The Need For Approval

Two local organizations aimed at helping Calgarians find housing are asking City Hall to further streamline its approvals process to help ease demand.

Fresh off the announcement that Attainable Homes Calgary Corporation (AHCC) had acquired 42 units in north Calgary, company CEO David Watson said the city needs to make things easier for those tasked with creating housing stock.

“I think there needs to be some work done,” said Watson. “City Hall does not build things. Builders and developers build things. And the builders and developers I work with just want to find what the rules are and get on with doing it, and do it in a way that’s efficient.”

Calgary’s population grew by 2.6 per cent in 2012, one of the fastest growing cities in North America. As a result, MLS® sales in the city increased by 9.65 per cent through the first nine months of 2013, despite a 0.7 per cent drop in listings. Meanwhile, the city’s rental vacancy rate sits close to one per cent.

For Watson, whose city-owned not-for-profit company works to deliver entry-level homes and provide gifted down payments for moderate-income Calgarians, the result is fewer options for buyers.

“There are certainly units out there, but the people that I deal with are probably more vulnerable. Or the ones who are struggling to get a down payment and get into the housing market are the ones that are finding it harder and harder,” said Watson.

Over the last year, Watson said interest in Attainable Homes has doubled, with more than 10,000 Calgarians inquiring about the program. Watson said more could be done to streamline the process.

“Having worked there (in city planning) most of my career, I know how tough it is at the other end. I think there needs to be a look at some of our zoning bylaws or land use bylaws. And I was certainly there to help with the authorship of the bylaws we’ve got now, but they’re not easy to use nor are they easy in terms of getting permissions or approvals through.”

As part of the mayor’s initiative to cut red tape, City Hall has implemented several changes to the development and building approvals process, including new review processes, more “consistent” interpretations and requirements from staff and express line for frequent, repeat customers.

City Hall recently made a move to bring greater clarity and consistency to the planning process. Transforming Planning’s Decision Framework project, launched in August, was created to increase efficiency with the way new neighbourhoods, redevelopment, land use and policies are shaped.

“This past summer, Transforming Planning System Outline v1.0 was shared with Council as a working template and strategy for implementing Calgary’s new planning system,” said Kevin Barton, project lead and city planner. “It underlined the importance of culture and working relationships, the ability to collaborate and co-design. This change in perspective isn’t yet reflected in the current way we make decisions.”

Transforming Planning will engage the City’s new Council, as well as other stakeholders, to advance the conversation about decision-making.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has also said he’d be scaling back his push for citywide acceptance of secondary suites in favour of a “broader” approach to the city’s housing situation. During his swearing in ceremony, Nenshi also addressed the need for more housing, although it remains to be seen what such an approach would entail.

Attainable Homes isn’t the only local organization looking for more available housing and a change in the way the City deals with the approvals process.

The Calgary Homeless Foundation has also seen a decline in the number of units available, coupled with a rise in demand.

“We have the programming dollars, for housing people with supports, but what they’re having difficulty finding is the housing,” said Louise Gallagher,
communications manager for The Calgary Homeless Foundation.

“It used to be that they could find a place within 30 days of identifying somebody to move in to housing, and get them into housing. Now they’re lucky if they can get it to happen in 90.”

Right now, Gallagher said the organization has 360 units around the city. Having recently turned towards purpose built housing as part of their 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness, Gallagher would also welcome more simplicity at City Hall.

“It’s a long process. That’s for sure,” she said. “We are really encouraging the streamlining of the process so that it doesn’t take as long to go from start to finish, which again is a challenge.”

Looking forward, Watson said concerned parties are likely to see a lot of activity before any meaningful change takes place.

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