In a city where space is at a premium, tiny condos are the new family home. Learning to survive in 700 square feet
Shannon Bury was 27, with a marketing job in the 905 and her own condo in Burlington, when the big city came to fetch her. The company she worked for was acquired by a larger firm, Pareto Marketing, which moved her job to Toronto. She moved along with it and traded up, selling her place in Burlington and buying a 607-square-foot, one-bedroom-plus-den unit in Charlie, a 36-storey tower proposed for Charlotte Street near King and Spadina. She got the unit pre-construction for less than $300,000, which was a steal, because really she’d purchased much more than space: she bought the dream Toronto and its developers have been selling throughout this decade-long boom. She was single in the city, blonde and svelte, with a well-paying career-track job and, soon, a condo on the edge of clubland. Toronto would be at her feet and at her service. It was the spring of 2008.
Then she met a guy. A great guy, Paul LeBrun, a Winnipeg native who’d landed in Toronto with a Bay Street securities job. They met at a mutual friend’s condo in February 2010, at a party to watch the Vancouver Olympics men’s gold medal hockey game. (The running joke among their friends is that Paul still doesn’t know who won; he was too busy wooing Shannon.) Before long they were living together at Yonge and St. Clair, with an eye to moving into her condo later that year, once it was finished. But the construction fell behind schedule, and their life together began to outpace the cranes. They got married in the summer of 2012, and when they moved into Charlie that November, they were already planning their family. “We figured it would take eight months or so to get pregnant,” she says. “Then there’d be nine months of pregnancy, so we’d have time to enjoy condo life before the baby arrived.” She conceived by Christmas.
Jacob, now 10 months old, is busy teaching his parents the true meaning of square footage. To make room for all the baby equipment, Shannon and Paul relegated to storage an armchair, an end table, a coffee table and, most recently, a loveseat. A lone couch remains from their brief childless-couple condo life. “Our time is spent in play dates, and play dates are spent with everyone sitting on the floor anyway,” Shannon says. Jacob’s playtime inevitably spills out into the hallway. The neighbours don’t complain, and neither does Shannon when, for instance, her 20-something party-boy neighbour has friends over for pre-drinks on the balcony before heading out clubbing. “I can’t hold it against him,” she says. “I’d be doing the same thing in his position. I’m jealous, really.”
Everything that happened to Shannon and Paul in the last few years is also happening to the city itself, shaped by forces greater than any of them. Toronto has been swept up in a maelstrom of human and economic migration that has swelled its population in the core. Shannon and Paul bought into the New Toronto brand: the vertical city of luxury living, cultural experience, Momofuku food and trendy boutiques. That’s how the lifestyle is marketed by politicians and developers alike, and it’s incredibly appealing to young adults in all their forms: staid professionals, graduating millennials, hipsters.
Now their lives are changing, in a wave that could turn out to be as big as the one that herded them downtown: they are becoming parents. Downtown Toronto is being reshaped by the latest baby boom. The total number of preschool-age kids is rising fastest where condo towers are going up, and nowhere is the demographic shift happening more intensely than in the crane-addled area south of Queen from University to Dufferin; there, the number of kids under age five has increased since 2006 by a whopping 65 per cent. Toronto is bearing witness to the birth of a new generational phenomenon: the Condo Kid.
And the city is welcoming its Condo Kids, in essence, by putting their cribs in the alcove nursery that condo marketers call a “den.” The real estate tracking firm Urbanation says that, as of last March, there are more than 25,000 condo units under construction in the former City of Toronto, and few of them will have more than two bedrooms. Only 21 of the 50 projects in pre-construction will have three-bedroom units. Even the units with two bedrooms are getting smaller: the average size of a condo in the GTA has dropped precipitously since 2009, from well over 900 square feet to 797 square feet today. Singles in the city are coupling up, having kids and looking for bigger homes, yet developers continue to flood the landscape with ever-tinier units—a situation abetted by a lack of planning and enabled by politicians. A quiet revolution is underway in how Toronto raises kids, one that was perfectly predictable but for which the city has failed to prepare. A whole generation of families are finding themselves stuck in their starter homes.