Why three-bedroom condos in downtown Calgary may be the Holy Grail to keep families in the core

A conversation about how we could reshape our condo market, and reshape our city, to bring more families into the inner city. But there are dangers in meddling with the free market.

City Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra ponders whether larger condos would inspire families to stay in inner city

Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra says too many councillors represent wards with minimal business tax burdens, giving them little incentive to support increases in residential property taxes to take some of the burden off of business owners. (Terri Trembath/CBC)


That's the word Calgary Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra uses for young families who would like to live in the inner city — such as Inglewood — but because of cost and space are forced into distant suburbs like Mahogany.

Yep. This is one of our city's great party conversations. Where do you want to live? Where can you afford to live? Often, those things don't line up. There's what you want, and what you can afford.

The inner city is laden with condos, and you'd think that that would offer some hope, but there's a problem. They just aren't big enough.

Since 2016, developers in New Westminster, B.C., have been required to include 10 per cent three-bedroom units and 20 per cent two-bedroom units in all multi-family buildings.

The idea surfaced on social media in Calgary recently, prompting Carra to muse over whether Calgary should follow suit.

Carra spoke Wednesday to David Gray on the Calgary Eyeopener about the need for developers to provide more three-bedroom condos, and offer Calgarians different places to live.

Q: Is it a problem if singles want to live downtown and families want to live in the suburbs?

A: There's a tremendous amount of market demand for people who want to raise their kids in the inner city. When I started as president of the Inglewood Community Association 13 or 14 years ago, we said one in 10 families when they started a family stayed in the neighbourhood and tried to make it work. And then, when I left for city hall, I would say it was exactly reversed: nine of 10 couples were trying to make it work in the inner city in older housing stock that was extremely expensive, and only one in 10 'Mahoganized,' as we said — move out to Mahogany.

Q: Any surprise with that?

A: The schools aren't always out in the suburbs, and that's one of the challenges — and there's a tremendous amount of driving around that goes on. There's a tremendous amount to recommend to inner-city living, and generally what we want to do as the City of Calgary is we want to build complete communities.

We don't want communities that go through a life cycle, where everyone moves in at the same age, uses all the facilities we were originally able to build and are increasingly unable to build, as we spread further and further out, and then, after 20 years of kids packing the schools and the rinks and things like that, you've [then] got a 40-, 50-year segment of emptiness until the neighbourhood starts to repopulate. That's no way to build infrastructure.

Q: What are you proposing?

A: I'm not actually proposing anything but what started a few days ago was a conversation [on social media] about three-bedroom condos — and how they're fiendishly hard to find. And when you do find them, they're generally the most expensive units by far, not just to buy, but in terms of the condo fees.

Usually they're the penthouses. It's the three-bedroom condo that's the Holy Grail for those families that want to stay in the inner city and maybe want to move out of a ground-oriented house, but the price point on these units are getting so high, that you generally see bidding wars [for them]. And it's the older couple, done having kids, moving into their trophy house that are outbidding and [generally] have more buying power than the family that wants to stay in the inner city.

We're introducing row house and other ground-oriented types that are big enough to raise a family, new enough not to need constant maintenance but are affordable for a lot of families … and the question is, do three-bedroom condominiums start to respond to a market demand or start to create an opportunity for families? That was the conversation on Twitter.

Q: Could this idea change the [demographic] makeup of some neighbourhoods?

A: There's some price issues. The [real estate] industry — they're not idiots. When they're going to build something, they look at what the demand is out there, what they can reasonably expect to sell in a reasonable amount of time. At the same time, the industry isn't infallible. 

Q: Some cities had bad experiences trying to regulate the market, like Toronto, which created an unaffordability boom. Is there some risk involved in meddling with the  market?

A: I think there's always a lesson to be learned from meddling in the free market, but what people have got to realize is we don't live in a free market. We live in a hugely regulated market. And the regulations we've created have big impacts on the kind of environments that we create. And so we have to have thoughtful discussions about how we maybe tune those dials.

Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create.

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