challenges that Windsor’s housing stock faces as that is what enables them to make a living.
For those looking for denser more urban Windsor, the problem you must solve is how to redevelop the existing housing stock and neighbourhoods without displacing vulnerable populations. A bike lane, a new tech business setting up shop or anchor institution opening its door aren’t enough to solve these problems in my opinion. Whole scale neighbourhood redevelopment maybe needed in many cases. So the question becomes how do you physically rebuild housing in a community and empower those who live there and more importantly who pays for it?