Software engineering grad tackles the housing crisis

Friday, April 1, 2022

When Bilal Akhtar graduated from Waterloo’s software engineering program in 2019 he saw a bright future ahead. Not only had he landed a dream job at Cockroach Labs, a database company where he interned during his undergraduate degree, but he also led the company’s expansion to create a Toronto-based office.

“Cockroach Labs are based in New York, but I wanted to stay in Toronto for a number of reasons,” Bilal said. “So, I asked them, ‘Would you be willing to let me start an office here and help recruit people?’ They were and since then we’ve grown the Toronto office from two people to the 21 it is today, a group of professionals that includes software engineers as far away as Waterloo.”

photo of Bilal Akhtar

Bilal Akhtar graduated from Waterloo’s Software Engineering program in 2019. He is a software engineer at Cockroach Labs, where he works on the storage layer and log-structured-merged trees. He is also a member of MNTO — More Neighbours Toronto — a recently formed housing-advocacy group making the case to municipal and provincial governments to build more homes of all kinds to address the housing crisis in the Greater Toronto Area.

But even with a strong start in a tech career, it isn’t easy for new graduates. In years past, a young professional on a tech salary in Toronto could live comfortably — enjoy the food, entertainment and multicultural activities a thriving metropolis has to offer and be able to rent a stylish apartment in the core and eventually buy a home. 

For many, the dream of home ownership has all but evaporated in the GTA as increases in house prices have outstripped income gains. And the problem has expanded beyond Toronto. Since the pandemic, housing prices throughout Ontario’s urban centres have soared, with home prices hitting records and some municipalities seeing price increases by as much as 38 per cent year-over-year. Many people, and especially recent graduates and recent immigrants, are priced out of the market. 

“When you’re doing tech recruiting and retention in the GTA, the major concern everyone asks is what will be my compensation and what quality of life will I have in this city on this income,” Bilal said. 

“A lot of my Waterloo classmates in the software engineering program feel that staying in the GTA would be desirable, especially those that want to start a family and have their kids go through the education system here. But they have also seen spiralling housing costs that have put home ownership out of reach. That’s enough for them to dismiss the idea of staying here or coming back, as 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 scale in Toronto’s favour, they may as well explore the same cities where most of their friends are going. Plus, incomes there are high enough that they can save up more in the meantime and think about homeownership later.”

Skyrocketing housing costs can also displace tech investment. It traps more capital and investment in land values instead of in productive Canadian businesses that would innovate and create jobs. Angel investors might discount a tech start-up if they can get a more guaranteed, tax-free return from investing in real estate. From reduced investment in businesses to people priced out of homes, the social and economic cost of expensive housing is high.

Seeing the housing crisis unfold is one of the reasons Bilal joined More Neighbours Toronto, a pro-housing, volunteer-led organization advocating for more housing development across the GTA. MNTO has been working to change laws to allow other kinds of housing to be constructed, built forms largely absent in today’s market.

“In urban planning, there’s a concept known as the missing middle,” Bilal said. 

“The two extremes in housing are detached homes on a lot at one end and condo apartments and high-rises at the other. The missing middle are built forms between those extremes — housing types such as triplexes and quadplexes, townhomes, stacked townhomes, and low-rise apartments. These housing types give people more living space than an apartment and some offer a private backyard, but they don’t have the land footprint a detached home has. Missing middle housing can provide family-sized homes at price points much lower than that of detached homes.”

The motivation behind MNTO’s work is the recognition that a large part of Ontario’s housing crisis is a home-grown issue caused by undersupply. Ontario would have to build 1.5 million homes within the next ten years to address the housing shortage. From restrictive zoning laws to poor long-term planning to low public investment in social and affordable housing and excessively bureaucratic permitting processes, a range of development policies have created a perfect storm for scarce and unaffordable housing.

“We have been underbuilding for a long time — Canada has the fewest housing units per capita of G20 countries — against a backdrop of having the highest population growth rate among the G7,” Bilal said. “Those two factors have hugely contributed to the housing crisis.”

Having seen the outcomes firsthand of long-term housing undersupply elsewhere Bilal says it’s a mistake we’d not want to replicate here.

“During my undergrad degree, I was on a co-op placement in a suburb south of San Francisco and I saw the dysfunction of California’s housing shortage in plain sight — from the homelessness to the expensive, scarce apartments in the suburbs,” he recounts. “The big negatives of working in the Bay area are the cost of housing, the higher crime rate and the inequities. 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 do not want to see Canadian cities make that same mistake.” 

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

“If you want a city to be equitable — a city truly for everyone — we need to have housing of all forms, not just detached homes near the subway and transit stops. The Toronto–Waterloo corridor has the third largest concentration of tech jobs in North America, after San Francisco and New York. The Toronto–Waterloo tech sector is even larger than the tech sector in the Seattle area. This is Canada’s most competitive place for tech jobs, a region that also has a concentration of strong STEM universities. If we do not solve the housing crisis here, we risk losing tech talent to other regions, while worsening the quality of life of everyone here.”

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