Headlines·Special Report

Sold! Housing boom brings radical changes to a new Waterdown

Waterdown's population will double in the next five years as GTA residents, lured by cheaper housing, move into town. The result is a unique set of challenges, including traffic, a cultural divide and a lack of inexpensive places to live. Part 2 of a 4 part series.

Town struggles with traffic, a cultural divide and nowhere for seniors to live

Patrick Araya moved to Waterdown a year ago in search of a small town atmosphere. "What we have here, there's no possibility of getting it Brampton," he said of his two-storey semi-detached home. Waterdown's population is expected to double in the next five years from new developments.

It's 3 p.m. on Tuesday afternoon, and the Waterdown where Judi Partridge sits is not the Waterdown of 10 years ago.

Cars line up and snarl traffic at stoplights nearby. A few kilometres away, noisy equipment digs into the dusty ground, working on eight developments that are expected to double the town's population of 18,000 in the next five years.

But Partridge, a councillor for Ward 15 in Flamborough, is optimistic.

"Come to Waterdown!" she says. "It's a great place to live and it's going to get better."

For the past eight years, people have heeded this. Lured by cheaper housing prices and proximity to the QEWand GO service, commuters from the Greater Toronto Area are moving to Waterdown in droves, snatching up palatial single-family homes with prices that creep ever upward. Housing prices in Hamilton in general went up six per cent from 2011 to 2012, and continue to increase and buck national trends. 

Faced with a lack of senior-friendly housing, Arend Kersten moved out of Waterdown earlier this year after 33 years. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

In 2012, the average house price in Waterdown was nearly $400,000, up from $288,060 in 2005. They're also selling faster — it took 33 days, on average to sell a house in 2012, more than a week faster than 2005. 

This development brings unique challenges in Waterdown. Historically, it is a small town where everyone knows everyone. This new influx brings commuters with city-like expectations, such as spacious roads and all-day transit.

'Genuinely scared'

It also means a potential clash between traditional Waterdown residents and the new arrivals, who come with "their own habits and culture," Partridge said.

"You have people who are genuinely scared. They're afraid of what will happen to their community."

There are other challenges. Waterdown's new developments are single-family homes in car-friendly subdivisions, which means seniors looking to downsize are sometimes pushed out of town by the lack of affordable housing, Partridge said. It also means young professionals have no choice but to head elsewhere for a starter condo.

Sold: How a hot housing market is changing Hamilton

A four-part series looking at Hamilton's housing price boom and what it means to the city.

Waterdown's boom has been years in the making, Partridge said. In 1999, the province designated Waterdown and Elfrida as growth areas. The former town of Flamborough balked at that, citing an inability to keep up with infrastructure demands. It fought and lost at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB).

Another OMB challenge followed five years later when the City of Hamilton wanted to pause development until it built a $45-million bypass on the north end of town. The developers won that challenge, Partridge said. They are now building right up to the future bypass location. The city, meanwhile, still doesn't know when the bypass will be finished. It's waiting for the Ministry of Environment to approve the relevant environmental assessments.

Partridge and the town's many non-profit agencies are trying to bridge the gap between old and new. In recent years, volunteers have helped double the number of community events in Waterdown.

'I bleed Flamborough'

Most noteworthy is the annual Ribfest, which began five years ago. Other events include an annual candlelit choral walk and regular movies in the park.

Arend Kersten, executive director of the Flamborough Chamber of Commerce, has seen the changes firsthand. He moved here 33 years ago in search of "a small, friendly close knit village," he said.

Population of Greater Waterdown:

1996 — 11,632

2001 — 14,988

2011 — 17,048

Population projected through the city's Growth Related Development Strategy:

2031 — 39,400

For a decade, he ran the Flamborough Review community newspaper. He and his wife Dianne raised their three daughters in the village. Over the years, he has had a hand in nearly every charity and event.

"I bleed Flamborough," he said. "There's no other way to put it, I guess."

Three years ago, his wife had knee replacement surgery. Then Kersten had a quadruple bypass. They could no longer handle their five-bedroom house, and looked for a smaller home with no stairs.

Moving from Waterdown 'traumatic' for some seniors

Options were limited. At one point, they put in an offer at a condo at the old high school but didn't sell their house in time.  After three years of looking, they moved to a condo in Ancaster in May.

"Our preference certainly was to stay in Flamborough and there just simply wasn't anything," Kersten said.

"There are all sorts of folks who have lived in Flamborough all their lives who are looking for the kind of accommodations we were, and it just isn't there," he said. "So they're forced to move out of town. For a lot of folks, that's traumatic."

Coun. Judi Partridge, left, chats with Shelley Campbell at the Jitterbug cafe. Campbell is open Sundays now to accommodate her drastically increasing customer base. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Kersten sees no immediate solution. The growth of single-family homes will continue "as quickly as the market can absorb the new construction," he said.

But "there's a desperate need for housing that's targeted toward seniors," he said. "I think any developer who comes in with that proposal will find themselves in a bonanza in terms of sales."

Thousands of new homes, zero new apartments

Partridge is advocating at the city level for more affordable housing. City figures show that from January 2008 to June 2013, there were 1,130 homes built. The majority were townhouses or single detached homes. There were zero new apartments.

"We need more apartment buildings," Partridge said. "I'm not talking about huge skyscrapers. I'm talking about affordable buildings where people can live in our core."

New developments have sprung up in Waterdown's north end around Parkside Drive. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Resident Shelley Campbell identifies another challenge — the traffic. The cars have increased but the roads are the same. The result, she said, is "insane."

Not that she's complaining. Campbell owns the Jitterbug café downtown. She's started opening on Sundays just to accommodate the new residents.

"It's been great for me," she said. "But from what I hear from the general population, it's the traffic."

Traffic doesn't bother Patrick Araya. The 33-year-old warehouse worker spent most of his life in Brampton until he moved to one of Waterdown's new subdivisions a year ago. Construction still surrounds his two-storey semi-detached home on Sadielou Boulevard.

'It feels like home'

It isn't just the long term residents who worry about the loss of community and small town character. Araya is like many of the newcomers– attracted by those qualities– and concerned about what continued growth will bring.

 Araya used to drive down to Waterdown to visit friends. When he decided to look for a house, it took him a week and a half. He paid around $305,000 for the new brick home, about $100,000 less than he would have paid for a similar house in Brampton, he said.

He doesn't mind the commute to work, which takes about 45 minutes one way. When he comes home, his favourite thing to do is "relax," he said.

Araya wanted the affordable price and the small-town atmosphere. But sometimes he worries that it will be lost.

"I think no matter what, with every single new development you go into, you're going to have that comfortable feeling until you see more and more people coming through," Araya said. 

For now though, Waterdown is "a quiet area," he said. "It feels like home."

The next Milton?

Sherrie Lauza, Araya's neighbour, moved from urban Hamilton to live in a small town. She worries that Waterdown will go the way of Milton — a small town that grows rapidly with new development.

"I'm a little nervous," said Lauza, who moved to Waterdown a year ago. "It may not be long before I move out of Waterdown and try to find another quiet town."

Local school boards are also trying to keep up with the growth. The Catholic board opened a new 64,000-square-foot elementary school, St. Thomas the Apostle, in 2012.

The public board built an addition onto Waterdown District High School in 2012 to expand its capacity to 1,701 students, which should be enough for the foreseeable future, said Daniel Del Bianco, senior facilities officer with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. 

With existing housing, Waterdown District's enrolment would peak in 2014/15 with 1,129 students. But if development projects come to fruition, Waterdown and Dundas will have about 100 more students than pupil places in 2027/28.

New schools to keep up with demand

As for elementary schools, the board could acquire land for as many as three elementary schools in the near future. The board has an educational development charge that allows it to buy land for new elementary schools, Del Bianco said. But the money to build the schools must come from the province. And the growth is happening faster than ministry funding approval, he said.

"It is both fascinating and challenging all at the same time, and it's something any school board experiencing growth faces."

Day by day, Waterdown and the City of Hamilton are dealing with the growth. Through Partridge's efforts, the city is meeting with Metrolinx about extending Waterdown's twice-a-day shuttle bus to the Aldershot GO station. Partridge maintains that through community effort, the community will keep its character.

"I think positively," she said.

The city didn't choose Waterdown's extreme development. But "we have to live with it. Let's embrace it and make it the best for our community as we can."

Average house prices in Waterdown