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Jul 2018 | The Housing Issue


With Affordable Housing as a top priority for citizens, urgent housing market challenges, and a renewed national interest in housing by the Government of Canada, the time is now for municipalities to transform their housing services. This article identifies how the City of Calgary is transforming the organizational service delivery model for affordable housing with an affordable housing strategy that is focused in two areas: 1) increasing the supply of housing by scaling up non-profit housing providers, and 2) collaborating with partners to create a housing system focused on people and outcomes – toward making life better through housing.

Similar to most municipalities in Canada, Calgarians of low and moderate income have very limited housing choices available to them in the private market. It is not often that you hear a city striving to simply become ‘average’. However, when it comes to meeting the demand for affordable housing, that is exactly what Calgary is determined to do. With only 3.6 percent of households in Calgary living in non-market housing, compared to six percent for Canada’s big cities, the single most pressing challenge facing Calgary’s affordable housing sector is a serious supply deficit.[i] While getting to average may not sound ambitious, in Calgary it would take the construction of at least 15,000 new homes, or nearly doubling the non-market housing supply.[ii] A predominantly home ownership city, Calgary has the lowest amount of purpose-built rental housing of the big cities in Canada at seven percent of the total housing supply. To become average, the rental housing supply would need to also double.[iii]

Table 1. Housing in Canada’s Big Cities, 2016
Source: City of Calgary (2018). Housing in Canada’s Big Cities.


This housing supply challenge is reflected in citizen satisfaction results which indicate that 64 percent of Calgarians identify a need to increase investment for affordable housing to support low income households.[vi] Affordable housing is the top citizen priority for municipal services, reflecting the urgency in need for action.

The news is not all bad. Calgary is a city of wealth with high median household incomes at $97,334 per year. This makes for a healthy market for housing affordability for average income households, with only four percent of households that earn over $80,000/year spending more than 30 percent of their income on shelter.[vii] This is a strength that is supported by a private sector development industry that meets over 78 percent of the housing needs of Calgarian households.[viii] This strong market and affordability context allows Calgary’s housing efforts to focus on areas underserved by the private sector. Calgary has a number of strengths in addition to private housing industry talent, including a culture of partnerships and a philanthropic mindset.

The transformation of the housing services journey began in 2015 when Calgary City Council identified a need to address affordable housing challenges by changing how services were delivered and reorganizing housing services. The change included bringing the City owned not-for-profit corporation the Calgary Housing Company (which is responsible for managing homes for 25,000 Calgarians) and the City affordable housing functions together as two legal entities under one service line called Calgary Housing. Calgary Housing is embedded within the Community Services department, which includes fire, parks, recreation, emergency management, neighbourhoods, and community standards (911) services. This change has enabled the front-line housing services staff to coordinate service needs with other municipal functions, thereby streamlining processes and focusing on citizen centred service delivery. With the organizational changes for daily service delivery improvements underway, the City set ambitious goals to tackle the supply deficit and challenges with the housing system.

The City of Calgary identified that by providing local leadership and leveraging municipal tools for housing, it could support a plan toward getting to average that would also require significant collaboration between the public, non-profit, and private sectors. In 2016, Calgary City Council took a huge step forward and unanimously approved a 10-year affordable housing strategy, Foundations for Home: Calgary’s Corporate Affordable Housing Strategy 2016-2025. The Corporate Affordable Housing Strategy (the Strategy) established affordable housing as a priority to be included in all neighbourhoods, with a focus on two long term outcomes: increasing the supply of non-market housing, and transforming the housing system. Since the Strategy was approved, much progress has been made to turn ideas into action, and from 2016 to present, the City has supported over 2000 new non-market units.

I. Increasing the supply


Similar to many municipalities in Canada, most of the non-market housing in Calgary is provided by agencies who operate one building, with a handful of agencies that provide several hundred units. Best practices indicate that there are economies of scale for non-profits to manage a minimum of 1200 to 2000 units. The Strategy focuses on scaling up the existing non-profits by growing the housing supply. A foundational component of the Strategy is the recognition that there was growing development capacity of the non-profit sector that had been started through a $120 million fundraising campaign by private sector leaders and non-profit housing organizations. The City’s efforts to scale up is currently being done through stacking of funding programs and removing the development barriers for non-profit providers. Four key municipal tools have been used to achieve this:

1. Housing Incentive Program (HIP)

In 2016, the City approved $6.9 million to provide support to non-market housing development through pre-development grants and City fee rebates for eligible development fees which can range from $200,000 to $400,000 per project. In developing the Strategy, the City heard numerous times how non-profit providers needed support to get shovels in the ground and unlock their development capacity. The program is now fully committed with a wait list, and the City has received excellent customer feedback from housing providers. The program contributes towards matching municipal funding for federal housing programs offered through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, and at an average cost of $3,456 per unit, the program commitments support an anticipated total of 1,969 units of affordable housing.

An example of a housing developing supported by the HIP is Generations: Multi-Generational Housing and Community Centre. This multi-phase development was undertaken to provide the aged in the Calgary community with a continuum of care to support both their mental and physical health as well as their daily living needs. The HIP covered $414,000 of City-fee rebates for one phase of the project that is currently under construction. This phase will consist of 120 continuing care units (assisted living and long-term care), including 31 for residents with dementia. An additional $414,000 is committed for the next phase of the project, consisting of 40 two and three-bedroom units for families.

2. Prioritized and Streamlined Planning Approvals

Could you imagine planning a housing development and receiving all the required approvals and permits in as little as four months? That’s what’s possible in Calgary through the affordable housing program. Just like in the private sector, time is money for non-profit housing providers, and the City heard from affordable housing stakeholders that streamlined approvals were key to increasing the supply with shovel ready projects. Affordable housing providers now have a single point of contact at the City through dedicated staff in the Planning and Development department. This role works closely with affordable housing providers from the pre-development stage through to occupancy. In 2017, 213 new affordable housing units opened, with an additional 1,300 units already in the approval process at the City. By aligning planning approval timelines with the housing provider’s target construction dates, Calgary now has some of the fastest approval times for non-market housing developments in Canada.

3. Leveraging City Land

Of every lever that the City can pull, land is the greatest contribution that can be made to help non-profits increase the supply of affordable housing. With a target to dispose of 10 parcels of City land at below-market value to non-profit affordable housing providers, in 2017, the City transferred seven parcels of land worth more than $8 million to non-profit organizations with strong track records as affordable housing providers. This is the most significant sale of land for affordable housing development in the City’s history and will allow non-profit housing providers the ability to leverage sources of funding from individuals and governments to increase affordable housing supply. All told, these transfers should result in the development of over 160 new homes for Calgarians. A policy is under development toward creating an on-going program of offering land at City cost to non-profit organizations for sale for the purposes of scaling up in a timely manner.

4. Stacking of Intergovernmental Funding

None of this work would be possible without contributions and partnerships with other orders of government. In Calgary, this means partnering with the Government of Canada and the Government of Alberta to align investments and, as a result, generate bigger returns for each government partner. It also provides a much higher level of customer service to developers of affordable housing. If a developer receives a land contribution, combined with seed funding from the Government of Canada, this combination of investments is more worthwhile than receiving one or the other, and leads to better results. Coordination of applications also creates seamless consideration of decision making through multiple layers of government, making it easier for non-profits to coordinate programs and focus on building.

In one example, the City provided $1.5 million in land, grants and fee rebates to two projects in different communities across Calgary. This initial investment attracted an additional $8 million in private and government investment. Not only does this bring investment to Calgary, it brings partners together, gets shovels in the ground and produces homes for people in need.

In another example, as part of the City’s evaluation for choosing eligible non-profit housing providers in which to transfer City-owned land, providers had to be qualified by Calgary Mortgage and Housing Company (CMHC) to receive its Seed Funding. One of the successful organizations that was chosen to receive City-owned surplus land at cost was Homes for Heroes, a non-profit organization that provides housing services to veterans experiencing homelessness. By stacking funding, Homes for Heroes is one step closer to developing a micro community of 10 – 15 permanent ‘tiny homes’ (measuring approximately 240 square feet in size) that will be quickly deployable, adaptable, and transportable to the site.

In addition to scaling up non-profit housing providers, the City of Calgary also owns close to 2,500 homes operated by the Calgary Housing Company. As a contribution to becoming average, in May 2018 the City prepared a 10-year capital plan to increase the supply of non-market housing by proposing 1,000 mixed market homes offering housing for both low and moderate income households. The plan utilizes existing City-owned surplus lands, integrated civic facilities, sites along the new transit line and historic buildings in locations that would promote affordable living. With a Council vision to limit the construction of single use City buildings, there is significant opportunity to create vibrant developments optimizing land and buildings into complete communities with libraries, fire stations, recreation and cultural centres, schools, community centres, daycares, and affordable housing on integrated sites.

The City is in the initial stages of developing 48 affordable housing units that are co-located with a new fire hall. This space also offers the opportunity for additional corporate office space or commercial space, such as a daycare. Building integrated civic facilities is proving to have efficiencies in the use of civic land, as well as in the co-location of key community services.

The City of Calgary also has a significant challenge with both the expiry of operating agreements for social housing, and the deferred maintenance of aging social housing properties due to decades of underfunding (there is an estimated $160 million of maintenance required). All properties are being evaluated under a business approach using asset management, real estate and financial viability best practices with redevelopment plans underway.



II. A Shift Toward A People-Focused Housing System


“Governments and housing providers have made a shift toward more people-focused housing programs and policies, recognizing that an effective housing system will empower residents to access opportunities for personal development, achieve their goals, and participate actively in their communities.”

Governments and housing providers have made a shift toward more people-focused housing programs and policies, recognizing that an effective housing system will empower residents to access opportunities for personal development, achieve their goals, and participate actively in their communities.

One example that demonstrates this is the partnership between Calgary Housing Company and Habitat for Humanity. Habitat for Humanity helps low-income families buy a house through affordable payment schedules and getting the families involved in building their homes. In six months (from late 2017 to mid-2018), Calgary Housing Company staff held information sessions, and connected 150 families to Habitat for Humanity for further discussions on home ownership. Of these families, 24 have submitted applications, and three have been accepted into the program and are already working on their volunteer hours. Calgary Housing Company tenants have a strong track record of moving into home ownership with Habitat for Humanity, as was illustrated by the April 20, 2018 opening of a 24-housing unit whereby six of the new unit owners (or 25 percent of the building) were former Calgary Housing Company families. This demonstrates the potential for leveraging, partnerships, and a system-based approach to housing that supports citizens to achieve their goals.

Below are three initiatives that the City of Calgary is leading to improve the affordable housing system.

1. Home Program

In 2016, City Council approved one-time funding to establish a community development pilot program to support individual well-being of affordable housing residents. The City’s Home Program aims to meet two key outcomes for people living in affordable housing: to improve resident self-sufficiency, and to improve community well-being. Over the last 18 months, the Home Program has helped more than 600 affordable housing residents utilizing 90 volunteers who have given 300 volunteer hours, and worked with 30 different community partners. Early results of the Home program are promising, indicating that affordable housing residents are gaining important life skills, connecting with their communities, and increasing their sense of housing stability.

2. One-Window

The current system to apply for affordable housing in Calgary is fragmented and very difficult for clients to navigate. As a result, the City began a scoping and planning exercise in 2016 to define a vision with the non-profit housing sector to move to a fully centralized housing intake system. This project is called One Window, and the City is working with affordable housing providers in Calgary toward a transformed housing intake system. A core team of 14 housing providers has been formed to complete more detailed planning and designing of the future system. Since voluntary endorsement from all housing providers will be necessary to make a centralized system work in Calgary, it is especially important to design a system that both meets the needs of housing providers as well as creates substantial benefits for their clients. 

3. Community Housing Affordability Collective (CHAC)

The City is a founding member of the Community Housing Affordability Collective (CHAC), a network of organizations from all three levels of government, the non-profit sector, and private sector housing providers that are working together to make housing more affordable for Calgarians through community-based advocacy. CHAC is guided by a high-level action plan focusing on developing an integrated approach to housing and a stable and diverse housing mix, and securing predictable and sustainable funding for affordable housing. This first-of-its-kind collective approach to advocacy has proven to be highly effective in bringing the housing sector together and remaining focused to achieving common goals.

By leveraging every tool that the City of Calgary has at its disposal, each of these areas has positively contributed to the collective efforts of the sector to increase affordable housing supply throughout the city and improve the housing system as a whole. More importantly perhaps, the City is significantly improving its relationships with and developing the capacity of the non-market housing sector.

The City of Calgary does have housing supply to catch up on. However, its practice of scaling up, having a citizen-centric housing service delivery, and using a systems approach with partners and tenants, is innovative and new. The next steps for the City are to construct the 1,000 units proposed in the 10-year capital development plan, address deferred maintenance of social housing, continue to build the capacity of non-profits, and understand their development plans to help them increase supply.

The future of viable social housing models in Canada may go beyond scaling up at the local level, and may shift from city-specific non-profit housing organizations to Canada-wide organizations that can withstand the variations in market conditions and build capacity. This has been proven in other countries such as the United Kingdom and United States of America. For now, Calgary is looking for ambitious non-profit housing providers to join in this effort and contribute toward scaling up using a systems approach to housing delivery.


SARAH WOODGATE has over 20 years of experience in affordable housing, urban planning, real estate, land development and community development. Sarah was appointed the President of Calgary Housing Company (CHC) and Director of Calgary Housing for The City of Calgary in March 2015. Sarah holds a Masters Certificate in Municipal Leadership, is a Chartered Institute of Housing Chartered Member, and is a Professional Accredited Member of the Canadian Institute of Planners.

Special thanks to the many contributors of this article from the City of Calgary: Teresa Goldstein, Nina Nagy, Claire Noble, Kendra Ramdanny, Susan Sanderson, Tim Ward.

[i] City of Calgary. (2016). Foundations for Home: Calgary’s Corporate Affordable Housing Strategy 2016-2025. Retrieved from
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] City of Calgary. (May 2018). Housing in Canada’s Big Cities. Retrieved from
[iv] In Housing in Calgary: An Inventory of Housing Supply, 2015/2016, non-market housing supply was found to be 3.6%. The difference is likely the result of how units were counted – whereas data in the Housing in Calgary report was total dwelling units, the data here is occupied dwelling units, as reported in the 2016 Census of Canada. Some of the difference can also be explained by different data collection periods, as well as Statistics Canada estimation methodology.
[v] “Other Attached” is a subtotal of the following categories: semi-detached house, row house, apartment or flat in a duplex, apartment in a building that has fewer than five storeys and other single-attached house. It is often referred to as “missing middle housing” – the type of housing between single-family/low density and high-rise apartments.
[vi] Ipsos Public Affairs (January 2018). 2017 Quality of Life and Citizen Satisfaction Survey. Retrieved from
[vii] City of Calgary. (May 2018). Housing in Canada’s Big Cities. Retrieved from
[viii] City of Calgary. (2016). Foundations for Home: Calgary’s Corporate Affordable Housing Strategy 2016-2025. Retrieved from