Opinion: Seeing a lack of housing affordability from the front lines

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Approximately 350 Calgarians per month stay at a homeless shelter for the first time. At the Calgary Drop-In Centre (the DI), we witness the effects of our city’s housing crisis every day. With rental costs soaring and a staggering number of households struggling to afford housing, we are facing escalating challenges compounded by the fact that it has become more difficult for us to help people move on from homelessness, because there are not enough homes for them to move into.

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Calgary is facing a housing shortage — there has been a sharp increase in demand and our city has struggled to keep up. Our rental vacancy rate is 1.4 per cent, tied with Toronto for one of the lowest in the country, and the average rent increased 40 per cent over the past three years. This supply and demand imbalance leads not only to escalated rental costs but also a growing population facing housing exclusion due to an inability to compete for available housing units.

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While some resort to cohabiting with roommates, friends or family, a subset of people have no such alternatives. This phenomenon significantly affects the entire housing continuum — individuals who previously could afford a two-bedroom dwelling may now pool their incomes to share a single-bedroom unit, displacing those with sole incomes who subsequently seek affordable housing. We can see evidence of this in Calgary, as we have seen a sharp increase in applications for affordable housing units.

When housing remains inaccessible at any point along this continuum, it is consistently the most marginalized who bear the brunt of the consequences. A study of major North American cities found that the cost of rent and the rental vacancy rate are the two most correlated factors with homelessness — more than drug use, mental illness, poverty or weather factors.

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To stabilize rents and lower our vacancy rates, we need to address the shortage of housing options in our city. The rezoning proposal, slated for consideration by city council on April 22, is a crucial step toward addressing Calgary’s housing shortage. By allowing for increased housing density in residential areas, this policy can boost our overall supply. This is not merely a theoretical solution, it’s a practical, evidence-based approach, supported by extensive research and real-world examples.

One of the common arguments against the rezoning proposal is the misconception that it will only lead to the construction of expensive housing. In reality, the proposal encompasses a range of options, including row houses, town houses, laneway houses and basement suites — all of which are more affordable than traditional single-detached homes. Moreover, even the introduction of higher-priced housing into the market has a positive effect on affordability by reducing competition for existing units. Some studies indicate that a mere one per cent increase in overall housing supply can lead to an average rent decrease of 10 to 30 per cent.

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Of course, the rezoning proposal alone will not solve all of Calgary’s housing woes. Addressing this crisis requires a multi-faceted approach that encompasses both market and non-market solutions. Affordable housing units with features such as medical supports, wheelchair accessibility and close access to other services are all scarce, and we won’t be able to end homelessness without these kinds of options. But with more than 80,000 Calgary households unable to afford housing, we need to pull every policy lever at our disposal to solve this crisis.

As council prepares to vote on the rezoning proposal, it’s imperative Calgarians say yes to housing.

The DI is not alone in calling for this — we have signed a joint letter with 16 other social service and community-based organizations who all believe the proposal will improve housing affordability.

Sandra Clarkson is the president and CEO of the Calgary Drop-In Centre, and co-chair of the Canadian Shelter Transformation Network. 

Inam Teja is the policy and advocacy specialist for the Calgary Drop-In Centre. Inam has a master’s in public policy with distinction from the University of Oxford.

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