It's time to repurpose dying retail spaces for community housing

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Image: Paul Joseph/Flickr

In 2014, at the height of the last petroleum boom, when a barrel of oil sold for $115, new arrivals to Calgary were sleeping in their cars, because lodgings were so hard to come by. 

The oil price crashed to below $5 this April, adding pain to an already busted Alberta economy. Calgary corporate offices have emptied; people have lost jobs and incomes. But housing in Calgary, as elsewhere in Canada, still remains unaffordable for too many. 

The for-profit rental market does not work for low-income people.

In B.C., the COVID-19 scare has prompted the NDP government to remove the homeless from tent cities, and house them in empty hotels. This is welcome if only to allow additional physical distancing, and protect more exposed people from the virus.

It is not clear what the B.C. government plans to do about housing the homeless when the virus danger recedes, and the hotels want to open for business again.

Every city in Canada has strip malls, and small and large shopping centres, now subject to the crisis in brick-and-mortar retail that began with the explosion of online shopping, and has only accelerated with the imposed economic shutdown.

This is the time for the federal government to step up and work with the civic administrations to develop a strategy to convert these dying retail spaces into vibrant community housing.

After 1945, the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (which later became Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) took over wartime housing efforts to provide housing for returning veterans. This was a first step in building a welfare state: Canada paid its debts to those who had gone to war, supported the war effort and counted family members among the war debt. 

Following a rapid expansion of its mandate in the postwar period, CMHC became the main player financing housing development. As recently as 2013, it accounted for 50 per cent of housing finance done since 1945. 

In the 1980s, CMHC was reined in despite the Conservatives announcing a National Direction for Housing Solutions in 1984. 

Private-public-partnerships were adopted as a model. 

In 1995, the short-sighted Paul Martin/Jean Chrétien budget reduced funding for municipal housing projects. That plus ending the subsidization of provincial welfare funding were triggers for an affordable housing crisis, and the appearance of armies of homeless Canadians in Vancouver, Toronto and other major cities. 

In the Harper years, CMHC became the main player in the financialization of housing stock through underwriting mortgage bonds. Today CMHC carries $263 billion in assets on its balance sheet.  

In 2017, the federal Liberals announced a 10-year national housing strategy to be led by CMHC with a promised $40 billion to end housing shortages by 2030.

Instead of grants to renters, or assisting for-profit projects, the housing strategy money should be earmarked to create community projects by repurposing commercial shopping centres. CMHC should reposition itself to support social housing, instead of the wildly speculative private housing market.

Building mixed social housing for students, seniors, single parents, low-income families and those in need makes sense for several reasons.

A lack of affordable housing is the main reason people have trouble making ends meet. It makes no sense to bring in a minimum income scheme, one that is desperately needed to patch the broken 11 provincial social welfare programs, if the main result is to provide additional income to landlords. Ditto for enhanced minimum wages, and desirable living wage programs.

The elements needed to produce successful co-op housing projects exist and just need to be channeled in the right direction. Land assembly can be done by CMHC, working in co-operation with local credit unions. Owners of units in the project would include provincial and city governments, universities and colleges, qualified individuals, and families.  

Once project sites were identified, architectural competitions would be held. The buildings specifications would include local materials and products of highest quality. All would have to be esthetically pleasing; new structures would be built to last, and would need to be inexpensive to maintain. Union built, they could include features such as geo-thermal heating, and would be designed to recycle water and wastes.

Once repurposed as housing projects, the former retail malls would feature community services: child care, health clinics, gyms and other recreational facilities, computers, libraries, and meeting spaces. Original retail stores and food outlets could continue on site.  

A co-op ownership structure would allow the provincial government to provide subsidized rental spaces for seniors and low income people, universities to lodge students, and credit union-qualified clients to participate as family or individual co-op owners. 

Each complex would have a residents council, administrative support and specialized staff for child care, recreation, health, and study sections.

A serious housing policy needs vision, and determined leadership, much as CMHC showed when it led the re-development of a run-down industrial area in downtown Vancouver, known as Granville Island, and created a showcase urban destination around a farmers market. 

It is past time for the federal government to once again champion affordable housing as it did after the Second World War.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Image: Paul Joseph/Flickr

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