The first world war took Edmonton’s work force and the capital needed to finish the partially built city to the trenches in Europe. Left behind were scattered mostly empty developments and unfinished houses. Much of the land that had been fought over by speculators would end up in arrears for taxes and become city owned property. Houses were abandoned and fell into disrepair. By 1918 the population had dropped to 51,000, it would slowly climb back again, passing 70,000 once more in 1928. The city had annexed itself to nearly 25 square miles, about the same area as 1920 Toronto, population 500,000.
Edmonton had had enough of real estate riches, lots were cheap, but building a house was not, owing to the inflation caused by the war, a shortage of skilled labor and building materials. Fifty percent of Edmontonians preferred to rent.
Much of the available housing was poor, particularly affordable housing. There had been little in the way of regulation of what people did with their lots during the boom times. A single lot might have up to four houses crammed onto them or more likely, none at all. Lot owners were free to build anything from a shack to a mansion on their properties. Single family houses were divide into suites. Many were classified as shacks, a basic two or three room dwelling with few if any conveniences. There were also complaints about people living in tents. Building codes were a municipal responsibility, there was no national or provincial building code. The Edmonton building code mostly concerned itself with fire safety.
Some developers, notably Magrath and Holgate, imposed standards on their development, requiring buyers in their Highlands subdivision to have a building permit of at least $2500 to ensure the Highlands mansion would not find itself next to a shack. But the firm of Magrath and Holgate would not survive the crash, and much of the Highlands, including W. J. Magrath’s mansion would end up sold for tax arrears.
Things did not get much better, the 1920’s saw poor harvests in some years, and poor markets in others, followed by the great depression. Things could have been worse. Edmonton was still the gateway to the north. Edmonton’s airport, the first licensed “Air Harbor” presaged the future, as did more and more natural gas and oil discoveries in Alberta.
The great war had left Edmonton on the sidelines, the next war would put Edmonton on the front line.