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Calgary couple pushes for affordable housing solution as feds approve application for accelerator funds

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Dima Aldahouk and Ousama Juha moved to Calgary from Syria in 2017 hoping for a better life, but the couple and their two children could be homeless by the end of the month. 

Aldahouk and Juha, who both require wheelchairs, say when their lease ends on Sep. 30, they will be forced to live in their car or on the streets.

Despite the federal government's approval of  the City of Calgary's application for Housing Accelerator Fund, the pending investment won't come soon enough to be of use for Aldahouk and Juha. 

"Where are our human rights?" asked Aldahouk. "All of the governments say we have rights for people with disabilities, but in a few days, we will be on the streets.

"I spent so much time going to several organizations and they said to me, 'When you are homeless, come back.'

"I tried to find accessible housing and nothing. I called Calgary Housing, they said they couldn't help because they have 6000 families on the waiting list. We are a family of four, three of us are in wheelchairs and we still have to wait."

Aldahouk, a former table-tennis champion, says that she and her husband are perfectly capable of completing daily tasks like driving their kids to school, cooking and cleaning.

One thing that is always a constant struggle, however, is the stairs in their house.

"We can't find an accessible home at all," said Aldahouk. "Most of the landlords or homeowners won't even rent to us."

"Many people tell me that if I don't like it, I should just 'go back to my country,' but I'm not here to go back. This is a safe country, a country of freedom, of human rights, where is my right to live in a home? I cry all day climbing the stairs up and down and we fall all the time."

As for Juha, he says his health is deteriorating the longer he and his family have to wait for a home that suits their needs.

"I am in so much pain with my shoulders and my elbows, and I'm worried that this isn't going to end. Landlords won't let us modify homes," he said.

"We tried getting a mortgage, we tried to buy a house, we've saved our money, but we weren't accepted so if the government can look at ways to help people with disabilities or come up with some sort of program…. that would be amazing."

'MILLIONS OF DOLLARS' ON THE WAY FOR AFFORDABLE CALGARY HOMES

The City of Calgary has been given the thumbs up from Ottawa to receive a yet-to-be disclosed amount of federal funding to invest in new housing as part of the Housing Accelerator Fund.

In a letter Thursday to Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek, federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser said the application was successful.

It comes after Fraser had informed city council a week prior that in order to receive funding from the federal government, he 'would need to see an end to exclusionary zoning city-wide.'

"I understand that council formally adopted the plan at your special meeting on Sept. 16, 2023," read a portion of Fraser's letter. 

"As a result, I am pleased to inform you that Calgary will be receiving funding under the Housing Accelerator Fund."

Fraser added that a representative from the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) would soon be in touch with additional details for the city about its agreement. 

Member of Parliament for Calgary-Skyview George Chahal was also mentioned in the letter as a strong advocate for the approval of funding for Calgary.

Ottawa is targeting a goal of building 100,000 new middle-class homes nationwide by 2024-25.

London, Ont., was the first city to be approved under the new program, receiving $74 million to develop 2,000 homes. 

Chahal was tight-lipped on how much money the city will receive.

"I think Calgary is going to be set up very nicely with the recent housing taskforce approvals to get millions of dollars to build thousands of units," he said.

"I'm looking forward in the near future to have Minister Fraser here and also to be with the City of Calgary to make this big announcement at the appropriate time when the funding is approved."

Chahal added that the recent introduction of the GST rebate on purpose-built rentals will also facilitate the building of thousands of homes, but he says more support is still needed.

"We do need the provincial government to step up to support more for this affordable housing funding, but also to repair the units that they own," he said.

"The City of Calgary for too long has borne the burden of provincial housing units that are in disrepair, which is affecting thousands of Calgarians. We need to work together with all levels of government to build more housing."

BLANKET REZONING TO TAKE 'MONTH'S OF CONSULTATION'

Calgary city council voted 12-3 in favour of its Housing Strategy last weekend, which includes a plan for reducing red tape through blanket rezoning of residential districts to allow for more housing types.

The plan features 80 recommendations and will dictate the city's housing market from 2024 to 2030.

Ward 10 Coun. Andre Chabot voted in favour of the plan, but admitted he wasn't in favour of rezoning neighbourhoods, a process that could now take months to fully approve.

"I didn't want to hold back any potential funding from the federal housing minister by voting against this proposal, because ultimately, the decision is not even close to being made yet," said Chabot.

"Typically, for something of this nature, something that's so comprehensive, of course, you have to remember you have to send letters and notifications to 400,000 plus residents. So just the communications piece and the period on how that's going to happen, will take, I imagine, between six to eight months."

The proposal for blanket rezoning to R-CG in Calgary still requires public engagement and council deliberation before any changes could come into effect to legalize new missing-middle housing zoning designations.

Currently, more than 60 per cent of residential properties in Calgary are zoned to only allow single family homes as a default.

This recommendation now asks to change the default zoning type to RC-G, which would allow for single family homes, but also different housing types.

Missing-middle housing refers to buildings such as duplexes and row houses, which can increase density. Such rezoning changes would redesignate portions of land to allow those types of buildings.

Chabot notes that he expects nothing less than $140 million in federal funding for affordable housing, but one of his biggest concerns he heard from constituents involved a change in the dynamic of their community.

"A lot of people spend so much time researching where they would like to live and making this decision on their biggest acquisition of their life based on existing build form, hoping that you know, what they bought into is something that they can expect to retain, at least for the foreseeable future," he said.

"It was clearly articulated by even the developers themselves that it was providing additional choice, but not necessarily increased affordability. In fact, not one example was mentioned, where the price of any of the individual units was less than the price of the acquisition of the original unit."

However, developers like Alkarim Devani, who is the president of RNDSQR, says rezoning is a great first step, adding that his company has specialized in missing-middle housing for over a decade.

"We've gotten fairly accustomed and understand the risk and how hard it is to navigate the system. It's tough to see this as being like a net benefit, or, if it was a selfish thing, because we already do really well at extracting value from opportunities, and most folks don't seize opportunities," Devani said.

"I'm excited about giving that value back to folks who own those homes and I think it creates an opportunity for this to be a more equitable and fair system. So, ultimately, if folks who own these homes have the ability for their families to grow, or their children to reside in those neighborhoods, who can go straight to a typical building permit process without this nuanced rezoning. It's just a really exciting time."

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