Despite pandemic, demand for housing drives Windsor building boom

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Windsor Star/Brian Cross


Windsor is experiencing a residential building boom not seen in years, despite the economy-hammering COVID-19 pandemic arriving just three months into 2020.

According to construction activity reports, the city issued building permits for 752 housing units between January and the end of November this year. That easily beats the 681 issued for the same period in 2019 and eclipses the 349 units approved in 2018 and the 364 in 2017.

“We did have a really strong year again this year,” chief building official John Revell said this week of the most recent building figures, which tend to fairly accurately reflect the performance for the entire year since December isn’t usually a very active time for starting construction. He said he was surprised by the strong numbers, “given COVID.”

“But there’s demand,” he said. “And builders know that, so they’ve ramped up quickly to build a lot of houses. They’re trying to capitalize on the market.”

Mayor Drew Dilkens said: “It’s been remarkable that, despite the pandemic, the growth continues.”

Revell said extremely low interest rates have helped drive the demand for housing. And the mayor said a another big factor is simple population growth. He pointed to figures released July 1 that show a 1.7 per cent increase for the Windsor metropolitan area in one year, better than the province’s 1.6 per cent and Canada’s 1.4 per cent. And when you look at Windsor alone — removing nearby municipalities — the population rose 2.1 per cent to a population of 234,948.

Total construction value of all those homes was $208.5 million, or $277,203 per home on average, which is costlier than the $240,457 per home average in 2019. They were split up between 237 single-family homes with an average construction value of $438,818,  174 rowhouses worth $277,862 and 205 apartment units with an average construction value of $186,682. There were also 52 semi-detached homes and duplex units. And there were 53 additional dwelling units compared to just 14 the year before, indicating that new rules allowing homeowners to more easily add a unit to their properties — a basement apartment, an apartment above a garage, or even a separate tiny house in the backyard — are catching on in a big way.

There were also 31 units created in new buildings that combine commercial on the ground floor and residential above, evidence of another trend starting to pop up in commercial core areas such as on Erie and Wyandotte streets.

Total value of construction so far in 2020 was $348 million. That’s a decrease from 2019 when the total was $391 million, due largely to a drop in government and institutional construction, from $107 million in 2019 to $58 million this year. Revell said the amount of construction in recent years has been at near-record levels. Total construction was $273.5 million in 2018 and $313.3 million in 2017.

“It’s been the 1990s since we’ve seen this much activity — the number of permits (3,171 in 2019 and 2,903 in 2020) and value of construction,” he said, recalling that at one point in the 1990s the city was issuing around 4,000 permits per year. “It’s been that long since we’ve done what we’re doing now,” Revell said.

Revell said his department has managed to issue permits and make inspections on new projects at a decent pace despite the limitations of the pandemic. It’s fortunate the building department made the switch from paper to digital about two years ago, which translated into a much more efficient processing of applications, drawings and other requirements. This became especially important when staff started working from home around the end of March. Building inspectors continued working out of their vehicles as they visited job sites under strict social distancing protocols. And the city gained permission from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to do some inspections remotely using an app on a smartphone. The contractor can walk around the construction site and show all the details that need scrutiny.

For example, with a plumbing inspection, the inspector can ask to see the work from different angles, or ask the contractor to run water through the pipes. And the inspector can tell the contractor if the work is approved or needs changes.

“That was pretty major,” Revell said of the remote inspections. “Previous to that it wasn’t allowed and the Ministry liked it so much they’re allowing other municipalities to do it too.”

he biggest project approved by far in 2020 was the city’s own $39-million ($30 million construction value) Meadowbrook affordable housing project in Forest Glade. When completed it will have 145 units on 10 storeys. The next biggest project is St. Clair College’s five-storey student residence ($18 million construction value), followed by the $15-million ($13 million construction value) transformation of a historic playing card factory into a new James L. Dunn french immersion school for the public school board in the 1100 block of Mercer Street. Coming in at $8.2 million is one of the three 60-unit, seven-storey condo buildings under construction in the 1400 block of Banwell Road.

The most expensive house built in 2020 has a $1.05-million construction value. It’s located on Shoreview Circle, near the Town of Tecumseh border.