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Calgarians weigh in on Day 2 of housing strategy public hearings

Calgarians once again went before city councillors to share their views on whether or not the City of Calgary should approve the proposed Calgary housing strategy.

At issue for most of the speakers from the public on Friday was the potential for citywide upzoning of land parcels to R-CG, which would accommodate existing single detached homes, or form of rowhouse buildings, townhouses, duplex, semi-detached and cottage housing.

Mike Borkristl, vice chair of the Calgary Inner City Builders Association, spoke at length with councillors about the economics of blanket R-CG zoning, saying that it has the potential to address fundamental market issues with housing in Calgary.

“Affordability is not necessarily low-cost housing or subsidized housing. It’s what people can afford within their income level. And what the city is missing right now is the level of $300k to $600k.”

“What happens is that there’s a large income base that can afford that but it’s not available… the reason if they can’t afford that they go down. So they go down to the lower cost housing, they go down to subsidized housing, and that leaves a real deficit in our low cost housing.”

Affordability, he said, is not necessarily providing low-income or subsidized housing, but rather providing housing in the “missing middle.”

Borkristl outlined how delays in processes to go from R-C1 or R-C2 to R-CG can take months, which leads to increased carrying costs for builders on the order of about $500 per day.

“That’s $70,000 that just got added to the cost of that development.”

Lower prices possible for homes

He said that the certainty of blanket zoning for R-CG would reduce delays that lead to higher prices, and would give certainty to developers who want to build higher density in the inner city.

Councillor Richard Pootmans asked Borkristl about what would become of supply and demand issues for housing, with Borkristl replying that there simply wasn’t enough housing available between the $300,000 to $600,000 range.

Borkristl also said that the conditions of the market meant that higher density housing would not be built in wealthy areas where there has been substantial opposition to blanket zoning.

“We’re not going into an affluent area and putting in a $1 million per side semi-detached. This is designed to help that missing middle and go after that market that we’re truly missing. So I think the supply and demand is going to change quite a bit.”

Asking about the limitations of that free-market solution, Councillor Jennifer Wyness said she didn’t understand how building more high density homes would stop speculators from purchasing them from other Canadian cities.

“I just don’t see how someone buying a house online from Vancouver or Toronto is really factoring that in. They’re used to trying to bid on properties and are coming in and out bidding even developers here, and people looking for homes here.”

Borkristl said that the issue is that currently there are 50 buyers for every home that goes on the market, and that drives up prices. He said that the solution is to increase the supply of homes, so that demand can be met, driving down prices during bidding.

“That’s economics. We’re trying to solve that. We’re trying to find a way to get more builders building more products, so that goes away.”

Results of zoning changes elsewhere yielded affordable results

Robert Falconer, a doctoral candidate with the London School of Economics and a researcher with the School of Public Policy—but who was attending the public submissions as a private citizen—said that his recent research indicated that there were both pros and cons to the R-CG zoning.

He said that the lack of zoning and lack of housing starts in Okotoks benefited current homeowners.

“It benefits incumbent owners, it increased their home values and purchasing power from home equity loans. It gives them a larger inheritance for the children, quieter neighbourhoods. However, it does come with trade offs,” Falconer said.

“Research shows that children wishing to returned to the neighbourhood or town they grew up in must extend further away to find affordable housing.”

He said that on the other side, businesses considering where to invest consider the affordability for their employees.

“Garmin, for example, recently expanded in Cochrane creating 200 new jobs from mostly young STEM workers seeking to buy new homes who can afford to reside there. Plus an additional 800 jobs that will support them and wraparound services,” Falconer said.

He said that zoning empirically does work to address affordable housing issues.

“Minneapolis enacted zoning reforms in recent years and it led to lower rents. Research in Helsinki shows that even expensive new housing can create moving changes. Higher-income households vacate older units for new ones, and open these older units up to households and lower quintiles.”

Read More about the economics of housing pricing in LiveWire Calgary’s Data lens: Calgary housing more expensive, harder to obtain

Social issues at heart of demands over accessible housing

“I recognize that housing is a complex issue that calls for knowledge, expertise, and wide action. Now this is precisely why this council commissioned the Housing Affordability Task Force, who, drawing on their wide and deep expertise in relevant areas came up with a robust set of recommendations that address a wide spectrum of housing on a systemic scale,” said Srimal Ranasinghe.

“As many of my fellow Calgarians have already argued, persuasively, there’s a very strong economic, ecological, equity base case firmly situated within a robust democratic framework for city council to pass the full suite of recommendations.”

A major focus of the morning public speakers was reducing homelessness in the city and affecting meaningful change for those Calgarians who have been living in poverty.

Kevin Webb, a member of the HATF and emergency shelter director for the Calgary Drop-In Centre (DI), spoke about the long-term effects of not approving the HATF recommendations.

“If you look at your Housing Assessment Report of 84,600 individuals that cannot afford their housing: if 1 per cent of those individuals fall into homelessness and have to access shelter services—840 individuals—our shelter system in the city will be dramatically overcapacity,” said Webb.

“We’ve been incredibly fortunate in the city for the past number of years, where we have always had a little buffer of shelter space. It has kept our encampment numbers down, it has allowed us to do collaboration efforts with the city… if action is not taken to accept these recommendations, we will no longer have shelter space in the city.”

Webb said to the Community Development Committee members that already the DI has seen an increase of 350 unique users, and that in August, there was a 20 per cent increase in the number of individuals seeking emergency shelter space.

The issue, said Webb, is not that the shelter doesn’t have the capacity to help people find homes, it’s that there is a zero per cent vacancy rate.

“Today, those 496 people [using the DI] woke up with no hope because there is no housing in our city. Additional shelter space is not the answer to this. Additional housing is.”

Revisions needed say community members for blanket zoning to be passed

Bob Morrison with the Rutland Park Community Association didn’t disagree with the need for affordable housing in Calgary but remained strongly opposed to the R-CG zoning.

“We appreciate the work of the task force, but we remain strongly opposed to R-CG as base residential land use, removal of minimum parking requirements, exempting any development from a public hearing process, and reduction in municipal reserve,” he said.

“We also want small local park spaces which are currently designated R-C1 to be protected and ask that you take the time to more completely engage with Calgarians before approving the strategy.”

He said that the blanket zoning of R-CG would do nothing to enhance their community, and disputed claims that blanket rezoning would actually increase affordability.

He claimed that changing the zoning would actually reduce the inventory of bungalows in the community’s affordable housing stock, reducing the number of people being able to live in existing affordable housing.

Morrison also claimed that land currently used for parks could be used for housing—two major parks in the community are classified by the city of Calgary as R-C2.

“As the city searches for land for affordable housing, it is essential that parks and open spaces remain free from, and unimpaired by development. No land should be removed from parks and open spaces and municipal reserve should not decrease,” he said.

“The housing strategy must focus specifically if not exclusively, on the needs of lower income, especially single family households. There is no greater need than that.”

Dan Evans, a resident of Crescent Heights, weighed in against the current blanket zoning strategy saying that it didn’t sufficiently consider the heritage value of properties.

An amendment to better consider the heritage of Calgary was needed, he said.

“We’re very concerned today that a single uniform R-CG zoning across the city will threaten heritage assets,” Evans said.

“We support expanding RCG land use across the city. Every community should accommodate more density by adopting R-CG zoning in neighbourhood local areas. But I’d like to propose that there’d be some mechanism in place to identify and preserve districts within communities.”

Evans said that removing heritage homes that are in good condition but are over 100 years old, and heritage mature trees would not be aligned with the city’s goals for heritage preservation.