Calgary has long been known for its embrace of the single-family, home-and-a-yard dream. But Alberta’s largest city is about to become a test case for what happens when an affordable stronghold faces a housing crunch so severe that municipal officials embrace a plan for much greater density.
The politically charged issue will come to a head in Calgary this week, with city council split on the question, and even local Conservative MPs disagreeing among themselves.
Housing costs in Alberta’s largest city are reasonable by Toronto or Vancouver standards. But that’s rapidly changing. People, including some investors, are flocking to Calgary in record-setting numbers. According to the city, rents are up 40 per cent since 2020. Detached home prices are up 37 per cent.
This week, the city will hold meetings to decide whether to move forward on a set of task-force recommendations on housing affordability; the most controversial is a proposal for zoning that allows single-family homes, duplexes, townhomes and/or backyard suites to be the default for the entire city.
It’s meant to be a gentle way of bumping up housing density and choice, in the hope of creating a mix of new units affordable for way more people. It’s also part of a rezoning trend in some cities across the United States and Canada.
The most commonly cited example is Minneapolis, which eliminated single-family zoning citywide in 2019. California got rid of most single-family zoning in 2021 – and British Columbia is headed in the same direction. Closer to home, Edmonton effectively dropped single-family zoning in 2019.
The housing strategy will be presented at a community development committee meeting on Thursday. Mayor Jyoti Gondek said the city is in a crisis situation, and has scheduled a special city council meeting for the following weekend.
In an interview, Ms. Gondek was careful to say that Calgarians need to have a say on zoning, and any change wouldn’t happen overnight. “If we approve the recommendation to look at this change, Calgarians will have community engagement and they will have a full public hearing process before we make a decision.”
Ms. Gondek pointed out that the Calgary strategy is about far more than rezoning. From her point of view, the most significant task-force recommendation is the call for the quick sale of city-owned land to speed the building of affordable housing. But Ms. Gondek was also clear on where she stands on zoning.
“If you are wanting to ensure that your community is vibrant, then you need younger families and young professionals to be there,” she said. “They need to have the type of accommodation that suits their needs while they’re just starting out.”
The proposed Calgary strategy fits in with the densification push from the federal Liberal government. Housing Minister Sean Fraser recently applauded London, Ont.’s move toward allowing four units on a single residential property. Ottawa is in the process of deciding how to allocate $4-billion from the Housing Accelerator Fund to municipalities across the country.
But rezoning also appears to fit in with what the opposition federal Conservatives want to see. The party is riding high in national polls in large part because leader Pierre Poilievre has been able to channel the angst of Canadians on the housing file.
A key part of Mr. Poilievre’s pitch on housing has been moving the “big-city gatekeepers” out of the way. He has said that a Conservative government would impose some sort of federal “NIMBY penalty” on gatekeepers, and require cities to preapprove building permits for high-density housing to get federal dollars.
Both Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner and the party’s housing critic, Scott Aitchison, have expressed their support for Calgary’s housing task force.
This stands in some contrast with what some current Calgary homeowners – many of whom vote Conservative – would say.
Part of Calgary’s draw for many people is the tantalizing possibility of one day owning a detached home with a yard. In fact, one of the Alberta is Calling ads from last year featured then-premier Jason Kenney pointedly making exactly this pitch for both Edmonton and Calgary.
“Young people are moving to Calgary because they’re moving their families – they want a more affordable place to live than Vancouver or some places in Ontario,” Conservative MP Greg McLean, who represents Calgary Centre, said in an interview.
Mr. McLean said action on housing is needed but he took pains to state last week that his party doesn’t have a policy supporting blanket rezoning across the city, or removing minimum parking requirements (another recommendation from the task force).
The province’s position will play a role, too. The United Conservative Party minister responsible for housing, Jason Nixon, said he’s willing to consider “almost anything” to address the housing question, including a new round of provincial rent supplements (as long as they don’t further contribute to inflation).
However, any form of rent control is a no-go, he said in an interview, as Alberta’s governing party believes it will eventually kill purpose-built rental starts.
There are a host of complicating factors, no matter the best intentions of all levels of government. Zoning reform in itself won’t quickly solve the housing crunch. Even if cities want to get going on building, construction costs have skyrocketed.
And not only are workers moving to Calgary in high numbers, but the city has become a destination for investors. It’s unclear how much this drives the market here. But the Bank of Canada reported that in the country as a whole, investors were responsible for 30 per cent of home purchases in the first three months of this year.
As Ms. Gondek has said, some people are doing just fine. They aren’t concerned about housing security. They are untouched by interest-rate hikes. But for many others, something has to give.
Everyone should be paying attention – the beginning of big change in Calgary could start this week.