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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Budget 2017: Philip Hammond just showed that rejecting metro mayors was a terrible, terrible error

Sorry, Leeds, nothing here for you: Philip Hammond and his big red box. Image: Getty.

There were some in England’s cities, one sensed, who breathed a sigh of relief when George Osborne left the Treasury. Not only was he the architect of austerity, a policy which had seen council budgets slashed as never before: he’d also refused to countenance any serious devolution to city regions that refused to have a mayor, an innovation that several remained dead-set against.

So his political demise after the Brexit referendum was seen, in some quarters, as A Good Thing for devolution. The new regime, it was hoped, would be amenable to a variety of governance structures more sensitive to particular local needs.

Well, that theory just went out of the window. In his Budget statement today, in between producing some of the worst growth forecasts that anyone can remember and failing to solve the housing crisis, chancellor Philip Hammond outlined some of the things he was planning for Britain’s cities.

And, intentionally or otherwise, he made it very clear that it was those areas which had accepted Osborne’s terms which were going to win out. 

The big new announcement was a £1.7bn “Transforming Cities Fund”, which will

“target projects which drive productivity by improving connectivity, reducing congestion and utilising new mobility services and technology”.

To translate this into English, this is cash for better public transport.

And half of this money will go straight to the six city regions which last May elected their first metro mayor elections. The money is being allocated on a per capita basis which, in descending order of generosity, means:

  • £250m to West Midlands
  • £243 to Greater Manchester
  • £134 to Liverpool City Region
  • £80m to West of England
  • £74m to Cambridgeshire &d Peterborough
  • £59m to Tees Valley

That’s £840m accounted for. The rest will be available to other cities – but the difference is, they’ll have to bid for it.

So the Tees Valley, which accepted Osborne’s terms, will automatically get a chunk of cash to improve their transport system. Leeds, which didn’t, still has to go begging.

One city which doesn’t have to go begging is Newcastle. Hammond promised to replace the 40 year old trains on the Tyne & Wear metro at a cost of £337m. In what may or may not be a coincidence, he also confirmed a new devolution deal with the “North of Tyne” region (Newcastle, North Tyne, Northumberland). This is a faintly ridiculous geography for such a deal, since it excludes Sunderland and, worse, Gateshead, which is, to most intents and purposes, simply the southern bit of Newcastle. But it’s a start, and will bring £600m more investment to the region. A new mayor will be elected in 2018.

Hammond’s speech contained other goodies for cites too, of course. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • £123m for the regeneration of the Redcar Steelworks site: that looks like a sop to Ben Houchen, the Tory who unexpectedly won the Tees Valley mayoral election last May;
  • A second devolution deal for the West Midlands: tat includes more money for skills and housing (though the sums are dwarfed by the aforementioned transport money);
  • A new local industrial strategy for Greater Manchester, as well as exploring “options for the future beyond the Fund, including land value capture”;
  • £300m for rail improvements tied into HS2, which “will enable faster services between Liverpool and Manchester, Sheffeld, Leeds and York, as well as to Leicester and other places in the East Midlands and London”.

Hammond also made a few promises to cities beyond England: opening negotiations for a Belfast City Deal, and pointing to progress on city deals in Dundee and Stirling.


A city that doesn’t get any big promises out of this budget is – atypically – London. Hammond promised to “continue to work with TfL on the funding and financing of Crossrail 2”, but that’s a long way from promising to pay for it. He did mention plans to pilot 100 per cent business rate retention in the capital next year, however – which, given the value of property in London, is potentially quite a big deal.

So at least that’s something. And London, as has often been noted, has done very well for itself in most budgets down the year.

Many of the other big regional cities haven’t. Yet Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby were all notable for their absence, both from Hammond’s speech and from the Treasury documents accompanying it.

And not one of them has a devolution deal or a metro mayor.

(If you came here looking for my thoughts on the housing element of the budget speech, then you can find them over at the New Statesman. Short version: oh, god.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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