Versus on Housing

Versus is a special Breaking Ground series that brings together the ideas and perspectives of those involved in land development – the developers, builders, tradespeople, constructors, architects, engineers, planners, dreamers, and city-builders who want to see the Edmonton Metropolitan Region grow and thrive. They’re hedging big bets on the city and the communities we know and love and have a hot-take or two on what’s needed to accelerate change. A battle of the minds – where all of us, and our region, win.

Originally published in Breaking Ground, a magazine by Edmonton Construction Association

“We need to address construction and material cost escalations – as they are growing impediments to housing affordability.” – Anand Pye

What actions can we take to respond to the federal government’s funding announcement for more housing supply?

A conversation in early May of this year with some of the brightest minds in the Edmonton Metropolitan Region prompted practical ideas for our cities’ most pressing issue – housing. The question raised: what actions can we take to respond to the federal government’s funding announcement for more housing supply?

From zoning reform to infrastructure investments to fiscal tools, our inaugural Versus panel presented a range of strategies to help ramp-up housing developments in Edmonton and communities across the region.

The panel included developers, engineers, planners, industry veterans, and business leaders: David Johnson, president of ECA; Chelsey Jersak, founder of Situate Inc., and chair of IDEA; Mike Kohl, vice-president of Brookfield Residential and past chair of UDI-EM; Laura Bruno, CEO of CHBA-ER; Anand Pye, executive director of NAIOP Edmonton; and Derek Ciezki, partner of SMP Engineering and chair of ECA.

“We need certainty around infrastructure capacity and a predictable funding mechanism to support the inevitable upgrades needed for medium-scale redevelopment.” – Chelsey Jersak

In April, the Government of Canada released its annual budget, which, among many other priorities, consisted of a $4 billion Housing Accelerator Fund. While specific details are forthcoming, it is anticipated to support an annual per-door incentive for municipalities, or upfront funding for investments in municipal housing planning and delivery processes to speed up housing development. The federal government estimates a need to build at least 3.5 million new homes by 2031, which would require a doubling of housing starts to about 400,000 units per year over the next decade. While welcoming news, city builders across municipalities have been left wondering – what’s next? Kohl called for more details on how the Housing Accelerator Fund will be implemented, specifically what projects it will likely fund, and how municipalities can access it.

“We need to understand the pressures of a higher-cost environment, and how those drivers are headwinds against affordability. We need to ask ourselves what happens if we don’t do something here?” – Mike Kohl

“We want to collectively see this money come into our city and region,” said Kohl. “More clarity would enable us at the local level, public and private sectors combined, to proactively prepare strategies and solutions.”

Kohl adds that it’s a sizable fund, but we’re going to need to identify multipliers of investment. “What we’re good at is in identifying catalyst projects that can further attract additional private sector investment,” he says.

Pye acknowledged that federal funding and new financing programs through CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) are positive steps in the right direction.

“They have acknowledged that housing supply is critical in addressing the housing crisis,” said Pye. “That’s key, especially as we continue to see strong demand and forecast increasing immigration.”

“We need to attract more people to the city. That pool of human resource capital can help contribute to our industry.” – David Johnson

For Johnson, newcomers to Canadian cities are a tremendous opportunity and they may be interested in considering careers in land development and construction.

“The more people we can get to move to the city, the greater the pool of human resource capital that we have to our industry,” said Johnson.

While Edmonton has seen positive strides in meeting its intensification targets, Jersak noted how several barriers to housing affordability persist across core and mature neighbourhoods.

“We need more certainty around water, drainage, and power capacity, as well as funding commitments to upgrade these important services,” Jersak said. “Without it, we’re not going to get the medium scale development we need in order to maintain housing affordability.”

With an emboldened goal of 50 per cent infill city-wide – a doubling of Edmonton’s original target set in 2010 – infrastructure investments will need to be thoughtfully considered and strategically invested to accommodate new development and one million more people.

“The answer isn’t only about building more housing. It’s about the infrastructure we invest in – both in terms of pipes in the ground and transportation infrastructure, or how we move around our city,” Jersak added. “These improvements lay a firm foundation, they set the stage for more housing.”

“We need to ensure our regulatory environment allows for market affordable, ground-oriented housing that most Canadians are looking for. We should continue to push for zoning that enables innovation around the product types that the market wants, at the price points that customers can afford.” – Laura Bruno

Bruno shared with the panelists her view that Edmonton is on a positive trajectory – the conversation has shifted, and many are seeing the benefits of new ideas that help enable growth.

She challenged the industry to continue to advocate for more permissive policies, regulations, and practices in communities across the region.

“We need to maintain our advantage of housing affordability by pushing innovation and outside-the-box thinking,” said Bruno.

In 2018, Edmonton made semidetached and duplex housing permissible in single-detached residential zones, as well as allowing basement and garden suites to coexist as additional dwellings in the same lot.

In 2020, Edmonton’s city council unanimously approved the removal of parking minimums city-wide. Parking supply is often a financial constraint for developers, which inadvertently leads to unaffordable housing for the end user. These small, yet powerful, gestures, the panelists agreed, have led to Edmonton being one of the most affordable places to live in the world – as a mix of housing types can be built to suit a diversity of people.

To maintain this competitive edge, Kohl noted “three important drivers to enable more housing in our region – ease of doing business, cost of doing business, and the vibrancy of our city.”

He added how there are many drivers that affect affordability and housing supply – policies, labour, infrastructure gaps, construction, and material cost.

“We need to lead with one narrative – all of us working together to identify solutions, efficiencies, and different delivery models.” – Derek Ciezki

“We need to collectively tell the story and highlight the challenges facing our industry to meet the demand and aspiration of our governments for more housing,” said Kohl.

It’s not only up to municipalities though, Ciezki argued.

“We have a responsibility as an industry to educate ourselves of the opportunities, communicate with stakeholders to define what success looks like, and to know the associated risks and challenges – so we can attract investments near and far.”