Inside the weird world of Canada's discriminatory anti-family housing policies

Metaphorical storm clouds of a housing discrimination crisis brewing over Edmonton. Image: MaxPixel

Michael Janz knew that he and his partner Sally Tang were about to become rule breakers in their condominium in the northern Canadian city of Edmonton.

Their crime? To have a child and hope to stay in the condominium that they owned.

But Janz is a guy who likes to question things and the condominium is made of concrete, right next to a school, and has plenty of space for a toddler at 1,200 sq ft. So they tried anyway. And failed.

The couple appealed to their condominium’s board when Tang became pregnant.

“We were like, 'Explain to us why having a toddler, an infant, is going to disrupt the community or cause undo hardship to everyone else in the building’” Janz said.

“There's no answer to that question that I've yet to find that's satisfactory. Because our stroller will cause upset in the elevator? Well so does my neighbour's walker.”

The condo board told Janz and Tang they had to leave before their son was born. Those were the rules. “It was like, ‘Congratulations, you’re out.’”

Adult only rules are a common age discrimination applied to multi-unit housing in Alberta, Canada’s fourth largest province. But the situation is reaching a crunch point.

Children of the housing crisis

Alberta’s largest cities, like Edmonton — a mostly suburban Canadian city of about one million — are seeing some of the country’s fastest growth rates and now have some of its youngest populations. All this means that pressures for new, affordable and diverse housing are increasing.

At the same time, following a human-rights court challenge from a senior, the provincial government has been ordered to outlaw all age discrimination, putting it in line with all other Canadian provinces.

But the kicker is that it has until 2018 to determine what it will exempt from this new illegality, from the standard exemptions of demanding people be a certain age to drink alcohol or drive a car, to the more contentious ones currently in place dictating who can live where based on age.

Downtown Edmonton, land of skyscrapers and bad housing policies. Image: WinterforceMedia

On one side are millennial families and family-friendly housing advocates, pushing for the government to strike out its current age-discrimination loopholes in multi-unit housing and allow families in Alberta to choose housing many Europeans would take as standard, rather than a detached house in the car-dependent suburbs.

On the other hand are established housing developers, industry insiders and advocates for seniors, most of whom want the rules maintained — perhaps unsurprising in an affluent city on the plains where a detached house is seen as the norm and not a luxury.

Condo compromise

Representing much of the condominium industry’s position in the debate is Anand Sharma, president of the northern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Condominium Institute.

Sharma said the organization is set to push the Alberta government to uphold its age-discriminations, but only because it supports the right of seniors to live in communities that let in only those older than 55.


The side effect, he said, is that this might mean the other age-discrimination rules will have to remain, too.

“It’s a very sensitive issue, and I know from my personal life, my friends view it as a human rights issue,” Sharma said.

“But working in the industry and talking to people, the indication from everyone in the condominium community is they believe age restrictions should be permitted.”

Volunteers recently created the Family Friendly Housing Coalition of Alberta in an effort to use the opportunity of the government’s inspection of its own laws to force developers and others to allow people with children to live places other than a detached house in a sprawl-creating suburb.

The kind of sprawling detached houses families are forced into. Image: Upstate NYer

But the problem, said David Shepherd, an Edmonton member of the legislative assembly with the ruling NDP government, is that very few in the industry or even government know how widespread the adult-only rules are for multi-unit housing in Alberta, since nobody has been tracking them.

Alberta’s laws mean a condominium board can change its bylaws to discriminate based on age if 75 per cent of members approve that change.

The danger of developers

But industry insiders say developers are behind the bylaws in most cases, and they are creating them for a reason.

Raj Dhunna, the chief operating officer of Edmonton’s Regency Developments, which builds large-scale tower condominiums, said economic factors are at play.

While Dhunna said he hasn’t applied age restriction rules on his buildings in the past, he notes that in the future he might, as aging baby boomers are now in the market for smaller-scale housing where they won’t hear children.

Alberta's future may rest on the goodwill of developers. Image: WinterforceMedia

But Janz, who offered a cash bond to his condominium board in order to buy time to find new housing — which he has, though it’s currently being built — doesn’t think many of the arguments for age discrimination should fly in a modern society.

“I think for the last 50 years some of it was economics,” he said.

“You had much bigger families. You had seven children and it made sense — you wanted a [detached] house sooner. But you look around the world, and there's thousands of other cities that have complete communities, where you can live from cradle to grave in one building.”

Alberta will determine by 2018 if that will be possible as well.

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Brexit is an opportunity for cities to take back control

Leeds Town Hall. Image: Getty.

The Labour leader of Leeds City Council on the future of Britain’s cities.

As the negotiations about the shape of the UK’s exit from the EU continue, Britain’s most economically powerful cities outside London are arguing that the UK can be made stronger for Brexit – by allowing cities to “take back control” of service provision though new powers and freedoms

Core Cites UK, the representative voice of the cities at the centre of the ten largest economic areas outside London, has just launched an updated version of our green paper, ‘Invest Reform Trust’. The document calls for radical but deliverable proposals to allow cities to prepare for Brexit by boosting their productivity, and helping to rebalance the economy by supporting inclusive economic growth across the UK.

Despite representing areas responsible for a quarter of the UK’s economy and nearly a third of exports, city leaders have played little part in the development of the government’s approach to Brexit. Cities want a dialogue with the government on their Brexit plans and a new settlement which sees power passing from central government to local communities.

To help us deliver a Brexit that works for the UK’s cities, we are opening a dialogue with the EU Commission’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to share our views of the Brexit process and what our cities want to achieve.

Most of the changes the Core Cities want to see can already be delivered by the UK. To address the fact that the productivity of UK cities lags behind competitors, we need to think differently and begin to address the structural problems in our economy before Brexit.

International evidence shows that cities which have the most control over taxes raised in their area tend to be the most productive.  The UK is significantly out of step with international competitors in the power given to cities and we are one of the most centralised countries in the world.  


Boosting the productivity of the UK’s Core Cities to the UK national average would increase the country’s national income by £70-£90bn a year. This would be a critical boost to the UK’s post-Brexit economic success.

Our green paper is clear that one-size fits all policy solutions simply can’t deal with the complexities of 21st century Britain. We need a place-based approach that looks at challenges and solutions in a different way, focused on the particular needs of local communities and local economies.

For example, our Core Cities face levels of unemployment higher than the national average, but also face shortages of skilled workers.  We need a more localised approach to skills, education and employment support with greater involvement from local democratic and business leaderships to deliver the skills to support growth in each area.

The UK will only make a success of Brexit if we are able to increase our international trade. Evidence shows city to city networks play an important role in boosting international trade.  The green paper calls for a new partnership with the Department of International trade to develop an Urban Trade programme across the UK’s cities and give cities more of a role in international trade missions.

To deliver economic growth that includes all areas of the UK, we also need to invest in our infrastructure. Not just our physical infrastructure of roads, rail telecommunications and so forth, but also our health, education and care infrastructure, ensuring that we are able to unlock the potential of our core assets, our people.

Whether you think that Brexit is a positive or a negative thing for the UK, it is clear that the process will be a challenging one.  Cities have a key role to play in delivering a good Brexit: one that sees local communities empowered and economic prosperity across all areas of the UK.

Cllr Judith Blake is leader of Leeds City Council.