Where's the help? Residents question why council won't do more for housing affordability
City councillor says Calgary needs to make more land available faster for housing
Thump — it's 2 a.m. and heavy footfalls on the ceiling above woke Christina Mann, again. That's life in a lodging house, she says.
Mann worked for years in book wholesaling. But it's been precarious work. She found herself in her 50s, single and paying $580 a month to rent a basement room in a suburban bungalow with six strangers — the best she could find in Calgary's rental market.
It wasn't fun. The two bathrooms were busy. The kitchen was a mess.
"If you're going to shoehorn seven strangers into a house that's built for a family, there's going to be conflict," said Mann, picturing that time. "I'm so frustrated. I'm on five hours of sleep a night and I've had enough. I'm at my limit."
Mann had a simple question for a CBC Calgary team asking people about their renting experience recently. Why isn't Calgary doing more to cut the cost of housing?
Build more government-subsidized units, cut back on zoning rules, allow tiny garden units — whatever it takes, she said.
"They always find a bylaw to outlaw it whenever someone comes up with a brilliant idea," Mann said. "We could have tiny homes. We could have more trailer parks. We could have trailers for rent."
What the city is doing
There were record-high numbers of people moving to Calgary from out-of-province and overseas in 2022. According to the most recent report by real estate website rentals.ca, rent prices for two-bedroom units in Calgary increased by 22 per cent to an average $1,894 in the last year.
Any unit under $1,000 is hard to find and many residents texting CBC Calgary for the Finding Home project report stiff rental increases.
It's forced some to give up their units and more than 4,000 are on a waiting list for a subsidy or subsidized unit with Calgary Housing.
In Canada, all three levels of government have a role in housing. The federal government built tens of thousands of low-rent units a year before cutting back in the 2000s. They've restored some funding, but much of it is targeted at new market-rate rentals.
Alberta funds some social housing and has a rental subsidy program. Provinces also have the power to create rental regulations, such as caps on rent increases (which Alberta doesn't have).
Municipal leaders have argued the big bucks should be coming from these other levels of government, since they have deeper pockets.
But in Canada, cities still play a role by making land available and creating zoning rules that limit what can be built in city neighbourhoods.
So what is the City of Calgary doing?
Last year, council voted to create a task force. Now 15 Calgarians — renters, housing industry experts and city admin — are working on the challenge.
But when CBC Calgary reached out, the task force was mum on details. All they had permission to share was that they had nine meetings and focused on four topics: market housing, non-market housing, permanent and supportive housing and homelessness.
"We'll have something more to share when [recommendations] go to council," said Tim Ward, chair of the task force.
They go to council in June.
For the past five years, the city has been trying to help by making plots of extra land available to non-profit developers.
That's helped create 218 subsidized units so far. Last week Mayor Jyoti Gondek announced three more parcels of land and up to $7.5 million in grants to create around 100 new units.
Gondek also announced a $600,000 emergency fund for Calgarians who can't afford first and last month's rent, and a grant program for urban Indigenous housing initiatives.
And what about zoning? Politicians including Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre blame city rules for high housing prices. When councils only allow single family homes in an area, he says it prevents builders from putting up multi-family buildings and splitting the land costs among more residents.
Council says it wants to create more options for the so-called "missing middle" or medium density, townhouse and small multi-family options. It approved new zoning last October to enable this type of housing in certain areas of the city.
But it gets pushback from some homeowners who don't want to see change.
The ultimate luxury
It's not happening fast enough for Mann, who was evicted from that shared northwest house last month. She says the landlord accused her of threatening other tenants and she wasn't able to fight it because her lease was under the Innkeepers Act, which affords tenants fewer rights than the Residential Tenancy Act.
She met CBC Calgary at a coffee shop in Ramsay, close to where she's now staying with a friend. She's quiet and thoughtful, spends time watching YouTube videos on #vanlife channels and wondering about other options — garden suite or tiny house, anything with privacy.
Most of her belongings are in storage.
"It seems like the ultimate luxury is peace and quiet, a good night's sleep without being woken up at all hours," said Mann.
"It's not just me. It's the society we're living in, it's the government policy, it's the developers, it's the rents … rent control, far and above, is one thing we need."
Leveraging more land for housing
Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott has been giving a series of community speeches on what Calgary could and should do more to make housing less expensive.
During a recent talk at Mount Royal University, he pointed to the land under the powerlines beside 50th Avenue west of MacLeod Trail as an example.
It was set aside for a road connection and bridge over the Elbow River. That's unlikely to happen now.
Calgary needs to step up and make more land available faster, Walcott said in an interview with CBC Calgary. He filed a notice of motion last year to get the city to review the policy. That should be back before council for debate this spring.
As it stands, the city can sell up to 10 parcels of surplus land for affordable housing every two years.
Contributing land to a building project makes a huge difference, Walcott said.
"All of a sudden [the project] is so cheap because the land costs you nothing. You just have to build the structure and divide it up under 50 tenants and boom — you've got the most affordable house on the block."
During the 2021 census, Statistics Canada found more than 54,000 renter households in Calgary spent 30 per cent or more of their income on housing.
A recent CMHC report found Alberta will need 20,000 more homes by 2030 just to maintain what supply ratio there is, and development insiders say the supply is not keeping up. It's going to get worse before it gets better.
Walcott says all governments need to be involved to fix this crisis, but the municipal government can't ignore what's within its capacity to do.
It's a conundrum, he said. "We do not have the capacity to solve this problem alone, but we do have capacity. That is a frustrating space to be in."
Series produced by Elise Stolte