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Affordability is top of mind in Alberta election

Posted on May 24, 2023 by Sunny South News

Both the United Conservative Party (UCP) and New Democratic Party (NDP) are surprisingly weak on housing policy at a time when affordability is top of mind for many Albertans.

The average price of a home in Alberta is approximately $447,000. It requires 10 years of full-time work for a typical young person to save enough for a 20 per cent down payment, up from six years in 1976.

Still, Alberta has a major affordability advantage with relatively low housing prices compared to Ontario and B.C., where the average home prices are $932,000 and $996,000, respectively.

Unfortunately, neither party proposes to nurture and protect this advantage (so far) by offering a clear plan to stall home prices and give earnings a chance to catch up.

Instead, a new study of the parties’ platforms shows the UCP is stuck at the starting line in the quest to protect and improve housing affordability. The NDP is a better, but still promises to implement just one-third of the policy changes needed to protect Alberta’s housing advantage.  The study examines party platforms for evidence of commitments to scale up non-profit housing, fix the regular housing market, and break the addiction to high and rising home prices.

As of May 15, housing is not even identified as one of the 27 priority issue areas on the UCP’s campaign website. This signals the party intends to rely on luck to promote housing affordability, instead of careful and deliberate policy design.

While relatively strong at offering plans to scale up non-profit housing, the NDP largely ignores policy levers available to address problems in the regular market where the vast majority of residents find their homes.

Neither party proposes housing policy measures now commonplace in B.C. and Ontario to fend off forces that erode affordability. For example, both the UCP and Alberta NDP are silent about steps to discourage foreign buyers, empty homes, money laundering, or regulation of short-term rentals that reallocate housing as hotels for vacationers rather than preserving it primarily for those who work and study in the province.

Both parties ignore the value of supporting all Alberta cities to produce rigorous housing needs assessments that position them to open up low-density zoning for a diversity of people, families, forms and tenures (including lots of rental). Nor do the parties promise to encourage new housing to integrate energy- efficiency objectives.

Risks to renters from renovictions and demovictions are also overlooked. While these problems have grown substantially in B.C. and Ontario, the UCP remains quiet about protections for renters and affordable rental housing.

The NDP promises to review rental legislation, expand rental assistance for another 11,000 low-income households, and establish a rent bank help to help low-income households pay rent after a sudden disruption to income due to job loss, marriage breakdown, etc.

The primary housing policy detail offered by the UCP is in Budget 2023 (p. 86), which promises to invest “$105 million over three years to reduce homelessness.” The budget makes no mention of specific targets for the number of people who will benefit, or the number of supportive housing units that will be built.

The NDP is more specific. It promises to house another 40,000 in the next five, proposing to build 8,500 new social housing units, and will “focus on housing the people with the deepest need, including Albertans with disabilities, families fleeing domestic violence, and those experiencing homelessness.”

While the two parties are weak on housing policy, their shared emphasis on sparking further economic diversification for Alberta is important to retain the province’s housing advantage.

Generation Squeeze, Dr. Paul Kershaw, University of British Columbia

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