NIMBY-ism shouldn’t be allowed to curtail access to housing

The Alberta government must legislate where local politicians fear to tread: we need enforceable housing rights and we need them now

nimby housingCALGARY, Alta. Aug. 9, 2016/ Troy Media/ – Having decent, appropriate and affordable housing is critical to a healthy, successful life. And if Alberta’s municipal governments can’t ensure such housing, then the province needs to take charge.

Decent means no cockroaches or fire hazards, for example; appropriate means near necessary services (schools, daycare, parks and the like); and affordable is self-explanatory.

The need for such housing is clear everywhere in the world but especially so in harsher climates such as our own.

Yet in Alberta we continually see efforts to increase the supply of subsidized or modestly-priced housing squelched by local resistance, the not-in-my-backyarders. While usually small in number, the NIMBY contingent tends to be loud and local politicians are too often susceptible to their complaints.

The provincial government must legislate where local politicians fear to tread: we need enforceable housing rights and we need them now.

For evidence, one need go no further than Calgary’s secondary suites saga, which is the stuff of municipal government legend. How many times has the issue of whether to allow secondary suites come before the current council? More than 40 to date.

Instead of a logical, considered policy, Calgary requires homeowners wanting to develop a simple basement suite to argue the merits of their case before council. You would think this is what we have a bureaucracy for: to work out individual details. But no, the entire city council of 15, including the mayor, must be involved in every case.

And this is far from the only problem. The recent mess in Rosedale – an affluent neighbourhood in northwest Calgary – is illustrative. Some residents opposed the building of 16 affordable units on eight lots left over from the widening of a road because of “the possible class of people” who would rent them. The Calgary Sun reported that the city received comments such as “Rosedale is not a place for affordable housing” and “House owners in Rosedale paid millions to own their houses and take this as their pride.”

Despite such selfish and ill-informed nastiness, the Land and Asset Strategy Committee voted 3 to 1 to recommend that the units be built. But the spectacle, as area Coun. Druh Farrell put it, was “sickening.”

“No community can say affordable housing doesn’t belong here,” said Farrell.

And then there is homelessness, a revealing social disaster if there ever was one. In 21st century Canada, how can we have many thousands of people without permanent homes? It’s a moral scandal and just as bad are the people who object to the construction of housing needed to address the problem.

We saw this again in Calgary, where the Drop-In Centre, Canada’s largest homeless shelter, has been trying to convert a former hotel into supported housing. The project finally got approval in June but four years were wasted on NIMBY-type objections.

It’s time for the provincial government to legislate that decent, appropriate and affordable housing shall be built in every neighbourhood where land is available. That legislation should specifically require that common-sense housing solutions, such as secondary suites and laneway housing, be allowed throughout the province. There is no doubt that the province has the authority to enact such legislation and should do so.

Some Alberta municipalities may be doing a good job in this area. Good for them. Where this is the case, such legislation is unnecessary. But for municipalities such as Calgary, the principle has to be established that housing is just too important to be left to NIMBY-ism.

There are various ways to put this into law. The best would be a legislated sustainability framework that encompasses housing and much more. An expansion of the Human Rights Act to guarantee affordable housing could also work. Perhaps enacting an Affordable Housing Charter would be the best way to start.

Of course, people should always be consulted on how new projects are going to proceed in their neighbourhoods. But satisfying the need for housing must always override thoughtless, elitist and protectionist views.

We need a healthy mix of decent, appropriate and affordable housing in all our communities and the provincial government should pass legislation requiring Alberta municipalities to act accordingly.

Janet Keeping is leader of the Green Party of Alberta.

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