The fight against secondary suites was underpinned by an unjustified disdain for people who choose to rent their homes.

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Starting Monday, member of Calgary city council will be spending the next week or so taking in feedback from hundreds of residents about blanking rezoning.

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The city’s proposal, part of its overall housing strategy approved last year, which would mean the basic zoning where only single-family detached houses are currently allowed would be adjusted to allow for homeowners to apply to build other kinds of low-density homes, including duplexes and townhomes.

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This planned change has been contentious for many and the reactions from those opposed to the proposal — previously aired at community meetings, city outreach events and in messages received by this newspaper — will likely be heard once again over the coming days.

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Many of the concerns heard so far are things the city can address over time.

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If parking problems crop up in specific areas, those can be addressed through the use of permits and other tools.

The city says the neighbourhoods to be affected by its upzoning proposal are currently underpopulated. If those areas fill up over time, infrastructure can be renewed and upgraded.

However, some of the worries aren’t things the city can fix, as they are based on people’s assumptions, perceptions and feelings.

Given the use of the term “affordable housing” to describe one of the purposes of the rezoning proposal, some people have expressed worries about a possible influx of cheap housing in their neighbourhoods.

First off, we operate in a mostly free-market housing economy. If a public agency or social entity is trying to create subsidized housing to be sold or rented at under market rates, it would make zero sense for such homes to be built in an exclusive neighbourhood, as no one involved would get any bang for their buck.

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Second, if someone had enough money to buy a home in an uber-expensive neighbourhood, would they even be interested in anything other than a larger detached single-family home? If there’s no demand for semi-detached houses or row houses those parts of town, it’s doubtful anyone would be eager to build anything like that.

It’s important to note the new rules wouldn’t prohibit people from building detached single-family homes — they merely allow owners to apply to build some other kind of low-density houses, if that’s what they want, as long as they comply with the rules.

Calgary rezoning row houses
A row home complex under construction is shown in the northwest Calgary neighbourhood of Capitol Hill on Sunday, April 21, 2024. Brent Calver/Postmedia

Making housing more affordable doesn’t automatically mean subsidized housing

The term “affordable housing” itself is being misunderstood or deliberately misconstrued: Affordable housing doesn’t automatically mean subsidized public housing.

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The city’s own affordable housing program offers a mix of subsidized homes and homes at the low end of market rates.

As for typical homes for sale, with average home prices in Calgary pushing past $700,000 and rents in the city forecast to reach Toronto levels, affordable housing is probably best defined as any measure we take to stabilize the market and prevent prices from rising any further.

All that being said, I sense the current housing debate has supercharged a pre-existing vilification of renters by individuals in certain circles.

When the idea of legalizing secondary suites in more areas of Calgary was being debated, that familiar refrain about the change potentially destroying neighbourhoods was heard over and over, underpinned by an undercurrent of disdain for those who choose (or are forced by circumstances) to rent instead of buy.

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There’s no evidence renters are, by their nature, irresponsible people who don’t care about their neighbourhoods. Inversely, there’s nothing inherently special about homeownership that makes this a demonstration of someone’s virtue and superior moral fibre.

Owning or renting should merely be seen as a decision people make based on current market conditions, their personal financial situation and their life goals. Likewise for choosing to live in a duplex or a townhome instead of a single-family detached house. Period.

When people bring up worries about how upzoning could destroy the character of their neighbourhood, I wonder if it’s less about the esthetics of houses than it is about who might be living in those homes.

Anyone who says they want to protect neighbourhood character should challenge themselves to explain what it is they are really against.

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