Opinion: Zoning alone won’t make Edmonton’s housing more affordable

October 13, 2023

In this Edmonton Journal Opinion article, the Edmonton Social Planning Council, outlines how zoning alone won’t make Edmonton’s housing more affordable.

Below is the excerpt from the Edmonton Journal website.

The City of Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw Renewal Initiative has received a lot of attention from many engaged citizens in recent months. Since 2018, city planners have been engaging with various stakeholders and the general public as part of a proposed overhaul of the approach our city takes towards zoning in order to curb urban sprawl, increase density, and accommodate Edmonton’s growing population in a way that is more responsive to our housing needs as well as improving access to services and amenities.

In essence, zoning is how a city determines what can be built and where it can be built. Our existing zoning policies have not been updated since the 1960s so there is no doubt a modernized approach is needed in order to address the realities of the 21st century.

Not surprisingly, the proposed changes to the zoning bylaw renewal have received a lot of support from certain quarters as well as its fair share of detractors. Both supporters and critics have raised important points about the impacts — positive or negative — of the proposed changes, which include the affordability of housing, impacts on climate change, access to green space, and inclusion of marginalized populations such as newcomers and Indigenous peoples who are in great need for suitable housing. City council is expected to meet on Oct. 16 and make a decision on whether to approve these proposed changes. If passed, the changes would take effect in early 2024.

The Edmonton Social Planning Council conducts research on housing issues and has been closely monitoring the developments surrounding the zoning bylaw renewal. With Edmonton’s population increasing and diversifying, housing supply no doubt needs to keep pace to accommodate our growth. This includes housing solutions, particularly for low-income groups, Indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, seniors, newcomers and refugees, and others.

We welcome any development that allows for appropriate housing to be built in a timely manner to properly house underserved groups and any changes to the zoning bylaws that helps make this happen is appreciated. Nevertheless, changes to our zoning bylaws alone do not guarantee that our housing supply becomes more affordable overnight. Just because new housing gets built, it does not automatically guarantee that it will be affordable for everyone. The regulatory framework under which housing gets built matters just as much.

In order for housing supply to become affordable, a suite of other policy interventions are necessary from all levels of government in order for that to happen. This includes — but is not limited to — increases to the minimum wage (the current rate of $15 falls short of a living wage, which we have calculated to be $21.40), meaningful increases to provincial income support programs like AISH, reasonable rent control measures, robust investments from provincial and federal governments for social housing (only a fraction of the funding the city asked from the federal government for affordable housing has been approved), renewed support for co-operative housing, and tackling the years-long wait list of families hoping to receive rental assistance.

To be fair, a zoning bylaw renewal does not directly address many of those aforementioned conditions as the scope of its powers are limited. There is merit in updating our bylaws, but expectations of it translating to making housing more affordable would have to be adjusted. Those seeking to make the cost of housing for individuals and families more affordable need to advocate for other policy levers that are at the disposal of any government’s toolkit.

Susan Morrissey is executive director of the Edmonton Social Planning Council.

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Susan Morrissey

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