Secondary suites have many benefits. The City of Calgary is generally supportive of secondary suites, and even provides a secondary suite registry and a Grant Program that many people don’t even know about.
I am in favour of secondary suites in principle, as they provide an important level of flexibility and cost savings for low and fixed income individuals and families, and can provide independence for the vulnerable while still allowing them to be close to family and other caretakers. But there are locations in the City where they are not appropriate.
The locations in question are typically much smaller than a Ward or district. The fact of the matter is that in Calgary 85% of illegal secondary suites are currently in areas already zoned for them. The real problem is safety and the effect on the neighbourhood of particular suites on particular properties.
For example, if you live at the end of a small cul de sac and everyone is struggling to find parking for their vehicles already, adding a bunch of suites to those homes, along with the vehicles the new tenants have, would make everyone miserable and cause strife amongst all the neighbours. This is an example of an area where a secondary suite would be a bad idea. It’s perfectly possible that they would be fine a block or two over where parking isn’t really an issue.
So to be perfectly clear, I support them as a general rule anywhere in the city that it’s appropriate for the location, assuming they are made safely and their existence does not cause undue strife amongst the neighbours. It’s important to acknowledge that if you own property, you should be able to do with it as you please (safely). It’s only when the negative effect on the neighbours reaches a point where it’s not normal or reasonable that they should be able to affect your decisions.
Calgary City Council approves approximately 83% of secondary suite applications that are brought before them. This is actually the problem. Why is City Council doing this straightforward administrative task? It’s a waste of time to approve suites one at a time. Calgary City Council is not known for it’s effective time management and this process is making things even worse. I could see City Council providing an appeal option, but certainly not being the primary decision maker. Nearly 20% of all City Council time in meetings is spent on secondary suites.
Calgary is only major city in Canada that doesn’t have a blanket solution for secondary suites. It’s incredibly inefficient!
There are good reasons for not wanting a secondary suite in your neighbourhood: parking issues, a concern that the change in the demographics that lowers property values or increase crime rates, and privacy concerns. Because these can be contentious enough to involve entire Community Associations, City Council has kept dealing with these on a case by case basis. But by now we have enough data that we know what applications are likely to work and which require a hearing. We don’t need a hearing for all of them.
Concerns I believe we need to address are:
- The difference between secondary suites that are designed as money making businesses for absentee landlords versus (for example) an aging couple just wanting to stay in their home and get some help paying their bills. Absentee landlords should be treated, taxed and zoned as a commercial business.
- Safety, including making sure that the home does not exceed a safe number of people in it.
- Infrastructure – some areas of the city do not have sewer/water/electrical/parking systems capable of handling a bunch of new secondary suites in the area.
All of these things are best addressed on a more case by case basis rather than blanket zoning. Our land use department is perfectly capable of doing this and has all the resources it needs. City Council needs to provide specific guidance for how to handle it, then let them do their jobs.
A study conducted in May 2017 highlighted some disturbing trends that seemed to show that approvals for secondary suites at Council level tended to be influenced by how good of a story teller the applicant was and how well they spoke English, instead of purely fact-based decisions. This raises the concern that decisions may have have unintended racial / ethnic overtones. This is a particular concern when combined with a series of xenophobic and disturbing opposition submissions filed by people in 2016 suggesting that their neighbours should go back to their old country rather than build a secondary suite.
This should be a simple process with fair, clear, and consistent guidelines, not a time wasting, politically charged, human rights issue that results in honest, hardworking, Calgarians breaking down in tears in Council out of frustration. The entire secondary suites process in Calgary is in need of urgent reform.