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Feature Article

INCREASING HOUSING DENSITY TO IMPROVE AFFORDABILITY

Written By: Lawrence Herzog
Published By: Real Estate Weekly
Article © Copyright Lawrence Herzog
2008-05-01

A new report recommends that Edmonton should allow higher density in new developments along with zoning changes and subsidies for rental projects to help create urgently needed affordable housing. The report, which went before city's executive committee last week, examined incentives and other methods to ensure that affordable units comprise at least five per cent of new housing units built in suburban, mature and large-scale infill developments.

Over the next five years, the city is aiming to build nearly 4,000 units of affordable housing, using $170 million in funding from the three orders of government, along with other incentives. How to get there poses some significant challenges, especially with current demands on land and ever increasing costs of construction.

The report from the city's Inclusionary Affordable Housing Working Committee (IAHWC) submits that, by increasing density and reducing frontages along schools and parks, land could be freed up for affordable housing. It also recommends that increasing densities, by relaxing parking and other regulations, would mean lower costs for smaller apartment units. And it suggest using efficient design of school and park sites in new neighbourhoods to allow one per cent of more of the Municipal Reserve to be used for affordable housing.

Members of the committee, made up of city and industry representatives, also say construction subsidies of $25,000 to $35,000 per unit is required to bring monthly apartment rents down to the target range of $625 to $700. They encourage partnerships between private developers and not-for-profit housing provides, such as Habitat for Humanity.

That the city is now talking about approving an inclusionary affordable housing policy may help lubricate the wheels for new construction. Some developers have voluntarily included a percentage of affordable housing units in their housing projects. Most frequently, the proportion is five per cent.

This policy, and others like it, hold the potential of helping to change the very face of the city in the years to come. There's a paradigm shift underway, although it's hard to see it just yet. The push to increase density is gaining momentum in cities around the country. In an effort to make housing more affordable and put the brakes on urban sprawl, planners and elected representatives are passing bylaws and approving projects with taller buildings and more units in less space.

This new way of thinking that isn"t going over well with everyone, especially considering more than 60 per cent of Canadians live in single-family homes in lower density communities. Since the era of cheap, plentiful oil arrived in the 1950s, the quest for larger living spaces and energy-gobbling houses in the suburbs have driven our dwelling culture.

As cities sprawled ever outward, natural landscapes and farm land were turned under and paved over to create what author James Howard Kunstler has called "the geography of nowhere." Studies by groups like the Sierra Club reveal that residents of sprawling communities drive three to four times as much as those living in compact, accessible and well-planned areas.

Edmonton is one of the most indulgent, lowest density cities in Canada, and now covers more than 700 square kilometres. With fuel prices surging upwards and travelling distance increasing, the cost of getting around just continues go up and up. The damage to the environment continues to mount.

All around the country, cities are increasingly choosing to handle sprawl with solutions aimed at promoting 'smart growth." Such approaches include establishing urban growth boundaries, preserving farmland and green space, investing in alternative modes of transportation besides the automobile and building compact, pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods.

To make a meaningful difference, urban design experts say that current suburban densities of 10 to 17 dwelling units per hectare should be increased to 37 to 86 units per hectare. That would reduce travel, cut down on emissions from vehicles and curb the insatiable need for more outward growth.

How cities grow have a significant influence on greenhouse (GHG) emissions which contribute to climate change. Currently about 30 per cent of GHGs are produced by transportation and 25 per cent by housing in Edmonton and Calgary, the Pembina Institute reports.

"The single more efficient way to reduce those emissions is through smarter urban design," says Jesse Row, director of the Pembina Institute"s sustainable communities group. "More compact neighbourhoods reduce automobile use, and every vehicle off the road means the elimination of emissions from that vehicle."

By adding density, we can help our city, and ourselves. Making housing more affordable and getting the reins on cost of living may be the sweetener that proves too tempting to ignore.


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