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Potential Calgary 2026 Olympic bid stokes hope for more affordable housing

CALGARY — Affordable housing advocates are hopeful a potential Calgary 2026 Olympic bid could help put a dent in the city’s shortfall.

A draft hosting plan unveiled earlier this month by the bid corporation, Calgary 2026, envisions converting some 2,800 units of temporary Olympic accommodations for athletes, officials and media into long-term housing. Only 20 per cent of that would go for market rates, with the rest set aside for people in need.

Of the plan’s $5.2-billion price tag, $583 million would be for housing.

The co-chair of the Community Housing Affordability Collective, an umbrella organization of private and not-for-profit players in the sector, said the city has a 15,000-unit affordable housing gap.

“If I do a projection 10 years from now, that number may well be 20,000, depending on the economic situation and the number of Calgarians in need,” said Martina Jileckova, who is also CEO of the non-profit Horizon Housing Society.

So while the Olympic infusion wouldn’t solve the problem, a few thousand more units would help, she said. But that’s only as long as it’s on top of, not instead of, other sources of funding, like the National Housing Strategy.

“We want to make sure that we continue to invest into affordable housing through other streams.”

She adds that she hopes the not-for-profit sector can contribute ideas to this aspect of the plan, since it has in-depth knowledge of what people will need.

The bid corporation’s plan mentions converting Olympic housing into a 200-unit seniors complex, urban Indigenous housing and student housing. So a cookie-cutter approach to building won’t work, Jileckova said.

The executive director of Vibrant Communities Calgary, a poverty reduction group, says the national average of housing that’s affordable is six per cent, whereas in Calgary it’s only 3.6 per cent.

So anything to help close the gap, including the Olympics, would be welcome, said Franco Savoia.

“It’s one more step. Is it the solution? No. But it’s part of the solution,” Savoia said. “We’d be very, very supportive of more affordable housing coming on stream, whatever the mechanism.”

The CEO of a Calgary building industry group said increasing the supply of market housing would also help those in need.

“The best thing that can happen is that there is not only choice, but affordability for market housing, which reduces pressure on affordable housing, or in-need housing,” said Guy Huntingford, of Building Industry Land Development.

Housing affordability is also a major issue in Canmore, the idyllic Rocky Mountain town an hour west of Calgary that would host some events.

“If you’ve been in Canmore for a long time and got in the market 20 years ago, you’re probably doing all right,” said town Chief Administrative Officer Lisa de Soto. “But the average cost of a single family home is nearing $1 million, so it’s clearly out of reach of most people.”

The bid corporation’s plan calls for 240 affordable housing units in Canmore to be managed by the city’s housing corporation.

“That’s very meaningful for us, even though it’s potentially seven or eight years away.”

But professor Stacy Lorenz says no one should bank on the Olympics being much of a help on the affordable housing front, citing the troubled Vancouver 2010 Olympic Village as a cautionary tale.

“They ended up losing a lot of money on it while not even coming close to delivering on the promises they had made, or on the projections they had suggested for the number of units for social housing that would be built,” said Lorenz, whose research at the University of Alberta focuses on the sociological and historical aspects of sports.

“If you need housing, provide housing. You don’t need to incur all the bills of the Olympics in order to do that.”

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

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