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Creative Ways to Build Affordable Housing in Markets that have become Expensive

By: Diana Petramala, Candace Safonovs, Alex Butler and Dmytro Kharena
November 22, 2018


The 2018 National Housing Week kicked off on Monday with an event hosted by CMHC and Options for Homes which celebrated the future of affordable housing in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). With escalating home prices and rents in the region, it is becoming apparent that key housing stakeholders will have to start embracing innovative ideas to tackle the GTA’s housing affordability challenge.

The Centre for Urban Research and Land Development (CUR) was tasked to prepare an exhibit for the event highlighting big creative ideas on how to build affordable housing in expensive markets with examples from around the world. Our talented student researchers from Ryerson University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning scanned the globe, from North America to Singapore, to look for interesting ideas on government policy, land-use, housing finance, creative tenure ideas and built form pertaining to the provision of affordable housing.

This blog highlights the lessons learned from the research the students pulled together.  

The full exhibits can be found here.

Lesson 1: An Affordable housing agenda requires an enormous financial commitment from governments

Fun fact: 80% of the population in Vienna lives in homes that are subsidized by the government.

This also means that 80% of the population has access to housing that costs no more than 30% of their monthly income[i].  We chose the City Government of Vienna as its own case study based on these housing outcomes. Vienna is very successful at delivering affordable housing because it has the financial resources to do so. The funding for housing comes from the Federal Government of Austria which earmarks 0.5% of the country’s GDP to housing expenditures[ii].  In 2017 Vienna received €450 million from the Federal Government and contributed another €467 million to housing initiatives[iii]. This money was then distributed in the form of subsidies to the private for-profit and the non-profit sector to build and renew housing.  Supply-side subsidies and tax incentives have meant that the supply of housing has kept pace with demand in Vienna. Not only has this helped to keep price growth under control, but it has also allowed the private sector to deliver financially viable affordable housing[iv].

It is not only how much the City of Vienna spends on housing, but the ways in which it spends it that matters.  Vienna spends $482 per person on housing overall, compared to $310 spent by the City of Toronto in 2017[v], yet the outcomes in Vienna are far better. Some lessons can thus be learnt from how Vienna gets a better bang for its buck.

Lesson 2: Collaboration among many stakeholders helps improve outcomes

Creating affordability requires collaboration across many stakeholders, including governments, developers, financial systems and households.

One good example is Via Verde, a 222-unit affordable housing project in the Bronx, completed in 2012.  The project was built with support from the New York City New Housing Market Place Plan.  The City of New York provided subsidies, tax incentives and underutilized land for the development., The City supported the project from the planning stages through the completion of the units. The City of New York provided subsidies, tax incentives and underutilized land for the development and met with the developer regularly to review and address obstacles in the development process.  The results are 151 rental units for low income households and 71 co-ops for middle-income households, all surrounded by usable greenspace. Built form for the units include bungalows, duplex units, live work units and townhomes.[vi] The project has won ten awards for its excellence.

Borneo Sporenburg in Amsterdam is another much discussed development that took significant collaboration. The project was the redevelopment of a waterfront dock into a 2,500-unit development. One hundred architects collaborated to come up with innovative designs that would provide a suburban feel with a density that was three times that of a conventional suburb. While the project design wasn’t a complete success, compact plotting of the units meant that the project provided individual outdoor space and parking for each unit, while achieving a density of 100 units per hectare.  At the same time, 30% of the units were designated for government subsidized housing.[vii]

There are many other excellent examples of how governments, private investors and non-profit organizations have come together to provide financing for affordable housing. The first non-profit run Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) in the U.S . – Housing Partner Equity Trust, was established in 2014. Private investors supply 95% of the fund’s investment and receive a modest return based on the REITs performance[viii].  The REIT in turn purchases and maintains affordable housing which are managed by non-profit organizations. The initial investment was $100,000,000 and has produced 2,900 units so far[ix]. REITs of this nature are mostly created at a national level.

A similar example is the London Homelessness Social Impact Bond. The City of London in the UK issued social impact bonds in 2012.  The money was given to non-profit organizations to provide housing to the homeless. London had set an objective to reduce homelessness for over 800 individuals. The resulting cost savings for the city as the result of a lower rate of homelessness was then given back to investors as a return[x].

These financial collaborations allow for scale that enables the purchase and maintenance of affordable housing to be financially viable. These collaborations do, however, require tax incentives to attract investors.

Our favourite example of collaboration in action is the revitalization of the Merchant’s Corner Hotel in Winnipeg. The run down hotel was being revitalized by the North End Community Renewal Corporation into a housing development with classroom space. When the project ran out of money, the University of Winnipeg Foundation kick-started a crowdfunding campaign to raise $2.7 million dollars to finish the project[xi]. 

Collaboration by households and investors is also starting to gain traction in many markets. Shared ownership has popped up as an innovative tenure type and is used in London, UK.  Households can buy a portion of a unit (say 25%) and an investor will buy the rest (75% in this example).  The household will pay rent to the investor on the portion they do not own. Co-housing, which started in Berlin, is also a growing international trend.  Two or three households will purchase and develop land together.  Companies are starting to pop up to help facilitate and guide the process of development for these types of ownership.       

Lesson 3: All levels of government in Canada need to think bigger on initiatives they are already undertaking

One example here is the Livret A savings account in France. This savings account acts much like the Canadian Tax Free Savings Account. While investors in France do accept a lower return than they could on other investments, the interest earned is tax free.  French banks then use the deposits to extend low cost loans to providers of affordable housing, which helped fund 70,000 affordable housing units in 2007 and 2008 alone.[xii]  Thus while the tax credit is a revenue reduction in both countries, the French have put that reduced revenue to good use.     

We have to give kudos to the City of Toronto for the recent breakthrough on laneway housing.  However, many major, highly unaffordable markets have introduced broader zoning changes to allow and encourage detached and attached accessory units in single detached neighborhoods. In other words, households can build stand-alone housing in their backyard.  They are referred to by different names and have varying unit sizes. Portland calls them granny suites, mother-in-law suites and studio apartments. Seattle calls them backyard cottages or detached accessory units. Sydney Australia calls them Fonzie suites, after the character in Happy Days. Portland waived development charges on detached accessory units and the number of permits issued rose from 86 in 2010, to 615 in 2016.[xiii]This compares to the additional 100 units expected to be generated per year by new changes to Toronto’s Laneway housing policy.

Lesson 4: Technology can change the way we build houses

Innovators are using 3-D printing to build homes.  The printers are very expensive and the design is (literally) a little rough around the edges as the walls do not come out as smooth structures.  However, the first (very small) printed house (produced in Texas) took only 48 hours to build and cost just $10,000[xiv].  In France, a 4-bedroom house was printed in 58 hours at a total cost of €176,000[xv].   


While we think there is a lot of will at the federal, provincial and municipal levels to find ways to build affordable housing, Toronto has fallen behind the curve on creative housing policy. Policymakers in the GTA will benefit by understanding approaches being used elsewhere in the world and the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches.

The exhibits created by our students and which have more information on each case study can be found through the link above.



[i] Global Property Guide (2018). House prices soar outside the Austrian capital, but Vienna slows.

[ii] Amann, Wolfgang & Mundt, Alexis. (n.d). The Austrian System of Social Housing Finance.

[iii] Maschaykh, Ulduz. (2017). How the City of Vienna Handles Affordable Housing and Inclusivity. Spacing Magazine.

[iv] Bauer, Eva (2017). Housing in Vienna. Austrian Federation of Limited Profit Housing Associations (presentation for the Amsterdam Conference on Social Housing Strategies in Cities.

[v] City of Toronto (2017). 2017 City of Toronto Budget Summary.

[vi] Bruner Foundation. (2014). Via Verde – The Green Way. Retrieved from:

[vii] Density Atlas. Borneo Sporenburg Residential Waterfront. Retrieved from:

[viii] Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (2016?). Housing Research Report: International Environmental Scan Social Finance for Affordable Housing.


[x] Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (2016?). Housing Research Report: International Environmental Scan Social Finance for Affordable Housing.

[xi] CBC News (2017). Merchants Hotel closer to ‘transformative’ affordable housing, education in the North End.

[xii] Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (2016). Housing Research Report: International Environmental Scan Social Finance for Affordable Housing.


[xiv] CTV News (2018). Startup to make 3D-printed concrete homes for US$4,000. CTV News.

[xv] Cowan, Michael (2018). The world’s first family to live in a 3D-printed home. BBC News.



Diana Petramala is Senior Researcher at Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development (CUR) in Toronto.


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