Calgary city councillors have approved the city’s strategy to address housing affordability after three straight days of debate and public feedback.
“We have approved a housing strategy that is fulsome, it addresses both market and non-market need, and it’s work that desperately needs to start right away,” Calgary mayor Jyoti Gondek said following council’s decision.
The strategy’s approval comes after a marathon public hearing that saw more than 160 Calgarians, non-profits and developers share their insights and lived experiences in Calgary’s competitive market to find housing.
With the cost of renting or owning a home rising exponentially in Calgary, the city’s strategy aims to increase the supply of housing, support affordable housing, help the city’s housing subsidiaries, ensure diverse types of housing to meet the needs of equity-deserving populations, and address the affordable housing needs of Calgary’s Indigenous population.
Proponents of the strategy said the plan’s approval is only the beginning of the process, but sets the course for a series of actions to help address housing affordability.
“One of the biggest challenges of council is that we will fight to deny people the opportunity to start trying to solve the problem,” Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott said. “This is the permission to solve the problem.”
According to the city, implementation will begin with recommendations that don’t require further budget or council approval.
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City administration identified the strategy will require $57.5 million in one-time funding, $27 million in base operating funds and $10 million in annual capital costs through its lifespan to 2030.
Several recommendations, including incentives for secondary-suite construction, will require further decisions during budget deliberations in November.
The strategy was approved with a contentious item that divided council, which recommends changing the city’s default residential zoning to RC-G, a zoning district that allows for a more diverse mix of higher density housing, such as duplexes and rowhouses.
There were several attempts to remove the provision during the committee debate Saturday, but all efforts were defeated.
Council ultimately voted 12-3 to approve the strategy with some councillors opposed to the zoning reform choosing to vote in favour of the overall plan.
Only Councillors Peter Demong, Sean Chu and Dan McLean voted against the strategy.
“I think we all want more homes built, more affordable homes,” McLean told reporters following the meeting. “But if I truly thought that blanket up-zoning of the entire city would provide more affordable homes, I would’ve voted for it. But I don’t, so I didn’t.”
The zoning recommendation will require a change to the city’s land-use bylaw and will need to follow the legislative process, including a public hearing and another council decision sometime in the next year.
“I will remain amenable to persuasion,” Ward 10 Coun. Andre Chabot said.
The strategy has been approved with several amendments from councillors that were debated throughout the day Saturday. Councillors brought forward 21 amendments in total for debate.
The changes include using funds from the Downtown Development Incentive Program for office conversions to create more residences for post-secondary students.
Another amendment would see the creation of a temporary emergency shelter program using modular homes for 242 families currently experiencing homelessness.
The strategy also includes a new provision that would study and consider infrastructure investments and improvements in areas of the city that are seeing increased density developments.
“I actually think it’s made stronger,” Walcott said. “We allowed the experts to do their thing and we listened and we improved upon it based on what we heard from our citizens. That is, I think, the job of a politician; it’s the job of a leader.”
The approval comes following a letter from federal Housing, Infrastructure and Communities Minister Sean Fraser that said Calgary’s application for housing funds was dependant on council’s decision on the housing strategy and the elimination of “exclusionary zoning.”
Gondek said the strategy’s approval provides the city leverage to access support from other levels of government to address housing needs in Calgary.
“That gives me the ability to negotiate with other orders of government to say ‘We’re all in, here’s our ante, what are you bringing to the table?'” Gondek said. “That’s a strong position to be in.
The strategy sets a target to build 3,000 new affordable housing units annually, and 1,000 more market homes than are currently built every year.
In her closing debate, Ward 3 Coun. Jasmine Mian said she supports the plan but noted more needs to be done to absorb the 110,000 new residents expected to move to the city in the next five years.
“This strategy is like taking a glass, dipping it into an Olympic sized swimming pool. Instead of accepting that strategy and asking how we fill that glass back up again, we have spent the entire morning arguing over drops,” she said. “I’m not asking us to start winning this battle, let’s just stop failing so badly.”
Administration will report to the city’s Community Development Committee annually on the progress of actions in the strategy.