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Mario Polese on housing in Montreal
An explanation of some key factors making housing more abundant and affordable
How One City Makes Housing Affordable: The Montreal Example (2020), by Mario Polese. Polese, a well-regarded expert on urban and regional economics, explains how Montreal makes it easier to build housing than Toronto or Vancouver. More about Polese and his work.
Polese writes so clearly that I’m tempted to just include long quotations from his article. Some key differences he identifies between Montreal and Toronto:
Montreal’s home prices are half of Toronto’s, a difference stable over two decades.
Montreal has a more elastic supply of housing. When prices go up, supply increases more rapidly than in Toronto.
Montreal has a much greater proportion of “missing middle” housing, whereas housing in Toronto tends to be either high-rises or detached single-family houses. Low-rise apartment buildings account for 54% of homes in Montreal, 15% in Toronto.
Montreal doesn’t charge impact fees on new residential construction, unlike Vancouver or Toronto. In Toronto, these fees add about 20-25% to the cost of a new apartment.
How Toronto’s processes are geared towards large-scale projects and large property developers:
The less visible consequence of impact fees is on the resources, time, and effort required to negotiate and to complete housing projects. The range of charges, for everything from water to transit, can mean that the developer will often need to deal with different agencies—transit authorities, school boards, and others—negotiating fees piece by piece, in addition to negotiating planning regulations with city officials, a bureaucratic steeple run that can take years. Entry into Toronto’s housing market as a builder requires not only deep pockets but also patience, negotiating skills, and technical know-how beyond the means of smaller players. The successive hikes in impact fees in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond killed off much of Toronto’s remaining class of small building contractors. The predictable result is a market dominated by large property developers.
Montreal, in contrast:
Montreal facilitates housing-market entry by smaller and midsize developers and contractors, producing a more elastic and competitive market. Compared with Toronto, recent data show, average approval times for building permits were shorter, the percentage of building projects requiring zoning changes smaller, and the probability of community opposition less in Montreal. Smaller contractors help fuel mid-range housing construction, reinforcing what has become a preferred lifestyle for many. Duplexes and triplexes, with their winding staircases, are part of Montreal’s urban lore—an object of affection, not unlike New York’s brownstones and stoops, both much sought after by today’s gentrifying young professionals. Row houses, low-rise apartment buildings, and other mid-range constructions, besides requiring less stringent building codes, have the added advantage of being less costly to build per unit. Apartment buildings with fewer than five stories don’t require elevators, for example, and can make greater use of wood. All this, in the end, works together to produce a more affordable and more flexible housing stock.
Why is Montreal so much more affordable than Toronto and Vancouver? (2015), by Urban kchoze.
Learning from Montreal (2023), by Todd Litman.
Video on Montreal’s multiplex housing (2020), by Oh the Urbanity!
CMHC report on Montreal triplexes (1997), by de la Riva, Gagnon, and Affleck.
Reddit post on zoning in Montreal vs. elsewhere (2021).
Plus: Deneigement Montreal. How Montreal clears snow.