Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
February 4, 2008
Dialogue helps save affordable housing
The story did not grab front page headlines in the Edmonton media. But the agreement worked out among the owners of the Strathearn Heights apartments, the development's tenants' committee and Habitat for Humanity to provide affordable housing in the redevelopment of Strathearn Heights should be a landmark in community redevelopment.
When the owners of the current 504-unit development announced they wanted the site rezoned for a 1,750-unit development with four high rise towers and more than 300 townhouses, it threatened the existence of aging, but well-maintained and affordable rentable housing near downtown Edmonton. Where would the residents, most of relatively modest means, find similarly-priced housing in a city where rents were skyrocketing and vacancies were few?
Instead of playing hardball with the developer, the tenants association, aided by the Greater Edmonton Alliance, tried to find a way to have a high percentage of affordable housing in the new proposed development. It seemed unlikely. But it worked. On Jan. 25, the groups announced an agreement by which the new development will include up to 450 units for low-income tenants. In return, the tenants association will support the developers' rezoning application before city council.
Habitat for Humanity will play a major role in the proposed development, having agreed to take up to 150 units to sell to low-to-modest income working families. The other 200 to 300 "affordable" units will receive rental subsidies from various levels of government.
(Full disclosure: The WCR editor is also president of the Assumption Parish Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which publicly supported the tenants' association in their efforts to preserve affordable housing on the site.)
The Strathearn agreement is a model of how the community and a developer can work together for the common good. It is a living example of Catholic social teaching in action and can provide an example for other older urban areas where redevelopment is a possibility.
Affordable housing is becoming rare throughout Alberta because of a booming economy. Housing prices are beyond the reach of many young couples and rents have spiralled well out of the range of low-income families. Numerous apartment complexes have been turned into condominiums as owners seek to make a quick profit.
But the Strathearn agreement shows that private enterprise can be marshalled to serve the common good without government controlling the process. The best the Alberta government has been able to come up with on this issue is a subsidy scheme for low-income tenants, which is really a subsidy to usurious landlords.
The Strathearn model will not eliminate the need for government regulation and assistance to ensure decent quality housing is available for all. But it does show that, at least in some cases, cooperation can win out over conflict.
Also to be noted in this initiative is the role of the Greater Edmonton Alliance, a broadly-based community organization with roots in churches and unions that lobbies for greater social justice in the city. The Strathearn model would not have happened without GEA, which saw the importance of the issue and had the expertise to build an agreement.
GEA is only a few years old, but through its grassroots organizing it is already beginning to make a difference in Edmonton on issues such as housing, workplace justice and the availability of locally-produced food. It is showing that, in many ways, ordinary people and corporate power can work together to create greater social responsibility.
In these times, when there are so many reminders of human folly and corporate greed, GEA is a living example that there can be a better way.
- Glen Argan
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