Solving the community housing gap in Alberta

March 1, 2024
A view of the Rocky Mountains over the city of Calgary.

After a heated battle of words amid mid-January's plummeting temperatures, Edmonton’s city council declared an emergency on housing and houselessness.

In the cities of Edmonton and Calgary, there are almost 6,000 unhoused people, with the number of deaths in the unhoused population nearly doubling from 2022 to 2023.

Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said 301 people died last year as a result of being unhoused, up from 156 in 2022. The situation is even more dire in Calgary, where 436 lives were lost to houselessness last year, according to the Calgary Homeless Foundation, up from 239 in 2022.

Meanwhile, Alberta’s growing population faces a housing supply gap of 130,000 to 170,000 dwelling units, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s September 2023 projections for 2030.

To address the issues faced by people experiencing or at risk of houselessness, closing that gap with the right kind of housing is key.

Alberta needs 43,800 community housing units by 2030, according to a recent study by Deloitte and the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association.

That’s only six years from now and is a 47% increase in community housing.

Housing First with supportive housing

Building more housing will help avoid needless deaths, save taxpayers money, and improve people's health.

In 2016, the Mental Health Commission of Canada completed the world’s largest Housing First trial in five Canadian cities (Vancouver, Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Moncton). Called At Home/Chez Soi, the project engaged with 2,000 participants for two years, and the results were encouraging, to say the least.

The final report says Housing First participants found housing and stayed housed at a much higher rate than the control group, who received standard treatment. “Among participants who were housed, housing quality was usually better and more consistent in Housing First residences than treatment as usual residences,” the report said.

The model was a good investment, with the report stating that “every $10 invested in Housing First services resulted in an average savings of $21.72.” The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates that houselessness in Canada costs $7 billion per year.

This report isn’t the only place to look for Housing First success and guidance: Since the 1980s, following the Finnish constitution's inclusion of the right to housing, Finland has reduced houselessness by 80% — a result unparalleled in other countries and one that Y-Foundation CEO Teija Ojankoski says came down to political will.

Y-Foundation is a Finnish non-profit that seeks to end homelessness. Ojankoski was part of a panel hosted in January 2024 by the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa, discussing what lessons could be learned from Finland’s success.

In 2007, Finland integrated the “Housing First Model,” where homes are prioritized for people before addressing other medical conditions such as addiction or mental health problems. Once people have secure, long-term housing, addressing other issues is easier.

Notably, the model tested in At Home/Chez Soi and the Finnish Housing First model doesn’t stop at only providing shelter — both provide community-based support and treatment services to help people move forward with their lives positively.

Increasing productive capacity for supportive housing

Canada’s Federal Minister of Housing, Infrastructure, and Communities Sean Fraser was also part of the Alliance to End Homelessness panel. While Canada has jurisdictional challenges, Minister Fraser said he sees opportunities to eliminate houselessness in the country.

"We are going to run into a bottleneck when it comes to productive capacity,” Fraser said. “Factory construction is staring us in the face."

While Finland is known for its success with Housing First, neighbouring Sweden has leveraged more factory-built construction for new housing and has done so for 80 years. 

Modular construction, where modules are constructed in a factory and then delivered to the site, allows projects to be completed up to 50% faster than stick-build methods. Site work can be done while the building is being constructed, and the factory setting creates opportunities for in-house efficiencies.

Despite its benefits, modular construction has been underutilized across Canada for decades, producing less than 2% of new construction homes. Less than a third of Canadian homes are built using some form of prefabricated components, compared to 84% of homes in Sweden.

An organization working hard to house many vulnerable people is the Alberta Seniors & Community Housing Association. ASCHA currently represents approximately 75% of the seniors housing sector in Alberta, and its members serve more than 40,000 seniors across the province in independent, supportive and designated supportive living spaces.

Irene Martin-Lindsay, Executive Director of ASCHA, also thinks modular construction might be a means to solve the housing crisis faster.

“We need to look at every possible option and be creative,” she told Chris Brown of Cross Border Interviews. We need to act fast, and we need to stay the course. We can’t think we’ve fixed one thing and stop because that’s what got us here in the first place.”

Taking action: Building community housing and complete communities

Housing First can save lives and improve health outcomes, and modular construction is a solution to provide more housing faster — but it also needs to be done at scale.

In December 2023, the City of Calgary hosted a half-day conference for organizations that serve Calgarians across the housing continuum. In the keynote speech, urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat said one of the foundational concepts to solving a housing crisis is to use land better and to do so at scale.

“We need to look within our urban boundaries and the areas where we already have roads and water and parks and transit, and we need to figure out how to use that land better,” said Keesmaat, who is the Managing Partner with Markee Developments, CEO of the Keesmaat Group, and the former chief city planner with the City of Toronto. 

Building 10 or 20 affordable housing units at a time will not move the needle when Alberta needs tens of thousands of new units in the next six years.

“Using public land to deliver at scale is a fundamentally different way of thinking,” Keesmaat said. “It’s about thinking really big.”

She also said builder partnerships are key to succeeding with this new paradigm because housing development is difficult.

Unlocking scale with land for modular

When Canadian cities and towns contribute land, particularly land suited for modular construction, it can unlock opportunities for non-profit organizations and co-ops to deliver new housing by the hundreds.

Unlocking that kind of scale with modular starts from sourcing the right land in the pre-development stage.

“With volumetric modular construction, each module takes up three-dimensional space, and repeatable designs at scale are key to achieving project feasibility,” said Big Block’s VP of Community Development Nick Sackville. “Land that is too small isn’t efficient, because you’ll need to customize an entirely new module to fit it, which adds time and expense, negating the benefits of this type of modular construction.”

“We’ve seen quickest traction and successful outcomes in projects when working with parcels that are about half an acre and larger,” Sackville said.

Solving the community housing gap in Alberta will take a concerted effort between many different organizations, communities and governments. 

Big Block is a development partner with experience supporting non-profit developers and community-based operators to deliver more community housing faster. We’ve developed 34 projects, totalling over 1600 units, alongside numerous housing providers. Developments have included townhouses, stacked townhouses, and multiple low- to mid-rise building options, including underground parking structures.

With the roll-out of the federal Housing Accelerator Fund, Sackville says municipalities in Alberta and across the country are laying the groundwork needed to create significant change. As more land opportunities and financial incentives become available, now is the time for housing providers to take action on building their portfolio.

Key dates and upcoming deadlines for community housing development in Alberta:

Nick’s advice?

“Reach out to Big Block about your next project before you dive into development permitting – vetting your parcel and concept for modular feasibility early on is key. Our team can help.”

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