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2020 vs 1920: How Homeownership Has Changed in Toronto

February 20, 2020

We are once again in the “roaring twenties”, so we are looking at how the housing market has changed in the last 100 years in Toronto. It’s hard to imagine Toronto as anything other than a bustling city of more than 5 million people. However, in the 1920s, Toronto was only just starting on the path to becoming the vibrant metropolitan area it is today.

In the early 1920s, suburban growth was starting. Toronto proper was distinguished from neighbouring suburbs, like York, and the population was increasing with more Canadians and immigrants calling Toronto home. Union Station opened August 1927, providing a way for residents to travel larger distances with greater speed.

There was a mindset change after the First World War; the eagerness to enjoy life was obvious. Consumerism was on the rise with people having more disposable income and leisure time. Driving cars, attending the cinema, and golfing were among the favourite past times. 

With many cultural changes in the 1920s it makes sense that housing evolved along with it. The introduction of modern design, the rise of more modest living spaces, and the political changes surrounding women’s rights helped shape the “roaring” housing market that we see in Toronto today.

Architectural Design

Housing styles in the 1920s varied1, with some styles seeing a revival, like the Tudor style of the 15th century with its rustic look or the Georgian style of the 18th and early 19th centuries showcasing classical design and symmetry. The Edwardian Four Square style continued to be popular denouncing the Victorian-era fussy designs. Also, against the ornate Victorian design was Torontonian Eden Smith who championed the Arts and Crafts style that displayed simplicity; the goal of the design was to maximize function and comfort inside the home. 

New on the scene was Art Deco inspired by French cubism. This modern style was the start of modern architectural design. In Toronto, office towers and theatres were more likely to be in Art Deco style than residential homes. The former Toronto Stock Exchange building, R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant, and Eglinton Cinema are prime examples of Art Deco architecture in Toronto from the early 20th century.

R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plan
R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plan

It is arguable that the Art Deco style, in addition to later modern styles of Moderne, Expressionism and Functionalism, paved the way for Kutner and Brown to build the Canadian version of Piet Blom’s Cube Houses in Corktown in 1996, or for Will Aslop’s Sharpe Centre for Design, resembling a Lego cube suspended in the sky by colourful steel legs, to be completed in 2004. 

The simplification of form, abstraction and geometric compositions are ever present in Toronto’s new construction builds. Although low-rise residential has had an injection of modern design, it is the high-rise condo buildings that have fully embraced modern design in Ontario’s capital city. Examples include the Shangri La Condos2 designed by James Cheng, the Florian condo residence3 by Diamante Development Corporation, and Nobu Condos4, currently in preconstruction, by Madison Homes, which is anticipated to be another icon in Toronto’s architectural landscape. 

Apartments

Apartments were controversial in the early 20th century5. Anti-apartment by-laws in Toronto in 1912 deemed these dwellings as anti-family and a threat to property values of detached homes around them. On the other hand, they were also seen to be modern with cosmopolitan sophistication, praised for their efficiency and appropriateness for new types of households. 

Apartments were less dependant on domestic roles, which allowed women more freedom in the home and in the workforce. For some, this was a threat to traditional gender norms and family life. An additional concern was that apartment buildings next to low-rise residential properties would cause the value of homes to decrease, threatening the investment of homeowners. 

Amenities were being added to some apartment buildings, such as barbers, convenience stores, cafes, etc. The act of not having to leave your home or building to get many necessities was regarded as modern living. The increase in amenities and decrease in space was deemed as a solution to the “servant problem”5, where homeowners were having difficulty finding domestic help since more jobs were becoming available for young women. Compared to 2020 where Amazon can deliver you almost anything in less than 24 hours, Skip the Dishes can have a hot meal on your table in under 30 minutes, and a Roomba can keep your floors clean, our desire for convenience in our everyday lives has continued to increase as our lives outside the home become more complex.

Buildings were getting larger in the 1920s compared to previous years. Blocks built in the 1920s had a mean size of 19.8 units5, compared to 11.7 units for apartment buildings built between 1911 and 1921. An apartment building with 20 units is almost laughable in Toronto today for new construction builds. The previously mentioned Nobu Condos4 in Toronto’s Entertainment District will feature 700 condominium suites in two 45-storey towers, complete with premium amenities. Building upwards is the norm of today.

Owner-occupied apartment units were rare in the 1920s, a stark difference to Toronto today. In 2019, 87% of renter households6 resided in apartment buildings, compared to 39% of Toronto homeowners who live and own an apartment suite. Apartment housing is the single largest source of new housing supply in Toronto, according to the City of Toronto’s January 2019 Toronto Housing Market Analysis6

Naturally rental rates are much higher today. In 1920, at the Traders Bank Apartments offering luxury flats at Yonge and Bloor Streets in Toronto, offered rent ranging from $500-$1,200 per year5. Today, 1-bedroom apartments range from $2000-$3000 per month (or $24,000-$36,0000 per year) at the same intersection, a far cry from the rental rates and six-room apartment sizes of 100 years ago.

By 1928, new apartment construction expenditure had risen to $7.4 million5, resulting in 42% of all new housebuilding to be for apartments. This housing boom of the 1920s was stalled by the Great Depression but would resume in the late 1930s and continue to add to the Toronto skyline we see today. 

Toronto aerial view
Aerial view of downtown Toronto

Bungalows

Bungalows made their entrance into Toronto residential architecture in the 1920s. The Beaches, Upper Beach, North Toronto, The Danforth, and High Park are a few notable neighbourhoods where these cottage-like homes were built. A headline from the September 9, 1922 issue of The Toronto Star Weekly7 was, “Bungalow Craze Has Toronto Home Builders Gripped --- Interesting Types”. Bungalows were a hot topic! The article notes that women were deemed to be the cause of this craze, as they didn’t want to do housework on multiple floors and upkeep more rooms than needed. 

This trend toward more modest living, either in apartment rentals or owning a bungalow, is a testament to the change in mindset post World War I. Motor vehicles, vacations and leisure activities became more popular amongst couples who didn’t see the need to have a large home they were not spending as much time in. This in addition to women having more consumer power by increased participation in the workforce afforded women more financial freedom, but less time to do housework. 

In 1922, more than half of the residential buildings built were bungalows, the term bungalow referring to a one-story to a one-storey-and-a-half structure with English cottage-style architecture. The cost for a bungalow ranged from $7,000 to $10,000 in many of Toronto’s popular neighbourhoods. 

Today the trend toward smaller homes is even more apparent than in the 1920s with “tiny homes” trending and many people only spending a few waking hours actually in their home. Currently bungalows are popular amongst retirees who want to age in a home environment, but with less upkeep than a larger, two-storey home. In today’s market, you can expect to pay $700,000 to over $1,000,000 for a bungalow in Toronto proper.

Modern tiny house
Example of the Tiny House trend

Looking to the Future

The future of the Toronto housing market appears to be headed upward, literally. With land scarce in Toronto proper, residents are looking to other cities in the Greater Toronto Area for affordable housing. And the land that is left in Toronto proper? It’s going up! Expect to see more skyscraper condo buildings that will fit in as many units as possible to meet the demand for housing in this popular city. 

Toronto is a popular place to live amongst Canadians, but major cities are also appealing to immigrants who want to live in a multi-cultural space with social and career opportunities. From July 2018 to July 2019, Canada’s population increased by 531,497 people, with more than 80% of that growth being driven by the arrival of immigrants and non-permanent residents. With immigration being part of Canada’s long-term plans to offset our aging population and low birth rate, we will see newcomers flock to major cities like Toronto.

It is probable Toronto will continue to see price escalations due to limited supply and increased demand by both Canadians and immigrants. Using Statistics Canada data8, we can compare 1976 to 2017. In 1976, the average selling price in Toronto was $61,3899 and the average income of a Torontonian was $39,100. In 2017, the average selling price was $822,510, a whopping 1240% increase over 41 years. As for incomes, those have only increased just over 19% with the average income of a Toronto resident being $46,700 in 2017. Incomes are not rising at the rate of housing prices, which makes affordability an issue in Toronto, and many major markets in Canada. As per the Toronto Real Estate Board’s January 2020 Market Update10, the average selling price for a home in Toronto is $839,363. It is not unreasonable to imagine the average price will exceed 1 million dollars in the next several years.

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