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Calgary city hall set for largest-ever public hearing as blanket rezoning debate arrives at council

Calgary city council is bracing to hear from hundreds of people during what’s anticipated to be the city’s largest public hearing — ever — on Monday. 

The highly anticipated hearing is centred around blanket rezoning and a strategy the city hopes will improve housing affordability, but a number of communities worry it will fundamentally change the character of their neighbourhoods. 

Nearly 650 people had signed up to speak as of Thursday, with an additional 5,155 written submissions.

“This has become connected to some of the pretty deep polarization that’s out there,” said Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal University’s policy studies department.

“This has become a bit of a flashpoint.”

So how did Calgary get here?

In 2022, the City of Calgary developed the Housing and Affordability Task Force. The proposal for blanket rezoning was one of the group’s recommendations and it became a key part of the city’s housing strategy, which was approved in September 2023.

Much of the controversy surrounding the strategy, if it’s approved, centres on the fact that it would allow for different housing types, such as townhomes and six-plexes, to be built in neighbourhoods that currently only allow single-family homes.

The city says that blanket rezoning is a response to missing-middle housing, meaning that there’s a gap in available housing options for those hoping to upgrade from an apartment, but not quite ready for a single-family home.

A woman walks past a multi-family townhouse project in Inglewood.
A multi-family housing development in Inglewood. The city’s new housing strategy would see zoning rules change to allow for townhomes and row houses in all residential areas in Calgary. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

According to the city’s Housing Needs Assessment, approximately 84,600 Calgary households were forced to shell out more than 30 per cent of their total income on housing in 2021, meaning that one in five households struggled to afford their housing costs.

As a response to this 2023 report, city council held a three-day public hearing in September, where 162 residents shared their concerns about the housing crisis. 

This marathon meeting resulted in councillors voting 12-3 in favour of a new plan for housing, knowing that blanket rezoning — in other words, amending the land-use bylaws — was part of that pitch.

But before the zoning bylaws can be amended, the new plan has to go through this week’s public hearing process. 

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek told CBC News on Thursday that council needs to listen.

“When you have decisions that are a yes or no vote, there are people that feel like they’ve won and people that feel like they’ve lost, whether it’s the public or whether it’s members of council,” said Gondek. 

“I think the most important thing to remember on this item is: are we doing the right thing for the future of our city? Are we ensuring that we will have the housing supply that we need? That is the number-one thing that we need to address.”

But many residents think the city is on the wrong track with its blanket solution.

70% of respondents opposed

In the city’s What We Heard report released in mid-April following public engagement on upzoning, residents raised a number of key themes they hope the city will consider before voting on the proposed rezoning. 

The report included comments from 1,050 participants at nine project information sessions, 465 participants from various webinars and 4,959 comments from 3,930 participants through the city’s online engagement portal.

The majority of the comments they received were from people opposed to the proposal to amend the city’s land-use bylaws. Approximately 70 per cent of the feedback the city received expressed concern about rezoning, while the remaining 30 per cent were in favour.

What’s more, 52 community associations have signed a letter to the city in opposition to the proposal.

a red and white flyer from the city of calgary.
The City of Calgary sent flyers to residents advising them how to participate in the public hearing. (Lily Dupuis/CBC)

Proponents of the rezoning say it’s a step toward addressing the strain on housing demand by creating greater supply, improving affordability and densifying neighbourhoods to improve the local economy. 

Concerns raised by opponents of the land-use change include worries about its effect on available parking and the character of their neighbourhoods, as well as the impact of the rezoning on property values. Many opponents also say it won’t address the immediate issue of housing affordability.

Legal action from concerned citizens

City council has been grappling with how to navigate this contentious topic since it was first proposed. 

Back in March, six councillors proposed sending the issue to a plebiscite — which would mean Calgarians could vote on rezoning during the October 2025 municipal election. That idea was eventually torpedoed following an 8-6 vote.

On Friday, two citizens opposed to the blanket rezoning applied for a judicial review of city council’s decision to not hold a plebiscite on the issue. 

Robert Lehodey, one of the co-applicants, believes a plebiscite would have given Calgarians the opportunity to have their say. 

He says the goal of this application for a judicial review would be for a court to examine the process of determining not to hold a plebiscite and “shine a spotlight on council’s failure.”

Lehodey is a retired lawyer who has lived in Calgary since he was in high school. He believes that Calgary’s elected officials aren’t capable of being persuaded by the people they represent. 

“Let’s face it, people bought their homes in R-C1 and R-C2 communities. They did it based on the rules that existed around zoning,” he told CBC News on Friday. “To change those rules … unilaterally, without the input of Calgarians, is frankly inappropriate on the part of council.”

a collage of five images show different housing types.
Different zoning examples in various communities around Calgary, according to images from the city’s website. (City of Calgary)

Lehodey, who lives in a single-family home in southwest Calgary, says that this proposal, if passed, would strip rights from property owners. 

“The city councillors will also dress this up and say, ‘This is a housing crisis, and this is going to make housing more affordable,’ and frankly it’s not about those issues. That’s how they’re dressing it up,” said Lehodey.

“What this is about is taking away a fundamental right of property owners.”

Recently, there have been worries the debate over the issue could boil over into something more. 

Last month, two walking tours organized by the city to show people examples of what mixed-use residential blocks look like were cancelled due to safety concerns, according to organizers.

Ward 12 Coun. Evan Spencer says he’s noticed his constituents’ frustrations.

“I’m certainly worried about the position this puts both the planning department and council in,” Spencer said. 

“We’re going to have a lot of work to do if this passes. And even if not, this is a massive reputational hit to the City of Calgary right now when we really don’t need it.”

A group of people stand on outdoor stair steps and smile for a photo.
City council poses after Jyoti Gondek was sworn in as the new mayor of Calgary on Oct. 25, 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Spencer conducted his own survey in Ward 12, the results of which suggested this isn’t a popular idea among the respondents.

He says he’s excited for the public hearing to showcase more information about the proposal to rezone.

Case-by-case basis

Currently, rezoning happens when a property owner applies for a change to build something other than what their local zoning allows. 

City council makes the final decision on whether to approve or refuse a rezoning application after a public hearing. If approved, the applicant can then submit a development permit application with their specific plan. 

Right now, the city says 95 per cent of rezoning applications that come through the council chamber are approved. 

When it comes to this new proposal, blanket rezoning would mean that areas currently zoned for only single or semi-detached homes will be rezoned to R-CG, R-G or H-GO, which would allow for townhomes and row houses. But proposed developments would still need to go through the city’s development permit and approval processes.

This rezoning would not mean that apartment buildings would be allowed on the rezoned land. Further, new single and semi-detached homes would still be allowed to be built. The city also says that no parks will be redeveloped for housing as a result of this rezoning proposal. 

Josh White, Calgary’s director of city and regional planning, says that about two-thirds of the city’s land base is currently zoned for single-detached homes. Under Calgary’s current land use rules, a single-detached home could only be replaced with another home of the same type.

White told the CBC podcast This is Calgary that the citywide rezoning proposal is a necessary step toward solving the city’s housing crunch.

LISTEN | This is Calgary hears about the pros and cons of blanket rezoning: 

This is Calgary19:50We need to talk about blanket zoning, Calgary

City council is about to decide if it wants to make it simpler to knock down a bungalow and build a row house. This could help ease the affordability crunch, and could lead to neighbourhoods that don’t look like they were intended to. With emotion on all sides, we hear from a community opposed, and why the city says it’s time to get cozy with this blanket.

But some say there’s still an opportunity for compromise.

“There are certainly strong views on both sides,” Williams said.

Williams says city council has an opportunity to get creative with how they can find middle ground between the various sides of this debate.

“We’re getting a pretty large influx of new residents on a daily basis, and that affects all kinds of folks in all kinds of parts in the city,” she said. 

Lori Williams
Lori Williams, a political scientist and Mount Royal University professor, says city council has an opportunity to get creative with how they navigate rezoning following the public hearing. (Colin Hall/CBC)

“I think there is a need to try to address the problem now, and to do so in a way that is less time-consuming than the current process is. And then it’s just a matter of exploring and trying to find something that allows for concerned residents to voice concerns about particular proposals for housing changes.”

Federal funds 

Funding from the federal government could also be at stake if this proposal doesn’t go through.

Announced near the end of last year, the federal government agreed to give $228 million to Calgary over a four-year period for the construction of 6,800 new homes as part of the Housing Accelerator Fund.

After being sent a letter from the federal minister of Housing, Infrastructure and Communities, Gondek took to X, formerly known as Twitter, to express concerns that Ottawa wouldn’t fund the city’s housing strategy unless zoning laws were changed. 

Gondek told CBC News on Friday that anything is still possible when it comes to the rezoning proposal.

“I would remind everyone that even if this rezoning goes through, this is incremental change. The city is not coming to knock down homes and put up something else. It is still up to the property owner,” she said.

“For the neighbourhoods that are saying there’s no one on my street or in my neighbourhood that wants this, well then you’ll see no change.”

She believes the city has not acted fast enough when it comes to creating relief for the housing crisis within the past year.

In a news release sent Thursday, the city says the public hearing will extend over multiple days because of how many speakers are expected. 

“There are many Calgarians who think it’s a good idea. There are many Calgarians who are incredibly concerned about this,” said Gondek. 

“I’m looking forward to listening to everyone and understanding how we make the best move.”

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