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Boost to rural Alberta housing options lost in Bill 20 noise, says minister

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Concerns about perceived overreach are obscuring Bill 20 provisions that address a shortage of affordable housing in rural Alberta, the municipal affairs minister said recently.

“Lots of municipalities across Alberta — not just Calgary and Edmonton — tell me they have a housing crisis,” said Ric McIver. “They need mechanisms to address that.”

Bill 20 became the Municipal Affairs Statutes Amendment Act, 2024 when it was given royal assent on May 30. It lays the groundwork for housing companies run by municipalities and non-profits to develop projects exempt from property taxes.

The act also makes it possible to develop so-called brownfields for housing through the province’s Community Revitalization Levy Program.  Municipalities can use it to borrow against property taxes, including a special levy, that they collect for up to 40 years.

Brownfields, under the province’s definition, are contaminated or possibly contaminated. Although vacant, derelict or underutilized, they’re considered suitable for development or redevelopment. Cleanup can drive up costs.

Tax exemptions, meanwhile, reduce development and operating costs of housing units, and those savings can be passed along to the people who live in them.

McIver said many municipalities are excited about the potential for new affordable housing. “These things are real now. And they're helpful now,” he said.

Affordable housing provisions are also paving the way for future news from Jason Nixon, the seniors, community and social services minister. Nixon will soon announce “a much bigger package on affordable housing support,” said McIver, the member for Calgary-Hays.

Kyle Kasawski, the municipal affairs critic, said the NDP welcomes more affordable housing for Albertans. But the provisions do not make up for negatives within Bill 20, he said.

“Of course we want to see more houses built, and we want to see it easier to build houses in Alberta,” Kasawski said. “Those types of initiatives should be taken by the government. And I think Albertans have been loud and clear that that we need more housing and things are hard because they're not affordable.”

But the UCP lumped housing into an ill-conceived and flawed Bill 20, he said. “What we have with Bill 20 is really bad legislation that the government did not campaign on,” he said.

Consultation was lacking, and so was debate in the legislature because of limits the UCP imposed, said Kasawski, the member for Sherwood Park.

“They didn't consult with stakeholders. They didn't talk to any of the municipal associations. They didn't talk to the big city mayors. They didn't talk to the midsize city mayors. They didn't talk to anybody about it,” Kasawski said.

“They brought legislation in that's going to change municipal government in Alberta, and not in a good way. Not in a way that makes things more affordable for Albertans, not in a way that that makes us have better governance for Alberta and better-run municipalities

“So when you highlight these things that are good initiatives by the government, great. But do they need to be brought forward in bad legislation with so much strong opposition from Albertans?”

The act allows cabinet to require elector votes on the removal of councillors that the provincial cabinet considers unwilling, unable or refusing to do their job. Cabinet can also require the vote for unethical or illegal behaviour, if it deems the vote serves the public interest.

Also, the act allows the province to require municipalities to revoke or revise bylaws that cabinet determines clash with provincial policy, contravene the Constitution, or exceed the scope or authority of the Municipal Government Act or any other provincial statute.

McIver said misunderstandings plague criticisms of the bill, especially the ones about overreach. “I just completely don't understand why municipalities are concerned about some perceived power grab when there's actually no more power to get than the Constitution gives every province across Canada,” he said.

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