The Calgary affordable housing idea that divides conservatives, federal and local

Calgary city council nearly rejected all the ideas from their housing task force because they were nervous about a proposal making duplexes and townhouses easier to build. Pierre Poilievre's MPs were among the outraged.

Pierre Poilievre's MPs shout 'NIMBY' at the councillors they typically call allies

Two workers stand in front of a two-storey duplex under construction in the southwest community of Shaganappi.
A duplex, with two secondary suites, under construction on a lot that previously featured one stand-alone house. In most of Calgary's residential areas, this type of infill development is restricted. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Two things are traditionally true of many (if not most) Calgary city councillors.

They want to address the lack of affordable housing. They also want to avoid giving discomfort to the many homeowners who love how far away they live from lower-cost duplexes, row houses or apartments, and how hard it is for anyone to build those types of homes near them.

These two values clashed loudly this week, and the results at city hall were rather messy. 

Late Tuesday, council voted 8-7 to reject an entire set of a task force's proposals to ease the affordability crisis, because a few recommendations called for easing Calgary's restrictive residential zoning rules.

What ensued was a cross-partisan public drubbing of a council that would dare thumb its nose at those struggling to afford their rent or mortgages.

Within 24 hours, council undid that blunt rejection. In a 14-1 makeup vote, it gave a tentative endorsement to its housing task force's ideas.

This compromise path leaves several opportunities for councillors to ultimately reject reforms that would trigger anxiety among homeowners who prefer their neighbourhoods the way they are, as row upon row of stand-alone houses.

The vote and re-vote does not change or solve anything immediately. Rent costs and home prices are growing beyond the reach of many residents, and the influx of newcomers is making it all tougher.

But with this task force report, and the sharp outcry its brief rejection triggered, Calgary has been thrust into a new zoning debate that almost certainly gets testy and divisive — and perhaps nowhere more than within conservative political circles.

Suites and sourness

Think back to the long civic feud about secondary suites, which dragged on for more than a decade until council in 2018 made it so homeowners no longer needed a council public hearing each time one wanted to add a legal basement apartment into a house.

The councillors who had been most receptive to the years of pushback on reforming suite rules were conservatives, including some who are still at the table: Sean Chu, Andre Chabot and Peter Demong.

This week, the affordable housing task force's 33 calls to action included Calgary adopting a bylaw next year that would end the zones called R-1 and R-C1 that allow only stand-alone homes in most residential areas. Instead a newer zoning designation called R-CG would be expanded city-wide, and permit row houses, side-by-sides and duplexes throughout Calgary neighbourhoods.

It's designed to greatly increase the number of new units built in Calgary, beyond new highrises or edge suburbs, adding supply at lower costs. The change would be more sweeping than the one that permitted secondary suites wherever owners wanted them, and would require a major public hearing and future council vote.

A map of Calgary, where all areas that permit only standalone homes are shaded in yellow.
This map shows all the residential lots in Calgary where only stand-alone houses are permitted to be built. As you can see, it's the vast majority of residential Calgary, except for much of the inner city and some areas in newer suburbs. (City of Calgary.)

The councillors who voted this week to cut off any such movement were, once again, the more conservative-leaning members, including those who aligned themselves with federal party leader Pierre Poilievre (Dan McLean), ran provincially for the Progressive Conservatives (Chu), or Wildrose (Terry Wong), or tried to become a UCP candidate (Chabot).

"My communities rallied against secondary suites, let alone going blanket R-CG," Chabot said in council Tuesday. "This would be like secondary suites on steroids. I think there's absolutely no way that I could convince my communities to support that major of a change."

However, something has shifted in the federal Conservatives since Poilievre became leader last fall. In his campaign to make housing more affordable, Poilievre and his MPs have vocally pushed back against the red tape and NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) tendencies of planners and local politicians that keep smaller and more affordable housing units from springing up everywhere.

After the rejection of Calgary's housing task force proposals, Conservative MPs roasted council.

"It would have made it easier to build the homes that people need, but the gatekeepers stood their ground," tweeted Scott Aitchison, the party's Ontario-based housing critic.

Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner accused councillors of pandering to their residents. "I call upon colleagues on that council who I share constituents with to buck up and be actual leaders, and show our communities what courage and leadership looks like," she said in a statement. "Vote for housing and hope, not for NIMBYism."

Poilievre's Conservatives advocate for the federal government to withhold infrastructure funds for municipalities that refuse to ease zoning restrictions. 

Rempel Garner and her caucus mates were not so vocal in the years-long saga over basement suites, but Conservatives weren't led by an anti-NIMBYism crusader back then. Poilievre is making some of the pleas that progressive local housing advocates have long issued — adding a new level of pressure on councillors that might otherwise love linking arms with the would-be prime minister.

It may be overly simplistic to draw a straight line from the Conservative MPs' outcry to the Calgary councillors' cautious reversal and compromise, as they also didn't want to be seen as turning a blind eye to the housing problem.

Councillors are more likely to get earfuls about zoning and development from change-averse community associations than MPs are. The initial reaction to the federal pushback was along those lines.

"When it comes to rezoning, I'm sorry, I have to say that's a municipal decision and these are our Calgarians and constituents that we have to also balance our priorities (for)," Coun. Sonya Sharp told reporters before the re-votes.

A smiling bespectacled politician dressed in a western shirt speaks into a microphone.
Pierre Poilievre speaks to young Conservatives at a Calgary pub during Stampede 2022. His federal Conservatives have been advocating for the federal government to withhold infrastructure funds for municipalities that refuse to ease zoning restrictions. (Joel Dryden/CBC)

Other forces may also push councillors to end the R-1 and R-C1 restrictions. Edmonton got rid of their similar zones in 2018. Governments in British Columbia and Ontario have pursued similar civic reforms in provinces whose housing affordability problems spiralled far faster than Alberta's.

Alberta's UCP government has not entertained any similar moves. But if resistance to this change drags on for more than a decade like the suite debate did, who knows what a future government faced with steeper rental woes will do?

The outfall of infill

Jasmine Mian, a councillor who consistently supported the housing task force ideas, noted that secondary suite reforms didn't bring on the neighbourhood apocalypse critics feared — but it also didn't solve affordability.

"And that will be the exact same thing with R-CG city-wide: the sky will not fall," Mian told colleagues. "When it happens, people will come around to it. But it also won't be the silver bullet that some people hope it will be."

For this reason, the task force also proposes several other solutions, including that the city sell off and acquire more development-ready land, ease parking requirements, encourage more co-op housing; advocate for provincial tax breaks for non-profit housing builders, and investigate rent controls in other jurisdictions and present findings to the provincial government.

None of those ideas were nearly as division-stoking among Calgary's councillors. And with Poilievre trying to upend the partisan lines on the zoning debate, there may be more consensus yet to be forged.


Jason Markusoff

Producer and writer

Jason Markusoff analyzes what's happening — and what isn't happening, but probably should be — in Calgary, Alberta and sometimes farther afield. He's written in Alberta for more than two decades, previously reporting for Maclean's magazine, Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal. He appears regularly on Power and Politics' Power Panel and various other CBC current affairs shows. Reach him at