Nov. 22, 2018

Experts explore solutions for Calgary's below-average share of affordable housing

Global experts come together at interdisciplinary, collaborative events to design new housing models
A Master of Architecture student learns about the housing situation in Tijuana while Prof. Hamels' Research Studio 6 peeks into the gallery.
A Master of Architecture student learns about the housing situation in Tijuana. Vita Leung, Faculty of Environmental Design

Around 17,000 households in Calgary are at risk of homelessness because they earn less than $30,000 and spend more than half on rent. Just 3.6 per cent of our housing is affordable housing versus the rest of Canada's big cities at six per cent.

Calgary’s Community Housing Affordability Collective (CHAC) recently launched a common vision to add at least 15,000 new affordable rental units over the next 10 years. The goal is for Calgary at least to meet the national average. But what is the right balance of research, policy, partnerships, strategy and mobilization of resources? 

Dr. Sasha Tsenkova, PhD, a professor in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, decided to take action and try to find answers to this question. In marking National Housing Day on Nov. 22, she implemented a research initiative focused on affordable housing in cities.

She brought together planners, scholars and policy leaders from other cities for a three-day conference, Partnerships for Affordable Housing. Tsenkova is inspired by the shared enthusiasm of the participants, but most importantly, that everyone took away action items and a plan for change.

Reflecting on the conference, she says, “Affordable housing is a global challenge affecting 1.6 billion people in cities. The call for action is global, but the implementation is indeed local. In Canada about five milion people do not have access to affordable housing and this affects the quality of life in our communities. I feel privileged to be part of this conversation on partnerships and innovative solutions through design, planning and policy integration. We had an engaged and productive dialogue at the University of Calgary that has inspired a lot of people to lead this transformative change in Canadian cities.”

As part of the research initiative, Tsenkova also arranged for an exhibition on housing in the faculty gallery. The exhibition features over 30 contributors from the faculty, students and industry members. The exhibit, design explorations \ housing, showcases housing innovations ranging in location from North America and Central America to Europe, and deals with diversity of cultures, climates, and crucial issues such as affordability, equity and resilience.

Sharing ideas and research about affordable housing during the conference.

Sharing ideas and research about affordable housing during the conference.

Lilit Houlder

Carol-Ann Beswick is the research assistant for the initiative, and a planner with The City of Calgary. As a PhD student with the Faculty of Environmental Design, she is researching partnerships for affordable housing in Canadian cities. “Discussing the failures and successes in the delivery of affordable and social housing identifies the complexity of the situation — and highlights housing as a fundamental human right. Organizational co-ordination is lacking, and knowledge about the effects of housing on land and people is fragmented.” More needs to be done to drive common goals and find integrated solutions across the industry.

Another part of the research initiative was the public panel titled Unlocking Doors: Affordable Housing + Mixed Communities. Internationally renowned scholars came together to share insights on affordable housing and city building. Co-hosted by CHAC, each speaker discussed challenges and opportunities for affordable housing in mixed-income, mixed-tenure models in London, New York and Amsterdam.

Coming out of the panel event, the message was clear: The way things are implemented today, and what works or not, depends on how affordable housing policies evolved in each country and the cultural relationship people have to neighbourhoods in the city.

One of the panelists, Dr. Marietta Haffner of the Delft University of Technology, stated wryly, "It turns out that countries and cities have a different legacy." However, well-recognized, successful approaches in policy, planning and design in other places could bring about mixed-income communities in Calgary — recognizing the differences in context and city function. 

Providing affordable housing is only one part of the process. Dr. Mark Joseph, panelist and associate professor of community development from Cleveland, stressed the importance and difficulty of community-building after the implementation of the development. “We are creating mixed income housing but not mixed income communities. Housing is just the beginning.” Kath Scanlon, deputy director, London School of Economics, takes the conversation one step further. “Affordable housing is critical but not sufficient … there is a need to be more intentional and proactive about achieving inclusion, not just integration."

Where you live is one of the most significant choices you make in life from a social, ecological and economic perspective. To access conference papers and presentations, visit the conference site, Partnerships for Affordable Housing. To learn more affordable housing, the design explorations \ housing exhibition runs in the Faculty of Environmental Design gallery until Dec. 7.

Supporters of the research initiatve include the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, The City of Calgary and The City of Edmonton.

Partnerships for Affordable Housing attendees are ready to take on new challenges.

Partnerships for Affordable Housing attendees are ready to take on new challenges.

Jessica Alder