From Bad to Worse: Calgary's Housing Crisis & Alberta's Debt Legislation 1935-1945

By Foran, Max | Alberta History, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

From Bad to Worse: Calgary's Housing Crisis & Alberta's Debt Legislation 1935-1945


Foran, Max, Alberta History


The election of the Social Credit government in 1935 ushered in a period of significant legislative activity in Alberta. Under Premier William Aberhart, the new government's mistrust of banks and other financial institutions led to several adversarial provincial statutes. Although ultimately declared ultra vires by the Supreme Court of Canada, Alberta's controversial debt legislation had considerable repercussions in many areas. One of these was housing. Between 1936 and 1944, those wanting a house of their own in urban Alberta and in particular, Calgary and Edmonton, were negatively affected by Aberhart's legislative campaign that had been designed to protect them

Housing problems were not new to Calgarians or western Canadians. They had accompanied the rapid growth of cities in the first decade of the twentieth century. The combination of frontier expansion and industrialization led to a dire shortage of liveable accommodation. The poverty of immigrants, a high level of mobility, and the deployment of capital resources on production dissuaded capital investment in housing construction. In cities, rapid growth was compounded by municipal policies that granted generous tax exemptions to industrial enterprises. The results were high rents and construction costs, chronic overcrowding, and unhealthy living conditions. Journalist Bob Edwards resigned from the Calgary Board of Trade in protest over civic policies that misled newcomers by ignoring the high price of accommodation in the city.

The worsening housing situation was exacerbated during World War One by wartime exigencies. By 1918, rising prices and decreased spending on construction had produced a national housing emergency. The federal response was a $25 million loan to the provinces on a per capita basis to alleviate housing costs to low income families in urban areas. (1) Participating provinces were to contribute 25 per cent and advance loans to municipalities at 5 per cent to build seven-room homes costing no more than $3.500. Although eligible for over $1 million under the scheme, Alberta chose not to take part. a decision supported by Calgary on the grounds that it would only add to its civic debt. (2)

In all, 6,244 houses were built in other parts of Canada under this first attempt at federal intervention into a provincial and municipal domain. In general, however, the scheme was not successful, except perhaps in Winnipeg where a vigorous housing commission managed to construct 712 houses. Although inefficient administration was a factor, the scheme's failure was caused primarily by dramatically falling rents and construction costs in the depressed early 1920s. Homeowners under the scheme found their equity greatly reduced. Often their monthly payments were higher than rents in equivalent or larger houses in the city.

Calgary provided Alberta's first municipal initiative in the housing field in 1929. Although far from being the worst city in Canada in terms of home ownership or single detached homes, Calgary houses were very small. Averaging 4.9 rooms per dwelling, Calgary was ahead of only two major cities. (3) Deteriorating housing conditions and the increasing presence of unsightly shacks was worrying city council by 1928. (4) In April 1929, Alderman Robert Parkyn raised the matter in council. In referring to increasing slum conditions, Parkyn suggested that the city build twenty houses at $2,500 each for rent to needy families. (5) The suggestion met with short thrift by Mayor Fred Osborne who denied the slum allegation and blamed the housing shortage on people wanting to build houses they could ill afford. A month later, Rev. Canon Gales, the City's representative on the Southern Alberta Social Services Council, reinforced Parkyn's concerns in a strong letter drawing council's attention to the chronic housing shortage in the city.

A Special Housing Committee was struck "to investigate and report on the matter of providing adequate housing accommodation for our citizens. …

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