Rental woes will continue in Calgary

Council shies away from providing immediate solutions

City council used its last meeting before the municipal election to address the post-flood rental crunch. Aldermen voted to encourage the construction of more legal secondary suites by temporarily waiving a $4485 suite application fee as well as development permit fees which vary depending on individual suite specifications.

City administration does not have exact information on the affects of the June flood on the Calgary rental market but there is wide agreement that the situation is serious with thousands known to have been displaced from their homes and rental prices skyrocketing. The vacancy rate in Calgary as of April 2013 was 1.2 per cent a number that was already troublingly low Mayor Naheed Nenshi said during the September 16 council meeting. Current vacancy rates aren’t known but are estimated by city administration to be near zero.

Cassandra Christie was living in a rented basement suite on Elbow Drive when the flood hit. Her home was destroyed and she says that despite searching for a new place she is “still a house guest” some three months on.

“Finding an affordable rental has been a massive challenge. I’ve found a sublet for October till January and then I’ll be on the hunt again” she says.

Rollin Stanley the city’s general manager of planning development and assessment has also experienced first-hand the city’s new rental reality.

“I know there’s a rental crisis because I was almost living in my Volvo down by the river. I didn’t have a place to live with about three days to go when the landlord was selling the house I was renting. So I know the challenges of trying to find a place in Calgary” he says.

“There’s an awareness that a lot of folks are having trouble…. In my own neighbourhood when I walk the dog in the morning I see some trailers parked on the street with extension cords running to them” he says.

Stanley was part of the city team that put together six proposals to quickly increase the number of rental units on the market. The proposals included temporarily placing “Katrina cottages” or container housing on empty city or school board-owned land converting existing buildings into housing and allowing more than one secondary suite on residential lots. After extended discussion council opted to lobby the province for relaxed building codes in addition to the fee waivers. Decisions on the other proposals have been deferred until a report on secondary suites is released in September of 2014.

Council was split in its discussion of relieving the housing crisis with inner-city aldermen such as Druh Farrell John Mar and Gian-Carlo Carra pushing for immediate action while many who represent outlying areas of the city argued for more public engagement and an opportunity to make the rental crisis a campaign issue.

“I intend to discuss this rigorously and vigorously during this election campaign” Ward 13 Ald. Diane Colley-Urquhart said during the council meeting. “I do believe that this needs to have a real rigorous public consultation process.”

Farrell says she wonders if some aldermen don’t understand how severe the problem is.

“There’s no debate with the councillors representing flood-impacted areas. The problem seems more remote [for other aldermen] but it affects the city as a whole. I would have preferred that we addressed [the crisis]. It would have shown leadership. However I wasn’t optimistic that we would be able to move forward on some of the recommendations…. It is my hope that we stop putting out mixed messages regarding suites and make a decision and provide more clarity…. We’ve done a number of things like that where we give a half-hearted attempt to approve where in reality it accomplishes little” she says.

Stanley says coming up with ideas was not difficult as many have been successful in other North American cities. Convincing council to approve them is the real hurdle.

He also favours compelling developers to provide a set percentage of affordable housing units in a given residential development.

“That’s not something that’s probably doable here any time in the near future” says Stanley. “For one because it’s not legally allowed and two there isn’t the political will for it.”

City of Calgary special projects manager Cliff de Jong also points out that despite the urgency of the crisis for renters change will come slowly due to the nature of how building codes are altered and how different levels of bureaucracy work together.

With the possibility of new faces at council after the October 21 election with far different ideas than their predecessors and an entire year before the next secondary suite report is due it is unlikely council can bring relief to renters any time soon.