Housing advocates let out a sigh of relief and a collective cheer when Calgary city council passed a housing strategy this past weekend.
The elation shouldn’t linger, as the strategy is but the first of many hurdles to clear before casting a solid foundation for the creation of more homes, including affordable ones, to suit a wide range of needs.
The most contentious component was the proposed removal of blanket restrictions on building semi-detached homes and townhomes in many established neighbourhoods.
Saturday’s vote by city council is only step one in correcting generations of poor planning that have prevented Calgary and other cities from aging and evolving naturally to accommodate growing populations in a responsible way.
We can learn much from Jane Jacobs’ views on urbanism from long ago, often relevant to this day. Meanwhile, Charles Marohn’s modern-day writing should be mandatory reading for anyone who cares about municipal finances.
For much of human history, cities would grow up and out at the same time.
Wealth in established places would allow owners to make better use of their property, building bigger and building more within a city’s footprint.
This would create the additional private wealth needed to support the construction of new, less expensive places around a city’s edges and generate the public wealth required to support services for those new homes and businesses.
This balance lasted for most of human history. Cities would change gradually and on balance, there would be enough room for everyone, more or less, regardless of income.
Post-war boom reshaped our cities — and not in a good way
The long era of prosperity after the Second World War unwittingly set us on the path to our current, untenable situation.
Everyone was duped into believing there would be non-stop economic growth, infinite cheap oil and an endless supply of land.
Housing in large greenfield developments could be built on the edge of town — practically all cookie-cutter single-family homes — and these places would be prevented from evolving to accommodate future growth.
The cost of land was deflated with such basic infrastructure as streets, water supplies and sewer lines essentially subsidized by municipalities. (Calgary has moved away from this model, but the city still has to provide basic services to such far-flung places — and this isn’t free.)
If a growing city needed to make room for more people, expectations and rules made it impossible to make better use of existing land, so new homes had to be built on yet more massive tracts of green space.
Alternatively, buildings would have to be built increasingly taller in those places where this was allowed … but that also limits such construction to people who have pockets deep enough to finance it.
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Resistance to increasing building density where it would have happened naturally prevents property owners and cities from efficiently creating more homes, which impoverishes cities and all who live in them by making municipalities more expensive to run than they would otherwise need to be.
It also discourages homeowners from making improvements and prevents them from increasing the use and value of their property when their homes reach a certain age and need renewal, if that’s what they want to do.
We’ve essentially forced ourselves to enlarge our cities in the most inefficient way possible, both in terms of land use and finances. It’s long past time for us to give ourselves a more financially sound alternative.
By the way: allowing more density doesn’t make it an obligation and there are still rules that keep people from building whatever, wherever. It won’t be a free-for-all.
The journey Calgary has embarked on should help ease the next evolution of the multi-pronged crisis of housing availability, affordable housing, land use and municipal finances.
Such long-term solutions are essential to minimize the chance that future generations will face the housing troubles we are dealing with now.