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Better late than not at all (City on right track to ease crunch for low-cost housing)

Without wishing to sound churlish, it is worth questioning why it took the city so long to clue in to a way of at least making a dent in the homeless situation -- the $10.3 million purchase of condos for use as subsidized housing.

Questioning the city's johnny-come-lately approach to a housing crunch that has been several years in the crisis stage, however, no way detracts from the absolute worthiness of the latest tack the city has taken.

Thanks to the purchase of the Beltline block, more than 23 people will be moving off the Calgary Housing waiting list and into homes of their own by the end of January.

That's 23 or so fewer families and individuals relying on places such as Inn From the Cold for a night's lodging, that's certainly a fair number of children who will soon have the stability of a neighbourhood school and a home to come to at the end of the school day, and that's a huge boost in morale and consequently productivity and optimism for working people given a toehold in the tight rental market.

As positive a move as this is, no one should be under the illusion it is a panacea for Calgary's housing problems.

Purchasing an existing building and converting it for low-income use -- in this case, half of the 46 units will be rented out at the going market rate, while the rest are subsidized -- does not increase housing stock in the city. It offers a fast fix for a few people who would otherwise be forced to wait an interminable amount of time for the city to get around to designing and building new low-cost housing. It does not change the fact that more housing is urgently needed to accommodate the people who continue to flock to Calgary, drawn by the boom, only to find that salaries considered reasonably middle-class elsewhere in Canada are nowhere near enough to gain these folks entry into the tight and pricey market here.

Those squeezed by the housing crunch are not a monolithic group -- the very diversity of their socioeconomic and demographic circumstances calls for a multi-faceted approach to solving the problem.

A single mom with three children getting by on a job barely above minimum wage has completely different housing needs than a 20-year-old man who's come from the Maritimes to try to make it on his own.

While buying existing blocks offers a timely way to help at least some people on the waiting list, if the city begins to buy up a sizable amount of housing, it will only succeed in further squeezing the vacancy rate and pushing up rents for those who can afford to pay.

The city needs to forge ahead with plans to build subsidized housing on land it owns, to make a secondary suite bylaw a practical, workable option rather than an obstacle to homeowners, and to offer developers tax incentives to incorporate a mix of low-income units into new buildings they put up.

Purchasing the Beltline block is a creative approach to the problem; now, the city needs to apply that same creativity to a wide range of other options.

The Calgary Herald 2008 (Wednesday, January 16, 2008)