Rent is becoming increasingly unaffordable across Canada, with the upward trend most pronounced in Alberta’s two largest cities — Calgary and Edmonton. But Alberta is uniquely ill suited to address spiraling rental costs due to its wholly unregulated rental market.

New legislation proposed by Edmonton-area NDP MLA Janis Irwin for the upcoming legislative session seeks to change that, but with a UCP majority in the legislature it’s almost certain to fail.

Irwin’s bill, dubbed the Housing Security Act, proposes a temporary cap on increases at two per cent for two years, followed by an additional two years in which rent hikes would be capped at the rate of inflation, as indicated by changes to the Consumer Price Index. Irwin, who declined an interview, told Ricochet in a statement that the bill will allow renters to “catch their breath” while increased housing supply is built.

“Rent caps are designed to provide relief from skyrocketing, unaffordable rent increases that could drive people into homelessness or unsafe situations, or force them to choose between putting food on the table and paying rent,” the Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood MLA wrote in a December 19 Calgary Herald op-ed. “This approach gives us the balance we need to help renters now, and stabilize housing options into the future.”

Edmonton-area NDP MLA Janis Irwin

In addition to imposing a temporary cap on rent increases, the legislation would establish reporting requirements on housing “so we can ensure we are on track to bolster supply,” Irwin states.

Irwin’s private member’s bill was introduced in the Legislative Assembly as Bill 205 in December. Private member’s bills are debated on Mondays, so the earliest it will be discussed in the legislature is the afternoon of March 11. While a private member’s bill cannot direct a government to spend money, it can introduce regulatory measures.

In 2023, the average price to rent a two-bedroom apartment in Calgary was $1,695, a staggering increase of 14.3 per cent from the previous year — by far the largest hike in Canada, which is more than double Calgary’s six per cent increase from 2021 to 2022, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s latest national rental market report.

Compare that to the Canadian average for a two-bedroom rental, which was $1,359 in 2023 — an eight per cent increase, from the previous year. In Edmonton, the average cost of rent in 2023 was $1,398 a month, an increase of 6.4 per cent from 2022. That’s a quadrupling of the 1.6 per cent increase from 2021.

“There’s a strong incentive for landlords to cycle through new tenants as frequently as possible, so that they can raise the rent as frequently as possible.”

It’s immensely stressful to be forced into the housing market under these market conditions.

“This is just killing me. I don’t sleep. I’ve lost 15 pounds,” Shelley Bailey, who was evicted from her northwest Calgary seniors’ residence last year because the non-profit which operates the facility couldn’t conduct necessary repairs in a timely fashion, told The Tyee.

Bailey and many others say they’re being renovicted by landlords trying to raise the rent. “There’s a strong incentive for landlords to cycle through new tenants as frequently as possible, so that they can raise the rent as frequently as possible,” Alberta ACORN’s Fable Downing told the Tyee.

Alberta isn’t the only province in Canada without any rent caps, but it is the largest. Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the territories also have no caps on how much landlords can raise rent.

Irwin told Ricochet she’s received calls from constituents who are facing rent hikes as high as 50 per cent in a year. “This is forcing Albertans to stretch their household budgets to the breaking point,” she said.

Rent control versus rent stabilization

Joshua Evans, a professor of human geography specializing in housing at the University of Alberta, told Ricochet that Irwin’s bill is being mischaracterized as rent control, when in fact it’s a milder form of “rent stabilization” — a key distinction that he said is being overlooked in media coverage of the bill.

“This is a moderate form of rent regulation,” Evans explained, “which essentially allows landlords to maintain a rate of return on their investment while protecting tenants from rent gouging.”

Irwin’s bill “is not some wild radical proposal to freeze rents, and eliminate any and all profit from it,” he added, “far from that.”

Joshua Evans, a professor of human geography specializing in housing at the University of Alberta

This legislation would provide temporary reprieve, as is intended, but doesn’t address the root cause of a lack of affordable rent — the commodification and financialization of housing.

“It’s typically the profit motive that leads to falling housing standards and, counterintuitively, leads to shortages of housing through the creation of artificial scarcities in the housing market,” Evans noted.

This has the twofold effect of pushing increasing numbers of people out of the housing ownership market and, in so doing, increasing pressure on a limited supply of private rental units, causing the prices of both ownerships and rentals to spike.

“It’s not just landlords per se that are profiting on rent increases, but it’s an investor class, who sees this sector as a kind of asset,” Evans explained.

It wasn’t always this way

Alberta began an 18-month experiment with rent regulation in late 1975, with Peter Lougheed’s conservative government reluctantly capping increases at 10 per cent for 1976 and nine per cent for the first half of 1977 before gradually removing the cap.

At the time, then-NDP leader Grant Notley criticized Lougheed’s cap for being too high, allowing landlords to continue exploiting tenants as long as it wasn’t deemed excessive.

Over the past two decades, the Alberta NDP has had a mixed track record on advocating for rent regulation, as outlined by Jim Storrie at The Progress Report.

In response to the demands of tenants’ rights advocates, the NDP’s 2008 election platform called for a permanent rent cap at the cost of inflation plus two per cent, whereas the Liberals under then-opposition leader Kevin Taft advocated a temporary cap that permitted increases upwards of 10 per cent.

“Making sure families have decent affordable housing is more important than letting big landlords gouge their way to record profits,” explained then-party leader Brian Mason, who represented the same Edmonton-Highwoods-Norland riding Irwin represents today.

Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed and a collection of newspaper headlines from 1975 regarding the debate over rent controls in Alberta.

CBC via

Rachel Notley, Grant’s daughter, who was elected Mason’s successor in 2014, softened this position, advocating a temporary cap while calling it “profoundly irresponsible” to leave housing affordability to the market.

“If we leave it to the market, there will end up being a market for tent space in this park,” she said presciently at a Calgary press conference.

Once Notley won a majority government in the surprise Orange Wave of 2015, rent regulation was quietly dropped from the agenda.

An increasingly urgent consideration

When then-Calgary East MLA Robyn Luff proposed legislation in 2016 similar to what Irwin is now proposing, it was watered down before being sent to committee to die, which was one of the reasons for Luff’s public split with the party.

But times have changed, says Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

When the NDP were in power, the issue wasn’t as urgent as it is today, he explained. “It wasn’t a top issue, because rents weren’t all that expensive,” said Brownsey.

In fact, according to the 2016 CMHC rental market report for Alberta, the average cost for renting a two-bedroom apartment was trending downwards throughout the province, with a decline of 7.5 per cent in the Calgary region and 3.5 per cent in Edmonton.

That started to change in 2018, when the average two bedroom rental cost increased by 1.5 per cent in Calgary and 1.3 per cent in Edmonton, according to CMHC data — miniscule increases by today’s standards.

“There should have been some mechanism in place that would be triggered by rising inflation, but it’s just not here,” Brownsey said. “It just wasn’t a problem until quite recently.”

In last year’s election, the NDP proposed a “rent bank” to subsidize the cost of rent for tenants at risk of eviction due to circumstances beyond their control, which is in effect a subsidy for landlords, but wouldn’t commit to a cap.

Irwin’s legislation, Brownsey said, is “at least something to slow down the massive increase in rent.”

“If rents are going up by 10 per cent a year, a lot of people are hurting, because their salaries haven’t gone up 10 per cent a year,” he added.

Irwin told Ricochet that while the NDP committed generally to “reviewing rent regulation,” it became clear through “extensive consultation” after the election that the time for “an emergency and temporary rent cap” was now.

The UCP’s ideological rejection of rent regulation

Minister of Seniors, Community and Social Services Jason Nixon has been firmly opposed to any form of governmental interference in the housing market, reflecting the UCP government’s party line.

“Knee-jerk policies like rent control would have a devastating impact on housing construction and our entire economy. These policies would stall construction and increase the gap between housing supply and demand, and ultimately slow the economy down,” Nixon wrote in a December 26 Edmonton Journal column.

This is par for the course for the ruling party, Brownsey said. “You cannot expect any sort of interference in the market from the UCP government,” he noted, adding the notable exception of propping up the fossil fuel industry. “It won’t happen in terms of you and me paying rent.”

UCP’s Minister of Seniors, Community and Social Services Jason Nixon


For a neoliberal ideologue like Nixon, the only solution to the housing affordability crisis is to increase supply by subsidizing developers to the tune of $9 billion, with the goal of building 25,000 more homes by 2031, without reference to the quality, nor affordability, of the homes slated to be built.

Nixon doesn’t explain why or how capping the price of rent, even temporarily, “would have a devastating impact on housing construction.” It’s taken as a fact of nature.

This argument that limiting rent increases will disincentivize the construction of new homes is “an interesting admission that the private rental sector is only viable if landlords can exploit tenants beyond their means or do this incredible price gouging,” says Evans, the U of A housing expert.

A 2018 literature review from the University of Southern California examining dozens of studies on the impact of various forms of rent control found that “moderate rent control does not seem to impact new construction,” given that a cap on rent increases wouldn’t apply to new units.

Stricter forms of rent control, the review found, could cause landlords to convert rental units to condominiums to evade regulation, thereby constricting supply. But a government concerned with keeping housing affordable could simply place a moratorium on these conversions, as premier Lougheed did during his 18-month experiment with rent regulation.

“We’re seeing this booming construction, but we’re at the same time seeing a loss of low-cost private rental apartments. This is occurring in the midst of no rent regulations.”

But even if Nixon’s argument is taken at face value, there’s scant evidence of a correlation between the cost of rent and housing supply.

While Calgary’s housing supply increased by 6.2 per cent between 2022 and 2023, according to CMHC data, the number of affordable units — defined as those which cost no more than 30 per cent of the lowest income threshold in a particular city — decreased to 3.1 per cent from five per cent. In Edmonton, supply increased by 3.7 per cent, but the number of affordable units decrease to 12.7 per cent from 13 per cent.

“We’re seeing this booming construction, but we’re at the same time seeing a loss of low-cost private rental apartments,” explained Evans. “This is occurring in the midst of no rent regulations, where we should, according to economic theory, see some sort of equilibrium in our housing market, which provides affordable housing to all households.”

Could the UCP cave on a rent cap?

Brownsey, the Mount Royal political scientist, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Premier Danielle Smith, like Lougheed in 1975, eventually introduced limited rent regulation of the sort that she’s almost certain to vote against when Irwin’s bill is debated in the Legislature.

While deeply ideological, conservative governments across Canada “surprise me with their willingness to intervene in these kinds of economic calamities that we are experiencing right now” if not doing so will cost them popular legitimacy, Brownsey noted.

Irwin herself noted that the UCP re-introduced a cap on the price of auto insurance in 2023, which former premier Jason Kenney eliminated months after his April 2019 election.

“They recognized the need [for a cap] in one area, and surely can recognize the need for them in another,” Irwin told The Progress Report in a statement.

Brownsey specifically cited Ontario premier Doug Ford’s reversal on selling off large parts of the Greenbelt to developers as one such example, in which a right-wing premier backtracks from part of their agenda under public pressure so that they can continue implementing less polarizing aspects of their political project.

“Here, I can see Danielle Smith doing exactly the same thing. She is very flexible politically in that regard,” Brownsey said.

If Smith does this, the next leader of the NDP, which is in the midst of a leadership race after Notley announced her intention to step down, will no doubt attempt to remind voters that it was their idea first. But will voters care?

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