Council can address housing affordability
Last week the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary released a report on housing affordability and homelessness. It found that Calgary has the least affordable housing market in Canada for low-income people.
Shortly after the release of the report, Calgary City Councillor Brian Pincott told the Calgary Sun, “we require money and a concerted effort to fix this...Maybe now is the time to start talking about solutions like guaranteed annual incomes.”
While Councillor Pincott should be credited with wanting to improve this massive societal issue – his proposed solutions of increased spending are, regrettably, the same tried and failed approach that has contributed to our current affordable housing and poverty problem.
In short, the province could potentially increase the incomes of the poorest Calgarians by a marginal amount, however that still wouldn’t address the true problem – why housing prices are so high in the first place. Thus, the province would forever be playing a game of catch up with housing costs.
An alternative approach should be pursued – one that helps increase the supply of housing, putting a downward pressure on the price of new homes. At the same time, council could work to reduce the ongoing costs of owning a home – i.e. skyrocketing property taxes.
The University of Calgary report cites Alberta’s economic boom between 2006-2008 as the major driver for rental price increases. While it’s true the boom placed an upward pressure on housing prices, it’s well known that restrictive land-use policies also played a part. Generally speaking, when you reduce the supply of something, prices increase.
In fact, a recent Manning Centre report, Modernizing Alberta’s Municipal Governance, notes the provincial government’s current proposed changes to municipal legislation would increase taxes and housing costs for Calgarians by further restricting the ability of developers to build new houses.
If Councillor Pincott is concerned about current housing prices, he may wish to lobby the provincial government to change course on its proposed legislation.
For Calgary City Council, one of the clearest ways it can help create more affordable housing is to effectively legalize secondary suites. Legalized and effective secondary suite legislation would quickly increase the supply of affordable rental housing in Calgary and it would not require government subsidies to do so.
Additionally, when councillors such as Pincott call for income subsidies there seems to be a disconnect between wanting to help struggling Calgarians with these types of targeted policies and the overall spending at City Hall that is contributing to annual property tax increases that are well above inflation.
With that in mind, Calgarians would likely prefer to see their municipal government reduce its existing spending (particularly on non-essential areas like golf courses, baby panda exhibits, or art exhibitions) in order to reduce the cost of living before they consider new spending policies.
This new paper from the School of Public Policy affirms the critical need for improved access to affordable housing in order to combat poverty. It is regrettable that Calgary is the least affordable of major Canadian cities – but unless politicians are willing to look towards policies that improve the supply of housing, the plight of Calgary’s most vulnerable may not improve in a meaningful way.
John Whittaker is a policy analyst at the Manning Centre.
This column was published in the Calgary Sun on September 14, 2016