Calgary city council’s hesitation on housing

A primer on what’s happened so far.

Subscribe to Sprawlcast on iTunes, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. A lightly-edited transcript of this episode is below, for those who would rather read than listen.

MAYOR JYOTI GONDEK: If we are really going to take this housing crisis seriously, we have to make sure that we are implementing solutions as quickly as possible.

COUNCILLOR KOURTNEY PENNER: We have the data that tells us this is the right move. This is what Calgarians are asking us to do.

COUNCILLOR ANDRE CHABOT: I'm reluctant to move forward on setting us up for failure.

COUNCILLOR TERRY WONG: I'm not against what we're talking about here. What I'm asking for is just a little more time.

JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): Sprawlcast is back after a summer break. And city council is back too after having August off—and it’s about to dive right into one of the biggest issues this council will face in its term. And that issue, of course, is the housing crisis.

You’re going to hear that term a lot in the coming days and weeks at city hall. Politicians of all kinds like to repeat that line—“we are in a crisis”—as if they might forget what is obvious.

But what will actually be done about it? Well, different cities are taking some different actions.

CNBC NEWS: New York is going to begin enforcing a new law that regulates Airbnb rentals in New York. It happens today and some say could amount to an effective ban on short term rentals.

KLASZUS: That’s the news out of New York City this month, where city council has cracked down on housing being used for short-term vacation stays.

YAHOO! FINANCE: So how this works is that hosts cannot rent out their entire apartment for less than 30 days and the landlord has to stay in that apartment if they're renting it out.

KLASZUS: Airbnb took the city to court over the issue...

NBC NEWS: Airbnb has a new beef with New York City. They are now suing the city over a new law that puts tougher restrictions on short term rentals. The company calls the 2022 ordinance a de facto ban, which severely limits the number of people who can be hosts.

KLASZUS: ... But a judge dismissed that lawsuit in August. Meanwhile, here in Canada, Halifax’s city council has introduced similar restrictions that came into effect this month.

CTV ATLANTIC: In a residential zone, an Airbnb can only be run within an owner’s home. So as a result, some who own more than one property have decided to sell rather than be forced into shifting to long-term rentals.

Cities like New York City and Halifax are cracking down on housing being used as Airbnbs.

KLASZUS: Calgary city hall has kept its hands off that particular lever. Earlier this year council made some minor tweaks to the rules that regulate short-term rentals, or STRs, in Calgary. Hosts will need a proper fire safety plan, for example. And if they’re in a condo, they need proof of the condo board’s consent. But so long as STRs like Airbnbs are properly licensed, they’re good to go.

Here’s Tim Ward, the city’s manager of housing solutions, speaking to council in June—followed by Councillor Evan Spencer.

TIM WARD: Short-term rentals are absolutely a viable part of a thriving housing market. And so they have a place to play in terms of offering support, you know, and being part of that kind of mix.

COUNCILLOR EVAN SPENCER: I have received communications that have appreciation for helping set up the the STRs for a great relationship with the city moving forward.

Short-term rentals are absolutely a viable part of a thriving housing market.

Tim Ward,

Manager of Housing Solutions, City of Calgary

KLASZUS: So that’s where Calgary city hall stands on Airbnb. But council has been grappling with other aspects of the housing crisis—and has so far struggled to really do anything other than say, “we’re in a crisis.” Council’s paralysis became very clear in June.

CTV CALGARY: In a narrow vote, city council rejected the recommendations from its housing affordability task force last night. The task force worked for a year and suggested 33 actions to deal with the housing affordability crisis, but council rejected the plan—voting eight to seven against it.

KLASZUS: That decision lasted all of one night before council members realized… whoops, maybe that’s not going to fly.

CTV CALGARY: Calgary city council has had a change of heart after facing immense backlash for rejecting affordable housing recommendations yesterday. Today, most of council agreed to reconsider their vote and go back to the drawing board.

KLASZUS: Now that summer’s over, council members are poised to make some actual decisions on what city hall will—and won’t—do.

'We are falling behind as a city'

In this episode, I want to condense what’s happened on the floor of council on this file since June 2022. That’s when council approved the creation of a “Housing and Affordability Task Force.” We’re going to listen in to a bit of that meeting.

COUNCILLOR COURTNEY WALCOTT: The reason why I bring this motion forward is really to help understand the municipal role in what we do. With regard to housing, our role—it sits within zoning... It sits within our land sale policies, it sits within our incentives and levies. It sits within our own surplus land. And of course, it sits with our budget.

COUNCILLOR KOURTNEY PENNER: This is critical work to our city. And we are falling behind as a city, frankly, when compared to other municipalities across the country. And this is an opportunity for us to be a leader.

WALCOTT: We green-light this long term work of creating a task force that will partner with the entire housing continuum to ensure that, while there are many barriers to housing, that the City of Calgary and our policies are not one of them.

KLASZUS: Council voted 12-3 to move ahead with this affordable Housing Task Force. The three who voted against were Councillors Sean Chu, Andre Chabot and Dan McLean.

COUNCILLOR DAN McLEAN: I agree this is one of the most pressing issues our society faces—affordable housing. And my belief is the way to get there is less red tape, less committees, less task forces. Let's make it easier for people, builders, to build more homes more efficiently, more faster. To me, this is the opposite. It sounds like more red tape.

KLASZUS: This task force was made up of 10 experts and citizens, and five members of city administration. They started meeting a year ago, in September. Nine months later, in June, the task force presented its recommendations to council. Its number one recommendation? “Make it easier to build housing across the city.”

My belief is the way to get there is less red tape, less committees, less task forces. Let’s make it easier for people, builders, to build more homes.

Councillor Dan McLean

Here’s Tim Ward again, the city’s manager of housing solutions—and one of the admin staff on the task force.

WARD: These are the numbers that speak to the situation we are in—one in five can't afford their housing, one in 10 are at risk of homelessness. By some indicators, rents may be up by as much as 25% in the last year. Over the last four years, the average price for a home has increased by 29% from 420,000 to 540,000.

KLASZUS: Now we’ll hear from Teresa Goldstein and Maya Kambeitz—another two members of the task force. Goldstein is an urban planner, and Kambeitz runs a local housing non-profit.

TERESA GOLDSTEIN: The bottom line is that the task force recommendations call for action now.

MAYA KAMBEITZ: Inaction is costly financially and socially. And housing affordability, again, I repeat, is vital to our economic well-being. We all have a role to play in tackling this complex issue. So today, I call on each one of us to think about what we can do individually to support the recommendations that are presented today.

GOLDSTEIN: The people that are affected by this crisis are not strangers or some distant group—they're our friends, our family members, our neighbours, even our own children, now and in the future. We also cannot pretend that this doesn't exist, or that somebody else is going to take care of it. Keeping things the same will land us right here again and again.

KLASZUS: Council heard that Calgary has grown by 100,000 people over the past four years, and the city’s forecasted growth is expected to be even greater in the next four.

So what to do about it? The task force recommended creating 3,000 non-market homes a year to help meet the need.

Keeping things the same will land us right here again and again.

Teresa Goldstein, Housing and Affordability Task Force

WARD: It is undoubtedly a significantly stretching goal to get to 3,000 units per year. I won't sugar-coat how challenging that would be to get there. And it, of course, relies on provincial and federal funding to help us get there. But I think the biggest thing that the task force considered is the way to bring those governments to the table is by demonstrating ambition and by demonstrating what is needed in our community.

KLASZUS: The recommendations on non-market housing weren’t really a point of contention at council. But when it came to market housing and what should be done—that’s where council was split. The recommendations call for 1,000 additional market homes a year. In other words, a thousand on top of what is typically built in the city.

But the levers affecting market housing are contentious, including zoning changes, eliminating minimum parking requirements, and “investigating” rent control models. Rent control falls under the purview of the Alberta government. Here’s Councillor Sonya Sharp.

SONYA SHARP: Why would we even pursue rent control when it's clearly not in the city's jurisdiction?

WARD: I think as Maya spoke to—as the task force has been doing this work, they have seen the conditions in the city change. We've seen indications that rents have gone up by as much as 25%. I think they felt it would be remiss not to consider the value of investigating how to make sure residents are not experiencing such drastic swings. I think we do acknowledge that that would be an advocacy piece, and that we would advocate to the provincial government based on our findings.

The proposal for citywide upzoning

KLASZUS: But the real sticking point was around zoning—and specifically upzoning, or what’s sometimes called “blanket rezoning.”

The task force recommended making R-CG the base residential zoning district citywide. That’s a bit of planning jargon—what does it mean? Well, R-CG zoning allows for not just single-family homes and duplexes, but rowhouses and townhouses as well. The kinds of housing that are sometimes called “missing middle” or “gentle density.”

Making this change would be similar, in some ways, to the city reforming its policy on secondary suites in 2018. Before that, individual secondary suites had to come before council for a public hearing. In 2018 council made secondary suites a “discretionary use.” Owners still needed to meet certain criteria and have a building permit, but they didn’t need to come before city council—and their neighbours couldn’t protest in city council chambers either.

Making this change would be similar, in some ways, to the city reforming its policy on secondary suites in 2018.

And it would be similar with R-CG. Housing developers would still go through the application process, but individual parcels for rowhousing wouldn’t need a public hearing and council’s approval for rezoning. R-CG is already used in parts of the city—think of inner-city neighbourhoods like Capitol Hill and Banff Trail. And a similar district, RG zoning, is used in new suburban neighbourhoods.

Here’s Councillor Raj Dhaliwal asking a question of Josh White, the city’s planning director.

COUNCILLOR RAJ DHALIWAL: Why R-CG? Did we look at any other innovative way of bringing another stock housing district to kind of use as a lever? And what will be the maximum unit limit on R-CG, if it's going into an established area? We have seen four to eight to six—how will we control that?

JOSH WHITE: Yeah, so the on an individual parcel, it's based on a maximum unit count of four principal dwelling units and four secondary suites. And part of the reason why we've leaned into R-CG is because this is a district that we tested out, tried it out seven or eight years ago. We've seen relatively good take up, we've been able to refine the rules to be more effective—the markets responded to it. It's basically achieving what it was set out to do. And so we want to just expand on that success.

KLASZUS: Meanwhile, at this same meeting, Mayor Jyoti Gondek said past city councils did too little when it came to affordable housing.

MAYOR JYOTI GONDEK: My only other question is for you, Mr. Ward—a number of years ago, 2015, 2016, there was something called the Calgary Housing Affordability Collective, and it submitted recommendations to council. Which went nowhere. At that time, were many of these measures recommended—were ideas like this proposed?

WARD: Yes, they were.

GONDEK: But council didn't act.

WARD: I would maybe say that I think the emphasis was very heavily on the non-profit sector, and volunteer actors to deliver. The difference in emphasis, I would say, [with] the Housing and Affordability Task Force is that it really asks council to act and to take action.

Why councillors voted for—and against—the recommendations

KLASZUS: Now we’re going to listen in to some of council’s debate from June 6.

GONDEK: We had a task force of experts weigh in on this, which included our administration, and I'm not going to second guess what the experts had to say. We've already heard that we had the same advice seven years ago, and we just didn't feel like taking it. So, I won't be making that mistake again. I'll definitely be supporting this.

SPENCER: While we might be tempted to think we're out on an edge here, I know there's also a large contingent in the city—I've seen it trickle in through one of my staffers—that would say these recommendations don't go far enough. So, I temper that, and I really look at this and I go, “I feel that what I'm looking at today is thoughtful, and it is tempered by the realities that we are facing as a city.”

DHALIWAL: These recommendations are not going to make everybody happy. That's a given. But, you know, I was skeptical coming in, but I'm willing to give it a chance. After all the Q&A, after what I've heard, I'm willing to put some political oxygen into it, and take it to a step where we could see a final outcome.

SHARP: I do know we need to take action to address housing affordability, because I also know firsthand what it's like. I have immigrant parents living with me because they can't afford to live on their own. So, I get it. And it's not about me not having support or empathy.... and it's not about the money, and it's not disagreeing that we should do something, but it's a leap to think we should just accept the expert recommendations with no further debate on what it all means on whether Calgarians support those recommendations, and as if really today there's only one answer to these questions. So, with that, I can't support this.

We had a task force of experts weigh in on this, which included our administration, and I'm not going to second guess what the experts had to say.

Mayor Jyoti Gondek

It's a leap to think we should just accept the expert recommendations with no further debate on what it all means on whether Calgarians support those recommendations.

Councillor Sonya Sharp

COUNCILLOR TERRY WONG: Don't get me wrong—I am fully supportive of the need to move forward. I understand the crisis that we are in. But we owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the public for the due diligence necessary to ensure we prioritize and resource and implement those things that are truly going to solve the problem now, as opposed to shotgun and hope we solve the problem altogether.

COUNCILLOR ANDRE CHABOT: What I envision that may happen if we move forward with all of these recommendations, including a blanket R-CG, is that is that we will get a lot of public submissions. So, it could potentially be an extremely long public hearing that may end up with the result of us not approving it just based on simply public pressure.

I do believe there are some communities that are would easily accept transitioning from R-C1 and R-C2 to R-CG. And I think if we had a targeted approach to that—to look at allowing that sort of blanket rezoning in some of those select communities, that there would be a lot more buy in. But I can tell you that my communities rallied against secondary suites, let alone going blanket R-CG. This would be like secondary suites on steroids. There's absolutely no way that I could get convinced my communities to support that major of a change.

WONG: The other concern I have about some of the recommendations again, is particularly to the R-CG blanket zoning, if you want to call it that way—we have a public hearing process in there. And a public hearing process, if we make it automatically all one blanket omnibus motion to make them all R-CG, then any future use changes will not be debated in the council. So the public—again, where's their voices? Where's our responsibility to them?

I can tell you that my communities rallied against secondary suites, let alone going blanket R‑CG. This would be like secondary suites on steroids.

Councillor Andre Chabot

WALCOTT: If we want to ensure that every single decision that we do goes through a public hearing, then the answer is is that we're not actually solving the housing crisis. That's just the reality of the problem is that we're just not addressing it anymore, because we are leaving in place regulatory barriers that have been statistically proven to increase the cost of housing in the name of me being able to choose what my neighbour can do with their property. Mostly so that I can maintain my parking—of which I have lots, if I'm willing to just walk a little further.

COUNCILLOR JENNIFER WYNESS: The biggest comment and the continued breach of trust for Calgarians is that they're not brought along. I'm reading the letters that we're getting, and they have great feedback that could be incorporated that would add density to help us solve this problem. And it's a great compromise because this is close—but I think we needed more conversation and more robust conversation to solve a crisis that is a Canadian crisis. It’s not one city. It's not one municipality. It's a Canadian crisis.

If we want to ensure that every single decision that we do goes through a public hearing, then… we’re not actually solving the housing crisis.

Councillor Courtney Walcott

COUNCILLOR RICHARD POOTMANS: I think that the work we have would be far better used as part of a public education program. It still mystifies me to this moment that we're starting with the end result, deciding on something, then going to the public to consult. I just don't understand this process. I think we should go to the public with education program taking the good work we've done, and then have a successful public engagement.

COUNCILLOR JASMINE MIAN: When you go to policy school they always talk about how healthcare is one of those things that just doesn't get reformed because the political costs are too high. And I really think housing is the new health healthcare, in a lot of ways. Because some of these recommendations, as have been pointed out by people—they might be really important, but they're certainly not politically convenient. And I think that I appreciate why the task force brought them together as like a suite of measures, because nothing really entirely stands on its own.

But I am worried, similar to Councillor Chabot, about heading in a direction where we send an administration to bring forward something that I don't think is probably could ever be supported by the public...

I think so much of what is driving the hesitation on this is that R-CG recommendation. And I get why that it's all packaged together, but at the same time, I don't see like moving forward. It's going to be hard. I wished we had sort of pulled that part out because on the one hand, I hear people when they say, “secondary suites was really unpopular.” And when we legalized secondary suites everywhere in the city, the sky did not fall, and at the same time, we did not solve the housing crisis. And that will be the exact same thing with R-CG citywide—the sky will not fall, and when it happens, people will come around to it. But it also won't be the silver bullet that I think that some people hope it will be. So honestly, I'm worried about proceeding forward.

While we might be tempted to think we’re out on an edge here, I know there’s also a large contingent… that would say these recommendations don’t go far enough.

Councillor Evan Spencer

KLASZUS: Now, in a situation like this, city council has the option of being selective. Of picking recommendations apart, giving the green light to what it likes and tossing the rest. That’s pretty normal at city hall. But Mayor Gondek was emphatic about not doing that on this issue.

MAYOR GONDEK: I would remind you that we heard two important words today: crisis and trauma. It's a housing crisis. And people will be in trauma if they can't live with dignity. The last time we heard those two words together—it was around mental health. It was around mental health issues, around addictions, it was around public transit, and we stepped up every time and made investments. So why can we do all of those things and yet, we can't even take recommendations seriously around housing? I will also not break apart one, two, three and four in any manner. This task force gave us their best recommendations. So, I will not do a disservice and disrespect them by receiving it for information only without their call to action. They've asked us to do something. I will not break these apart.

KLASZUS: And so council members cast their votes.

MAYOR GONDEK: Motion is defeated seven to eight with Councillor Chabot, McLean, Pootmans, Wyness, Wong, Sharp, Demong and Chu voting against.

You know, I will thank the task force for your time—since council clearly couldn't do that. Thank you for your time. Thank you for your expertise. My apologies it couldn't be done formally by the entire council.

The sky will not fall, and when it happens, people will come around to it. But it also won’t be the silver bullet that I think that some people hope it will be.

Councillor Jasmine Mian

After sleeping on it, council reverses course

KLASZUS: That brings us to the next day—June 7. And a sudden change of mind after fierce public blowback. Council voted to reconsider its original decision from the day before - and to basically buy some more time by weaving the recommendations into the housing strategy set to come to committee and council in September.

POOTMANS: This will give us a chance to—not under the pressure of time—but full time until September to actually have those consultations and figure out what is best for the city.

KLASZUS: This passed almost unanimously.

MAYOR GONDEK: That's carried 14 to one with Councillor Chu voting against.

KLASZUS: Calgarians are slated to have their say at a public hearing on the housing strategy on September 14—followed immediately by a special meeting of council on the weekend, called by the mayor.

MAYOR GONDEK: If we are really going to take this housing crisis seriously we have to make sure that we are implementing solutions as quickly as possible. And what would have happened in the normal cadence of a committee recommendation moving to council—it would have meant that we would have been waiting till October to actually implement some of the recommendations that will be considering it committee.

Here’s what Councillor Sharp said outside council chambers on September 6 regarding the rezoning recommendation in particular.

SHARP: We feel like this is planning policy that's just being shoved into something called a solution for housing—which some of us disagree with. The other thing is that we can't say blanket rezoning is going to solve the housing issues. So that's another issue we're seeing with this. So, was this a problem in June? Absolutely. If it was removed from the task force that day would have passed unanimously? Probably pretty darn close.

I think all 15 of us know there's a housing crisis—how we get to the solution of solving the housing crisis will look different.

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

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