July 17th, 2024

‘Strong Towns’ need to think small, long term, its leader says

By COLLIN GALLANT on November 29, 2023.

Charles Marohn, founder of Strong Towns, discusses his urban planning group's analysis of barriers to affordable housing in North American cities at the Esplanade Theatre on Tuesday night in Medicine Hat. Another workshop with the group - which is in the middle of a consulting contract with the City of Medicine Hat - is planned for Wednesday.--News Photo Collin Gallant


Medicine Hat can’t do much to change macroeconomic aspects of the housing affordability crisis, but can do a better job of thinking both small and long term, says the head of a consultancy group working with the city.

Charles Marohn leads the “Strong Towns” urban planning initiative that advises cities on issues like tax base, long-term infrastructure needs and development planning.

He told about 100 attendees at the Esplanade Theatre on Tuesday that lowering regulation on redevelopment projects and building a culture of “incremental” development would add units, lower barriers to housing, add value for property owners and strengthen city finances through low-cost assessment growth.

“There’s two conversations going on right now that are parallel and don’t overlap,” he said to begin his 90-minute talk. “There’s house as an investment conversation and a house as shelter conversation.”

“So, how do you create more housing at an affordable scale?”

Strong Towns was engaged by the city in late 2021 after Mayor Linnsie Clark called for better assessment of long-term liabilities related to infrastructure upkeep and replacement as the city continued to grow in suburban areas over the last two decades.

“The solution is not going to come down from on high from the federal or provincial governments stepping in,” Clark said during her introduction. “They need to be home grown to meet local needs.”

Marohn began the evening arguing that the housing market had become a servant of financial markets, and the 2008 credit crisis led to a general fall-off of new home construction, which coincided with the “millennial generation” entering their prime working and home-buying years.

Now, 15 years later, existing homeowners who don’t want prices to fall are at odds with younger buyers who face high prices compared to wages.

Canada avoided a major housing price correction in what’s called the “sub-prime” bubble in the U.S., said Marohn, but prices continued to climb. They have now surpassed U.S. home prices. That as well causes barrier to entry.

He argued that mortgage-lenders favour whole home loans over renovations or additions, or small apartment projects in favour of large ones.

As well, he said, large housing projects backed by government grants would add to the inflationary cycle in home prices.

“The housing that needs to be built is not the type that large developers can deliver,” he said.

“We have a housing shortage and house prices are too high, but also homes that are boarded up and not being used,” said Marohn. “(Instead) we have housing being built that doesn’t meet local need because the market is responding to macro-economic forces.”

Last spring the group outlined its call to allow “by right” up-zoning for density, whereby medium-density housing would be allowed in a low-density zone, but not a leap to high-density projects.

Marohn also called for lower fees and regulatory requirements for existing homeowners in central mature neighbourhoods to add rooms or storeys to homes, backyard or accessory suites and creative financing methods.

Medicine Hat already allows duplexes as a permitted use in low-density residential zones, backyard suites and secondary suites as discretionary.

Another “Strong Towns” workshop focused on home affordability is planned for Wednesday afternoon at the Medicine Hat Public Library.

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