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Calgary housing strategy Day 1: Overall support, stories of hardship without a home

Dozens of speakers with a variety of perspectives and lived experience had their five minutes Thursday to share their thoughts on Calgary’s proposed housing strategy.

The strategy, which folded in some recommendations from the Housing and Affordability Task Force (HATF), was laid out during the Sept. 14 Community Development Committee meeting.

There are 60+ recommendations covering zoning, land dispersion, incentives, affordable housing and more in the strategy with the goal of adding 3,000 new non-market homes per year, along with 1,000 more market homes than would normally be built in a year.

“This plan has been built carefully with serious consideration of the actions we need to take to get us out of the housing crisis,” said Tim Ward, manager of housing solutions with the City of Calgary.

One of the speakers on Thursday, Snizhana Bora, arrived in Calgary three months ago from Ukraine. She, her mom and her three-year-old daughter left due to the ongoing war with Russia.  Her husband remains in Turkey where he cannot obtain a visa.

Bora said that she’d never planned on having to leave Ukraine and come to Canada.

“In my country, I had a home, I had a car, I have my beautiful job, I had everything,” she said.

“When I arrived here three months ago, I thought it will be easy to get home because we can rent and it can be more easy for us. But not. It was many, many problems.”

Bora said that she was being declined for a home because she had a small child, no credit history, and wasn’t able to show employment. It’s been difficult to tell her daughter why she has no home, no bed of her own, and no toys.

“Explain to a child why you cannot help them by people saying no to you,” she said.

Day 1 offered widespread support for the housing strategy

Business groups, social agencies, vulnerable Calgarians and regular citizens lined up for the bulk of 12 hours to offer their support for the plan, with many sharing stories of the impact high housing and rental costs have on them. Others offered data showing how the City was becoming increasingly unaffordable and where

Speakers like 20-year-old Hazen Ellwood were pretty blunt with city councillors on the impact the housing strategy would have.

“Unsurprisingly, my job does not pay me enough to decide whether or not I like living with my parents. Even less once you factor in the master’s degree that I have to expedite so that I don’t get priced out of this city,” Ellwood said.

“This economy forces me to live with my parents, where I likely could remain until I’m 30.”

Ellwood said he was there to speak for equity in the city’s housing systems, where everyone could find a place they could call home.

“Land use regulatory abuse has now squeezed economic opportunity and stability from the entire middle class. It’s beyond time for the city to give it back,” Ellwood said.  

“Some of y’all think blanket RCG is radical for the same reason that my blue-collar coworkers think I’m radical, although they’ve called me worse. It empowers diversity and it represents a challenge to prescribed power structures.”

Others like Hanita Simard channeled the community building of 2013’s Calgary flood into the importance of giving others a place to live.

“In 2023, in one of the richest cities in the country, people can’t find a place to live. That is unacceptable,” she said.  

“Calgary does not have enough homes for people to live in, and anything available to buy or rent is breathtakingly expensive. This means that people who don’t own a house right now might never own a home. This means that people who have good, well-paying jobs can’t find a home to buy or rent.  For young people, it means their future is grim.”

Midday rally for affordable housing

Calgary Alliance for the Common Good gathers to protest for action to be taken on affordable housing, at City Hall on Thursday, September 14, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Alberta NDP MLAs from across Calgary, along with the caucus’ housing critic Janis Irwin, attended the Alliance for the Common Good’s non-partisan protest for affordable housing over the noon hour.

Irwin said that the party was there to support the demands for action on affordable housing, and to urge all orders of government to work together to tackle the crisis.

“The latest data is showing that Calgarians in order to be able to rent in this city are having to make $84,000 which is up from $67,000 Last year, which is just incomprehensible,” said Irwin.

On the table for possible solutions, said Irwin, included the possibility of short-term rent controls—which were a central talking point of students from the University of Calgary who attended the protest.

“These rent increases are out of control. We know that nearly every jurisdiction across Canada has some sort of rent cap. I think looking at a temporary rent cap, perhaps at the rate of inflation is not something that’s radical.”

Mateusz Salmassi, the VP for External for the University of Calgary Student’s Union, said that it was vital for Calgary to address the needs of housing students now, or the future economic prosperity of the city would be jeopardized.

“You can’t talk about wanting to have students here in the City of Calgary, building the economic future of the city, paying high taxes, paying the rent—future engineers, future lawyers and doctors—and not provide the actual housing they need and a roof over their heads.”

“Students are human beings who need to get to the end of their degree. If you want those nurses and lawyers, you can’t get to graduation if you don’t have a roof over your head.”

Other representatives of groups under the Calgary Alliance for the Common Good that attended the protest were those urging consideration about affordable housing as a method of combating climate change, addressing affordable housing for immigrant communities, and those who require affordable housing to have an economic future in the city despite having good paying work already.

“I’m here because I have a master’s degree, a good-paying job and I can’t afford to move out of my parent’s basement,” said Inam Teja.

“I’m here representing all the people like me who want to move out of their parents’ basement. All of the people whose rents have gone up $500, $1000 $2,000 over the last year and all those people struggling to find a place to live in Calgary with dignity.”

He said that during the day he works with members of the homeless community to try find housing, but then in turn has to go home and do the same for himself.

“I’m lucky you know, I have supportive parents and I get to sleep with a roof over my head every night. Not everybody has these privileges,” Teja said.

Calgary Alliance for the Common Good gathers to protest for action to be taken on affordable housing, at City Hall on Thursday, September 14, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Hearing from many different people

Community Development Committee chair, Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner said they heard from a lot of different groups.

This was just Day 1 of proceedings.  They got through roughly half of the panels, with half left to step up on Friday. It’s believed that a large contingent against portions of the housing strategy will take part in the Friday panels.

“I think what we’re hearing is support for the strategy and we are hearing it from non-profit providers. We are hearing it from new Calgarians, from students, we are hearing it from industry that this is a really comprehensive strategy before us,” Penner said.

Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp said that they’ve heard from many in support of the proposal. Still, she expected there to be a robust discussion coming on the citywide upzoning. Sharp did tease an amendment that she’s set to propose that would add a level of accountability to the document.

“It feels like that’s a little bit missing in this document,” she said.

“We want to make sure that we’re actually putting our money where our mouth is and walking the walk.”

Sharp wants to see better reporting back to council, and more specifics on what they’ll actually be reporting when they do talk about the outcomes of this strategy.

“It’s really good to always make sure, on a strategy like this that’s that important that we’re consistently monitoring and making sure we’re achieving the goals we’re setting out and promising Calgarians.”

Councillors will return at 9:30 a.m. Friday for the second day of the public hearing. A decision may come on the strategy, but that may be pushed into Saturday. That could make it butt up against an emergency meeting of Calgary city council to discuss the housing situation.

  • Files on the noon hour protest were written up by Aryn Toombs