Townhouses in the Renfrew neighbourhood of Calgary. Photo: iStock/benedek

Density alone won’t solve the housing crisis — so what will?

We’re losing the affordable units we already have.

In the midst of a national housing crisis, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has pointed to the gap between the number of households and available homes as the main driver of our country’s dwindling affordability.

While the economic bust of 2014 spared Calgarians from the skyrocketing prices observed in Canada’s largest cities over the last decade, our city isn’t immune to the affordability challenge—especially as Calgary’s economy recovers and interprovincial migration rebounds.

And evidence of this is already showing.

Over the first half of this year, nearly 14,000 people relocated to Calgary, reinvigorating what had remained a sluggish rental market for nearly a decade, and pricing out many renters from homeownership. (In the last decade, Calgary’s population has grown by 22,000 people per year, on average).

Densification and redevelopment have long been championed by experts, builders, and city leaders as a solution to the housing shortfall. Building more housing, they argue, will translate into increased affordability for everyone.

“Adding more supply of all kinds closer in will help make the inner city more affordable…. We’re not building enough by far,” Ward 9 Councillor Gian Carlo Carra recently wrote on social media.

But while ending exclusionary zoning practices that allow only single-family homes is essential for affordability, supply alone is not enough.

“If you want more supply, you have to start talking about what’s the right supply for people,” said Carolyn Whitzman, adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s geography department. “It’s meaningless to talk about [supply] in a generic sense, without talking about housing for whom, at what sizes, what income categories and price points.”

If building more is only part of the solution, what else needs to be done to mitigate the affordability challenge?

If you want more supply, you have to start talking about what’s the right supply for people.

Carolyn Whitzman,

Adjunct Professor, University of Ottawa

The problem with filtering

In Calgary, the city’s affordable housing strategy is focused on supporting those transitioning out of homelessness as well as very low income earners. The housing need of families earning over 65% of Calgary’s median income (or over $60,000) is expected to be met by the market.

In a city where one in five Calgarians already spend more than 30% of their income on housing, speeding up construction of the more than 44,000 homes needed to accommodate our city’s forecasted growth over the next five years is crucial.

“At the moment we enjoy, in the Calgary metropolitan area, this enviable position of being one of the most affordable metropolitan regions in Canada,” said Brian Hahn, CEO of BILD Calgary Region, the local home-builders’ association. “But that’s not something you can stand still and admire for long, because there continues to be demand. So we have to work very diligently on making sure there is supply—and affordable supply.”

It can take between 15 and 50 years before new housing units reach low income earners.

Exclusionary zoning is one of the factors limiting the ability of developers to promptly build the homes required to meet market demand. As our city is expected to grow by 88,000 residents by 2026, Calgary’s housing stock needs to expand accordingly.

But leaving the housing supply to the market is unlikely to produce housing at the price-points low- and middle-income Calgarians require today. Arguably, affordability is meant to trickle down, as cheaper units are vacated by those able to afford the new supply in a process known as filtering.

Filtering, however, is a slow process. It can take between 15 and 50 years before new housing units reach low income earners. Currently, much of the affordable rental stock in the Calgary market was built more than four decades ago, and its age puts it at risk of being replaced by units priced up to 60% higher.

“Filtering doesn’t mean that the cost [of housing] goes down,” Whitzman said. “It just means that rich people get a better apartment.”

Public acquisition of centrally located land close to amenities is essential to any successful affordable housing strategy, especially in the context of gentrification, financialization and urban sprawl.

“If you want housing in the right places, with good services nearby, at the right quality, [and] affordable in perpetuity, the simplest thing is for cities to do it,” Whitzman said. “Ownership of land is really important.”

Filtering doesn’t mean that the cost [of housing] goes down. It just means that rich people get a better apartment.

Carolyn Whitzman,

Adjunct Professor, University of Ottawa

Preventing the loss of affordable units

The solution isn’t just about building new units—it’s also about keeping the affordable units that already exist, but are disappearing.

For every new affordable unit built in Canada between 2011 and 2016, 15 were lost—and among Canada’s largest cities, Calgary has the lowest rate of non-market units per 500 households.

Furthermore, a recent report estimates Calgary has lost more than 4,000 market rental units priced below $750 in the last decade.

To prevent the loss of affordable units in Calgary, albeit at a small scale, Norfolk Housing has acquired six properties in Hillhurst and Sunnyside since 1980. “We saw that there’s value in having these assets in communities where there’s access to transit, and shopping, and all these critical amenities,” said Maya Kambeitz, executive director of Norfolk Housing Association and a member of the city’s affordable housing task force.

Managing a total of 139 units, this non-profit uses a mixed-income model to provide a home to low- and middle-income Calgarians. The rents paid by the tenants of 79 units help ensure residents of the remaining 60 don’t pay more than 30% of their income.

Market rental rates at Norfolk range between $1,000 for a one-bedroom unit to $1,500 for a three-bedroom—reasonable amounts given the buildings were constructed in the ‘70s. By contrast, the average asking rent in Sunnyside is currently $1,900 for a one-bedroom and over $2,000 for a three-bedroom unit, according to RentFaster data.

For organizations like Norfolk Housing, enabling programs that allow them to upgrade and expand their portfolio would be ideal, Kambeitz says. “I would like more of what we had in the beginning.”

We saw that there’s value in having these assets in communities where there’s access to transit, and shopping, and all these critical amenities.

Maya Kambeitz,

Executive Director, Norfolk Housing Association

When the organization started out in 1980, the availability of low cost loans from CMHC allowed them to acquire and develop Norfolk’s initial stock.

“We need [the] private sector to be a partner in helping us create that thriving spectrum of housing supply and housing types,” Kambeitz says. “But we also need to be mindful that the private market is having a really difficult time responding to the need of this level of affordability, and it does require government investment and subsidy.”

The city remains focused on supply

For the City of Calgary, preserving units in the stock they own and operate is also important, but the city owns only about 10% of the non-market stock. The housing strategy doesn’t include any actions related to the preservation of naturally-occurring affordable housing, which is what Norfolk Housing does.

“The strategy’s focus has been on preserving our own stock, and then encouraging the supply of new affordable housing,” said Tim Ward, manager of housing solutions at the City of Calgary.

To encourage supply, Ward explains, the city provides pre-development grants and rebates, expedites the approval process for affordable housing, and sells city-owned land to non-profit housing providers.

The latter is enabled by a 2019 council policy that makes non-market land available to non-profits every two years.

Since the creation of this policy, the parcels sold by the city have led to the construction of 285 affordable units.

On November 1, council is slated to vote on the sale of additional non-market parcels; the number and location of the released parcels, as well as the non-profits to benefit, would be disclosed in 2023.

But despite a non-market housing deficit of over 43,000 units and half of Calgary neighbourhoods lacking affordable housing, the acquisition of more land has not been identified as a priority by the city. “At this point, we’ve had enough supply of city land in various locations that we haven’t needed to do that,” Ward said, adding that updates to the affordable housing strategy are currently in the works.

“We are going through a process of investigating best practice, talking to other cities, talking to experts like Carolyn Whitzman, to understand what needs to be changed about the strategy."

In September the provincial government announced its plan to sell about 27,000 public housing units over the next decade.

'No magic bullets when it comes to housing'

Despite the urgency of acquiring land and preserving affordable units, Canadian cities also face jurisdictional and capital barriers that limit their capacity to act.

“Property taxes alone aren’t enough to fund major infrastructure,” said Whitzman. “And it’s partly revenues that make cities a kind of clunky level of government to do things like acquisitions or scaling up non-profits or buying up large chunks of land.”

To do this, intergovernmental coordination is essential, as the powers of municipalities are limited by the conflicting priorities of senior levels of government. “A lot of the mechanisms that the federal and provincial governments use inflate [housing] prices very straightforwardly,” Whitzman said, pointing to the impact of homebuyer grants on house-price inflation.

To add insult to injury, in September the provincial government announced its plan to sell about 27,000 public housing units over the next decade, citing the high cost of maintaining these aging properties.

In the meantime, cities across Canada, including Calgary, continue to face the effects of decreased housing affordability, namely food insecurity, mental illness, and homelessness, among others.

“There are no magic bullets when it comes to housing,” Whitzman said. “It’s a bunch of things that have to happen together from all levels of government. It’s doable, it would even be easy technically—but it’s not easy politically.”

Ximena González is a freelance journalist whose work has also appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Tyee and Jacobin.

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