A low-rise mixed use condo in Changchun, China

There is a lot of talk about building low-cost housing. It is just talk.

So how can empty talk be turned into reality? It would take three things:
1. Big changes to municipal zoning bylaws & neighbourhood infrastructures.
2. The building of basic low-cost housing.
3. Everyone understanding that these buildings are designed to be affordable.

A six storey walk-up condo in north-east China.

These condos, and small purpose-built rental buildings, can't be taller than five floors. The bottom floor can—and probably should—contain retail and commercial units.

(Although in China, walk-ups go as high as seven-stories as buyers will climb the extra stairs in exchange for far lower monthly maintenance fees.)

These low-rise condo buildings should be be allowed downtown on residential streets and along major streets in the suburbs. It is critical that they have 24-hour bus or streetcar service. For this model to thrive, the municipalities must insure that these neighbourhoods are zoned for local retail shopping and have adequate schools, parks, libraries and community centres.

The retail and commercial zoning by-laws must be "start-up business" friendly. All the little independent mom and pop shops that the large mixed-condo developments and the trendy streets don't want need these buildings to be able to get established and then flourish.

Building applications should be fast-tracked through the approval stages and they need sufficient political support to insure that these affordable housing projects don't get rejected because of NIMBY pressures.

Walkups are not new
A boom in the construction of walk-up rental apartment buildings occurred in Toronto from the late 1910s through the 1920s. A second generation of small walk-up apartment buildings were built after World War Two. They are often overlooked but they still line many streets in Toronto

Apartment house, 610-614 Ontario St, elevation, November 1912

Apartments, 147-151 Palmerston Ave, elevation,  October 8, 1912

Row of small walk-up apartment buildings, Wilson Avenue, North York

A walk-up on Wilson Avenue. Note the staircase in the entrance way.

We stopped building walk-ups when condominiums become more profitable to build.

What makes walk-ups different?

A modern six-storey walk-up condo in Changchun, northeast China.

To make good affordable housing, instead of making apartments smaller and smaller, it is important that we build large two and three-bedroom units.

The savings come from building four to five-storey apartment buildings and by stripping away the luxuries; not by making smaller and smaller shoeboxes.

No parking
There can't be any underground parking because it costs $25,000 or more a unit to build an underground parking garage and it costs $500 a year per parking unit for servicing, cleaning and maintenance. Underground garages need lighting, exhaust fans, emergency exits, heated ramps and security systems.

When the building ages, it can cost millions to renovate an underground parking garage so the Reserve Funds need to be built up years prior to the work being done.

Instead of parking, these buildings have basements that contains residential lockers, bicycle racks and common element service rooms.

No elevators
Elevators are expensive to install, service, maintain and to refurbish. Concrete staircases are cheap to build, never break down and need little ongoing maintenance.

These condos will be a lot faster and cheaper to build if there isn't any underground parking and elevators.

No central air conditioning

Air conditioning on a low-rise condo on Sheppard Ave West, Toronto.

The residents can install after-market air conditioning units that sit on small concrete pads.

No balconies
Balconies are expensive to install and very expensive to refurbish 20-30 years down the road when the concrete and railings detoriate. Balconies are hard to insulate and they are a major source of water leaks.

No balconies means no satellite dishes, cigarette smokers, propane BBQs or the storage of flammables on balconies.

No central hot water

A typical hot water & washing machine setup in Asia.

The units will have their own electric hot water tank installed in the bathroom. The units are supplied only with cold water. You turn on the tank 20 minutes before you want a shower and turn it off when your shower is over. The hot water remaining in the tank will be used later to wash the dishes.

The savings is in not having an expensive "instant hot water" system that requires two boilers and having hot water continously running through the pipes 24 hours a day.

Also there are no "pin-hole" leaks and expensive replacement of hot water pipes every 15-20 years.

No amenities
There will be no swimming pools, hot tubs, party rooms, theatres, basketball courts or guest suites. Forget having a fancy two-storey lobby.

Want a fitness centre? Sure thing; Hauling your case of beer, cat litter and groceries up those stairs is all the excercise you'll need.

Individual metering
Each unit will have separate metering for electricity, water and natural gas. You pay for your own telephone, Internet and entertainment services.

Individual units

A well designed ground-floor unit in China.

The units can run from plain-Jane ho-hum units to eye-popping custom-built beauties. It depends on the owner's tastes and budget. Over time, renovations keep the units fresh and desirable.

At night this Korean-style tea room doubles up as a guest bedroom, or a third bedroom.

Inexpensive condos buildings can contain luxury units. Bare-bone models could create a local industry that designs, builds and installs custom condo interiors for the owners when their finances allow it.

Will they sell?
It will take a while for North Americans to appreciate the value here but once a few are built, I am sure new developments will be very successful.

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