Software Engineering Graduate Tackles Housing Crisis | Waterloo News

After graduating from Waterloo, Bilal Akhtar (BSE ’19) saw a bright future ahead of him. Not only did he land a dream job at Cockroach Labs, a database company where he interned during his undergraduate studies, but he also spearheaded the company’s expansion into create an office in Toronto.

“Cockroach Labs is based in New York, but I wanted to stay in Toronto for a number of reasons,” says Akhtar. “So I asked them if they would let me open an office here and help recruit people. They were. We’ve since grown the Toronto office from two people to 21. We’re a group of professionals which includes software engineers from Waterloo.

Dreams of home ownership have all but evaporated

But even with a strong start in a tech career, it’s not easy for new graduates. In years past, a young paid tech professional in Toronto could live comfortably – enjoy the food, entertainment and multicultural activities that a thriving metropolis has to offer and be able to rent a stylish downtown apartment and eventually to buy a house.

For many, the dream of home ownership has all but evaporated in the GTA as home price increases have outpaced income gains. And the problem has now spread beyond Toronto. Since the pandemic, housing prices in Ontario’s urban centers have also soared, with house prices hitting record highs and some municipalities seeing price increases of up to 38% year over year. ‘other. Many people, especially recent graduates, recent immigrants and young families, are excluded from the market.

“When you do recruitment and retention of technicians in the GTA, the main concern that everyone has is what will my compensation be and what quality of life will I have in this city with this income,” explains Akhtar. .

“A lot of my Waterloo classmates in the software engineering program think it would be desirable to stay in the GTA, especially those who want to start a family and bring their children through the education system here. But they have also seen housing costs soar, making home ownership out of reach. That’s enough for them to reject the idea of ​​staying here or coming back, because the housing market is no better than in places like San Francisco or Seattle. They think that, without a better housing market to tip the scales in favor of Toronto, they might as well explore the same cities where their friends go. In addition, incomes are high enough that they can save more and think about home ownership later.

Skyrocketing housing costs may also displace technology investments. It traps more capital and investment in land values ​​rather than in productive Canadian businesses that would innovate and create jobs. Angel investors might discount a tech startup if they can get a more guaranteed, tax-free return by investing in real estate. From reduced business investment to expensive private housing, the social and economic cost of expensive housing is high.

Working to change the laws for more housing

Seeing the housing crisis unfold is one of the reasons Akhtar joined More Neighbors Toronto, a volunteer-run pro-housing organization advocating for more housing development in the GTA. The MNTO has worked to change the laws to allow the construction of other types of housing, forms of construction largely absent in the current market.

“In urban planning, there is a concept known as the missing link,” explains Akhtar. “The two extremes in housing are single-family homes on land at one end and condominiums and towers at the other. The missing middle is forms built between these extremes – housing types such as triplexes and quadplexes, townhouses, stacked townhouses and low-rise apartments. These types of homes offer people more living space than an apartment and some offer a private backyard, but they don’t have the land footprint of a single-family home. Missing intermediate housing can provide family-sized homes at prices much lower than single-detached homes.

The motivation behind the work of the MNTO is the recognition that much of the housing crisis in Ontario is a locally-based problem caused by insufficient supply. Ontario is expected to build 1.5 million homes over the next ten years to address the housing shortage. A series of development policies have created a perfect storm for scarce and unaffordable housing, including restrictive zoning laws, poor long-term planning, low public investment in social and affordable housing, and overly bureaucratic permit processes.

“We have been underbuilding for a long time – Canada has the fewest housing units per capita of the G20 countries – in a context of the highest population growth rate among the G7,” Akhtar said. “These two factors have contributed enormously to the housing crisis.”

Long-term risks of housing shortages

Having seen firsthand the results of the long-term housing shortage elsewhere, Akhtar says it’s a mistake we don’t want to replicate here.

“During my undergrad, I was on a co-op placement in a suburb south of San Francisco and saw the dysfunction of California’s housing shortage in plain sight – from the homeless to expensive apartments and rare in the suburbs,” he says. “The big downsides to working in the Bay Area are the cost of housing, higher crime rate and inequality. These are the long-term consequences of not building enough housing. It’s well documented in the Bay Area, a city infamous for its decades-long housing crisis. I don’t want to see Canadian cities make the same mistake.

Over time, a city might become like a gated community of people of means, with many more living in substandard or homeless housing.

“If you want a city to be fair – a city truly for everyone – we need to have housing of all shapes and sizes, not just single-family homes near metro and transit stops. The Toronto-Waterloo corridor has the third highest concentration of tech jobs in North America, after San Francisco and New York. Our technology sector is even bigger than the technology sector in the Seattle area. It is the most competitive location in Canada for tech jobs, a region that also has a concentration of strong STEM universities. If we don’t solve the housing crisis here, we risk losing tech talent to other regions, while deteriorating the quality of life for everyone here.

Gordon K. Morehouse