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If there’s one thing Canadians can agree on right now, it’s that we need more housing. But if there’s another, it’s that it should be built somewhere other than in their own neighbourhood. That’s the crux of the conflict unfolding in cities across Canada, one that will be the subject of a crucial vote today by Calgary’s city council. Despite a torrent of supportive op-eds from city councillors, community advocates and even the mayor herself, the outcome is anything but guaranteed.
Calgary may not be as expensive as Toronto or Vancouver, but it’s feeling the pinch from the same sorts of housing-related pressures. As Mayor Jyoti Gondek noted in her op-ed, rents are up approximately 40 per cent since 2020 while the city’s vacancy rate has been cut in half. The median price of single-detached homes has increased 37 per cent over the same period, and that’s left one in five households in a position where they can’t afford their current housing. For everyone who isn’t sitting on a bunch of equity and a low mortgage balance, this is the biggest housing crisis they’ve seen in decades.
The city struck a task force last fall made up of 10 citizens and experts and five members of city administration. In June, they delivered their recommendations to council, which revolved around a simple premise: make it easier to build housing across the city. You might think conservatives, who make up a minority of the current council, would embrace a housing strategy that deliberately reduces so-called “red tape.” That’s especially true given federal Conservative Party of Canada Leader Pierre Poilievre’s long-running campaign against municipal “gatekeepers” and their refusal to allow new housing supply in their proverbial backyards.
But in Calgary, at least, those gates are being kept by his fellow conservatives. Rather than enthusiastically supporting the recommendations, which include citywide upzoning in established neighbourhods to allow for row houses, side-by-sides and duplexes, conservatives have been trying to slow-walk the process by arguing for more time and consultation.
Some, like former councillor and failed mayoral candidate Jeff Davison, have even suggested the proposed changes amount to an abrogation of homeowners’ democratic rights. “Their current agenda appears to revolve around the reintroduction of the Guidebook for Great Communities, an idea widely regarded as one of the city’s most ill-conceived,” he wrote in a Calgary Herald op-ed. “This guidebook previously allowed for blanket zoning across the city, effectively stripping communities and all Calgarians of their right to participate in decisions about their future.”
This is, to be clear, complete nonsense. Any proposed zoning changes would have to come in the form of new bylaws, which would then be subject to public hearings before council votes. More to the point, buying a house doesn’t include the right to encase the neighbourhood in amber and stop change if it upsets your esthetic sensibilities. In his op-ed, Davison writes: "These communities are treasured for their ability to allow residents to walk their kids to school, take in recreation and enjoy simple outings like getting ice cream at a nearby store." None of that would be impaired in any way by the addition of a few duplexes to the neighbourhood, though, or more cars parked on the street. The ice cream store, meanwhile, would almost certainly appreciate the new customers.
His proposed solutions are the same ones that get trotted out in cities across Canada: Build the housing somewhere else. In Calgary, that means adding to its already massive footprint, even though sprawl makes the city less efficient to operate and costs taxpayers money as a result. A recently updated version of a 2009 study showed growing within the city’s existing boundaries rather than continually pushing them outwards would save taxpayers $16.8 billion in capital costs over the next 60 years and $270 million in annual operating costs by 2070. Those savings are the result of less linear infrastructure like roads and sewers needing to be built, with most residents living in or near existing neighbourhoods. For a supposed fiscal conservative like Davison and his ideological allies on council, this argument should be one they’re making.
If we’re going to make any progress on housing affordability in Canada, we must confront the homeowner-industrial complex head-on. We need to challenge their biases, expose their privileges and remind them of the fact that they’re part of a broader community that isn’t supposed to cater exclusively to their needs.
It won’t be easy. No matter how the vote in Calgary’s city council chambers goes, the heaviest lifting still lies ahead. The battle for affordability will be fought community by community, street by street, neighbour by neighbour. We’ll need to find allies and alliances wherever they are available. And we’ll need to remember that catchy slogans are no match for the entrenched interests of homeowners or their nearly limitless sense of entitlement to define what’s best for everyone else.