Making Dollars and Sense: Sustainability Focused Strategies in Addressing Canada’s Housing Crisis

Bridlewood Affordable Housing, Calgary, AB
Launched in March 2023, Canada’s Housing Accelerator Fund is a $4B initiative managed by the Federal Government and is set to run until 2026-27. Joining the ranks of growing cities such as London, Vaughn, Hamilton, Brampton, and Halifax, western cities such as Kelowna (announced late October) Calgary (announced November 14) and anticipated for Edmonton (according to multiple online news sources) are amongst the newest members of the Housing Accelerator Fund Club. The Fund’s objective is to accelerate the supply of housing across Canada, resulting in at least 100,000 more housing units permitted than would have occurred without the program.

Calgary and the Federal Government Join Forces: The Housing Accelerator Fund in support of Calgary’s new Housing Strategy

According to the City of Calgary, the $228M will go towards seven initiatives, helping fast track over 6,800 units of housing over the next three years, with the goal of spurring the construction of more than 35,000 homes across the next decade. Those initiatives include zoning bylaw amendments to allow for more missing middle housing, streamlining approvals, incentivizing secondary suites, building inclusive and equitable affordable housing programs, and more.

While details on exactly how the fund will be invested are not yet clearly outlined, what is clear is Calgary’s recently updated Housing Strategy has helped paved the way for federal investments. This Strategy includes over 60 actions, categorized into six overarching goals:

  1. Making it easier to build housing;
  2. Making more land available;
  3. Meeting the needs of equity-deserving populations;
  4. Facilitating greater collaboration;
  5. Increasing investment in housing providers; and improving housing security.

The METAFOR Team and Our Friends at Canmore Community Housing Share Strategies for Faster Sustainable Housing at Canmore Symposium

In a recent presentation to the attendees of Canmore’s first Sustainable Buildings Symposium (hosted by the Biosphere Institute of the Bow Valley and the Bow Valley Builders and Developers Association) on November 6, 2023,  the METAFOR team had the honour of delivering, alongside Michelle Ouellette, the Executive Director of Canmore Community Housing. We discussed the topic of what sustainability really means in accelerating housing developments. Michelle illustrated an analogy where the key to delivering non-market housing quickly can be compared to a three-legged stool: land availability, access to capital, and flexible yet focused policy frameworks are the foundations to supporting constructable housing solutions. With strong policy frameworks (like land use policies, grants, and partnerships between developers and municipalities), capital (linked to performance targets), land (sold at non-market rates) and constructable designs, non-market housing projects become more feasible.
Figure 1: A representation of what’s required to support non-market housing development. 

Applying a ‘Sustainability Lens’ to Housing in Helping Build the Stool

We introduce this article with a good news story: a partnership between Federal and local governments with all parties committed to addressing Canada’s housing crisis. Ouelette’s analogy got us thinking deeply about this evolving topic and a reoccurring question from policymakers, investors, and developers: how do these actions, incentives, policies, and investments come together to increase housing stock? What is the common theme that is the proverbial “red thread” that stitches together a patchwork quilt of strategies? The answer becomes apparent when you apply a sustainability lens to the question.

The METAFOR team have been analyzing and supporting our partners and clients in navigating this complex web of programs. We have noticed that social, economic, and environmental sustainability (termed the triple-bottom-line) has emerged as the common language amongst local, provincial, and federal programs aimed at accelerating housing and improving affordability. Understanding how to translate this language into financial strategies that reduce the total cost of ownership can allow project developers to unlock the language necessary to speak to funders, lenders, local authorities, and special interest groups.

Figure 2: Sustainability is a complex and multifaceted concept addressing social, economic, and environmental goals.

The METAFOR Team Delves into Housing Trends – Accessing Capital

We are proud of the portfolio of projects we have worked on. This includes below-market housing, market multi-family developments, and office to residential conversion projects to name a few. Enabled by these projects, METAFOR has explored the common themes amongst programs and policies incentivizing housing developments (both market and non-market). We have also discovered strategies to leverage investments in helping construct the components of the proverbial stool. This article provides some useful insights and recommendations as you look to construct the first part of the stool – ACCESS TO CAPITAL.
Figure 3: This figure illustrates how capital can stack from some of the funding and financing sources noted in this article.

Common Sustainability and Resilience Themes in Housing Incentive Programs

Navigating the complex web of local, provincial, and federal programs, all with common goals to accelerate housing developments, can be a challenge for any professional or organization looking to play their part in addressing a quickly growing housing crisis. Beyond the target of bringing new and/or improved housing products to the market, these programs share common goals. These include increasing access to housing to a greater diversity of tenants (accessibility), improved energy and environmental performance (energy efficiency), and most commonly, increased affordability.

The complexity emerges from a lack of a common language and reference guidelines amongst the myriad of performance goals. Even within organizations charged with the task of centralizing financing and funding housing, the definitions for energy efficiency, accessibility, and affordability the diversity are nuanced based on the housing categories targeted. Performance goals and definitions for subsidized rental housing my differ from non-market or mixed market products.

Expert Funding Tip: Identify the Applicable Funding Programs Early in the Project

Identifying relevant funding/financing programs early in the process is key to setting a project up for success. Mapping out the performance targets, relevant sources of reference information, and consulting with funding authorities prior to project kick-off is advisable as there can be a lag in the updating of program guidance documents as program goals quickly evolve. For example, the figure below provides a snapshot of the relative performance goals from an energy perspective across multiple Alberta provincial and Canadian federal funding and financing programs, demonstrating the spectrum of targets for increasing performance goals. Below is a snapshot of the types of incentive, funding, and financing programs METAFOR is applying on new, non-market housing projects for the non-profit sector. This is not an exhaustive guide and program requirements are often nuanced to project types. We recommend visiting the Funding Authority sites for more information or contact the Authority directly.

Funding Authority

The Opportunity

Affordability Requirement

Energy Requirement

Accessibility Requirement

Calgary Non-Market Land Sale Program

Non-market land sale and potential grant of ≤$75,000 per door

Average rent of less than 63% of Median Market Rent with a cap on annual household income

>50% reduction from NECB 2017

Full universal design’ with 20% of units accessible.

Alberta Affordable Housing Partnership Program

Grant of ≤$85,000 per door

Mixed rental rate model with a minimum of 10% of units at 60% of Median Market Rent with a cap on annual household income


1 in 10 units must be Adaptable (as per Alberta Building Code) to accommodate Barrier Free access into the future.

Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation, Co-Investment Fund

Combined financing and non-repayable loan of $25,000 - $75,000 per door

Minimum of 30% of the units must be less than 80% of the Median Market Rent

Minimum 15% reduction from NECB in energy and emissions


20% Accessible or Full Universal Design

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities Sustainable Affordable Housing Program

Combined financing (and non-repayable loan (up to 50%) to a maximum of $10M

Minimum of 30% of the units must be less than 80% of the Median Market Rent

The project must be working towards net-zero energy (NZE) or net-zero energy ready (NZER).


Expert Funding Tip – Be transparent in how you determine your baseline when quantifying energy and GHG emissions reductions.

Often, energy and carbon goals are considered analogues in funding programs. This is because GHG emissions are a product of the combustion of fossil fuel energy resources. For example, the most common conservation measures introduced in higher-performance buildings typically lead to electrifying systems and replacing natural gas. This can include the use of air-source or water-loop heat pumps as a primary source of heating while supporting lower cost space cooling in warmer months. This drive toward electrification is further compounded by funding Program Authorities mandating the phase-out of natural gas as a primary heating fuel in exchange for grants and financing. But what happens in provinces like Alberta where the electricity grid is still largely fossil-fuel based?

Electricity or Natural Gas? Navigating Electrification Challenges and Regional Disparities in Pursuit of a Sustainable Future

Introducing conservation measures such as electrification is considered a step in the direction toward a zero-carbon future. This is driven by the effectiveness of policy mechanisms such as the coal phase out regulations central to the Harper government’s environmental policies (2012), in generating broad and fast paced reductions in Alberta’s electricity grid GHG emissions intensity (tonnes of carbon emitted per megaWatt-hour of power generated on the integrated electricity system). If you would like to learn more about the sunset on coal power in Alberta, we recommend Jeayakumar and Noels very informative summary (Pembina, March 2023).

Unfortunately, even after a decade of deep reductions in grid emissions intensity, building electrification in Alberta can lead to improvements in terms of energy efficiency (% reduction from the National Energy Code for Buildings (NECB) in terms of kilowatt hours of energy used per square meter of occupied space), while also increasing the greenhouse gas emissions intensity (reported as kg CO2e per m2) of a building. On an energy and scope equivalence basis, the calculated GHG emissions intensity of natural gas (combustion) is approximately 0.2 kg CO2e per kWh-equivalent, whereas Alberta’s grid emission intensity factor is currently estimated at 0.59 kg CO2e per kWh.

Figure 3: Alberta Electricity Grid Emissions (1990 - 2020) Environment and Climate Change Canada - National Inventory Report
It is important to select a design, sustainability and performance analysis team that understands these nuances. There is good news in the fine print. Program Authorities are becoming acutely aware of this regional disparity and are allowing applicants to recommend alternative baselines that are more reflective of the business as usual than the NECB reference case (explaining the complexity of the NECB reference case is a whole article to itself). This novel approach addresses the above noted challenge and better recognizes the efficiency gains (in terms of energy use and GHG emissions reductions) from electrification.

What is accessible to one may be a barrier to another – Addressing Canada's Housing Crisis: METAFOR's Innovative Approach to Accessible Housing Design

The term “accessibility” can be a cause of concern for a team looking to select the right accessibility performance goals to unlock potential financing and grants. Often terms like Universal Design, Adaptable, and Barrier Free are used interchangeably. Different documents, such as the Alberta Building Code, Local Area Accessibility Design Guidelines, and Financing Program Guides, provide conflicting direction on the definition of the above noted terms. METAFOR approaches this in a unique way by ensuring program authorities are informed of these conflicts early in the process and are provided with a definition of accessibility that supports the greatest amount of flexibility to meet the evolving needs of a likely diverse group of tenants over time.

The key to accessibility considerations in a housing project is that accessibility related design and the implementation of selected are made with good judgement. Decisions should be made utilizing ongoing feedback from lived experiences of those who will occupy the space, with practicality in mind. Accessibility strategies should be created with an awareness of the underlying rationale for the requirements, including flexibility to broad spectrum of needs, adaptability as requirements and tenants change over time, and code compliance.

METAFOR’s team of third-party accessibility consultants help inform us and our clients about their lived experiences in facing accessibility challenges while providing the project the attestations and thoughtful, flexibility focused design specifications required to address the requirements of funding programs. Check out the CMHC’s Guidelines on Universal Design (CMHC, 2023), which have served as a very informative reference in developing practical and effective accessibility-focused design specifications.

Navigating Financial Challenges in Non-Market Housing

Defining affordability: where data and reality are out of sync – We do not envy the challenges faced by non-market housing project developers in the balancing act required to develop a financially feasible project over the long term. Often, in exchange for capital, the non-market housing projects are required to provide deep subsidies to tenants, indexed to the local median-market rent and the median-household income.

These deep subsidies, while needed by those who call these projects home, can generate an imbalance in supporting the long-term financial feasibility of non-market, rental housing projects even when capital (grants and low-cost financing) are secured. We hear your pain. There is no easy solution to this challenge.  One strategy to mitigate the challenges of uncertainty that can potentially delay decision-making is to employ a risk-based approach to cost-benefit analysis.


Our recommended approach is to ensure a range of potential costs and revenues are considered. For example, the cost of ownership analysis on a non-market housing project should be run multiple times to address the sensitivity of achieving a net-positive financial return. Consider a range of costs of utilities, operations and maintenance, labour, rent rates and average household incomes. This supports developing alternative scenarios to inform decision-making, including the identification of mitigation measures to address uncertainties.

Ready to tackle the challenges of affordable housing in the midst of Canada's housing crisis?

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