Monday, May 6, 2024

Books and housing

Most people in Calgary know there is a massive public hearing going on regarding housing. When I say massive, it is by far the largest one in Calgary's history. I read somewhere, and can't find the reference now, it is the biggest public hearing in Canadian history. More than 5,000 comments were sent in, and about 1,000 people have either made, or are signed up to make presentations directly to City council. Council has spent 12 hours a day less some break time, for the last two weeks, and some of the coming week is scheduled. 

As a digression, I cannot imaging sitting there and listening that long. A couple hours of a work meeting made me itchy. A half day meeting would just about do me in. And people wonder why I don't want to run for office.

The issue? Changing the zoning of every R-1 (single family residence) property to an R-CG rating that allows many more units on the same plot of land. So on a lot like ours, a developer could buy the house, raze it, and replace it with 12 homes, each of which could cost a large fraction of the original home. There's a bit of nuance there, but the idea is that this will somehow make homes more affordable. 

I don't believe that at all, not even a little bit. There is no shortage of land to build on. The City itself says there are several decades of undeveloped land available. Plus there are any number of vacant lots awaiting construction. I'm thinking of one on the SW corner of Heritage and MacLeod that has been vacant for decades. There's an LRT station across the street. Lots of shopping a short walk away. A stones throw to the south there are several large apartment buildings. Why is this lot still vacant? Don't tell me the developers are short of land to build on. 

We've been hearing about Transit Oriented Development for years, but I'm not sure how much of it has happened. I've seen proposals to turn much of the Anderson LRT station parking lot into housing units, and the sooner the better. The LRT and bus barns at Anderson are 45 years old now. It would probably be cost effective to build a new facility elsewhere, and tear down the old one in favour of housing. The City recently purchased back a huge plot of land beside and on top of the Westbrook LRT station, and if I understand correctly, made $10 million in the process (sold to developer for $50 million, bought back for $40 million). There's another great spot for a huge housing development.

Some presenters complained about the 'arduous' permitting process. Yet there are lots of developments that have navigated the process, so it can't be that bad. It's the same process for everybody, so it's not like someone is getting a competitive advantage out of it. I've been told that lots of the hold up is because they're trying to exceed the various limits, and the City caught them at it. The developers seem to always get their way regardless.

If we think about the costs related to building a home, I come up with these, roughly in order they are required:
-Buying the property.
-Interest or carrying charges on borrowed money.
-Removing an existing structure or remediating the property, which might involve the removal of hazardous materials like asbestos. (At this point it becomes off the market for housing. Some lots are stuck in this phase for years.)
-For a home in a new development (greenfield), the developer also has to install infrastructure, like roads, water, and sewer lines. For a lot with an existing home (brownfield), the nearby infrastructure has to be evaluated and potentially upgraded.
-Various permits, design costs.
-Cost of materials.
-Cost of construction workers.
-Cost to buy or rent the equipment needed, such as excavators, various kinds of trucks, cranes.
-Cost of inspections and certifications for occupancy.
-Staging and selling costs.
-Developer overhead, which are all the costs of running the business itself.
-Developer profit, if any. And yes, I get that a developer has to make a profit on an ongoing basis or they won't be in business much longer.
-At every stage there is a balancing act for availability of the various elements in the right place at the right time, in competition with all the other developments happening. A worker or piece of equipment can only be on one site at a time. Weather can force delays beyond the buffer normally built into planning schedules.

All those costs add up to the cost of the dwelling, and each dwelling could have a different mix of costs. We don't live in a command economy, so those costs are driven by any number of factors that are not under the control of any government, with the exception of permitting and inspection costs. So naturally, those are the ones the developers choose to complain about. Except they are a tiny fraction of the overall costs. Even the blanket rezoning doesn't remove those costs.

Adding more homes at a rate slower than people want to buy them tends to drive up the price. The developers can make more of a profit on more expensive homes. Making it easier to buy property for development doesn't add more homes for sale because homes can only be constructed as fast at the supply chain limitations on materials and the amount of labour available. If people with experience in the construction industry aren't working in Calgary just now, they are injured or just don't want to work.

Everyone's definition of affordable is different, except we all seem to be agreeing lately that housing has become unaffordable for almost everyone. The difference between that overall cost, and wherever the unaffordable line is drawn, has to be subsidized by someone, and it's likely to be tax payers. Part of the problem with subsidized housing is determining who gets in. There's a large segment of taxpayers here who don't want anything going to anybody they deem to be undeserving, which usually includes people of colour, recent immigrants, refugees, Indigenous, anyone with addictions, pets, anyone who isn't cis, or anyone that is just a bit weird. In short, anyone that isn't like them. They would like to hold out housing as a reward for getting off drugs, for example, except that doing that while unhoused is essentially impossible. 

We read about what the real estate market is doing in Calgary, and are stunned into disbelief at what appears to the current value of our modest bungalow. Even counting mortgage interest and costs for a couple largish renovations, we could sell and make a huge profit. Except this wasn't bought as an investment, it was bought as a place to live. After selling, we'd still need a place to live, and would likely have a mortgage again. Not. Just not. Nor do we want to live in Winnipeg. I'd like to live somewhere the air doesn't hurt my face in winter, but those places in Canada are really expensive, and I don't speak Spanish.

It shouldn't be any surprise that I took Our Crumbling Foundation by Gregor Craigie out of the library. It's mostly trying to convince readers that there's a problem. Which just about everybody knows. What it's short on is solutions. Part of the problem is that the solutions themselves have problem. They might not easily scale, they might not work in all areas of the country given climate issues, but the biggest one is that they are not particularly politically palatable. See a couple paragraphs above.

My take on it is that we need to collectively wrap our heads around what it is actually costing us to not solve the housing problem, compared to having the federal and provincial governments get on the case and build structures to house the currently unhoused. 

Yes, each unhoused person costs society something. The cost of maintaining a shelter system that many unhoused fear going to. Running food banks. Police resources dealing with people struggling through mental health issues or addictions. Crime. Hospitals and walk in clinics dealing with the fallout of all these issues. People working their asses off trying to make a patchwork ad hoc system function, in the face of uncertain funding and ever increasing demand. 

As a digression, I'm still a data geek at heart. Somewhere, there is the data that tells us what every Albertan costs the heath care system. It's probably possible to attribute police costs out across every person the police and justice system touch. The fire department costs to rescue people from a burning flop house. Add it all up. Somewhere there is the person that has the biggest hit on costs, and they are almost certainly unhoused. Fix the housing, and that cost drops dramatically. The people that just barely survive catastrophic demonstrations of driver incompetence probably cost a lot, and it might not be their fault. Get the drunks and incompetent drivers off the road, and those costs drop. Car simulators and mandated standards for driving tests should be a thing. Find the data that shows the problem and how much it costs, and see if it's cheaper to buy the problem and live with it, or to buy a solution and make things better. Our politicians need to get on with it.

Back to housing. I'm not talking about swanky penthouse palaces for the currently unhoused here. I'm talking basic, easy to maintain structures that include provision for the appropriate social workers. Each structure should be designed around the needs of a particular group. For example, someone with drug addictions has different needs than someone living on CPP and OAS who has been reno-victed out of an apartment, and probably neither group wants to live with the other in the next apartment. People with mental health issues have different needs again. Women fleeing domestic abuse have specific needs. Make the buildings so they are a for purpose modular standard design.

And while I'm on about it, safe consumption sites save lives, Conservative party propaganda to the contrary. A bar is a safe consumption site, and booze is a decriminalized regulated drug.

The Art of Misadventure by Dave Brosha.
You've probably seen his photos. He's led an interesting life. My problem is that I've met him by attending one of his talks. The talks are better, with more photos.

Remember by Lisa Genova.
For some reason I kept flashing on the Kingdom of Genovia, with Queen Clarisse trying to whip her heir into shape. It's readable, and reassuring for someone of an age to start thinking about memory loss, but ultimately didn't tell me anything I didn't know already. The advice? Create a system to make lists, put dates in your calendar, and PAY ATTENTION! Lots of times when we think we've forgotten something, the real case is that we never remembered it in the first place. Which is why I haven't had to look for my car keys in decades. They are either in the car because I'm driving, in my hand on the way to the car, zipped into a pocket if I'm out and about, or hanging on the same hook when I'm home. Always on the same hook.

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Driftwood (NZ)


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