City makes quiet progress on hous­ing

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - ELISE STOLTE Com­men­tary es­[email protected]­media.com twit­ter.com/es­tolte

Ed­mon­ton made a his­toric move on hous­ing the other day when it al­lowed du­plexes to be built any­where in the last re­main­ing neigh­bour­hoods.

The change ef­fec­tively elim­i­nates sin­gle-fam­ily only zon­ing. But it slipped qui­etly un­der the radar.

Mean­while, in Min­neapo­lis, coun­cil voted for pretty much the same thing, al­low­ing up to a triplex on low-den­sity lots across the city. But it blew up be­cause of na­tional cov­er­age. It was a huge de­bate, sup­ported by a “Neigh­bours for more neigh­bours” cam­paign that had pun­dits won­der­ing if it will blaze a path for hous­ing re­form across the United States.

Why? Prob­a­bly be­cause Min­neapo­lis did the equiv­a­lent of pulling the band-aid off quickly, jump­ing on in­fill and tow­ers near tran­sit to cre­ate af­ford­able hous­ing and re­duce the city’s en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print.

So it’s worth paus­ing a mo­ment to re­al­ize Ed­mon­ton is slowly do­ing the same thing.

But in Ed­mon­ton it’s evo­lu­tion, not revo­lu­tion. I’ve heard that so of­ten I roll my eyes, but it’s true. Small steps to­ward den­sity and af­ford­abil­ity over the last decade are, in hind­sight, tak­ing this city a long way.

The vote at a pub­lic hear­ing on Dec. 10 — dur­ing a short break from the bud­get de­bate — was to al­low du­plex and semi-de­tached hous­ing as a per­mit­ted use in RF1 zones, not just on cor­ners and at the dis­cre­tion of devel­op­ment of­fi­cers. That’s for the zone still called Sin­gle De­tached Res­i­den­tial Zone, the most com­mon in Ed­mon­ton.

Pre­vi­ous changes al­low own­ers to build sec­ondary or garage suites. Add those up and it’s three or four units, equiv­a­lent to the triplex in Min­neapo­lis.

It means there is no sin­gle­fam­ily zone in Ed­mon­ton.

No one spoke against the change at the coun­cil meet­ing. The vote to ap­prove it was unan­i­mous.

Even the com­mu­nity leagues were in favour. Elaine Solez, who worked with the Ed­mon­ton Fed­er­a­tion of Com­mu­nity Leagues on the is­sue, said they would rather have one two-unit build­ing that’s a sim­i­lar size to oth­ers on the street than two skinny homes.

This is his­toric if you con­sider the ugly roots of Ed­mon­ton’s Eu­clidean Zon­ing sys­tem.

Ac­cord­ing to plan­ning his­to­rian Pe­ter Hall, the first zon­ing came to North Amer­ica in 1916 and quickly spread as a way to main­tain and in­crease the fi­nan­cial value of prop­erty. It’s called Eu­clidean af­ter a small vil­lage out­side Cleve­land, Ohio, which cre­ated a zone where only sin­gle­fam­ily homes of a min­i­mum size could be built.

Any­one who couldn’t af­ford that — mainly black peo­ple and im­mi­grants — were to be “pressed down into the low-ly­ing land ad­ja­cent to the in­dus­trial area, con­gested in two-fam­ily res­i­dences and apart­ments,” ac­cord­ing to a real es­tate com­pany that chal­lenged the zon­ing in court.

They won the first bat­tle. The lower court found the rules un­fairly dis­crim­i­nated on the ba­sis of wealth.

But the case made Eu­clid fa­mous when the vil­lage ap­pealed. In 1926, the Amer­i­can Supreme Court ruled in favour of the vil­lage. It said zon­ing sim­ply al­lowed the city to reg­u­late what came “very close to be­ing nui­sances.”

Say what? That doesn’t make sense — a house with two units by it­self is not a nui­sance.

Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land law pro­fes­sor Gar­rett Power ar­gues what re­ally hap­pened was a panel of elite judges found a way to con­tinue racial seg­re­ga­tion with­out ad­mit­ting to it, keep­ing ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­body in their place. Eu­clidean Zon­ing then flour­ished across North Amer­ica.

To­day, many ob­jec­tions to amend­ing zon­ing laws are sim­ply re­sis­tance to change, said Uni­ver­sity of Al­berta plan­ner Robert Sum­mers, but elitism and class­based prej­u­dice are still un­der­cur­rents on so­cial me­dia.

Of course, there are ben­e­fits to zon­ing. Keep­ing in­dus­trial smoke­stacks away from homes is a good thing. Con­cen­trat­ing af­ford­able and lux­ury tow­ers close to an LRT sta­tion or shop­ping cen­tre gives more peo­ple ac­cess.

But when it comes to low-den­sity zones, it doesn’t make sense to reg­u­late how many peo­ple live in a house. I care about the shape, the shad­ow­ing and blank walls. I don’t care if peo­ple liv­ing in smaller suites are more likely to rent. I don’t care if they earn a lower in­come. I sim­ply don’t see a ra­tio­nal ba­sis for dis­crim­i­nat­ing based on wealth.

Coun­cil is go­ing fur­ther. It al­ready ap­proved in prin­ci­ple let­ting home­own­ers build both a sec­ondary suite and a garage suite, as well as tiny homes and, in some zones, tiny apart­ments. Big pic­ture, it’s look­ing at mov­ing away from Eu­clidean Zon­ing to a set of rules that pri­mar­ily reg­u­late the shape of the build­ing — not who or what is done in­side.

They may even adopt flex hous­ing, said Mayor Don Ive­son while re­flect­ing on the De­cem­ber vote Fri­day. That’s where the num­ber of units changes as fam­i­lies need rental in­come, ac­com­mo­date grow­ing chil­dren and ag­ing par­ents. “This was a re­ally im­por­tant step. More flex­i­bil­ity is bet­ter.”

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