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Solutions To WR’s Housing Crisis: Finding The Missing Middle

In early October of 2020, I wrote an article outlining the housing crisis in Waterloo Region. 

The inspiration came from a Tweet that began circulating in the region a few months prior. A mother of two vocally expressed her dismay at the lack of affordable housing units for herself and her children to live comfortably in. 

This crisis has persisted into the new year. In fact, just last week a semi-detached home in Kitchener sold for $300,000 over the asking price. 

This is an issue facing many families and young people trying to find a home in the region.

Dr. Dawn Parker, a professor in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo, has been studying the housing situation in Waterloo for a decade. 

“I have been here for 11 years now, and initially the downtown’s were much sleepier and quite underdeveloped,” Dr. Parker said. 

“We didn’t have the huge student housing complexes around the Northdale area.”

Today, the skyline’s of both Waterloo and Kitchener are filled by tall skyscrapers.

“Initially, the cities were terrified that no one would come to our downtown cores, and that the area would die and that our community wouldn’t be vibrant. We have the opposite problem now,” Dr. Parker said. 

Dr. Parker’s research has covered many important issues in regards to housing in the region.

“We have a rental crisis with rent [prices] skyrocketing,” Dr. Parker said. 

Not only is there an affordability crisis when it comes to renting and purchasing homes, but there are also key demographics who are missing the opportunity to live in units that are functional and work for them and their families. 

“I have been saying it for many years … the one and two bedroom condo unit is overbuilt,” Dr. Parker explained. 

Indeed, the market for student housing and smaller apartments is overbuilt, as noted by Dr. Yu Huang, a PhD candidate who has been working alongside Dr. Parker. 

“Right now, there are so many apartments or high-rise apartments that especially target students that are under construction,” Dr. Huang said. 

With the pandemic drastically changing the way students are learning, many of these units lie vacant as remote learning is conducted from students’ family homes.

The overbuilding of these smaller high-rise units is leading to what Dr. Parker has identified as “the missing middle.”

“‘The missing middle’ is generally defined as low-rise but high density housing that has family sized units,” Parker explained. 

“Missing middle” homes could come in the form of stacked townhouses, three or four-story walk-up apartments, or three or four-story row houses that are split into four different units. 

“It’s not a duplex, but it’s also not a mid-rise or a high-rise,” Dr. Parker said. 

“The point being, that these are family sized units. Three bedroom and one and a half baths or two baths.”

Another important development concept that Dr. Parker has outlined in her research is the “urban village.”

“This concept came from Seattle’s visioning report where they specifically refer to urban villages,” Dr. Parker said.

“Really what I’m talking about is some kind of a centre that has retail. Before the pandemic hit, I went to a conference in Germany and I stayed in the suburbs,” Dr. Parker explained. 

The centre Dr. Parker stayed in was four or five kilometres from the city, which was a 20-minute ride on the tram.

“There was one street that had a produce market, a butcher, a baker, some really nice local restaurants, maybe even a shoe repair shop … everything you would need to live your day-to-day life,” Dr. Parker described. 

Dr. Parker explained how the area was surrounded by low-rise, high density apartment buildings. This ensured that community members had access to the daily essentials they needed, and there was enough population density to keep retail going. 

This is the urban village Parker is advocating for in KW. 

So why are these “missing middle” homes and “urban villages” not being considered amongst developers? Dr. Parker explained why in the Urban Growth and Change Research Group Findings and Analysis Report published in January of this year. 

In the report, Dr. Parker noted that housing markets often work imperfectly towards the public good. Not only that, but developers typically model their new builds based on what has sold previously. Those individuals who did not buy, or were only able to buy their second choice are left out of the data that drives developers’ perception of market demand. 

“If we have no local urban villages to assess, the product is perceived as risky and uncertain,” the report said.

If there is no data that developers can look to, who can we expect to take the leap and advocate for the development of urban villages?

In the same report, Dr. Parker described that “an entrepreneurial risk taker needs to be the first mover to supply the product.”

Heavily linked to successful urban villages, is the accessibility of transit for citizens. 

Dr. Huang has been studying the importance of transit-oriented development (TOD), in Waterloo Region.

“TOD’s have better access to transit, nearby parks, retail stores, housing and jobs,” Dr. Huang explained. 

“It’s basically an integrated development.” 

In Dr. Huang’s recent research, she utilized data from a 2016/2017 Residential Location Choice Survey. 

“35 per cent of [homebuyers] surveyed had a TOD preference, but they live outside of the TOD area,” Dr. Huang explained. 

Dr. Parker further clarified that although TOD neighbourhoods are typically concentrated in urban areas, she believes that TOD needs to be moved to the suburbs.

“We need to build cool, awesome, great places in the suburbs,” Dr. Parker said.

Dr. Parker also noted that suburban areas outside of the downtown core, that have been built, have failed to meet the demands of the community. 

“The next time places like the Boardwalk or Williamsburg are built, it can’t be built the way it is now. It’s just killing us,” Dr. Parker said. 

TOD also presents some environmental benefits. 

“Some people in the suburbs might be stuck driving two cars,” Dr. Parker explained. 

If TOD neighbourhoods are brought to the suburbs, there would be a reduction in car use as a direct result of providing people accessibility to everyday essentials via transit or the ability to bike and walk. 

Dr. Parker noted that there are some positive developments being made in terms of housing that fits the needs of the ‘missing middle.’ 

“The Lancaster corridor is great. Someone built some cool stacked townhome apartments there a few years ago, which I thought was a really good move.”

More positive change has been occurring with regards to affordable housing.

“Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge have also been putting smaller parcels of municipal held land up for affordable housing over the past six months at a pretty rapid rate,” Dr. Parker said. 

Dr. Parker explained how the region could take a constructive approach to creating functional housing for all residents in the community. 

“The cities are in a relative position of power right now. This is the moment where they can really re-envision their development standards, their zoning standards, their design guidelines, and actively advocate.”


Amelia is the Station Manager for Radio Laurier. Starting out as a DJ in 2017, Amelia now leads the Station. She loves Radio Laurier almost as much as Spike Lee films and her Nona’s cooking. Follow @ameliamolaschm1