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Calgary's affordable housing campaigns fall short

Two milestone projects built thousands of affordable units, but those involved say much more is needed

A rendering of the Horizon Housing Society Glamorgan project, which began construction in April 2017.

In the first quarter of 2018, two milestone projects tackling homelessness and affordable housing come to an end in Calgary: the city's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness and the affordable housing collaboration, Resolve.

With neither project fulfilling the entirety of its mandate, those involved are reflecting on the challenges within Calgary's unique housing landscape, the growing urgency around affordable housing for families and what needs to happen across the housing continuum to make a difference.

"We reached the official end point of the 10-Year Plan in January, 2018, at which time we had housed almost 8,700 people and added 2,100 additional housing units for those in most need," says Kevin McNichol, Calgary Homeless Foundation's vice-president of strategy. "We've also added 500 units of permanent supported housing and we're on pace to get to 620 by the end of this year."

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While Mr. McNichol calls these "remarkable accomplishments" for his team, he admits he's "disappointed" that, at its end, the decade-long plan succeeded in reducing homelessness, per capita, by just 26 per cent.

Likewise, Resolve, a partnership established six years ago with a goal to build subsidized housing for 3,000 Calgarians, in collaboration with 11 private developers, has currently housed just 1,592 individuals due to a $50-million fundraising shortfall. In total, the Resolve campaign hopes to complete 23 buildings and 1,100 units, though all nine non-profit partners will carry forward some debt. The campaign comes to an end on March 31.

Both Mr. McNichol and Cheryl Hamlin, CEO of Resolve, agree that Calgary's chronic lack of affordable rental stock and market affordable housing for families along transport lines, combined with the city's ongoing economic woes, has significantly impacted progress.

The Calgary Alpha House Society Women’s Housing, which opened in the fall of 2017.

"We didn't appreciate how fast the city would grow during the last 10 years and how that growth and subsequent demand would shape Calgary's housing landscape," Mr. McNichol says. "We also didn't understand the extent of the lack of market affordable housing in the city or the scale of the income gap due to the high cost of living here.

"I believe Calgary needs 30,000 additional subsidized units to get us where we need to be in terms of ending homelessness and that's in addition to more market affordable housing," he adds.

"The unique problem that Calgary has is that, even though we had twice the number of homeless people as Edmonton, for example, we only had about half the affordable inventory of a city of a comparable size," Ms. Hamlin says. "It was an oversight over the years when Calgary was in a boom cycle; condos and houses were being built but they weren't being built with a view to being affordable and it's a problem that persists in the city. There's also an absolute void of family-appropriate housing, which is affordable to those on low-incomes."

The city estimates that 19 per cent of Calgary households are in need of affordable housing; that's 88,000 households that earn less than $60,000 a year and spend more than 30 per cent of that on shelter. Currently 25,000 Calgarians, including more than 10,000 children, live in subsidized housing managed by Calgary Housing Company, the largest residential landlord in the city. Their wait list currently stands at 4,000 households.

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Mr. McNichol agrees affordable family housing is a problem and says many of the affordable family-sized units that do exist in Calgary are "located in food deserts; suburban neighbourhoods where you need your own transportation in order to access food, schools or employment."

The Aurora on the Park development opened in November 2016.

He believes a wider adjustment to Calgary's housing landscape would support his organization's ongoing effort to end homelessness.

"We need to explore innovative solutions like micro homes, laneway housing and container housing to increase our inner-city housing stock," he says. "We also need to find ways to incentivize or create viability within affordable and subsidized housing from a business perspective. We need to look at our policy environment and how that could be disincentivising and look at what we're applying our tax payer dollars to at all levels."

In January, the City of Edmonton expressed an intention to consider density incentives for developers to encourage construction of family-sized condo units along transit routes; which, Mr. McNichol says, would "certainly be welcome" in Calgary.

Alan Norris, CEO of Brookfield Residential and chair of the Resolve campaign, agrees. He says the development community are "all for innovation," but claims policy has a major role to play in allowing that to happen and in addressing the chronic shortfall in market affordable family housing "We have to increase the affordable housing stock in Calgary, without question. We're tackling the bottom end of the continuum with Resolve, but we still need to get more affordable housing stock into the market place, along transit routes, housing that addresses the needs of individuals and families who can't currently afford to buy on the free market," he says.

"One of the big challenges developers face is regulations with respect to the different forms you can and cannot build in a specific location. And, quite candidly, NIMBYism. We've been challenged with that throughout the Resolve collaboration and it's an ongoing problem in Calgary. It's something I believe the city needs to get tougher on, rather than kowtowing to people when it's clearly the right product and the right area."

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Mr. Norris says developers in Calgary also face big challenges making the economics of market affordable housing work when project costs remain high.

"The product we've built for Resolve is around $175,000 to $190,000 a door and our cost to build is rock bottom on that because it's a philanthropic effort," he says. "On the free market side, we're selling three-bedroom townhouses at 1,200 square feet, for $240,000 in the suburbs of Seaton and Livingston, both located at the end of the future Green Line LRT. But the price of land, services and levies, closer to the core, takes you well beyond that $200 a square foot price point. That's just the reality of it when there are no incentives available to developers."

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