For some, talking about secondary suites feels like beating a dead horse. However, the topic is still relevant because the system is still broken. Students and other residents of secondary suites are still living in unsafe conditions across Calgary.
Secondary suites refers to an additional living area separated from the main dwelling within a residential house.
Secondary suites are a problem because the current regulations require extensive hoop jumping. Prospective dwellers must go before city council, ensure the property is properly sized and meet stringent building codes.
Secondary suites have always been legal but due to strict regulations many homeowners or landlords have developed secondary suites on their properties without getting a permit — suites are only inspected if the city receives a complaint. While there are perfectly safe, albeit illegal, suites in the city, there are also ones without fire alarms and barred basement windows. Many of these suites have maintenance problems and tenants who can’t report negligent landlords because they will be kicked out of their homes, which will then be shut down.
Secondary suites offer affordable housing to students and other people with low incomes. Owning a secondary suite could also allow an elderly homeowner to remain in their home by having a second tenant who could contribute to home maintenance in exchange for reduced rent. Secondary suites also present a chance for Calgary to increase its inner-city population density instead of sprawling further outward.
Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi campaigned on a promise to update secondary suites, and he has tried many times to get city council to agree to a revision. He wants to put the issue before council once more before his term ends in September. He’s proposing baby steps: suite-friendly zoning within walking distance to post-secondary schools and major transit stops.
Nenshi has also previously suggested common-sense rules requiring a parking space, fire and building codes and a live-in owner.
Edmonton relaxed their zoning in 2009 and has since granted permits to 1,000 new regulated suites. While 1,000 in five years might not have an immediate effect on Calgary’s estimated 25,000 to 60,000 illegal secondary suites, it would be a start.
The contrary argument posits that secondary suite owners won’t comply with safety regulations even if regulations are relaxed. There are landlords who have many rental properties, don’t reside in the house and aren’t willing or able to renovate.
But current regulations can’t be left as they are, because people are living in unsafe housing with no legal avenues to complain.
The City needs to relax and rethink the regulations. Practical safety measures need to be enforced, tenants and landlords need rights, and the red tape and hoop jumping has to stop so a workable solution can be found for this pressing problem.