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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Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.