Breakenridge: Cities should be part of housing affordability solution

We should also not lose sight of the fact that this represents an important driver of our economy

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Earlier this year, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. called for an “all-hands-on-deck effort” from municipal, provincial and federal governments to help return this country to the housing affordability levels last seen two decades ago.

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The CMHC, which had previously identified supply as “the biggest issue affecting housing affordability,” warned that with the current pace of home construction, Canada will be about 3.5 million units short by 2030.

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And while housing affordability might be a little brighter in Alberta, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be a part of the overall solution. If we wish to keep that affordability advantage, it’s crucial that Calgary’s supply be able to keep up with current and future demand.

To that end, the five new communities approved last week by Calgary city council definitely represent a step in the right direction. That’s not to say that every proposed new community should automatically be rubber-stamped, but more will surely be needed in the years ahead.

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Even this year, Alberta is gaining population from interprovincial migration. The city expects Calgary’s population will grow by about 88,000 people over the next few years. Longer term, Statistics Canada forecasts overall growth in Alberta to be just over two million people over the next 20 years. Where do we expect all of these people will live?

The arguments against building new communities seem out of step with these realities.

Concern over cost is entirely reasonable, but that’s a concern that’s already being addressed by the city. These five new communities, for example, were already identified as not requiring any new capital costs. Some proposed new communities will obviously make more sense than others, but that’s hardly an argument against any and all new development.

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There are also those who say that this all runs counter to the principles of last year’s declaration of a climate emergency and the overall push toward net zero. This is a much weaker argument.

For one, it’s unclear exactly what the climate emergency declaration was supposed to accomplish in practice, but I don’t think one could reasonably infer that it was any sort of mandate to rein in housing development. If that was indeed the purpose, then perhaps proponents should have been clearer on that point. Fortunately, a majority of those on council don’t see a conflict between these two separate goals.

If the city wishes to set high environmental standards for new developments and home construction, then they certainly have that prerogative. The question really isn’t whether we should meet the demand, but rather how to do it smartly.

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Furthermore, though, it leaves us in denial of the very real challenges of housing affordability and increased demand. There are enough surrounding municipalities quite willing to fill the void and meet the demand, likely meaning many new homes outside of Calgary for those who will commute in and out of the city. How does that advance any sort of climate goals?

Climate policy at the federal and provincial levels is ultimately going to matter far more than what cities do, but when it comes to addressing the housing supply problem in this country, municipalities are in the driver’s seat. And, again, it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

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We should also not lose sight of the fact that this represents an important driver of our economy. It’s not just about the numbers of housing demand and supply, but also the jobs created in meeting that demand. The latest employment figures from Statistics Canada showed an increase of 3,200 jobs in Calgary’s construction sector in August and a 6,500 year-over-year increase in employment in the sector.

This activity in the housing sector is ultimately a win-win in terms of the economic lift it provides and the longer-term solution for housing affordability that we’re providing in the process. Let’s stay on the right track.

“Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” airs weekdays 12:30-3 p.m. on 770CHQR and 2-3 p.m. on 630CHED Twitter: @RobBreakenridge

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