Fixing Edmonton’s affordable housing problem The slow progress to creating better housing strategies

Through boom and bust, calls for action on affordable housing have prevailed for at least a generation. Despite countless announcements and interventions from various levels of governments over the past decade, the situation continues to get worse rather than better.

At the end of September, Mayor Don Iveson joined other big city mayors in Toronto to ask the federal government for a major infusion of money for affordable housing. Iveson has joined his counterparts across Canada in referring to the affordable housing situation as a “crisis”.

While the Liberals have earmarked $20 billion for social infrastructure over the next decade, it remains unclear how much of that will go to housing initiatives. Given that fund is also intended to address pressing needs like child care spaces and cultural and recreational facilities, the mayors demanded a commitment from Ottawa that $12.6 billion of it be for affordable housing.

If history is any indication, the mayors would be well-advised not to hold their collective breaths. After all, just over 25 years ago then-Mayor Jan Reimer stood with a similar group of mayors to warn the federal government a crisis was looming if a commitment to affordable housing was not moved to the top of the political agenda. Needless to say, it wasn’t and here we are today.

Based on rental information from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and population data from Statistics Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculated the problem is acute in our province. According to them, as of 2011, Alberta was home to 10 per cent of Canadian households, but had just 7 per cent of all subsidized housing units available.

To be fair, there have been some attempts made to address the issue in the past decade. Former Premier Ed Stelmach, who had made affordable housing a key issue in his leadership campaign in 2006, announced the following year that $196 million would be given to municipalities for projects to meet the target of 11,200 new affordable housing units over five years. Edmonton’s share was $43 million. In September 2011, Stelmach announced Alberta had surpassed its creation of new units by several hundred.

In January 2009, Edmonton launched a 10-year plan to end homelessness in the city. At the time, then-Mayor Stephen Mandel said the plan included a goal to build 8,000 housing units in Edmonton by 2019. According to city staff, approximately 5, 239 affordable housing units have been built to date. Of those units, the city’s Cornerstones and Cornerstones II programs funded 2,150 units. Homeward Trust funded 2,338 units for chronically-homeless individuals and 201 units for “formerly chronically-homeless” individuals. Lastly, the Government of Alberta funded 550 affordable housing units.

According to the city’s website, there remains a gap of approximately 7,000 emergency, transitional, and long-term housing units and approximately 20,000 affordable housing units. Last year, city council passed a policy formalizing a practice used sporadically since 2006: developers make 5 per cent of the units in new residential developments available to the city to purchase to become affordable housing. Progress has been slow. According to last year’s housing and homelessness report, just 23 affordable housing units have come on stream in this fashion.

The problem may not be with the approach itself, but rather because it isn’t applied universally. Inclusionary zoning is a practice used in many jurisdictions in the United States and, to a lesser degree, here in Canada. The idea is zoning regulations are set that require a certain percentage of new residential developments be set aside for affordable housing. Toronto has had a policy in place for some time and has found creating a permanent stock of affordable housing in every new development not only increases supply, but also reduces the stigma often attached to tenants. Proposed changes to the Municipal Government Act would enable cities to pass bylaws to make inclusionary zoning mandatory.

The privately-developed Norwood Village on 95 Street voluntarily relied on this model, with half of its units offered for 15 per cent below market rates. The property manager tells me it has found great success. Hopefully, the same thing occurs at Parkdale II, announced this summer by the province and the Capital Region Housing Corporation (CRHC). The 70-unit building will include both subsidized units as well as housing at a mix of rents for tenants who can afford market rates.

Homeward Trust is planning a mixed-use development on the Station Pointe lands near Fort Road and 66 Street which will include supportive living units, affordable family townhouses to buy or rent, and apartment units rented at market rates.

Similarly, the Capital Region Housing Authority has unveiled plans for the redevelopment of the 80 social housing units in Londonderry that were deemed unfit for human habitation. The proposal is to build a total of 240 units at an even mix of supportive living, affordable and market rate units. While the project awaits provincial approval, the agency’s CEO is hopeful construction will begin in the spring of 2018.  

With both the provincial and federal governments working on housing strategies promised by the end of the year and the city wrapping up consultations on the Municipal Government Act and the long-awaited city charter, council is being handed an opportunity to finally set out a plan that works. Let’s hope that it’s one that sees affordable housing dispersed across Edmonton in every new privately-built development and enables non-profit agencies like Homeward Trust and the CRHC continue to offer innovative solutions to this decades-old problem.

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