Housing reform — and a pop-up zine workshop

A sneak peek of blanket rezoning.

On weekends, The Sprawl sends out an email newsletter called Saturday Morning Sprawl. Subscribe here so you don't miss a dispatch! Here is this week's edition.

Good morning folks! Right off the top, I want to let you know that Sam Hester and I are doing another drop-in Sprawl event next weekend, but this time we are taking our show on the road to the Central Library (yes, I'll bring my printing press). More on that in a moment.

But first, let's dig into the big item at city hall these days: blanket rezoning.

City council is slated to hold a public hearing and vote on blanket rezoning, which is part of the city's housing strategy, on April 22. If approved, this would allow developers to build "missing middle" multifamily housing like rowhouses and townhouses in established neighbourhoods without needing a public hearing and council approval.

Instead, these land uses would become a discretionary use citywide, meaning they'd be reviewed and approved (or rejected) by city admin.

As LiveWire Calgary reported this week, under the current rules, when R-CG (grade-oriented infill) land-use changes come before council, the vast majority of them get approved—94% since 2014, according to the city. Even councillors opposed to blanket rezoning mostly vote yes.

Now six councillors have signed onto a motion to cancel the April public hearing and put the rezoning issue to a plebiscite during the next election in October 2025. They argue that "blanket rezoning impacts every low density residential property owner, every property taxpayer, and all Calgary residents as well as the character and nature of the communities in which they live." This motion goes to council's executive committee on Tuesday.

In September, the same six councillors voted to remove blanket rezoning from the housing strategy (Councillors Sonya Sharp, Sean Chu, Andre Chabot, Peter Demong, Dan McLean and Terry Wong). Councillor Sharp, who led that effort, said Calgarians' democratic rights should be protected.

"We can’t cut the public out of a process," Sharp said at the time. "A public hearing ensures the community voice is heard, and should not stop us from building more housing."

But Sharp's motion to cut blanket rezoning out of the strategy failed 9-6.

At the time, Mayor Jyoti Gondek suggested the six had it backwards. "If we are going to deny administration the ability to start an engagement process—then followed by a full public hearing—then it’s the people who vote no to this that are actually denying the public their voice," Gondek said.

In September, Councillor Sharp’s motion to cut blanket rezoning from the housing strategy failed 9 – 6.

But let's set the politics aside for a moment. The blanket rezoning item went to the city's planning commission this week, giving some valuable context on this issue.

The planning commission was presented with some eye-popping numbers from city admin. Although housing in Calgary is considered relatively affordable compared to other Canadian cities, the average new single-detatched house in Calgary costs $1.64 million. A duplex isn't too far from $1 million, at $903,000. And the average new row house—which blanket rezoning would encourage—is $586,000.

"How is a $600,000 row house affordable for a family that is making $60,000 a year?" asked Councillor Raj Dhaliwal, one of the commission's two council members (there are also two people from city admin on the commission, plus six citizen members). Others asked similar questions.

"All our experience around housing production tells us if we lower those barriers and enable that market to flourish, that will produce supply," said city planning director Josh White. "And in this instance, produce a supply of a type that is important to adding to housing diversity in a price range that improves relative affordability."

"So it's about creating a regulatory environment for housing to thrive."

How is a $600,000 row house affordable for a family that is making $60,000 a year?

Councillor Raj Dhaliwal

While blanket rezoning is part of the housing strategy that was approved in September, it also fits into the city's climate strategy and the Municipal Development Plan—the city's long-range growth blueprint which was approved in 2009, and aims to shift half of all new growth into established neighbourhoods.

After fifteen years, the city isn't hitting its targets for shifting growth inward rather than outward. That said, the growth at the city's edges is much different than the low-density suburbs of yesteryear. About half of development in new neighbourhoods is multifamily housing. Many new communities are built with R-G zoning, which allows for townhouses and row houses, in addition to single-family homes and duplexes.

It's the same type of zoning that's being proposed for established neighbourhoods citywide.

"Have you had an uprising from the people that live in R-G communities saying, I can't stand living here?" Gondek asked rhetorically on Thursday.

No, admin replied.

"So all the periphery wards—what we traditionally call the suburbs—have been doing this since 2016... And there has not been a mass uprising of the public saying, How dare you? Okay. I just wanted to make sure that I hadn't missed that somewhere."

Have you had an uprising from the people that live in R‑G communities saying: I can’t stand living here?

Mayor Jyoti Gondek

But established neighbourhoods are a different context than building from scratch. (Indeed, the C in R-CG stands for "contextual.") To date, redevelopment has been focused in neighbourhoods in and around the core, including neighbourhoods where R-CG has been tested out. These are inner-city areas with high land values; city admin anticipates that as more housing types are encouraged in areas with lower land values, it will make more units more affordable.

"Builders are biased towards places with less market risk—and less market risk in more premium neighbourhoods like West Hillhurst or Altadore," said White. "Those are the lowest hanging fruit in terms of market opportunity. By reducing that regulatory risk elsewhere in the city, we feel that that peanut butter will be spread more thinly and more evenly across the city than it is today."

To add in another food metaphor, this is where the so-called "donut of decline" comes in. These are the post-war neighbourhoods built in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, where populations are waning. From census data, city admin says 86% of established communities in Calgary are below their peak population due to life cycle.

Builders are biased towards places with less market risk… in more premium neighbourhoods like West Hillhurst or Altadore.

Josh White, City planning director

"We have a very large geography of the city that was built before 1980," said White. "And a large proportion of that area built before 1980, outside the core inner-city area, hasn't experienced any redevelopment. And so we see a lot of opportunity in those sort of middle ring communities."

Join us in person next weekend! The Sprawl is doing a pop-up zine workshop at the Central Library from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 16. Sam Hester and I will be set up in the Create Space, on the main floor, to the right of the stairs when you walk in.

I'll get something rigged up on the printing press for you to print. And Sam will have materials for you to make your own zine (not just fold one of ours—I mean write, draw and make your own!).

It's a drop-in deal, so feel free to swing by anytime.

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl.

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