A Reminiscence of the Housing Crisis
On a chilly afternoon in late November of 1999, people gathered for the first Edmonton rally to raise attention to the crisis of housing security in the city. They were on the corner of a block of land between 96th and 97th Streets, on the south side of 105A Avenue. The land was cluttered with scrap wood and metal here and there, but otherwise empty. South across the vacant land the headquarters of Edmonton Police Service (EPS) and the Alberta government’s John E. Brownlee Building could be seen.
At a rally to draw attention to the alarming rise in homelessness, the location of the event was appropriate. Steps away was the Bissell Centre where people struggling with poverty and, increasingly, experiencing homelessness, could find a variety of services.
And that block of land was significant. In 1993 and 1994 the Boyle Street/McCauley Planning Coordinating Committee had undertaken an extensive community process to design an area redevelopment plan (ARP) that would reflect the vision of community members. Central to the vision was to see land used in a way that would “develop a residential community which accommodates a broad mix of population and housing.”
The large empty area along 105A Avenue was clearly described in the plan, which was accepted by Edmonton City Council, as intended to be used for a rich mix of housing, small business, and related activities. It had the potential to make a significant contribution to a walkable, livable community.
But about the time of the rally, behind the scenes, in secret meetings, bureaucrats had other ideas. Commuter employees at the EPS and Brownlee Buildings wanted more parking. A plan was developed to have that block of land turned into parking lots for them. In a public meeting in the spring of 2001 community members were told this could be done without any public process if desired. A series of title trades had been agreed so that one part of the land would be the City’s and the other part, the Province’s.
Despite strong objections of community members, on July 4 of 2001, City Council voted (with four councillors opposing) to move forward with revising the ARP to permit use of the land for the parking lots, with one part of the area, held by the Province, kept as grass for the immediate future – although the right to develop it too as parking was reserved.
Voting against the proposal, Councillor Michael Phair said he was “flabbergasted” at the claims of City officials that they had no idea the community might be opposed to this dramatic change in the use of the land. “I think the City is complicit in this. I utterly reject the need for more surface parking lots in this area— there are plenty already. This proposal violates everything we want to do downtown and everything the community has shown through its ARP that it wants,” he declared.
Alberta Infrastructure officials speaking at the Council meeting said they did not believe public transportation was an acceptable option for the people working at their sites. (At the time, a second building belonging to the province, the Remand Centre, was also in use.) They indicated that the people working at the buildings were an economic benefit for the neighbourhood.
The development of the fenced parking lots went forward quickly, with one area in the northeast corner left as a grassed open area. Ironically, the one time this piece of turf saw some some use for housing was a few months in 2007 when it was the location of an encampment, until everyone was evicted and the grass too was fenced off to deny any further access to it.
In 2021, 27 years after community members described how this land could be an asset, and 22 years after the first civil society expression of concern at government failure to ensure decent housing for people, Edmonton has far more people enduring the misery of homelessness and tens of thousands more living in housing that is unaffordable or inadequate. Thousands of people have died too soon because of not having housing. Many more have been denied the basic human rights to live without want and in safety.
The land where community members described a future of housing and flourishing small businesses instead now hosts people living in tents and other inadequate shelters along the fenced area on the north side, and a daily stream of hundreds of vehicles coming and going from paved parking lots on most of the land.
National Housing Day happens on November 22. It was created in 1999 as a day for Canadians to be shamed by how we have allowed government indifference and worship of neoliberalism to destroy a decades-long commitment to ensuring that everyone has an adequate place to make home, and yet we are farther from that goal today than we were then.
Jim has been an advocate on housing security issues for many years, with Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness and individually, and a presenter to City Council when the parking lot development was being opposed.