Expanding, Growing, Renovating: Investing in Edmonton’s Community Housing Sector

Expanding, Growing, Renovating: Investing in Edmonton’s Community Housing Sector

By: Bon Swanson & Joshua Evans, Affordable Housing Solutions Lab

Introduction 

Like food, water and education, adequate housing is a fundamental human right. Today, Canada’s housing system is unable to fulfil this basic human right for everyone. Housing deprivation among vulnerable populations remains a pressing issue in Canadian society. It has been more than two decades since activists called upon all levels of government to declare homelessness a ‘national disaster’. Yet, after twenty years of federal and provincial investments in local programs to end homelessness, housing insecurity and homelessness remains firmly entrenched in our biggest cities, Edmonton included. If human rights are used as a measuring stick then Canada’s housing system is severely impaired if not broken. 

Housing owned and operated by the government, nonprofits, and cooperatives has long been seen as a solution to housing insecurity and deprivation in Canada. This ‘community housing sector’ has been operating in Canada for more than 75 years. In Edmonton, this sector plays an integral role in the housing system. Community housing has provided subsidized housing to low-income households since the late 1960s. However, the growth in demand for this community housing has outpaced its supply.

Moreover, some of the existing supply is not physically accessible for those living with a disability or those with specific cultural needs. Expanding community housing in Edmonton is a key ‘area of action’ when it comes to the fulfilment of the right to adequate housing. This blog post aims to share community input gathered by the AHSL on this area of action. 

How we got here

Since its inception in 2019, the AHSL has been operating in an evolving context of international human rights legislation, Canadian law, and housing policy to develop and support the progression of housing innovation in Edmonton. The AHSL exists to empower citizens to innovate, co-create and develop effective local housing solutions. Beginning in the fall of 2021, we began working with a diverse group of housing stakeholders to address the following question: What actions might help ‘pivot’ Edmonton’s housing system towards the realization of the right to adequate housing? 

The AHSL collaboratively approached this process with inclusion, equity and social justice in mind. In this regard, we made a conscious effort to involve various stakeholders while also centering the perspectives of those in need of adequate housing or ‘rights holders.’  

What we heard

In the end, six areas of action were identified by Pivot participants (for description click here). One of the ‘areas of action’ that emerged through the Pivot process was the following: 

To address the shortage of affordable and accessible housing, governments, working in partnership with nonprofits and cooperatives, need to protect, renovate and grow community housing, especially the supply of deeply subsidized units (i.e. rent-geared to income) that are universally accessible

Participants recognized that action towards this end faces numerous barriers and challenges. Canada’s various levels of government are closely tied, with overlapping roles and responsibilities that necessitate collaboration. One area of overlap with significant implications for Canada’s housing sector is the province’s control over municipalities (in Alberta this control is exercised through the Municipal Government Act). Participants flagged a breakdown in cooperation between the province and municipalities as a key threat to expanding supply. Perspectives on what should be done vary between the two jurisdictions, leading to inaction on expanding the housing supply. 

Participants pointed to one area of municipal jurisdiction that poses both a threat and an opportunity: zoning. Cities can use zoning to influence the types of developments that are allowed to take place. In the case of housing, an overwhelming majority of development is profit-motivated and undertaken by the private sector. While development means that there is housing being built, this stock is not necessarily affordable. Further, in some cases older, naturally affordable housing stock is demolished to build new buildings, potentially degrading affordability and reducing the number of affordable options available. While most of this development is occurring in the private, market-rate rental sector, the loss of naturally affordable housing stock puts increased pressure on community housing sectors to provide affordable housing to our neighbours who need it. Municipalities can use zoning to influence how much community housing is built, and how many subsidized housing units are incorporated into new builds.

The expiration of housing subsidies poses another threat to expanding the supply of community housing in Edmonton. The majority of community housing is owned and operated by not-for-profits who rely on subsidies to provide housing; without stable funding, community housing providers may be forced to close their doors, reduce their services, or make operational reductions that infringe upon the right to housing of those who rely on their existence. The need to renew these subsidies, which come in many forms, was top of mind for participants. Indeed, without stable programming, affordable housing providers will have no choice but to focus on merely maintaining their housing portfolios rather than on much-needed expansion.

In the face of these challenges, the supply of community housing must be expanded to realize the right to housing in Edmonton. Participants noted a variety of goals that will help to pivot Edmonton in a better direction. These goals include (a) protecting against the loss of existing affordable housing, (b) enhancing the adequacy of affordable housing, including community housing, and (c) growing the overall supply of community housing. 

  1. Protect

When it comes to protecting the existing stock, the City of Edmonton should gain a better understanding of the affordable housing inventory currently available. This will help to address gaps in housing and allow precise tracking of where and what stock is being lost through redevelopment. Participants also noted that decisions surrounding what is being built and where should be made by people with expertise and familiarity with Edmonton’s housing landscape. This way, rights holders and experts can meaningfully guide community housing developments that address the needs and preferences of those that will reside there.

In the Edmonton context, where the waitlist for community housing is years long, the existing stock of market rental housing must be equitable for tenants. Participants proposed that the city should require rental licensing to provide oversight to Edmonton’s rental sector. Not only would licensing protect tenants and shed light on landlord-tenant relations, but it would also provide valuable information on landlord-property relationships. Privately owned and operated rentals are an inescapable part of Edmonton’s rental market, but they can be better regulated to protect tenants and to aid in the progressive realization of the right to housing. 

Private developers undertake the majority of housing developments in Edmonton. Demand for land increases the cost of land and applies extra pressure to community housing providers who already have less capital and resources to develop deeply affordable housing. The lack of affordable land in accessible locations is a major barrier that inhibits community housing developers from building in neighbourhoods where their tenants already reside. The City of Edmonton and the Government of Alberta can help to relieve this roadblock to development by mobilizing underdeveloped city-owned and provincially-owned land found across the city, providing affordable housing providers with a step up to keep their costs low, and as a result, their housing as affordable as possible for their tenants.

  1. Enhance

Affordable rentals are made for tenants, but far too often tenants are not meaningfully involved in the planning, design, and operation of affordable housing. We asked participants to comment on how meaningful involvement of tenants could be put into practice in Edmonton. We heard from the participants that tenant engagement should not be treated as an afterthought, but rather as an essential part of the development process. To ensure that tenants are meaningfully involved, professionals should be educated – including persons who develop and design housing – regarding tenants’ complex needs and how they can change over time. Professionals should also come prepared with tools to ensure that tenants are appropriately engaged and recognize inequities in the development process between market and non-market developments.

While it is important to engage tenants and the many other stakeholders involved in housing provision, it is essential to ensure that not just the most prominent voices are heard. It is crucial to the success of development to consider the little things that increase the quality of a build, including finishing that might otherwise be overlooked, such as lowering the height of light switches to accommodate those who cannot easily reach them at standard heights. It is also important to decolonize the process of engagement so that all stakeholders are coming from a level playing field; by ensuring an equitable process, we can make communities that work for everyone. Further, while some buildings or units may need updating or retrofits, it is valuable to understand that tenants ought to have control over their own space and be able to customize their homes as they see fit, which includes having the choice to stay where they are if they so choose and not be forced to move.

Beyond ensuring that tenants’ voices are heard and the engagement process for developments is equitable, more must be done on a municipal level to ensure that the progressive realization of the right to housing for tenants is achieved. Participants in the Pivot highlighted that the City of Edmonton should take a proactive approach to outline tenant expectations and legislate mandatory resident involvement requirements in the community housing development process. This would help ensure that the suitable types of supply are built, in the right locations, and with amenities that are important to tenants included. Additionally, tenants should have more say over changes that affect their ability to maintain their housing, such as rent increases. The City of Edmonton should also do more to champion healthy living guidelines and promote and normalize various styles of living in line with the tenets of the right to housing. 

  1. Grow

While protecting and enhancing the existing supply of community housing are valuable goals, it is also important to expand the supply of affordable housing in general (and community housing in particular) to ensure that everyone has a home that meets their needs. Individuals living with disabilities are overlooked, under-consulted, and forced to reside in housing that is incompatible with their needs. To ensure that we are building the right supply for everyone, individuals with disabilities need to be consulted so that units are designed with universal design principles in mind. Being involved in the design process must go beyond giving a green light to floorplans, but must be carried through to the finishings of a building, to the fixtures and flooring. There is no “one size fits all” for housing, though often the way we develop community housing assumes that there is. By collaborating with future tenants, we can help to make sure that the housing supply we are building is sensitive to the needs of everyone. 

Growth needs to take many forms to ensure an adequate housing supply that meets the needs of tenants today and in the future. It is essential that not only the physical supply of housing is expanded, but also the financial capital that is put into housing. With the “naturally” affordable housing stock decreasing over time, we must take investment into affordable housing seriously. This requires investment in community housing. Housing must also meet the needs of a future climate. Climate change is affecting the way we think about housing and the number of people who need it. With rising sea levels and extreme weather events increasing across the globe, Canada will need to accept an increasing number of immigrants and refugees, and with that, provide an increasing amount of affordable, sustainable, and equitable housing. We need to expand the data that we have about housing and understand the gaps in knowledge that currently exist to ensure that we support an appropriate level of community housing starts.

Concluding Thoughts

As researchers, we know that rights holders have many of the answers to the complex issues with our housing supply. Researchers cannot come up with solutions without their input and participation. We ought to use our position of power and influence to elevate and advocate for those who are systematically marginalized in an organized and impactful way. Research can help to fill the knowledge gaps that we know exist, while also uncovering more knowledge gaps that can help us to understand the housing crisis more comprehensively. In this regard, researchers need to work directly with municipalities to craft policies and action plans that are evidence-based and rooted in the experiences and priorities of rights holders.

Based on the experiences of rights-holders, it is clear that there is a shortage of affordable and accessible housing and that governments need to protect, renovate and grow community housing, especially the supply of deeply subsidized units (i.e. rent-geared to income) that are universally accessible. Actions taken to address this need must ensure an adequate housing supply that meets the needs of tenants today and in the future.