Is infill housing the answer for Alberta's biggest cities?

From expensive skinny houses to ultra-modern duplexes, infill development continues to be a source of controversy as Alberta’s biggest cities strive to encourage density.

Bespoke developments may increase density, but critics argue high-end price tags decrease diversity

Infill housing is becoming a common sight in many established neighbourhoods. But is this pricey form of housing the best route to urban renewal? (Katie Raskina/CBC)

From skinny houses in Edmonton to ultra-modern duplexes in Calgary, infill development continues to be a source of controversy as Alberta's biggest cities strive to encourage density.  

Both Edmonton and Calgary have in recent years adopted policies aimed at revitalizing inner city neighbourhoods, reducing sprawl and building more diverse communities. But with boutique developments often selling at or near the top end of the real estate market in already-desirable neighbourhoods, some question whether the approach is having the desired result.

"What I'm seeing in front of my eyes is that the objectives that Edmonton set that skinny homes were supposed to achieve … are not being achieved," Cassandra Haraba of the group Citizens for Responsible Development told Alberta at Noon.

The so-called "skinny" homes, typically built on 25-foot lots created by splitting a larger 50-foot lot, were intended to bring more young families to neighbourhoods with aging residents and combat suburban sprawl.

But with the modern buildings often listing for as much as $800,000 or $900,000, Haraba said the city is seeing them concentrated in just a few tony neighbourhoods that don't have trouble attracting new residents.  

Ultra-modern duplexes in mature Calgary neighbourhoods may sell near the top of the market, but they also give more people a chance to live in desirable areas, said builder Pedro Ocana. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

"We are focusing investment into neighbourhoods that were likely already stable, already had a good demographic and didn't need any help," she said. "There's no investment going into neighbourhoods that actually do need and want reinvestment."

A better way to combat sprawl and encourage more diverse communities would be to stop approving new suburbs and create financial incentives for developers to create infill in less prestigious communities, she said.

"It all goes down to the pocketbook. If developers are saying we can only satisfy our pocketbooks by doing skinny homes in desirable neighbourhoods then we need to change it, so that they can get what they need and the communities can also get what they need."

Pricey housing still good for communities

Calgary builder Pedro Ocana, president of Sunset Homes, agrees custom infill is often pricey. But adding homes to existing communities still benefits those neighbourhoods.

About half the infill homes Ocana builds are duplexes built for clients who were already living on the site in a single family home, but who want to create additional housing for family or friends.

The demand for skinny homes in Edmonton's mature neighbourhoods keeps rising, realtors and builders say. (UrbanAge Homes)

"They bought it five or 10 years ago, they're moving up — they have better jobs — and they have a friend or a family member that wants to live there as well," he said. "So they just tear it down and in 10 to 12 months you can move back in and live in these duplexes."

Adding infill to existing communities is also easier than building out new suburbs, Ocana said, because infrastructure and amenities, like transit, roads and shopping centres, are already in place.

"So if you're going to take the bus, the bus routes are already pre-established, you have grocery stores in place, so it's easier for these already in place neighbourhoods to accommodate this influx of new people."

And while much of the resistance to infill is due to aesthetics — ultra-modern duplexes may not always jive with neighbourhood character — Ocana said the solution lies in getting creative.  

"There's nothing much we can do inside," he said. "But on the exterior there are a lot of options. There are so many materials right now that are low-maintenance, like aluminum that looks like wood."

New structures that adhere to contemporary building codes are also much more efficient and environmentally friendly, he added.

'It's a plus-one essentially'

Edmonton Journal columnist David Staples said he has become a convert to the skinny homes and other forms of infill starting to infiltrate Edmonton neighbourhoods. Although this form of housing can be expensive, it also frees up real estate on the lower end of the market, he said.

"You get an extra home on the market in a neighbourhood where that was not going to happen, so it's plus one essentially," he said.

And despite the initial uproar about skinny homes in the city, Staples said it still constitutes a very small segment of development in the city — of the 54,000 lots eligible for subdivision, only 133 were subdivided in the first year the city allowed it.

"It's not a huge trend, at least not yet."