Secondary suite debate stalls

By Susan Anderson

The long and contentious battle to relax bylaws concerning secondary suites continues and the fight has come to a near standstill.

A secondary suite, also known as a basement suite or a grandmother suite, is an additional separate living space in a house that is originally meant to have one living space. Typically, this means putting a stove in your basement and renting the space out. There are an estimated 10,000-50, 000 illegal and unregulated suites in houses across the city.

In March, City Council voted against all alternative proposals for changing secondary suite bylaws, including the three conditions Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi proposed: the suite had to be up to code, have off-street parking and the homeowner had to live in the house.

Last month, follow-up proposals regarding the secondary suite issue were presented before Council, and all consultation proposals were rejected.

“Having a plebiscite in the next election was voted down, consulting affected areas was voted down– all the different proposals were voted down,” said Students’ Union vice-president external Matt McMillan.

In addition, two potential landlords also came before Council last month to seek approval for their secondary suites but their proposals were rejected.

“I’m sure it will continue to be an issue as long as there are some members of Council who want to promote secondary suites everywhere,” said ward one alderman Dale Hodges. Hodges voted against the relaxation of secondary suite bylaws.

“As long as they want to ignore complaints from their tenants . . . I’m not going to be voting for these things until some of these owners of illegal suites get it through their heads that they have to shape up,” said Hodges.

The Students’ Union has been fighting for better governing of secondary suites for years.

“We’re realizing that we’ll reach the end zone, not by a Hail Mary pass but by first downs,” said McMillian, using one of Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi’s popular analogies.

McMillan is working to move the issue forward.

“We’re working with our other allies in our cause for secondary suites like Vibrant Calgary and the Chamber of Commerce and the Mayor’s Office,” said McMillan.

Secondary suites are a popular form of student housing because rent is usually cheaper.

“Students don’t necessarily remind themselves that safety is a concern and we’ve had people die in the past,” said McMillan, referring to the Parkdale fire in January 2009 where three students died in a secondary suite fire because they were unable to get out. The fire was caused by a space heater provided by the landlord after the students complained about a faulty furnace. The windows were barred, the one exit was inaccessible and the smoke detector wasn’t working.

Students need to know about renters’ rights and how to maintain safe living conditions.

“A Calgary where secondary suites are legalized is a better Calgary for students,” said McMillian.

Hodges doesn’t criticize the operators of legal secondary suites, noting that there are legal suites within a mile or two of the University of Calgary.

“It’s not a theoretical issue that we’ll just make these things a permitted use in every district. Why would we do that when we know there are hundreds out there that are illegal and owners who have no intention of putting in the improvements that need to be put in to meet the building code?” said Hodges.

Ward seven alderman Druh Farrell believes that legalizing secondary suites provides affordable housing in Calgary.

“By legalizing suites we can address the issues that people have identified– the issues of parking, maintenance, being a good neighbor and building in those safety code issues,” said Farrell in an online video where she explains her position on secondary suites.

Nenshi argued that there is overwhelming public support for legalizing existing basement suites. He campaigned on the issue.

“It allows people to be able to afford a home, it allows seniors and people with disabilities to stay in their home, it allows people to do with their property what they wish,” said Nenshi in an online video post. “We allow some of our neighbours to live in a world where they have no protections. If the smoke detector doesn’t work, if there are mice, if there’s mould, if the landlord is abusing them, these people have nowhere to turn, because if they come and complain to the city we have only one tool in our arsenal, and that is to rip out their stove and kick them out of their house.”

In March 2011, a Zinc Research Poll commissioned by the SU found that 79 per cent of Calgarians favoured legalization of existing secondary suites, and 75 per cent of Calgarians polled supported secondary suites in their neighbourhood. In ward one, which includes the U of C, 83 per cent supported and 11 per cent opposed, six per cent said depends/no opinion/refused.

When asked “which, if any, of the following conditions or regulations do you consider important for City approval of secondary suites?” Ninety two per cent of respondents said that compliance with building and fire codes was important, 55 per cent said on-site parking (off the street) was important, 53 per cent said a requirement to have separate entrance is necessary, 44 per cent said the owner must live in-house and 23 per cent said restrictions on the size of the suite are required.

Ninety two per cent of respondents agreed that when discussing rules for suites, the safety of tenants living in existing suites should be the most important consideration. Eighty per cent agreed that increasing the availability of secondary suites makes Calgary a more affordable place to live. The poll also found that 10 per cent of citizens are aware of their alderman’s position on secondary suites, and of that 10 per cent, 63 per cent support their position. Only seven per cent of Calgarians were aware of their community association’s position on secondary suites, and of that seven per cent, 63 per cent supported the position.

In March 2011, Calgary City Council voted not to make any changes to secondary suite regulations. Aldermen rejected several proposals, including one that would have loosened regulations around LRT stations and post-secondary schools.

Aldermen John Mar and Shane Keating were required to abstain from voting because of their own plans to build secondary suites in their homes.

“Every other major city in Canada has done this already,” said Nenshi. “What they have seen is a modest pick-up in this process and really, an ability to close down the bad ones, the bad ones that already exist.”

In February 2009, the Edmonton City Council passed a bylaw that relaxed their rules governing secondary suites and they allowed garage and garden suites. Secondary suites are now permitted in every house and the community league and adjacent residents need not be notified of applications for secondary suites, according to the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues.

The Edmonton City Council also has the right to allow garage suites and stand-alone garden suites on lots on corners, lots fronting onto a service road or backing onto a lane adjacent to an arterial road or lots adjacent to multiple unit housing or a park. Adjacent residents will be notified of applications for a garage lot.

Edmonton City Council also provided funding up to $24,000 to support the building of secondary suites. Funding is also available to bring existing illegal suites up to code.

In 2004, Vancouver City Council changed the zoning and development bylaw to allow a secondary suite in every single detached family home in every community in Vancouver. In 2005, the City of Ottawa allowed secondary suites in all areas of the city with the exception of the former Village of Rockcliffe Park. In 1999, the City of Toronto approved secondary suites “as-of-right” in all single and semi-detached housing.

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