by: John Kolkman, freelance 

The provincial and city governments are talking a good game when it comes to the urgent need to build more affordable housing. So why is so little progress being made?
Edmonton is in a housing affordability crisis. Vacancy rates are very low. Homelessness is growing. Earlier this month, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reported an 18.8-per-cent increase in average rents, the highest yearly increase of all major Canadian cities. Yet the pace of efforts to address this crisis is glacial.

The provincial government announced its response to the Affordable Housing Task Force last April. A 10-year plan to end homelessness was announced in October. While additional monies are committed, the pace of new construction has not increased.

The latest setback in getting things moving happened at a Nov. 20 public hearing held by Edmonton city council’s transportation and public works (TPW) committee. The committee heard representations on an inclusionary affordable housing policy proposed by the city administration. Rather than making a decision that would have gone to city council in mid-January, the TPW committee opted to engage in more closed-door consultations with the development industry. The proposed policy won’t even be back on the TPW committee agenda until early March.

The development industry’s opposition to the proposed policy is disappointing. There have already been extensive consultations with developers, home builders and other stakeholders. Further delays are definitely not helpful.

Adopting an inclusionary policy is the single most important decision council must make if Edmonton is to reduce reliance on emergency shelters and avoid future “tent cities.” The first goal of such a policy is to ensure that long-term affordable housing — integrated with and indistinguishable from market housing — is built throughout the city.

The second goal is to provide a source of funds for the construction of additional affordable housing units. Housing developers could build a minimum of five-per-cent affordable housing units into all major residential developments. Alternatively, builders could either contribute to a reserve fund dedicated solely to constructing additional affordable housing or allow the city to purchase five per cent of the units at 80 per cent of their market value.

The proposed policy defines housing as affordable if households earning less than 80 per cent of the median income pay no more than 30 per cent of their gross income on rent. Not nearly enough housing meeting this definition was getting built even when market conditions were more favourable, let alone in today’s overheated economy. Therefore, government leadership is essential.

Unlike Ontario and B.C. where provincial legislation specifically allows for inclusionary zoning, Alberta is in a legal grey zone. The Alberta Urban Municipalities Association adopted a resolution in 2006 urging the province to amend the Municipal Government Act to include inclusionary zoning in their land use bylaws. The province’s refusal leaves municipalities open to legal challenges.

Prior to 1979, the Edmonton required all new neighbourhoods to be built with at least five-per-cent social housing which — combined with federal and provincial housing dollars available at that time — ensured that low-cost housing was built in all older suburbs. Unfortunately, the policy was challenged in the courts and struck down.

The demise of this policy resulted in many newer suburbs being built without any affordable housing units. When combined with the almost total withdrawal of the federal and provincial affordable housing dollars in the early 1990s, this has directly led to the housing crisis we find ourselves in today.

Edmonton’s proposed policy is a modest one. The five-per-cent affordable housing requirement in major residential developments is low compared to the 20-per-cent requirement in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver.

Finding suitable locations for new affordable housing will be considerably more difficult unless a mechanism is found to provide for it. Much of the affordable housing built in the past decade has been located in only a handful of neighbourhoods, mostly north and east of the downtown core.

Opposition to accepting more affordable housing is growing in these neighbourhoods.

Unfortunately, advocates for affordable housing have not always done their cause any favours. Let’s stop using terms like “gentrification” to label residents of lower-income neighbourhoods that oppose affordable housing projects. This only gets people riled up. Both the city and affordable-housing providers need to do a better job communicating with neighbourhood residents before decisions on housing projects are made.

A failure to provide safe, affordable long-term housing means only one thing — more Band-Aid solutions such as shelters. Ensuring that all Edmontonians have safe, affordable, long-term housing is essential.

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