Addressing Canada's Housing Affordability Crisis Within Waterloo Region

In the face of Canada's housing affordability crisis, Martin Simmons Sweers Architects (MSS), like many other Canadian Architectural firms, looks for ways to contribute creative solutions that allow for affordable housing to be homes that are inspiring, healthy, and places in which occupants can be proud to live in.

Jason Martin
November 24, 2023

In the face of Canada's housing affordability crisis, Martin Simmons Sweers Architects (MSS), like many other Canadian Architectural firms, looks for ways to contribute creative solutions that allow for affordable housing to be homes that are inspiring, healthy, and places in which occupants can be proud to live in.

At first glance, one may not consider architects as integral to solving the housing affordability crisis, however we agree with a recent press release from The Ontario Association of Architects which states, “Working with all levels of government, as well as planners, building officials, and others in the design/construction community, Ontario’s architecture profession is well-equipped to help advance housing affordability.”

I sat down with one of our designers, Philippe Fournier, who has garnered awards for his research on the housing affordability crisis, to discuss this topic.

We started with what originally connected him to this issue.

“I attended a comprehensive undergraduate architecture program at the University of Waterloo, gaining insights into the many facets of housing design. The program included Co-Op work terms which sent me to work in various cities across North America. Through my experiences, especially seeking housing for myself during these Co-Op terms, I recognized the housing market's challenges, including limited affordable options and poor design quality. This sparked my interest in improving housing accessibility and quality through architectural intervention. I wanted to understand why the housing market became the way it is, and what role architects could have to play in addressing it.
My master's degree research at McGill furthered my exploration into housing issues. I delved deeper into the mechanics and economics of housing markets, in particular how regulations like zoning bylaws can significantly impede innovative housing projects. My research culminated in a thesis that examined zoning reforms across Canada, with a focus on Toronto. I assessed the proposal to allow multiplexes in formerly single-family neighbourhoods and designed a catalogue of these homes to meet zoning and building code requirements while identifying opportunities to enhance resident comfort, energy efficiency, and mass production possibilities. This research has shaped my dedication to addressing housing market challenges and making positive changes through architectural innovation.”

From Philippe's perspective, the solution lies in three key areas. Firstly, building more housing is a top priority. Canada is currently facing a housing shortage due to rapid economic and population growth. Philippe emphasizes the need to catch up, as per the CMHC's estimation of requiring 3.5 million additional housing units.

“The biggest issue right now for Canada is that housing is expensive because there is a housing shortage. Our economy and population have been growing fast, and we just haven't been building the same amount of housing assets for the past two or three decades as we did in the previous few. So we have a lot of catching up to do. That CMHC statistic is definitely the number one statistic to look at. The number of homes we need may even actually be higher than that.”

Secondly, various tax changes are needed to alleviate the burden on both homebuyers and developers, particularly with interest rates rising and projects being delayed.

Thirdly, there's a pressing need for government-backed social housing, as very little has been built in Canada since the 1990s. This needs to shift into a priority position for every level of government.

Upon winning the 2022-2023 Arthur Erickson Travel Study Scholarship, Philippe chose to spend two weeks in The Netherlands because “they have some of the best housing architecture in the world, in my opinion, so I really wanted to see it. And it was also particularly relevant to the types of housing that I’d been researching, these kinds of multiplexes and how Canada could adopt a similar approach. Even though it's a very small country geographically and they don't have a lot of skyscrapers, they are still able to build housing very densely. Four to five storeys is the typical range, and yet their cities are still very walkable, accessible, and compact. The Dutch clearly know how to do well with very little land and make density not feel like it has to sacrifice comfort.

Our firm is actively involved in a few projects that exemplify our commitment to addressing the housing crisis locally, such as our project with the House of Friendship in Kitchener and the Housing Over Parking Prototype (HOPP) we have recently developed in-studio, which we hope to see adopted in some form within the region. More on this prototype to be revealed soon.

Philippe has been on our design team for our collaboration with the House of Friendship. He summarized his experience so far, “It has been inspiring and educational. We're currently in the design phase of a significant project on Charles Street in Kitchener. This development will not only introduce 60 new affordable housing units to the downtown area but will also include 100 supportive housing units, a component of the project intended to help people foster healthy routines for residents.

At the House of Friendship, they are making strides to remove the stigma around supportive housing. It's about offering individuals transitioning from shelters to a room to call their own, complete with a small kitchenette, laundry facilities, and communal spaces. They provide on-site staff to assist with the transition to normal housing situations, fostering independence. Kitchener has a real need for this kind of housing, and we have a real opportunity here to make a landmark project that people can be proud to live in."

We strive to incorporate our values into every part of our practice. We’re gratified that Phillippe feels the same way that we do. He commented, "There's a real sense of community engagement in this office that was not always present in other firms I've worked at. There's a very strong sense among the partners that they really care about this region. They really care about this community. And when we're building locally, we're trying to create an identity in this place. We're trying to bring some pride to it in all the work we do."

We see our commitment to affordable housing as just one way in which we contribute meaningfully to our neighbours and the future of the region we call home.

To learn more about our studio, our work, and our team, take a browse through our website or get in touch.

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