White: New housing initiatives are too little, too late

Another 19,000 Calgary households will need public housing by 2025. But only 5,100 such homes are due in the next three years.

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Calgary, like all Canadian cities, has a housing crisis. But let’s be more specific. There are two housing sectors — market and public (non-market) housing. While some homeowners with mortgages are struggling with increased mortgage rates, the real crisis is the lack of housing for low income and special needs citizens. And this crisis has been around for decades but has been ignored until it impacted the “average” citizen.

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The City of Calgary estimated 81,000 households need public housing in 2021 and expected the need to rise to rise to 100,000 by 2025. The City currently has 45,000 public housing homes, which means approximately 36,000 Calgary households are faced with paying marketing housing costs they can’t afford.

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The City’s ambitious seven-year Housing Strategy is “too little, too late.” Adding 3,000 new non-market homes per year for the next seven years isn’t going to meet the demand. It is especially not enough to solve the housing crisis for the 750 people living on the streets and the 3,000 living in shelters. They can’t wait. That is the true housing crisis.

The federal government’s contribution of $228 million to Calgary over the next three years, sounds like a lot, but at $300,000 per home that equates to only 760 homes. The total cost of addressing Calgary’s shortage of low income housing is closer to more than $10 billion (36,000 times $300,000/home).

Linking Vision to Reality

Every city needs a spectrum of housing to meet the diverse needs of its citizens, including homeless, emergency, transitional, supportive, public rental, market rental and homeownership. In an ideal world, the amount of each housing type would match the demographics of the city, but this rarely happens.

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While Calgary had a record number of housing starts in 2022 and 2023, the supply didn’t meet the need for homeless, emergency, transitional, supportive and public housing.

In 2022, Calgary’s population growth jumped by 55,200 creating an immediate demand for 23,000 new homes (assuming 2.4 people per home) or about 8,000 more than the 14,767 housing starts that year.

It is not just about the number of housing starts, but the right supply of different types of homes that meet the diverse needs of an ever-changing population that creates a healthy supply of housing for everyone.

Calgary’s Public Housing Shortage

Currently only 3.6 per cent of Calgary’s housing inventory is public housing (housing owned by government or not-for-profits and rented at 30 per cent or less of household income); the average in Canada’s major cities is six per cent.

Calgary and Canada’s public housing shortage began in the 1980s when the federal government stopped funding public housing projects while the country’s population continued to grow. Given Calgary has been Canada’s fastest growing city for the past 40 years, it is not surprising our public housing inventory is lower than other cities.

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The current public housing crisis has been further exasperated by the federal government’s decision to significantly increase immigration before increasing public housing, despite knowing many new immigrants will need low-rent housing before they find jobs and/or upgrade skills to get well-paying jobs.

Calgary is currently experiencing record population increases due primarily from new immigrants who are attracted to our city given our affordable housing costs compared to Vancouver and Toronto, good job opportunities, high average wages (relative to housing costs) and good quality of life.

This has resulted in a public housing crisis.

Facing Reality

The City of Calgary’s current seven-year Housing Strategy Plan calls for an increase of 4,000 new home starts annually from current levels — 3,000 non-market and 1,000 market homes. The problem is 2022 and 2023 have been record years with almost 15,000 housing starts. It is unrealistic to expect we can increase housing starts by 25 per cent quickly.

The biggest barrier to building more homes is labour shortage. Calgary Construction Association is on record that our city has a labour shortage of between 2,000 and 4,000 construction workers. This isn’t going to change quickly.

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In the short term are 22 “shovel ready” public new housing projects in Calgary representing 1,807 homes, and the City is “hoping” to purchase 3,300 existing homes over the next three years for a total of 5,100 new public homes by 2026.

However, the City has also indicated 19,000 more households will need public housing by 2025 and even more by 2026, so the 5,100 new public housing homes over the next three years will help, but the shortfall will continue to increase. It is too little, too late.

After unveiling its housing plan, the City of Calgary quickly sold three sites to affordable housing agencies at below market prices to create 100 new public housing homes by 2027. However, the City must sell 30 sites each year for the next seven years to achieve 3,000 new public housing starts annually. How realistic is that?

Last Word

While it is encouraging that all levels of government are currently working to address Calgary’s (and Canada’s) housing shortages, I am afraid it is too little, too late.

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