High-rise communities are learning how to accommodate families with young children.
By Julie Warren
For a variety of reasons, condominium communities have long been considered the domain of singles, couples, and empty nesters. Not any more—especially in Toronto, where city planners are actively studying the robust migration of families with children into downtown high-rise communities.
According to Vanessa Van Dette, vice president of CAI’s new Canada Chapter, the economy has a lot to do with this sea change. Single-family home prices in the Toronto area are out of reach for most young families, says Van Dette, who is regional vice president, operations, at Larlyn Property Management in Ontario. And with more than two-thirds of the city’s housing stock in condominiums, of course buyers would look for homes in vertical communities. “You look at our skyline, and it’s all condos,” she says. “It’s the only thing you can afford here
Attracting Young Families
But affordability isn’t the only factor. Toronto city planners have been enticing families with kids to move to its urban core for years. As early as 1999, the City Council adopted the Toronto Children’s Charter and the City’s Strategy for Children, both of which are based on the 1991 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
And in 2016, Toronto launched Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities, a study that is exploring “how new multi-unit residential buildings/vertical neighborhoods can better accommodate the needs of households with children.”
A survey of condominium owners conducted as part of Toronto’s study reveals that young families value generous living areas and multiple bedrooms, nearby green spaces, indoor play areas, and plenty of storage in their urban high-rise communities.
Jackie Burns, a Toronto resident and author of The Condo Kids, a children’s book about the adventures of living in a high-rise condominium, says it’s time Toronto managers started prioritizing communities for families with children.
“It’s a Toronto demographic that’s only going to increase,” she says. A mother of two school-age boys, Burns is an advocate for designated areas for children in condominiums. “I think a lot of people have this idea that kids need their own yard,” Burns says. “But in reality, a lot of kids end up going to parks anyway. And many of (Toronto’s) condos are very close to parks.”
A Charge for Developers
Andrea Oppedisano, a community planner for the City of Toronto, says while the city’s study has revealed that most of the downtown housing growth is in buildings seven stories or taller, these communities still lack units that have more than one bedroom.
“The majority of growth—about 80 percent—is in one-bedroom or bachelor (studio) apartments,” says Oppedisano. “Just under 4 percent were three bedrooms.”
The Toronto study indicates that more than two-thirds of condominium owners with young children altered their units’ layout to carve out space for their children or for customized storage. Toronto city planners now recommend that builders provide at least 25 percent of a building’s units in two- and three-bedroom configurations.
Oppedisano points out that the number of bedrooms is less of a factor than the size of units. “In the past, some three-bedroom units were only 650 to 800 square feet,” she says. “They aren’t functional for larger households.”
According to Family Housing Affordability in U.S. Cities, a November 2015 white paper by Governing magazine, several U.S. cities are experiencing similar housing trends. Less than 20 percent of home listings in the most expensive U.S. cities—New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, and others—have three or more bedrooms and are “affordable.” And in downtown areas, “families with children … often can’t find units large enough to accommodate them. Many newer developments are without larger units.”
Finding a high-rise community with convenient, accessible storage for bicycles, an array of sports equipment, and especially strollers—essential equipment for young families to maintain urban mobility—also can be challenging. And respondents to the Toronto study also indicated it would be nice to have “space to be messy” where family members can repair a bicycle or build a school project.
But Oppedisano says it’s more than just providing the right space and the right unit layout. Communities need to do their part by providing green spaces and indoor play areas, and many of Toronto’s newer communities have done so.
An Appeal to Managers and Boards
A lot of Toronto’s high-rises now are offering kid-friendly amenities, like play rooms, game rooms, gyms, and Wi-Fi, says Burns, who lives in a 40-year-old high-rise with a view of Lake Ontario, an indoor pool, and plenty of green outdoor common areas. She and her husband have become friends with other young families in the building and recently purchased the unit they’ve been renting for several years.
“It’s the kind of a community that looks after each other,” Burns says. “It’s nice to have … friends with kids that are so close. We help each other out if someone needs their kids watched for a while. And having playdates with other kids in the building is great.”
Burns wants managers and boards in other urban areas to realize this housing trend probably is headed their way as well and to prepare to develop kid-friendly rules, such as the ability to sell Girl Scout cookies door to door or have a lemonade stand somewhere in the lobby. She is mindful that residents who don’t have children may not always want to be exposed to kids in their communities. “Our building is going through these growing pains now.”
Coming to a City Near You
Marc Kotler, senior vice president for FirstService Residential’s new development group in New York City, says that—based on the amenities they’re now including—New York developers clearly are targeting young families.
“A lot of (developers) we’ve worked with over the course of the past five years have built the units with families in mind,” Kotler says. “Some of our buildings even have ‘tween rooms—with Game Cube and Wii games, so there’s a place for the older kids to play.” One New York developer created a room just for storing strollers.
“Giving (high-rise communities) good programmable spaces is vital,” says Kotler, who advocates flexible common area spaces because buildings developed for one use will inevitably be transformed by the residents into another use. Managers also can help create family friendly communities by programming events that include resident children and helping boards develop kid-centric rules like allowing people to put their kids’ drawings on the doors of their units and permitting trick-or-treating in the building.
One advantage already available to some families in high-rises: Since the building they live in is staffed with security personnel and equipped with cameras, Burns is comfortable allowing her two sons, ages 10 and 8, to visit their friends’ homes in the building or head for the ground-floor convenience store unescorted.
“I feel like they have more freedom because they’re in a confined space,” she says. “We can keep tabs on them fairly easily.”
Burns estimates there are about 50 kids who live and “hang out together” in her 46-story, 260-unit building. “There are probably more ways for the kids to burn their energy (here) than there would be in a house,” she says.
Julie Warren is editor of Community Manager.
>>Access Growing Up: Planning for Children in New Vertical Communities at goo.gl/2NqsT5.
>>Read more about Jackie Burns and The Condo Kids in Common Ground’s November/December 2017 issue.