Opinion: Council looks for easy answer on complex issue of housing

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Coun. Courtney Walcott recently suggested that 350,000 homeowners in Calgary are among “the selfish few.” Or at least, that is what was implied when he scolded Coun. Dan McLean for having the temerity to suggest that a plebiscite on blanket housing would only “benefit the selfish few.”

As no councillors ran on this issue, a plebiscite seemed the next best way for the electorate to communicate with their representatives — should multi-family housing be a “permitted use” next to single-family homes?

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The public hearing on April 22 has no hope of achieving that level of input. How many people can afford to take a day off work to sit through such a divisive matter?

Or is that why council proponents have chosen to ignore a legitimate democratic process? After all, we are in a housing crisis and something has to be done right now.

Council voted 8-6 to reject what some felt was a costly, time-wasting plebiscite.

I agree that something has to be done but strongly disagree that “blanket zoning” is the solution, and I don’t believe council has a moral mandate to act on it. Disrupting the lifestyle choices (and investments) of tens of thousands of citizens by eliminating the certainty that came with land-use zoning will not make housing for the poor more affordable. And it is highly unlikely to add significantly to the housing stock.

Randomly tearing down existing single-housing stock to build new multi-family units is expensive and wasteful. After years of artificially depressed interest rates and the pent-up demands of COVID, we are now living in a time of inflation. Material and labour cost more than they ever have and will put an invisible cap on what can be built.

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The industry is already maxed out, yet our population continues to grow — mainly through immigration — at unprecedented levels.

With something like a million newcomers competing for limited housing supply every year, why would anyone be surprised that there is now a crisis? And now the “selfish few” are being asked to pay the price for government negligence and the incompetence of misguided policy.

Despite successive governments and social agencies divesting themselves of social housing and land banks for decades, there is still enough publicly owned land available to make a good start on solving the problem. Many appropriate areas are conducive to multi-family housing that will have minimal impact on established neighbourhoods. Blanket housing regulations completely disregard any potential for nuance.

Some areas and some streets are more able to integrate increased density than others. Use it first.

Council will soon find there is no such thing as “affordable or low-cost housing” for the poor. All housing, and especially new housing, is expensive. Social housing simply has to be supported by the public purse and, in that regard, we have fallen way behind the need.

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So fund it, but do it wisely and with consideration.

Desperate to do something, elected officials and bureaucrats looked for fast and easy answers to a complex problem that was long in the making. In this case, they discovered a New Zealand academic who claimed that upzoning and eliminating “exclusionary zoning” was the answer to our affordable housing prayers. More circumspect analysis has since dismissed what was a flawed study, one that cherry-picked data to confirm a predetermined conclusion, but yet it persists.

That problem is not new. English philosopher Lord Francis Bacon in the 1600s wrote that having once adopted an opinion, the advocate is quite willing to consider “all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects (or) despises.”

It is proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Ronald J. Goodfellow is a retired architect who designed hundreds of social housing projects during a 50-year career. He is a planning adviser to the community of Shaganappi.

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