Calgary city council divided on zoning reform in proposed housing strategy

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City council divided on zoning reform in proposed housing strategy
Calgary city council is preparing to make a decision on a strategy to address housing affordability in the city. As Adam MacVicar reports, one aspect of that strategy is creating a division on city council. – Sep 6, 2023

In one week’s time, city councillors will make a decision on a strategy that aims to address housing affordability in Calgary, but one aspect of that strategy has some councillors at odds.

One of the around 80 recommendations included in the city’s upcoming housing strategy is around zoning reform, and changing the base residential zoning district to include more housing types.

Currently, the majority of residential areas in the city are zoned to only allow single family homes as a default.

The recommendation would change the base zoning type to RC-G, which allows for single family homes, but also different housing like duplexes, triplexes, and row houses.

According to the city, the change would “simplify the process” for landowners and developers looking to build.

Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott said the change would remove a barrier of “uncertainty” for builders that is preventing more development of diverse housing types.

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“There’s a lot of backlash around developing townhouses and row houses in all the established areas,” Walcott told reporters. “You remove that uncertainty, and that allows builders to go into any community and build that diverse housing.”

However, not all of city council is on board with the proposed change to zoning in the housing strategy, which became a sticking point when the Housing Task Force’s recommendations were in front of city council in June.

“I feel like this is planning policy that is being shoved into something called a solution for housing, which some of us disagree with,” Ward 1 Coun. Sonya Sharp said. “We can’t say blanket rezoning is going to solve the housing issues.”

In lieu of making RC-G the default zoning, Sharp spearheaded a motion signed by six other councillors that proposed streamlining the current zoning process in the city, with a focus on shortened timelines and incentives for developers that applied to rezone a property along with a development permit request.

The city’s Executive Committee narrowly voted 8-7 against allowing the motion to move forward Wednesday, citing issues with procedure and conflicting with the housing strategy debate next week.

“The only option in (the recommendations) is blanket rezoning of the whole city. This was an opportunity to come to a compromise,” Sharp told reporters after the vote. “That being said, it does not mean that blanket rezoning is still moving forward.”

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Sharp said she plans to explore other alternatives to bring forward during the housing strategy debate.

She said she doesn’t buy the uncertainty argument, adding that “95 per cent” of upzoning requests have been approved since this council took office.

However, developers like Alkarim Devani said the current rezoning process doesn’t give developers “predictability of outcome,” which can cause costly delays to housing developments.

Devani is the president of RndSqr, which specializes in higher density developments like row houses, townhomes and multi-residential buildings.

“What is generally, for a duplex, a four month turnaround time to get to construction, we’ve had projects go 24 months before we can get a shovel in the ground,” Devani told Global News. “It’s the lack of predictability that can be really challenging with the current framework.”

Devani said the cost of those delays are typically passed down to the renter or buyer when the project is complete.

He said the current situation means only a select group of builders will take on the challenge of developing diverse housing types through rezoning to RC-G.

“There’s this pent up demand that we’re seeing in the marketplace. What we need to do is reduce that red tape,” Devani said. “Allow for more developers to graduate from doing single family homes, the ‘mom and pops’ of the world, to make it easier for them to do row houses and not have to navigate this very difficult zoning and administration process.”

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In response to questions about community input in development, Walcott said citizens will still be able to provide feedback when builders apply for a development permit; a process that isn’t proposed to change, but one he said he’d like to see “beefed up.”

“The feedback loop needs to be better,” Walcott said. “So that more of the public can see themselves in the feedback or at least understand how their feedback was built into a development permit.”

The public will have their say on the proposed housing strategy at a committee meeting on Sept. 14.

A special meeting of council has been called for the following Saturday for city council to debate and make a decision on the housing strategy, if it gets approval at committee.

“We need multiple solutions,” Devani said. “There is not one single trigger to solving this problem.”

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