New rent cap legislation proposed by Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood’s NDP MLA Janis Irwin could ease the pain of Alberta’s struggling tenants. But the bill’s got two big problems: the governing United Conservative Party, which holds a dominating majority in the Legislature, doesn't want to pass it. And it’s not entirely clear that the Alberta NDP wants to pass it, either.
Photo by Steve Damron, licensed via Creative Commons.
In its first draft form, Irwin’s bill, the Housing Statues (Housing Security) Amendment Act establishes some requirements for the Minister of Seniors, Community and Social Services to set and report goals for affordable housing, but the meat of the text is all about capping how much landlords can increase rent. Until 2025, rent increases would be capped at 2%. After 2025, the cap would vary based on the consumer price index (CPI), a measure of inflation.
Because the Alberta NDP are not the governing party, they cannot put forward normal government bills. However, each legislative session several MLAs are drawn at random from all parties and given the opportunity to put forward private member’s bills. A private member’s bill can’t direct the government to spend money, but regulatory measures like rent caps are fair game.
The vulnerability of low-income renters in Alberta has become a central focus for Irwin, who in recent weeks has been showing up to advocate and agitate against Edmonton’s aggressive program of encampment closures. Several of the inner city neighborhoods in which the city has driven its unhoused population lie within her constituency.
“We are in a housing crisis and the consistent rise in rents is an unmanageable trend for budgets. We know we must build more housing, but that also takes time. Measures are needed now,” Irwin told the Report in response to our written questions about the bill.
Irwin isn’t the first politician in Alberta to agitate for rent caps. The policy shows up sporadically as a demand of tenants’ and renters’ rights movements, for example in this Canadian Press coverage of a rally for rent caps in 2007.
By 2008, the Alberta NDP had incorporated rent caps into its platform. "Making sure families have decent affordable housing is more important than letting big landlords gouge their way to record profits," then-party leader Brian Mason argued at the platform launch, as reported by the CBC.
Rent caps remained in the NDP platform when Rachel Notley won the party leadership in 2014. There’s a small flurry of reporting from her term as opposition leader in which Notley spars with then-premier Jim Prentice about the policy. As reported by the Calgary Herald in 2014, Notley warned at one press conference in downtown Calgary that “if we leave [housing] to the market, there will end up being a market for tent space in this park.” Prescient.
But a year later, after the NDP’s dramatic victory over the Prentice PCs gave them dominant control of the Legislature, rent caps were suddenly and conspicuously absent from the agenda.
The National Post reports that after the election, the NDP’s new Minister of Municipal Affairs Deron Bilous stated that “quite frankly, that our government is not at this time looking to rent controls.”
Instead, “in the same breath,” Bilous said the government was “focused on working with cities, with municipalities to ensure that we are building more affordable housing units.”
Rent caps at this point disappeared from Alberta NDP communications until Robyn Luff, then-NDP MLA for Calgary-East, brought forward a private member’s bill of her own, Bill 202, in 2016.
In an interview with the Report, Luff said that Bill 202 resembled Irwin’s bill today—including a 2% cap on rent increases—until she was directed to “water it down” by the Premier’s office.
Despite the NDP’s full control of the Legislature, Luff’s bill was diverted to committee for ‘more consultation’, rather than shepherded to passage.
Luff was sanguine in our interview, and told us that the bill being sent to committee had been acceptable to her. “I recognized that there are certainly issues associated with it, and I was hoping for some time to research solutions and talk to people—landlord groups, tenants, construction companies—and determine how we can provide some security for renters in Alberta,” said Luff.
But bills aren’t always sent to committee to be improved. Often they’re sent there to die. And that’s precisely what happened with Bill 202, which languished in committee until it fell off the agenda entirely. The Alberta NDP continued to govern for three more years and did not touch rent control during any of them.
Two years after her bill’s introduction, the party ejected Luff from caucus after she alleged that the Premier’s office was restricting the caucus MLAs’ speech in the Legislature.
Rent control came up again later during Notley’s term, but within the party base rather than the caucus: the Calgary-Currie and Calgary-Varsity NDP constituency associations put forward a motion for the 2018 party convention urging the government to add rent controls to the Residential Tenancies Act.
A source involved in the motion, who asked not to be identified in this story, told the Report that the Alberta NDP government did not want the motion to come to the floor. The caucus’ communications resources were focused on the planned campaign around new provincial parks in the Bighorn, and they did not want media attention derailed by a contentious issue like rent control.
(The Bighorn proposal was derailed the next year anyway, largely thanks to agitation by UCP politician Jason Nixon.)
Unlike Luff’s Bill 202, or the Calgary constituency motion, no procedural pressure will be needed to kill off Irwin’s bill; the UCP will see to that themselves.
“It’s interesting to me that they [the party leadership] allowed this bill to come forward,” said Luff in our interview. “Are they putting it forward now because it’s a good publicity move?”
That publicity is beginning: Irwin has already been meeting with stakeholders and the second consultation event for the bill is set for January 17, 2024, to be held online. Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP have posted their approval on social media, and Janis Irwin—broadly considered the star of the party’s left flank—is sure to draw attention to the issue on her own. The consultation is sure to add many renters to the caucus’ mailing and email lists.
We pressed this line of questioning with Irwin as well. Why this bill, when the UCP surely won’t pass it? And why should supporters believe that the caucus wants rent caps now after years of opposing them?
“Temporary caps are not a new concept to the UCP, who brought back a temporary cap for auto insurance to avoid double digit increases. They recognized the need in one area, and surely can recognize the need for them in another,” Irwin wrote.
“The Alberta NDP supports this bill,” Irwin told us.
What remains to be seen is if that support—like the planned caps themselves—is temporary.
A correction: This story has been updated to note that the Jan 17 online consultation is the second, not the first, of the public consultation events for Bill 205.