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Council wants a closer look at Calgary surplus land for affordable housing

Calgary city council wants to review a list of 407 surplus parcels of city land, as only two came up as suitable for residential development – based on current city-imposed restrictions.  

On Thursday, the City’s Community Development Committee heard a presentation from several city departments on leveraging surplus land for affordable housing. The plan was put forward to address challenges in sustaining the current Non-Market Housing Land Sale program, which provides surplus city land at a below-market rate for housing.

Since 2018, nine sites have been developed, resulting in 300 additional homes.

City admin said in order to ensure the non-market land sale program continues, they need to find more surplus land. That’s proven to be a challenge, they said.

“Since the program launched, there have been many challenges in providing up to 10 parcels of land every two years,” said Amanda Szpecht with the City of Calgary’s housing solutions.

“Administration’s recent review of city surplus land identified 407 parcels, and from that review, only two suitable sites are for affordable housing purposes.”

The admin report outlines the barriers preventing more parcels from being included – everything from “contending corporate priorities” to policies around stewarding land within business units, and land use restrictions, such as on community centre sites.

Only surplus parcels of city land are available for affordable housing, the admin report read.

City admin hopes to create a housing land fund through 2024 budget amendments to purchase, prepare and deliver sites to housing providers. They also want to examine the corporate land strategy programs and look at the potential temporary leasing of individual parcels.

The city has taken several steps recently to address affordable housing. Earlier this week, they said three parcels of land would be made available at below-market rates for affordable housing. They’d also entered into a partnership with the United Way and the Calgary Homeless Foundation to help fund affordable housing construction, and create a pool fund to pay for first and last month’s rent.

Business units shouldn’t exchange money to pay for city land

Mayor Jyoti Gondek said she struggled with a couple of items in the admin report.

First, rather than the Enhanced Rationalization program, it should be called “we have this land what should we do with it.”

Further, she pointed out a suggested action to compensate different business units for the under their stewardship. She reminded admin that these are internal business units. A proposed fund in place to purchase land for affordable housing has good purpose, just not between city departments.

“There should not be money changing hands because one use is more important right now than another,” she said.

“I do not agree at all that business units who are clinging to land for no reason should be compensated for giving up that way. They should absolutely have that same priority that the rest of this corporation has, that people who are without a house in Calgary without a home should be able to live with dignity.”

She said that city business units need to get past the idea of being land stewards. It’s been an issue since she joined council five years ago, the mayor said.

Thirteen different action items were suggested in the Land for Affordable Housing Action Plan. There was also a series of amendments made in the Non-Market Housing Land Disposition Policy that emphasized a commitment to affordable housing, and, in particular, Indigenous Affordable Housing.

These items were approved, along with an amendment from Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra to make the list of 407 surplus sites available to councillors, confidentially, for review.

Committee Chair Kourtney Penner said they want to drill down further into what’s suitable, what’s not, and why.

“I think that’s why we brought that third recommendation today was so that we could have a better understanding of what qualifies or disqualifies a parcel of land for being eligible and suitable,” she said.