Edmonton made a historic move on housing the other day when it allowed duplexes to be built anywhere in the last remaining neighbourhoods.
The change effectively eliminates single-family only zoning. But it slipped quietly under the radar.
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, council voted for pretty much the same thing, allowing up to a triplex on low-density lots across the city. But it blew up because of national coverage. It was a huge debate, supported by a “Neighbours for more neighbours” campaign that had pundits wondering if it will blaze a path for housing reform across the United States.
Why? Probably because Minneapolis did the equivalent of pulling the band-aid off quickly, jumping on infill and towers near transit to create affordable housing and reduce the city’s environmental footprint.
So it’s worth pausing a moment to realize Edmonton is slowly doing the same thing.
But in Edmonton it’s evolution, not revolution. I’ve heard that so often I roll my eyes, but it’s true. Small steps toward density and affordability over the last decade are, in hindsight, taking this city a long way.
The vote at a public hearing on Dec. 10 — during a short break from the budget debate — was to allow duplex and semi-detached housing as a permitted use in RF1 zones, not just on corners and at the discretion of development officers. That’s for the zone still called Single Detached Residential Zone, the most common in Edmonton.
Previous changes allow owners to build secondary or garage suites. Add those up and it’s three or four units, equivalent to the triplex in Minneapolis.
It means there is no single-family zone in Edmonton.
No one spoke against the change at the council meeting. The vote to approve it was unanimous.
Even the community leagues were in favour. Elaine Solez, who worked with the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues on the issue, said they would rather have one two-unit building that’s a similar size to others on the street than two skinny homes.
This is historic if you consider the ugly roots of Edmonton’s Euclidean Zoning system.
According to planning historian Peter Hall, the first zoning came to North America in 1916 and quickly spread as a way to maintain and increase the financial value of property. It’s called Euclidean after a small village outside Cleveland, Ohio, which created a zone where only single-family homes of a minimum size could be built.
Anyone who couldn’t afford that — mainly black people and immigrants — were to be “pressed down into the low-lying land adjacent to the industrial area, congested in two-family residences and apartments,” according to a real estate company that challenged the zoning in court.
They won the first battle. The lower court found the rules unfairly discriminated on the basis of wealth.
But the case made Euclid famous when the village appealed. In 1926, the American Supreme Court ruled in favour of the village. It said zoning simply allowed the city to regulate what came “very close to being nuisances.”
Say what? That doesn’t make sense — a house with two units by itself is not a nuisance.
University of Maryland law professor Garrett Power argues what really happened was a panel of elite judges found a way to continue racial segregation without admitting to it, keeping everything and everybody in their place. Euclidean Zoning then flourished across North America.
Today, many objections to amending zoning laws are simply resistance to change, said University of Alberta planner Robert Summers, but elitism and class-based prejudice are still undercurrents on social media.
Of course, there are benefits to zoning. Keeping industrial smokestacks away from homes is a good thing. Concentrating affordable and luxury towers close to an LRT station or shopping centre gives more people access.
But when it comes to low-density zones, it doesn’t make sense to regulate how many people live in a house. I care about the shape, the shadowing and blank walls. I don’t care if people living in smaller suites are more likely to rent. I don’t care if they earn a lower income. I simply don’t see a rational basis for discriminating based on wealth.
Council is going further. It already approved in principle letting homeowners build both a secondary suite and a garage suite, as well as tiny homes and, in some zones, tiny apartments. Big picture, it’s looking at moving away from Euclidean Zoning to a set of rules that primarily regulate the shape of the building — not who or what is done inside.
They may even adopt flex housing, said Mayor Don Iveson while reflecting on the December vote Friday. That’s where the number of units changes as families need rental income, accommodate growing children and aging parents. “This was a really important step. More flexibility is better.”
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