How Edmonton's zoning renewal could be a boon for newcomers
Advocates, experts say more housing types could meet needs of immigrants
Pablo Wikander immigrated to Edmonton two years ago. An academic no longer able to return to his home of Venezuela, he says he and his wife struggled for months to find an appropriate place to live.
A place well-served by transit in a car-centric city (new arrivals sometimes don't have a licence) and near amenities: housing needs made all the more scarce for newcomers living on the margins.
"If you start adding all these and, at the same time, you need a place that is affordable, it becomes very, very difficult to find that place," Wikander said.
Wikander, a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta studying housing for low-income immigrants, is among those advocates and experts who say new zoning could benefit immigrants.
Every piece of land in the city is assigned a zone. Zones contain the rules for where buildings can go, what types of buildings they can be and what activities are allowed on a property.
Edmonton plans to shrink the number of zones by almost half — from 46 to 24. "This is a country that is changing," Wikander said. "We need to adequate our cities to our new population."
Around a quarter of Edmonton's population is now made up of immigrants. There were nearly 20,000 immigrants to the Edmonton metro region in 2022, according to Statistics Canada.
But housing in the city remains a challenge, pushing many to far-out suburbs. Restrictive zoning for single-family households prevalent in the city's core lock out multiple marginalized groups, including recent immigrants.
Sandeep Agrawal, a University of Alberta professor who studies equity in urban planning, said the zoning renewal presents an opportunity to reverse that trend.
"It allows diversity of housing types, it opens up areas in the city which are, at the moment, exclusive in nature."
Agrawal, who spoke in support of the renewal at a June committee meeting, co-authored an article this spring that looked to assess inequity in Edmonton's current zoning bylaw.
Some of the challenges the article cites are restrictions under additional development regulations and appeals, numerous discretionary uses without clear parameters for decision-making and problematic use definitions like religious assembly.
Agrawal said limits on the type of developments in single-family zones can make certain areas unaffordable for newcomers and immigrants, who are often still establishing themselves financially.
The 2021 census found that 21 per cent of immigrants in Canada spent at least 30 per cent of their income on housing, while just 13.2 per cent of the non-immigrant population did. The percentage of immigrants deemed in need of housing was 14.3 per cent, compared to just 6.4 per cent for those born in Canada.
Agrawal said other factors can be at play beyond affordability, including restrictions on secondary suites that supplement income.
"I also take comfort in the fact that some of these development processes are being adjusted to take into account the needs and opinions of all Edmontonians, including newcomers, other minority groups, Indigenous folks," he said.
"And also it's being written in a way that more and more people can understand."
Omar Yaqub, executive director of the social agency IslamicFamily, said there is a need for more housing to serve larger and extended families.
A report that came out last summer from the city projected a need for 30,800 new housing units by 2026 for those with an income of less than $45,000. Of those, almost a quarter would need to be for three-plus bedrooms.
"What we tend to build … [is] two-bedroom units," Yaqub said.
"But when we think about maybe someone who's trying to care for grandparents and kids and maybe a sibling family living with them, we don't actually have built forms that allow for that and our current building doesn't make it easy."
He said the average size of families the organization works with is seven. He noted that many Indigenous families have similar housing needs as newcomers in tending to live in an extended family network.
Yaqub said IslamicFamily, which works within the affordable housing space, has also seen delays on affordable housing projects spurred by the current rezoning process.
He said those delays can balloon costs and threaten projects.
"Because it's often built on razor-thin margins, the cost of zoning could make or break it."
Opponents to the zoning renewal have noted there is no language explicitly directing affordable housing be built, expressing concern that resultant infill will be expensive.
"It's be nice to have more avenues for affordable housing," Yaqub said.
"I'm supportive of the zoning bylaw renewal not because it's perfect but because it's better."
The proposed zoning bylaw is set for a public hearing at city hall on Oct. 16.