Building a Just City

Joshua Evans, AHSL Research Lead

I had the privilege of contributing to a panel organized as part of this year’s City Building Conference, an event convened by the Centre for Cities and Community at the University of Alberta. The topic of the panel was “Building a Just City.” I was joined by four amazing panelists including Damian Collins, Elaine Hyshka, Daniel Jones, and Angela Staines

The panel was convened to explore how “urban social disorder” in places like the downtown are linked to ‘structural injustice’ in our housing system, health system and justice system. To quote Iris Marion Young (2011, 52), structural injustice exists when: 

Social processes put large groups of persons under systematic threat of domination or deprivation of the means to develop and exercise their capacities, at the same time that these processes enable others to dominate or have a wide range of opportunities for developing and exercising capacities available to them. 

Building a just city demands that we identify and address structural injustices in society. Only then can we properly solve urban social problems. 

I addressed Edmonton’s housing system where there are powerful social processes limiting the housing choices of vulnerable populations in Edmonton. Affordability for low-income households remains one of the greatest challenges. Here are the main points I tried to convey and a few additional comments and reflections. 

First, Alberta is one of the richest provinces in Canada. Moreover, hundreds of millions of dollars (including public dollars) have flowed into the arena-led redevelopment of Edmonton’s core and this has catalyzed gentrification of the downtown and surrounding mature neighborhoods, a process which itself is linked to housing affordability problems (Walks et al. 2021). Simultaneously, we have tens of thousands of Edmonton households with incomes below the poverty line, many of whom struggle to meet their housing costs. According to the last census, in 2020 14.7% of households (or 80,605 households) had incomes below the low-income measure (before-tax). This amounts to an increase, since the last census in 2015, of 12,795 households (see Statistics Canada). 

The last census also offers some insight into the affordability burdens experienced by renters in our city. In 2021, 32,525 renter households were found to be in ‘core housing need,’ meaning they were paying more than 30% of their income on shelter costs and were living in unsuitable and/or inadequate housing. An estimated 82% of these households (or 26,640 households) were living in unsubsidized, market housing (Statistics Canada). 

Second, affordability problems in the rental market point to a lack of supply when it comes to low-cost rental housing. Edmonton has experienced a boom in rental housing construction. The purpose-built rental universe has expanded significantly in Edmonton (CMHC 2022), outpacing construction intended for ownership.

Source: CMHC 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021

Despite growing at a pace not seen since the early 1990s, the primary rental market witnessed a net loss of rental units affordable to households with incomes less than $36K/year (to the tune of 1,486 units). In the fall of 2021, only 15% of the primary rental market was affordable to households with incomes below $36K/year (CMHC 2021, CMHC 2022). This trend has been recently noted in research by Ron Kneebone at the University of Calgary.

The private sector is not able or willing to provide rental housing at a price that low income households can afford. Instead, it has focused on building luxury apartments and buying up older rental stock, renovating it, and raising rents. 

Source: CMHC 2020, 2021, 2022

Third, Edmonton has fallen behind most of its peers in Canada when it comes to the supply of subsidized housing. While poverty rates vary from city to city, the supply of subsidized housing in Edmonton is still far lower than cities with comparable poverty rates (for example, Ottawa). The reason for this undersupply is historical: Alberta neglected to build new social housing as the population rapidly expanded. For example, between 1996-2002, Alberta added ZERO units of new affordable housing. Edmonton is experiencing the effects of this neglect 20 years after the fact. 

Source: Statistics Canada 2022

Each of these count as significant policy failures. The City of Edmonton supported a downtown revitalization project without ensuring adequate community benefits. The provincial government has failed to regulate the rental market allowing predatory investors to step in and gouge renters. This is occurring in the wake of three decades of underinvestment in social housing, all while the population of Alberta has boomed. As a result, the supply of affordable rental housing for those in greatest need is scarce for many and non-existent for some. 

Together these processes produce ‘structural vulnerability’ experienced disproportionately by Indigenous peoples, people living with disability, and low income households. A structural vulnerability exists when a group or individual is at risk due to systemic barriers that prevent access to essential goods or services. It is this structural vulnerability that underlies so-called ‘urban social disorder.’ 

Here, the ‘iceberg’ metaphor is illustrative. Structural processes create barriers to adequate housing (and justice and health services). These barriers produce ‘structural vulnerability,’ a condition shared by a large and growing segment of the population (the part of the iceberg below the waterline).  

When housing is precarious, or absent altogether, other issues and problems are magnified. The unsheltered (the part of the iceberg above the waterline) are left to self-manage in full public view where they are blamed, shamed, and criminalized. 

Pointing to this population as the cause of ‘social disorder’ is a form of scapegoating and does little to address structural vulnerability.  

Scapegoating this population also serves those in power because it allows them to avoid responsibility for the failures that have given rise to the much broader problem of structural vulnerability. 

Building a just city demands that we correct structural injustice thereby diminishing the structural vulnerability that gives rise to urban social problems. A first step is to address the policy failures that have contributed to housing injustice in Edmonton. 


Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. (2019) Rental Market Report. CMHC. Ottawa, ON.

Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. (2020) Rental Market Report. CMHC. Ottawa, ON. 

Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. (2021) Rental Market Report. CMHC. Ottawa, ON. 

Walks, R. A., Hawes, E., & Simone, D. (2021). Gentrification in large Canadian cities: tenure, age, and exclusionary displacement 1991-2011. Urban Geography, 42(5), 603-633.

Young, I.M. (2011) Responsibility for Justice. Oxford University Press: London, UK. 

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