How much is too much?

Q. We know that quality affordable housing is a solution, and not a problem.  But is it possible to build too many units of affordable housing in the same community?  When does it become unhealthy for both the local community and the low-income tenant?  What does the research say?

A. It’s complicated and direct research in the Edmonton context is scarce, but here at least is a partial answer we have discerned based on the research available on related topics:

The central concern in the placement of new units of affordable housing in a neighbourhood is that it may push an already-impoverished community towards a higher level of poverty, crossing a tipping point that could prompt a steep decline in the local economy, with a corresponding rise in negative behaviors and stigma.

Here are some key numbers currently at play here in Edmonton:

  • The need is strong:  Approxiately one in four Edmonton households pay more than 30% of their monthly income to rent.  More than 20,000 Edmonton households pay over 50% of their income toward the rent.  Some of these are paying more than 60%, with waiting lists for help taking as long as three years.
  • To respond to these housing challenges, the City of Edmonton is considering a target of 16% non-market housing in every neighbourhood.
  • Ten neighbourhoods in Edmonton have more than 16% of their housing stock as non-market.  Over two hundred and fifty Edmonton neighbourhoods have between 0-5% non-market housing.
  • Several Edmonton communities experience higher levels of poverty, as can be seen by the following map breaking down statistics from federal census tracts.

LICO levels edmonton

Our research suggests the following answer:

  1. A 16% guideline for distribution of affordable housing across Edmonton is not high, and in itself poses no threat to neighbourhood vitality.
  2. If non-market housing developers and communities were to no longer develop additional affordable housing in communities with more than 30% low income (a recognized tipping point in the American context), the research says these would be would be very safe and conservative parameters within which to protect the health and vibrancy of the local neighbourhood.

Key observations supporting our findings:

  1. In the American context, when a community reaches 30-40% low-income, it usually begins to experience a steep decline.  However Canadian communities are much more resilient than American Cities (for reasons that include easier access to supports and the availability of Universal Health Care) and so those numbers would be significantly higher here; with a conservative guess being somewhere between 40-50% before comparable negative impacts begin to accrue.  A 30% guideline applied in the Edmonton context would thus be a very safe and conservative working threshold.
  2. The research shows little correlation between rates of non-market housing and neighbourhood distress here in Edmonton.  However, poverty, demographics, employment rate etc. are known to be real stressors and pose significant challenges to neighbourhood health.  In most cases, the provision of non-market housing is a critical part of the solution to stabilize people and communities. However, in communities with very high levels of poverty (over 40%) and other demographic stressors it is possible the addition of new units could become a negative for both the tenant and the local community.
  3. The 16% suggested target is not high when one considers the practice of other jurisdictions with social safety nets comparable to Canada.  For example: the floating city of Ijburg in the Netherlands is intentionally designed with 30% Social housing, 30% home ownership, and 40% market rental on each block.  The Netherlands has been intentionally designing communities with a steady integration of non-market and mixed-income housing developments since WWII.

Acknowledging Complicating Factors

  1. Strict enforcement might hinder renewal efforts.  Sometimes communities with high levels of poverty are home to large numbers of low-end market housing, with a sizable group of neighbours paying more than they afford.  In these communities, the creation of quality affordable housing could be a critical tool for renewal; directly assisting local households with meaningful help.   A strict enforcement of the rule may prevent a helpful tool from being used.  So informed reflection, conversation and discernment is recommended as guidelines are reached.
  2. The culture of the local community matters:  the posture of neighbours to each other is significant.  There are many communities around the world that experience high levels of poverty (especially compared to the Canadian context), but have a culture of neighbouring that emphasizes cooperation and interdependence.  Strong local cohesion and community values that emphasize inclusion, hospitality and cooperation contribute greatly to a community’s health and resilience.
  3. Access to services is important.  Low-income households generally require access to services such as transit, daycare, grocery stores and local clinics.  These resources are not usually in place prior to a demonstrated need, and so will sometimes need to be developed in response.  Critical to any such development effort is having willing local partners to advocate and generate support to meet these needs.  Some neighbourhoods will have these structures in place ahead of time, which is a great advantage for new tenants.

To visit our more detailed exploration of this question, see: How much is too much question – research review

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