Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Affordable Housing thoughts

It just looks like we've been away for a bit, but the team's been working hard. Naheed Nenshi was on the Calgary Eyeopener discussing policy prescriptions for affordable housing, and was invited as an external "expert" at the CBC sponsored forum, Blueprint Alberta: Rent. (If you want to hear Naheed's brief comments, scroll down to "Edmonton vs Calgary"). Expand this post to see our thoughts on affordable housing policy.

We're still developing our thinking on this topic, but here are a few thoughts to kickstart the debate. Of course, homelessness and affordable housing are deep complex issues (and this isn't really about homelessness broadly writ), but in some ways, we know the solution, and to quote Grant Neufeld of the Calgary Housing Action Initiative, what we need is a combination of political will and public will. People know what the solutions are, really; it's a matter of seeing if our politicians can find the courage to lead and get us there.

Both the supply side and the demand side of the equation need to be addressed, as follows:

First, we need to manage the short-term. While the economy is indeed cooling (Sam Kolias of Boardwalk says that his vacancies in Grand Prairie have shot up to 8% in the last few months), we need to deal with today's crisis, not wait for new accommodation to be built in two to three years.

-- The City has shown itself to be incapable of showing leadership, in an election year, on the one area that would make a difference immediately: the legalization of secondary suites. There should be a two-year moratorium on enforcing the current laws, except in cases of significant safety problems, and new codes should be drafted that make it inexpensive and easy to bring any existing home in Calgary into legal compliance. If the City won't do it, the Province should legislate them into it, as has been done in other provinces. (Naheed called this last idea a "get out of jail free" card for the provincial Tories going into the Calgary byelection)

-- We need to do everything possible to keep people from falling into the shelter system, which is very expensive and difficult to escape from. This means we need emergency rental supplement programs and the ability for tenants in trouble to get representation from the city or social agencies when negotiating with landlords.

-- Rental supplements won't work without some kind of rent increase management guidelines. The economy is cooling There should be a one-year moratorium on condo conversions of existing rental accommodation, and a reasonable cap on annual rents for the next year or two, with flexibility given to landlords to reflect actual increases in costs like property taxes and utilities. Yes, every Econ 101 textbook says rent controls constrain supply, but given that no rental accommodation has been built in Calgary in a decade, we are clearly not in a well-functioning supply-and-demand market today.

-- Once these three steps have been done to solve the immediate problem, we need to look at mid-term solutions like donating City-owned land for affordable housing, forcing 10-20% of all multi-family housing and new neighbourhoods to be fordable housing (also called mandatory inclusionary zoning), and examining new models of home ownership for the working poor (of which there are many examples). To make this happen, such housing needs to be integrated into communities, and City Hall needs to ignore the neighbours with NIMBY concerns (most studies show integrated housing raises, not lowers, nearby property values). The most shocking part of the forum was Sam Kolias saying he was ready and willing to build more rental housing, and had the land for it, but that NIMBYism was stopping his development permits.

-- In terms of public will, we all need to realize that we are truly in a crisis, and we all need to share the burden of solving it. This means that landlords need to restrain their potential profit in the short-term, yes, but, more important, that citizens need to accept that their neighbours should be able to rent their basements to students or seniors, and that those old strip malls and derelict hotels can and should become mixed-income housing, bring people into the neighbourhoods and kids into the schools.

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