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“Zoning is a tool, it’s not an end,” says Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program.

Yet zoning is increasingly framed by governments as a key strategy to spur development and unlock housing affordability, and Calgary is no exception.

One of the initiatives brought forward by the City of Calgary’s housing strategy, approved in September, is to rezone all low-density residential districts to allow for the construction of up to four units per lot. According to a city statement, doing this would “remove the barriers and increase housing choice, such as including different sizes of homes that would be on the lower end of the market.”

In a city where 60 per cent of residential land is zoned for semi- and single-detached homes, community pushback is to be expected – but an unlikely group has joined the fray: realtors.

On Feb. 13, the Calgary Real Estate Board, which represents more than 7,600 realtors in the Calgary region, released a statement in opposition to “blanket upzoning,” citing an array of concerns including parking, community character and property depreciation.

A lack of clear communication seems to be fuelling anxiety among Calgary homeowners, so agents are speaking up on behalf of their clients.

“The blanket upzoning proposal is creating tremendous uncertainty and unease for homeowners, as well as buyers,” says Karen Fawcett, a Calgary realtor. “They’re worried about a decline in the value of their home.”

For most people, buying a home is the single largest investment they will ever make, she adds. “And protecting that investment is of paramount importance to them.”

Although this is a natural worry, there is no evidence that the presence of row houses, triplexes or secondary suites in low-density, residential neighbourhoods causes property values to tank – in fact, it tends to do the opposite.

When more units can be constructed on a single lot, the site’s potential increases, and so does its market value. A lower price point is achieved simply by building more, smaller dwellings on the same parcel, not by decreasing the values of adjacent properties.

In other words, by replacing a $700,000 bungalow with four $586,000 row houses, the number of Calgary families whose needs can be met expands, reducing pressure on the market.

“Success [of upzoning] includes the ability for more Calgarians to find a stable, quality home that fits their lifestyles, in a community that meets their needs,” a city spokesperson said in an e-mail statement.

Increased choice for some, however, doesn’t guarantee affordability across the housing spectrum.

Ann-Marie Lurie, chief economist at CREB, questions the effectiveness of allowing for more gentle density, or missing-middle housing, to create the kind of supply the Calgary market currently needs.

“What people often forget is that because the land cost is higher, they’re not going to be able to redevelop at a lower price point,” she says. “Unless there’s a significant amount of density added.”

In December, the number of months of supply decreased sharply across all segments, but the listing inventory is the tightest for properties listed below the benchmark price of $572,300. In mid-February, only a third of all homes for sale were listed below this price point.

“A lower-priced product is absolutely needed,” says Jared Chamberlain, a Calgary broker, pointing at the affordability worries that have reached his professional and social circles. “But just supply for the market, that’s not going to solve the problem.”

Although 1,873 row houses were completed in Calgary last year, the median resale price for this type of dwelling increased by nearly 20 per cent in 2023, reaching $434,200 in December. This price point is only 26 per cent lower than median assessed value of a new-build, which the city estimates at $586,000.

In Mr. Chamberlain’s view, the problem ailing Calgary is driven by the influx of buyers from more expensive regions, who can easily afford a $600,000 home. “That market just pushed up the prices.”

According to the City of Calgary’s latest housing needs assessment, there are 84,600 households already spending more than a third of their income on shelter costs, a situation that disproportionally affects low- and very-low-income renters. The University of British Columbia’s Housing Needs Assessment Tool estimates Calgary’s deficit of affordable housing at roughly 50,000 units.

But zoning alone is unlikely to produce these units, some argue.

“The thing about blanket upzoning is the fact that it attempts to reach a common goal without realizing the localized opportunities that can exist,” Mr. Yan says, adding that facilitating the construction of new housing without regard to the income group it should target, or its location, means that the homes built won’t necessarily fulfill the needs of lower-income earners.

“We need a much more deliberate delivery of housing for specific populations that the market system is incapable of developing.”

A more focused approach is something Calgary realtors could get behind, says Hong Wang, chair of CREB’s government relations standing committee, pointing at examples presented by Jennifer Keesmaat, a real estate developer and urban planner based in Toronto, at a December event hosted by the City of Calgary.

“In Toronto, they’re developing these large-scale projects with social housing, affordable rental, market rental and home ownership – all in one, perfectly blended with the community,” Ms. Wang says.

During her keynote address, Ms. Keesmaat noted that “getting rid of exclusionary zoning is an idea whose time has come … but it won’t fix the crux to delivering the amount of housing supply that we need in order to transform access to housing in our cities.”

The City of Calgary estimates that rezoning could create an additional 750 net homes in the first year. In the long term, implementing the change is expected to increase the annual number of housing starts by up to 12 per cent, producing about 1,500 more net homes per year.

In 2023, there were 16,679 housing starts and 12,499 completions in Calgary, the largest number on record.

“We need more supply, there’s no question,” Ms. Lurie says. “I’d like to see months of supply hit a three-month level to be more balanced, but it naturally tends to happen.”

A public hearing to decide on this matter is scheduled for April 22.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to have people selling and buying no matter what happens,” Ms. Fawcett says. “It doesn’t affect us, but it significantly impacts our clients.”

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