Affordable Housing in Calgary: An Unfolding Crisis

Table of Contents

The State of Affordable Housing in Calgary

A Brief Walk Down Memory Lane

On a crisp February day in 1974, Calgary’s then-mayor, Rod Sykes, proudly unveiled Hillhurst Apartments, a 10-storey social housing project designed to provide affordable living spaces for lower-income residents. These units offered panoramic views of the city, with rent linked to the tenants' income. Despite some opposition, Sykes staunchly defended the initiative, emphasizing its potential to alleviate social stress for lower-income families.

Fast forward 50 years, and the once-proud Hillhurst Apartments now stand as a relic of a bygone era, nestled in a neighborhood that's seen significant change. The building's once-modern facade has deteriorated, with visible cracks, jutting rebar, and a pothole at the entrance. Yet, for residents like Diana Bliss, this aging structure is a lifeline.

A Shelter Amidst Crisis

Diana Bliss, 69, lives with her adult son, who is on AISH due to an autism spectrum disorder. Despite the building's poor condition, Bliss is grateful for the refuge it provides. Before moving to Hillhurst Apartments, she faced a staggering rent increase that threatened to push her into homelessness. Now, she pays a manageable 30% of their combined income towards rent.

Her apartment, though far from perfect, is filled with personal touches—artwork, books, and plants. However, Bliss has noted several issues, from heating problems to overflowing garbage bins. These challenges underscore the broader issues plaguing Calgary's affordable housing sector.

The State of Affordable Housing

The Hillhurst Apartments are emblematic of a larger issue: Calgary’s affordable housing stock is aging and deteriorating. According to the city’s 2022 corporate asset management plan, many of these buildings are over 50 years old and require significant investment to remain viable.

This problem is not unique to city-owned properties. A 2021 report by Alberta’s Ministry of Seniors and Housing revealed that over 80% of the province’s affordable housing units were in fair or poor condition, with $1 billion in deferred maintenance.

The Evolution of Housing Policy

In the 1960s and 70s, the Canadian government invested heavily in social housing, producing between 20,000 and 30,000 units annually. This effort was driven by a belief that poverty could be eradicated through comprehensive welfare subsidies. However, by the 1980s, economic challenges and a shift in political ideology led to drastic cuts in social spending. By 1993, the federal government had exited the affordable housing business, leaving the provinces to pick up the slack.

In Alberta, the creation of new affordable housing stalled between 1996 and 2004. This lack of investment has had lasting consequences, with many buildings now in dire need of repair and modernization.

Funding and Responsibility

Today, affordable housing is a shared responsibility among federal, provincial, and municipal governments. Despite various initiatives and funding programs, underfunding remains a significant issue. The federal government’s National Housing Strategy has brought some relief, with investments aimed at maintaining existing buildings and funding new projects. However, these efforts are often insufficient to meet the growing demand.

Alberta’s Housing Strategy

In 2020, Alberta introduced a 10-year strategy to expand and improve affordable housing. The plan aims to build 13,000 new units and provide rent supplements to 12,000 more households. A key aspect of this strategy is transitioning from government ownership of housing to a role as regulator and funder. This involves selling off properties and using the proceeds to fund new developments.

Critics argue that this approach mirrors the federal government’s actions in the 1990s, potentially repeating past mistakes. University of Alberta professor Joshua Evans points out that the targets set by the province are not sufficient to meet the current demand, let alone future needs.

Mixed-Income Housing

One of the province’s strategies is to promote mixed-income housing developments, where residents pay different rents based on their income levels. This approach aims to create sustainable communities where subsidized units are offset by market-rate rents.

In Bridlewood, Calgary Housing Company (CHC) has recently completed a 62-unit complex that incorporates this model. The project includes units priced at 30% of income for qualifying households, as well as near-market rentals. Despite this effort, the demand for affordable housing far exceeds supply, with CHC’s waitlist stretching over 7,000 applications.

Looking Forward

The future of affordable housing in Calgary and Alberta depends on continued investment and innovative solutions. CHC president Sarah Woodgate emphasizes the need for more capital funding and the construction of new units to meet the growing demand. While recent government initiatives show promise, the gap between supply and demand remains vast.

As housing costs continue to rise, the importance of affordable housing cannot be overstated. Ensuring that everyone has a safe, stable place to live is essential for the well-being of individuals and the community as a whole.

Your Turn

Do you agree with this assessment of Calgary’s affordable housing situation? What do you think needs to be done to address these issues? Share your thoughts in the comments below!