Braid: No matter how much they talk, single-family zoning will end in Calgary

Change is happening everywhere and it’s inevitable here

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The daily hearings into blanket rezoning crawl along, sometimes confusing, often emotional, occasionally inspiring.

The result seems inevitable. Calgary council might touch up the bylaw in various ways, but single-family neighbourhoods will be pried open for development.

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The fact is, Calgary is late to this debate.

Various methods of scrapping the single-family dream have already come to Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton and Halifax. Change is underway in Ottawa, Regina and Winnipeg.

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In the U.S., California ended single-family zoning statewide last year. Oregon, Washington, Maine and Montana have done the same.

In 2020, Minneapolis became the first major U.S. centre to end single-family zoning. The city’s housing stock has since grown by 12 per cent.

Every city has passionate arguments over this issue.

At the Calgary hearings, virtually everyone under 40 advocates for more diverse housing in single-family neighbourhoods.

Many older people want the status quo, but a good number favour change, even those who live in single-family areas.

Some people urge reform of sclerotic city rules, saying this could speed up new housing without major changes to the traditional system.

Others argue that developers will sell multiple units where only one existed before, with huge profits and no guarantee of lower prices per square foot.

“Should this pass, it’s gonna be a development bonanza,” said one man who advocated a more measured approach.

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Developers counter that long delays in zoning approvals already add many thousands to the cost of new dwellings.

Rezoning hearings
Councillors listen to presentations during the second day of public hearing into proposed rezoning. Gavin Young/Postmedia

Despite the differences, nearly everyone acknowledges that this crisis can only be resolved with more housing at reasonable prices.

After watching several hours of the hearings this week, I found myself moved on Friday by a young immigrant who’s a visual artist.

He came here several months ago after checking out several Canadian cities, he said.

He was immediately stunned by the city’s beauty and amenities. There was no doubt for this young man — Calgary will be home. But he fears he can’t afford a life here.

He was one of the few I heard who focused on what we’re trying to preserve — this wonderful city that consistently scores high for quality of life.

We’ve got problems, for sure. But the housing crisis, although very serious, is just one more challenge for a city that has overcome many others — from flood to downtown business collapse.

Myths surround this fight. It’s widely believed that the Trudeau government is killing the single-family neighbourhood by linking funding to the end of “exclusionary” zoning.

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At the hearing, one city official was asked if Calgary would be denied money if this bylaw doesn’t pass. “No,” he said.

But the $4-billion Federal Housing Accelerator Fund states the condition: “Stop low-density zoning and regulation that excludes housing types such as affordable and social housing in residential areas.”

This federal fund was announced in March 2023. At that time, Calgary’s plan had been in development for more than a year.

There is a case that rather than forcing change, Ottawa is fostering a trend that was already well underway.

Edmonton ended single-family zoning by an 11-2 vote last Oct. 23.

Rezoning Row Homes
A row-home complex under construction in the northwest Calgary neighbourhood of Capitol Hill. Brent Calver/Postmedia

After Vancouver council passed its new bylaw last Sept. 14, the city said: “Last night’s unanimous council vote will allow up to six strata units, or up to eight secured rental units on larger lots, on lots that were previously reserved for single-family homes or duplexes only.

“We are in a housing crisis, and having half the city’s land base inaccessible to the majority of residents just doesn’t make sense.”

For many people, the single-family neighbourhood is almost a sacred contract. Buy into one, this feeling goes, and the only danger will be a giant McMansion popping up next door.

This dream is ending, but this doesn’t mean bulldozers will line up at community gates when the bylaw passes.

City hall will still control the pace of development with project approvals. They aren’t known to get anything done quickly.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald.

X: @DonBraid

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