Whose Home?

A City of Edmonton original podcast


Susan McGee, Chief Executive Officer, Homeward Trust

Colton Kirsop, manager of project development in affordable housing and homelessness, City of Edmonton


[Narrator] Thanks for joining us for the second episode of Making Space — a show about urban planning and zoning in the city of Edmonton. 

If you’re just joining us, we recommend starting with episode one, which is all about how a seemingly simple thing like parking can have unexpected impacts on the fabric of a city. If you’ve already listened to that one, thanks for joining us again for episode two. Let’s get into it.

In the early 1900s the Chicago real estate industry was a force to be reckoned with. 

Chicago had the very first real estate lobby in the United States, which would go on to be one of the most powerful lobbies in the country. 

Chicago real estate: very big deal

And as more and more people migrated to North America from all over the world, real estate became the commodity. And the Chicago real estate industry was a powerful bene-fici-ary of that boom and they wanted to keep the party going. 

Back in the early 1900s, the Chicago real estate lobby had a very specific vision of how to drive housing prices even higher… and it had to do… with zoning. At the time, a lot of people in the Chicago real estate industry believed… that segregation was great for real estate prices. 

If you want to see how that belief shook out in policy, you should start with the city’s first zoning ordinance passed in 1923. Like a lot of zoning ordinances passed at the time, the shapes that it drew over the city persist in some form to this day. And later research has shown that those shapes reproduced a belief in segregation as a driver of property values. 

A study published in 2016 by three University of Pittsburgh economists found that for each standard deviation increase in the Black population’s share of one neighbourhood, there was a quote “27 point increase in the likelihood of that neighbourhood being zoned for higher density.” 

If we then look at European immigrants, the more of them you found in a neighbourhood,

the less likely it was to be zoned for a higher density. 

So what does that mean? In practice, it meant more European immigrants in single-family homes and more of the wealth created by this real estate boom held in one group’s hands but not the other’s. How we zone housing affects everybody: housed or unhoused, owner or renter. 

So we wanted to talk about how zoning affects the kind of projects that are trying to get more people housed in Edmonton right now. We sat down with two people – Susan McGee, Chief Executive Officer of Homeward Trust, and Colton Kirsop, Manager of Project Development in Affordable Housing and Homelessness at the City of Edmonton – to discuss how zoning affects housing here in the city… how we’ve done it in the past… and how we can do it better.

[Colton] My name is Colton Kirsop. I’m a Manager of Project Development in Affordable Housing and Homelessness at the City of Edmonton.

[Narrator] And what does that mean?

[Colton] That is a great question. Sometimes I like to modify my title to say I’m the manager of affordable housing projects. I work to either secure, purchase land, or find land from the City’s own inventory and then get it ready for affordable housing development. That might include getting it rezoned, doing a lot of the public engagement that leads up to a rezoning, and getting development permits in some cases.

[Narrator] How do we zone to make sure all Edmontonians have a home?

[Colton] That is an easy question to ask but a hard question to answer. I think, ultimately, I keep challenging everyone involved in that conversation around, well, what are the impacts that are really trying to be regulated? And, generally speaking, residential uses don’t really have a lot of impact. It’s a place for somebody to live. The biggest, you know, impact is maybe coming and going from the house during the day and traffic and things like that. 

So to make sure that everybody has a place to live, I think Edmonton is trying to find ways to change some of its zoning right now and emphasize equal access to housing and making sure that there are opportunities for housing across the city in as many neighbourhoods as possible and for as many different family types, for singles and for groups of people that might not necessarily fall into kind of the stereotypical Addams family.

[Narrator] Okay. So we’re going to focus on a couple of different things when it comes to zoning and housing in this episode. The first is single family zoning. The City of Edmonton is one of the first major municipalities in Canada to eliminate the Single Detached Residential Zone, which are areas in the city where only one type of building is allowed: a single family home. It was this really big thing that happened really quietly, and the reasons why it happened and what it can do to improve access to housing are fascinating. 

[Colton] It was super important, and it happened really quietly and almost by accident, really. We were looking for ways to, well, get more infill and more variety of housing types in all neighbourhoods. So adding the opportunity for a duplex house or a garage suite or a basement suite is what we did to basically all of the residential zones that were single detached. By doing that, we kind of ended the legacy of single detached homes being the only thing that you could put in those zones. 

What it does is it lowers the cost of housing. It makes it easier for people to qualify for housing, and it also gives people an opportunity to use some of those smaller housing units, whether it’s a basement suite or garden suite, to actually, you know, subsidize their mortgage. The cost of housing is rising in all Canadian cities, and Edmonton is no exception. It’s still relatively affordable, and I think that that is actually the case because we have such permissive zoning that provides a lot of different housing options. 

[Narrator] When you say single detached family home, what do you mean? Could you describe that for me?

[Colton] Single detached just means, like, a standalone home. It’s got its own four walls and it’s not connected to another house. It’s not a duplex, it’s not a row house. It’s the basic sort of stand on its own house. 

[Narrator] A stand on its own house. When you picture a residential neighbourhood, you’re probably picturing a neighbourhood that was zoned this way, for single family homes. And it’s useful in looking at all of this to understand how those regulations have evolved over time and why opening some of those rules up would be useful for getting more people more equitably housed.

[Colton] The evolution of our regulations started in the first iteration of the Infill Roadmap, which identified that there were a lot of really weird zoning regulations in Edmonton, which is the same in so many Canadian cities. They really were born out of trying to protect and preserve, forever, the character of neighbourhoods. 

[Narrator] The Infill Roadmap that Colton just mentioned was Edmonton’s work plan to introduce new people and new homes into mature neighbourhoods. It was first introduced in 2014. It was reworked in 2018 with a focus on encouraging diverse housing options in all of our neighbourhoods to accommodate people of all ages, stages of life, and income levels. 

[Colton] Those regulations got in the way of different tastes in architecture and different housing needs. You know, we were regulating the height of a dormer on the roof of a house, and most people don’t even know what a dormer is so why are we regulating it?

[Narrator] I was going to ask that. What’s a dormer?

[Colton] Yeah. It’s like those attic windows that poke out of the roof and look kind of forward down onto the street or into a backyard. 

But we had so many bizarre little regulations in the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay, which was designed to kind of protect the character of those neighbourhoods. I think at the time there was a lot of stress around infill where, like, the garage is all you see and that was poking forward and they were cutting down the boulevard tree to make way for the driveway. So the pendulum swung too far in terms of the regulations to protect the charm and characters of all of these war-time bungalows and whatnot. 

But what that did is it really throws off the development pattern in time for a good couple of decades. You know, the world has changed and there’s an emphasis on solar energy and net-zero homes. You don’t design a home that is an energy-efficient machine for living in a way the way you would design a home in the 1950s. Even from a shape perspective, the zoning was out of step. Like, there was regulation that said you couldn’t build a basement suite higher than 1.1 metres out of the ground, which meant you had these tiny little basement suite windows that were really creating dark and uninviting basement suites and that’s not in the right direction with trying to provide more affordable housing options. As a student I loved living in a basement suite. I paid off my student loan by living in affordable accommodation provided in a basement suite. But, you know, having regulations that make them almost, like, impossible to build doesn’t help with affordability. 

So the infill roadmap started to chip away at some of those regulations, the first roadmap. And then in the second roadmap there was even more engagement. I think I would credit millennials with speaking up and coming to the engagements and saying, “You know what? We’re probably not even interested in the typical single detached house of the atomic family or the Jetsons. We want a house that is probably less to maintain, more like a row house, smaller yards.” 

Tastes are changing and the rules just didn’t allow for them to be built. Even the housing industry was telling us that they can’t build what the market wants, so the next roadmap, you know, pushed the regulations even further to look at the missing middle. And the missing middle is those forms of housing that are somewhere in between a single detached home and a high-rise. With the high cost of infrastructure, like, how much it costs to put pipes in the ground and build fire hydrants and all of that, the more units you can put on a piece of land the more you can all share in those infrastructure costs. So the cost of housing does go down when you can put more units on the same piece of land. 

[Narrator] Which brings us to the Westmount housing project. Eliminating the single detached residential zone is a good first step towards getting more people housed. Just being able to build more kinds of housing in a neighbourhood means being able to build housing for more kinds of people. But the next step is to actually build that housing. Homeward Trust, a not-for-profit organization committed to ending homelessness in our city is trying. On 100th Ave and 130th Street sits the future site of the Westmount permanent supportive housing project. 

The City sold Homeward Trust the land for $1 for them to develop 60 units of supportive housing on land where under the old rules that would have been prohibited. We called up Susan McGee, their chief executive officer, to talk about what kind of zoning we can create to enable more of these projects. 

[Susan] Just prior to these projects and really in tandem with, there’s been a lot of work being done to clarify and have zoning that’s enabling not just the particular projects but what’s really intended in terms of the vision for the city. So when I go back actually, you know, in terms of my various roles I’ve probably – over 25 years I can’t tell you how many committees I’ve sat on that have worked on different reports that have been tabled with really good suggestions but nothing much came of them. You know, there are different reasons for that. It’s just different times. How do we change policy in our community? But a lot has happened in a short period of time to be really looking at how zoning can be a facilitator of positive growth in our communities. 

So all of that was really the context of these engagements and the development of these projects. Some of it is really specific. You know, we have originally done work on sites prior to the changes in parking requirements. Currently there’s more parking on these sites then we would have been required to provide in the kind of just sheer numbers, but we also have staff on the sites and we also know that that is certainly still important to communities so those are the things that we were kind of working on and kind of thinking about as we were laying out how the sites would best serve the community and the residents. 

[Narrator] Let’s define some terms here: market housing, affordable housing, supportive housing. Westmount is a supportive housing project. 

Market housing is housing you buy or rent from someone on the open market. 

Affordable housing is housing where the cost is subsidized in some way to make it more affordable, typically through a program or grant. 

And supportive housing, like Westmount, is housing that comes with support. You still sign a lease, you still pay rent, but you get support: financial support, access to health care, life skills, on-site staff. 

Colton explains the difference well. 

[Colton] Affordable housing is, like, the big family of housing that is subsidized in some form or another by the government. So there’s sort of like a spectrum or a continuum of affordable housing. Some affordable housing has got a shallow subsidy. It might only be subsidized, say, 20 per cent. Your rent would be about 80 per cent below what the market would be charging. If you’re looking at a hypothetical one-bedroom apartment costing $1000 a month, the affordable housing would be $800 a month if it’s a shallow subsidy. 

There are also deeper subsidies or subsidies that are geared to your income, so often then what we would do is you would see someone spending 30 per cent of their income on their rent. If they have a very low income, then they’re not spending more than 30 per cent of their income on the rent for that apartment. 

And then supportive housing takes that even a step further. Not only is the rent subsidized and usually rent geared to income, there’s a lot of on-site support. So there could be a nurse that works on site. There could be social workers, therapists of various kinds. They’re there on site usually during the day to provide programming, to run maybe group therapy or to help people manage their medications or their addictions. That’s what supportive housing is. And in, I’d say, like 100 per cent of all of our instances, when we say supportive housing there is always at least one staff person on site 24 hours a day just to help people with their day-to-day living needs. 

[Narrator] And all of them – market, affordable, supportive – they’re all zoned just a little bit differently and that has some really big privacy implications for the people who live there. A lot of supportive housing projects are required to notify existing residents in a neighbourhood before they’re ever built. This means that existing neighbours get to ask questions about who’s going to move in, which means that all of those people moving into supportive housing like Westmount have to answer questions of their neighbours that people moving into other kinds of housing would never in a million years have to answer. 

[Susan] People can come into this conversation with fear, you know, of the unknown, wanting to kind of in some ways really clarify to a level just in terms of, “Who’s going to live there?” Do we know their names kind of, like, level of detail. And I don’t mean to be oversimplifying that, but I’m more speaking to the fact that the fear comes from not knowing exactly kind of, you know, who your neighbour is going to be. None of us get to choose that, but we also all live within expectations where people who shouldn’t be living next to schools aren’t allowed to live next to schools. There’s an entire system around how police monitor individuals that would pose a risk. You know, that’s something that we have across our city. Those are the rules. 

We really needed to explain, I think, how important it was to us as well that we were going to be a healthy and good community neighbour because that’s as important to the folks living there as it is to the neighbours themselves. That is really a reciprocal relationship. You know, trying as best we could without being able to identify a particular individual that we haven’t even met yet in terms of a tenant because these are housing projects – people will have leases – what our intent was and empathize. 

We all live in neighbourhoods. I’ve always, as I said, you know, been central. I live in central Edmonton. And with that empathy also commit to, well, what is in that good neighbour commitment? So some of that is really the fact that it is what it is. It’s a relationship. We are not going to have an organization operating there that cuts off communication from the community, and in fact we asked for proactive communication and community plans. So, you know, what are you going to do to build relationships? How are you going to get involved in local initiatives? 

We have projects where how that manifests might be even residents volunteering for the local community or for their neighbours. Shovelling walks is actually something folks have liked to do. And there are different ways. I mean, different neighbourhoods also host different types of events and forms of engagement. 

It also is an invitation to have an ongoing conversation. It isn’t a one and done. We’re not kind of looking for approvals and then we’re going to stop the conversation. It is the longer term expectation that we would monitor that. You know, we monitor all of our contracts, and one of those conversations in our agreements is how are we working in community and how are we addressing if there are issues and mitigating any risk of issues in the future? Those are the kind of things that we do and because there is always a possibility of something – that stands for high-end housing as well – we also have a process to say, well, how can we escalate so that you there isn’t just a call not returned? Those are some of the things that get reflected in that relationship often on an ongoing basis. 

[Colton] Privacy is two ways. Often in affordable housing conversations with neighbourhoods they’re always, you know, wanting to know more about the development, more about the people. What’s the address? Where will they live? Who’s operating it? How many people are there? What’s happening inside the building? And I often try to remind residents in these conversations that supportive housing is a home, and people are entitled to a certain amount of privacy just as any resident is. That privacy is not really, like, visual privacy. It’s privacy of information. And we are talking about people who really are just looking for a place to live. 

You know, neighbourhoods often get all concerned about, “Well, don’t they have addictions and are they using drugs?” All of these types of considerations. And to be honest, I mean, citizens all over the city are using drugs or might have addictions and we don’t know about them. Maybe they have prescription addictions. Maybe it’s an addiction that is philosophically or societally more acceptable than another. These people can’t get better unless they have a home, and ultimately a home is where you’re comfortable and you’re safe. 

So supportive housing is really important. If we’re trying to have a city that is safe, people who have addictions are better off managing that addiction inside their home, inside a home where there are nurses or social workers and housing managers that can keep an eye on them, that can help them with their day-to-day needs. And addictions when they’re in a home don’t have as many negative consequences as somebody that is completely drunk and has passed out in a park or is overdosing and there’s no one there to help them. 

Supportive housing is a lot safer and actually, ultimately, can reduce social disorder. It is actually one of the solutions. When we talk to business communities in the BIAs, for example, they actually understand that quite well because they see the impacts that disorder has on the street. It detracts from tourism and spending in the local economy at small businesses. So we’ve actually found some good support from the BIA community, the business improvement associations. They are becoming pretty good allies in the quest to build more supportive housing in Edmonton.

[Susan] Because of the role that we played we’ve been able to also be in a lot of rooms where we see what happens in different cities, different countries for that matter. This is not just an Edmonton challenge, but I think Edmonton’s response has been really focused on the long game. I think that’s been the shift that I’ve seen in this work and some of that is recognizing time in the fact that we’re not just solving a problem today. If we don’t do things differently we’re going to have much, much bigger problems in the future. 

[Narrator] There’s this other type of housing that seems worth bringing up here, different than affordable or supportive or anything else we’ve been talking about, and that’s group homes. 

The City of Edmonton no longer considers this its own category; a building won’t get approved or denied based on whether it’s a group home. It’s no longer a thing as far as the rules that we’re talking about are concerned. But it’s fascinating to see where these categories come from and how they can fail people by using group homes as a bit of a case study. 

So we asked Colton, first and foremost, what even is the difference between a group home and supportive housing? 

[Colton] I’d say they’re basically the same thing now. A group home: the definition was really interesting. I had to read it a lot, and it talked about that it was housing for people that needed additional, I think it said, cognitive or behavioural support. They had issues with cognitive or behaviour challenges or something like that. That’s really odd because zoning really shouldn’t be regulating users. It should be regulating a land use. 

The other really strange thing about that use is even seniors’ homes, seniors’ assisted living fell into that definition, too. It was a very strange definition, and I’m glad we were able to move away from it. 

[Narrator] Do you know the rationale of why it was, you know, a different use or considered different?

[Colton] I think the logic was that because the people living there might have maybe mental or physical disabilities that they needed to regulate that use more closely or more restrictively. So there were all kinds of other restrictions on group homes in the zoning bylaw like separation distances. You couldn’t have more than two of them on a block, and you couldn’t have more than a certain number in a neighbourhood. I can’t remember what that neighbourhood metric was. But at the end of the day it made it very difficult to open group homes in the city.

I think people were really, I’d say, misconceived about what a group home is. I think there’s like a misconception or a perception out there that a group home is for, like, bad kids, but by and large most groups homes are for adults that may have developed mental delays and challenges or physical disabilities. When we did some engagement around this, it was really revealing. We had a lot of parents come forward and say, “My kid lives in a group home. My kid is now an adult, a young adult or a middle-aged adult, and they’re living their best life there. You guys shouldn’t be regulating this so tightly. You should allow more of these to open up because this is the alternative to living in an institution. They have some independence and some freedom, and these are not bad things at all. These help my kid have an opportunity to participate in the community or my brother or my sister or my aunt or my uncle who have these disabilities, you know.” They might need, like, a power scooter to get around. They might need help bathing in the morning or getting dressed.

If we’re going to restrict the development of group homes across the city, we really cause some undue impact and really, like, force these people out of our neighbourhoods and that’s just not a good thing. 

[Narrator] No definitely, definitely not a good thing. 

You brought up some really good points, and I was just sitting here thinking. When you were talking about seniors’ facilities and seniors’ complexes, there’s a big push to keep seniors more in their communities and engaged and keeping them in those neighbourhoods that they helped build, and restricting group homes could potentially displace them and move them far away from each other and far away from their families and such. 

[Colton] Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think seniors, you know, want to live as long as they can in their own home, but there are many that wouldn’t want to live in a large seniors’ complex. They might want to live in a house with three or four other seniors. Allowing that to take place now means that the scenario we’re all familiar with on TV, the Golden Girls, was illegal in Edmonton. Now it’s legal. You can have a house with four unrelated adults living together and that would be deemed supportive housing. It might just not even be a thing that we define anymore, but when we had the group home definition, you couldn’t have more than three unrelated adults living together in a limited group home. 

[Narrator] Colton brought up this idea that’s kind of at the crux of this whole thing, and I think it’s worth ending on, the idea that buildings are supposed to be zoned according to use, not users. 

When the City was first creating uses for its Zoning Bylaw, it thought that there would be a big difference between affordable, supportive, market and group home, like, maybe due to ambulatory services or mobility requirements . But, with time, research and a bit of hindsight, we’ve come to the conclusion that those land use impacts that zoning is trying to minimize… they’re actually pretty minimal. 

The real impact is felt by the people being housed, which are often our most vulnerable. Because, we’ve come to realize the biggest difference between these housing forms is the user… who lives there.

So maybe the way forward, maybe the way to use zoning to get more people housed in more equitable ways is just to do less of it. When we get rid of single family zoning and neighbourhoods we empower people to build housing that can house more than a single family in that neighbourhood. Zoning a little bit less gets more people housed in more inclusive ways. 

When we remove the zoning rules distinguishing market housing and affordable housing, we make it easier to build, which means we get more of it. When we focus on regulating uses and not users, we can make sure that we’re not robbing one group of a kind of privacy that another is entitled to when both groups just want to move into a new house. Do that, do less, and we can find ourselves with more projects like Westmount affordable housing and more Edmontonians getting housed. 

We’ll catch you in the next episode of Making Space, where we’re going to take a look at polycentric planning and how to connect people to the stuff they actually need. Thanks for listening.