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OPINION: If we love detached houses so much, why do we need zoning to protect them?

Editor‘s Note: This piece by Nathan Hawryluk is a rebuttal to Friday’s opinion piece by Richard White.

Richard White closed his piece about loving detached houses by talking about the supply and value of detached houses. Let’s talk about detached houses and prices.

Housing is a wicked problem. For generations, people and governments have tried to make housing both a good investment and broadly affordable. The financialization of housing exacerbates this tension.

For example, in 2019, Calgarians aged 25-34 would need average home prices to fall $147,000 (1/3 of current value) or full-time earnings to increase to $88,000/year (a 50 per cent increase) to spend less than 30 per cent of their pre-tax earnings on housing. In the late 1970s, young people in Calgary could save a 20 per cent down payment for the average home in 6 years of typical full-time work. Now, it’s 10 years.

Calgary has kept housing broadly affordable through perimeter growth. It’s cheaper to build on the edge of town, but it requires more infrastructure. Rough math suggests the City should devote $3 billion/year to replacement costs. With so much expensive infrastructure, we must choose to increase our productivity (value/hectare), raise taxes, let infrastructure decay, or a combination of all three.

Increasing productivity by infilling established areas makes sense. But it’s unpopular. And to be fair, people have good reasons to dislike construction. New houses benefit people everywhere but bother the people next door. So, it’s understandable that current residents fight new houses.

What happens when owners of detached homes, like me, fight new housing near us?

  1. We increase the cost of new houses. Delaying construction, regulating aesthetics, and limiting production encourages builders to make ‘luxury homes,’ like capping production might encourage Toyota to make more Lexuses than Camrys.
  2. We create policies that push highly disruptive change in a few areas and prevent any degree of change in most areas. Toronto and Vancouver exemplify this. Density and anti-density policies benefit current homeowners and the largest developers.
  3. We use concentrated density and anti-density to distort and speculate on housing prices.
  4. We make it difficult to build missing middle housing like duplexes and rowhouses, which can be attainable family-sized homes. Those homes tend to have lower construction costs per square foot than tall apartments, so people could choose something between a detached home and a 500 square-foot apartment. A variety of housing could allow three generations of a family to afford to live within walking distance of each other and for people to stay in their neighbourhood as their lives change.
  5. We prevent private investment around places where we’ve collectively made large public investments. This includes allowing only detached homes a street or two from C-Train stations or where we’ve installed expensive traffic calming, though everyone in Calgary maintains those public investments.

What can Calgarians do?

Change is difficult and unavoidable. When we forbid all change in our neighbourhoods, we ensure that any change will be highly disruptive. Disruptive change includes East Village declining then filling with towers, or a city going bankrupt gradually, then suddenly.

We can acknowledge that cities are complex, adaptive systems, and relegalize many small, incremental changes so our neighbourhoods can become more productive.

We can allow the next increment of housing and businesses everywhere. That’s at least a duplex and neighbourhood-scaled businesses as of right now. Triplexes, fourplexes, or more could produce more affordable houses. Concerns about displacement and gentrification might encourage allowing a lower level of growth. Reducing minimum lot sizes, as Houston did more than 20 years ago, could help improve our land use bylaw which bans or discourages rebuilding affordable houses that already exist in Calgary.

We can allow more physically accessible housing.

I doubt developers will fight restrictive covenants to build narrow detached homes and duplexes. Especially given land values in places with covenants. To say, “Our neighbourhood won’t allow even the idea of duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes as a token contribution to our city’s financial and affordability problems” rings as hollow as “I gave at the office.”

If most people still want detached homes, then people will choose not to build missing middle housing. People would still be allowed to build detached homes everywhere, just like they are now in neighbourhoods that allow duplexes. It would simply mean that the City wouldn’t prevent people from making tradeoffs.

Allowing some degree of change everywhere could help Calgary avoid the worst of North America’s development patterns: perimeter growth, NIMBY-YIMBY battles, and displacement by decline. Currently, our planning and financial systems are contentious. If we don’t allow a small degree of change everywhere, people may stridently call for bigger changes.

  • Nathan Hawryluk and his family live in the lovely neighbourhood of Renfrew. He was the Renfrew Community Association’s traffic director (2017-2018), planning director (2018-2019), and representative on the working group for Calgary’s first local area plan, the North Hill Communities Local Area Plan.