A national housing strategy: Without one Calgary suffers

Photo: flickr/ Michael Gil

Calgary's got a bit of a housing problem. Well that's a major understatement.

Between April 2013 and April 2014, Calgary's population grew by almost 40,000 people. Finding a place to live is at the top of a newcomer's list, but finding an affordable place -- ideally spending around 30 per cent of your gross income on payments -- isn't quite as easy. That problem's only exacerbated if you're living under the poverty line.

About 54 per cent of homeless people in Alberta live in Calgary, despite the city only housing 30 per cent of the province's population. Many efforts have been made to reduce that number. In 2007, then-premier Ed Stelmach committed to ending homeless within a decade. The Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF) was founded. And in many respects, the plan's worked. Numbers went down. Thousands have been housed.

"There is evidence that there's a stabilization that has occurred since 2008," says Alina Turner, a Calgary-based researcher on homelessness and former vice-president at the CHF. "You have to keep that in context because before that it was going up so much. Stabilization is good news: it's not getting worse. All growth in the city has continued to leap forward, but our homeless numbers have stayed stable."

But Turner readily admits that there's much more to be done on the affordable housing front.

The municipality and province, in partnership with city-owned corporations like Attainable Homes and Calgary Housing Company, have built hundreds of subsidized homes. But the absence of a national housing strategy tempers the possibilities; federal funding for new subsidized housing was eliminated in 1993, downloading the responsibility to the provinces, who then gifted the load to cities (Alberta has allocated funding for over 10,000 subsidized homes, but Turner points out many still haven't materialized).

"It doesn't matter how much re-housing you can do as a service sector if you've got nowhere to put people," Turner says. "You're going to fall short. That's been a huge stumbling block for this sector in executing the plan is that lack of affordable housing, for sure. And that requires policy change and funding from higher orders of government."

Much of the issue ties back to the prevailing political ideology, says Stephen Gaetz director of Canadian Observatory on Homeless and professor in education at York University. In 2010, he detailed the history of the way housing policy has changed with dominant political views in a report titled "The Struggle to End Homelessness in Canada: How we Created the Crisis and How We Can End It" -- the problem, he wrote, began in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s, gutting the investments the government had made post-World War II.

Many changes precipitated the withdrawal: liberalization of trade, outsourcing, the loss of secondary industries. The expectation from politicians was that the private-housing sector would fill the gap when the federal government ceased investments. But that didn't happen. Instead, rental units were destroyed, replaced by condos and poverty spiked. Affordable housing has since lagged considerably.

"The research on whether austerity works in an economic downturn is pretty overwhelming," Gaetz says in an interview. "It's like the worst thing you can do. It's like somebody's bleeding so you say, 'we're going to take more blood out of you.' The results are in from the 25-year experiment of letting the marketplace deal with housing: it's a colossal failure. It didn't work."

There have been some innovative responses that municipalities have taken to ease the suffering. Take Medicine Hat, the sleepy southern Albertan town of 60,000 people, that is on the verge of ending chronic homelessness. Such a result came from an enormous push for Housing First -- a model that emphasizes immediate housing before addressing secondary needs -- and the creation of a coordinated system between social housing and homeless services, Turner says.

"It fits into their economic diversification and attractiveness," she says. "This is a city with a social conscience and people will talk about Medicine Hat has a result of that. Unfortunately, Calgary's known for the other reason: don't move here because it's unaffordable."

Turner points out that there are some key differences between Medicine Hat and Calgary: there's much greater annual migration to the latter, and many more agencies required to work together. As a result, the tools used will have to be a little more unique. But there's plenty of examples. Density bonuses, fast-tracking permits, donating lands are measures implemented by many cities, including Calgary. But not all of them can live up to their potential without funding from up top.

It's something that should be a topic of conversation in the Alberta election: while much work has been done in the past, the waiting list for accessible homes continues to grow.

There's mentions of commitments in all party platforms but the Wildrose's: the Progressive Conservatives promise to increase affordable spaces for seniors, the NDP will tweak the Municipal Government Act to allow for mandatory affordable housing in new developments, the Liberals offer to create a formal poverty reduction strategy and permit inclusionary zoning, while the Alberta Party vaguely states that it commits to "increasing housing options including subsidised housing."

But so far, other issues have dominated the agenda, namely in regards to the March 26 budget and ensuing battles over a lack of adjustment to corporate tax rates and cuts to education and health care. Housing likely won't be much of a priority until the economy picks back up. But Gaetz points that investments in affordable housing could have a positive effect on employment, especially given the number of recent layoffs courtesy of the drop in oil prices.

"It's also good for economies," he notes. "One of the things that's important about construction, as opposed to other economic activities, is that most of the materials are sourced locally. So you're not importing machines from China to do it. The wood, the cement, are all locally produced. If the federal government added $2 or $3 billion to their affordable housing envelope, which is less than what they spent on income splitting, you would actually get tons of that back to increase economic activity."

Another angle that may propel the issue upwards on the list of priorities is the impending end of federal housing subsidies by 2020: the Northern Alberta Cooperative Housing Association recently noted that 537 households in the province rely on such subsidies, while the Calgary Sun reports that around 200,000 families depend on rent-geared-to-income assistance across the country. Add in the fact that Calgary features the highest rental costs in the country, and the crisis the city's currently facing could get a whole lot worse.

"The lesson from Alberta is this: that you can go from being stuck to being super innovative really fast. These places -- Calgary and Edmonton -- were stuck in 2008," concludes Gaetz. "By 2010, they were making big headway. That can happen anywhere in Canada. The one caveat though, I would argue, is that you'd have to be careful as you can go from being stuck to innovative very quickly, and can go the other way just as fast."

 

James Wilt is a freelance writer in Calgary. He's previously worked as staff writer for Fast Forward Weekly, the city's alt-weekly newspaper, and has contributed to VICE Canada, DeSmog Canada and Geez magazine.

Photo: flickr/ Michael Gil

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