The Evolution of Condo Living: Is it a Bubble Dictated by Demographics?

This article was written by Natalka Falcomer, VP Corporate Development

“Nothing denotes more greatly a nation’s advancement in civilization than the ornate and improved style of its architecture and the erection of private palatial residences,” the Times, New York, 1869, commenting on the exorbitant cost of purchasing homes in New York city and the rise of apartment buildings.

Is condo living unnatural…?

 

Studies of lab rats and of people in urban settings conclude that tight living quarters contribute to an escalation in poverty, violence and aggression. The reason for such deleterious outcomes may be because tight quarters trigger a primal instinct coercing us to believe that resources are scarce in relation to the number of people we’re surrounded by. We must fight for our lives to get these resources and protect them viciously. Given this instinctual reaction, it’s further hypothesized that living in tightly packed urban areas is unnatural. And that condo living, therefore, is also unnatural. And such unnatural behaviour cannot last much longer – the condo market bubble will burst. And it’ll burst once the young single professionals grow up and have families, at which point they’ll wake up and move to the suburbs where resources are plentiful.

If it’s unnatural, why are we doing it?

The reason we live so closely in condos and cities is not because of some innate desire, but because we’re compelled by necessity. Jobs, potential mates and access to food is easier in the heart of Toronto rather than Kirkland Lake, for example. Proponents of the “stacked living/condo living is unnatural and the market will crash” belief rationalize their position by pointing to the absence of condo living in the past. The problem is, they’re wrong on this point. History says so.

Stacked living reaches way back to ancient Rome and China. In Rome, people lived above their stores and, in China, tribes lived in a multistory tulou. Living in tight quarters or “stacked” homes was desirable – because families could share child rearing burdens and exchange goods and services. It also yielded greater protection – it’s easier to fend off one person as opposed to a group. To be clear, however, such living was not glamorous. It was not until New York architects cajoled the respectable New Yorkers out of their expansive mansions into luxurious brownstones that condo living became fashionable…and profitable.

When did it become a fad to live in a condo?

The Dakota, built in the 1880s, was one of the first luxury apartment buildings in New York that remain standing (The Dakota: A History of the World’s Best-Known Apartment Building). It’s now one of the most coveted places to live for tech billionaires and famous pop icons. Located at the Upper West Side, the Dakota enticed New Yorkers from their sprawling mansions to apartments with 14-foot ceilings, modern kitchens, elevators, sequestered courtyards, and accommodations for servants. While this “stacked living” endeavour was successful, it took considerable time for New Yorkers to accept such living.

One early advocate of “stacked living” was Calvert Vaux, the future partner of Frederick Law Olmsted’s who, together with Vaux, designed Central Park. Vaux was vilified by the public for his immoral “stacked living” ideas. Critics feared that this new way of living would encourage infidelity and disrupt the social fabric of society. It was customary to make a very public show when visiting a neighbour – you got dressed up, you then road your decorated carriage to the home, next you parked out front and you then had to enter by knocking on an imposing front door. Often, given the size of the home, you would wait before being greeted with a drink. Apartments, on the other hand, offered hidden entryways and easy ways to “house hop” free from nosy neighbours. If you live in any of the skyscrapers in Toronto, I have no doubt that you’ve witnessed such house hopping every Saturday night.

Similar to contemporary critics of condo living in Toronto, New Yorkers also criticized the impacts the apartment buildings would have on the vistas. The closely connected homes destroyed the natural topography of New York, blocked light and were simply ugly. Sound familiar? Toronto’s condo-critics espouse the same concerns (although, in this writer’s opinion, some of these criticisms are much more justified). “Upper society” New Yorkers hoped that the stacked living fad was just that – a fad. It’s clear that these condo opponents, similar to Toronto’s condo opponents, were wrong.

Condos: A Permanent Urban Fixture for Permanent Living

Condos are no longer a temporary home for singles and downsizers. They’re reverting to what they intended to be thousands of years ago: a permanent living solution for families. This is captured not only in developers’ marketing materials but is also evidenced by how condos are built.  For example, outside space is important to families. Accordingly, new developments now place greater emphasis on outdoor space and shared facilities. This means children-friendly playgrounds and numerous amenities such as a pool, sauna, gym, designated offices and “flex space” that encourages community and that can be shared by families. Just like our Roman counterparts, we’re also demanding to live on top of shops that provide us with our living necessities: specialty food stores, indy coffee shops and clothing stores. And, we’re getting what we want. Simply walk down King St W or Collingwood condo complex for evidence.

Condo units, and not just the complex, are also changing. No longer are micro-condos all the rage. It’s all about large ceilings, atriums and space for lounging with family and friends. The functionality of a space from a parent’s perspective is now the lens through which condos are designed. Kitchens look out to the living room, allowing parents to keep an eye on their toddlers while making dinner. Entire floor plans are customizable to ensure maximum efficiency for families. While condos do permit more efficient and (possibly) environmentally friendlier living, naysaying New Yorkers also had it right: skyscrapers do block out sunlight and can look ugly. What is more, if the number of necessary service providers – namely hospitals and schools – aren’t also intensified alongside and with our intensified housing, then we may end up like overcrowded rats fighting for scarce recourses.