Council tackles stereotypes, discrimination and myths about secondary suites with facts and statistics

Studio-North-DesignThumb2Impassioned debate over secondary suite reform concluded Tuesday with a 9-6 vote by city councillors to approve a contentious first reading of a land use bylaw for Wards 7, 8, 9, and 11 aimed at streamlining the approval process by creating supplemental rental units.

Both sides dug their heels in for a 10-hour clash at city hall between conservative assumptions and whimsical reasoning on the issue of re-zoning low-density areas in the city’s four core districts. This decision will affect 83 communities.

 While council awaits three more reports after producing amendments to the bylaw, since the council last dealt with the issue in December, the legalization of secondary suites in Calgary is farther ahead than ever.

“This process is really broken,” says Evan Woolley, councillor for Ward 8 during yesterday’s debate. “And I’m hoping, while this isn’t a perfect step, this is a step forward.”

But the same pressing issues regarding clarity and muddled public knowledge surround secondary suite reform as council steers the discussion forward.

The three reports promise the key to a more congruent council vote June 29 when second and third readings of the bylaw will be considered.

This new bylaw approved for first reading had city council tossing and turning, as councillors carefully placed their votes in a long-drawn debate indicative of thought and care, or confusion.

But council was able to arrive at a compromise despite the complexity and time dedicated to reach this balance between the two sides.

Since December, city administration has contributed four staff members to tackling the requested bylaw amendments. These individuals have dedicated 165 hours of work with the support of over $150,000 to this project. This effort culminated in yesterday’s decision.

“We’re seven years off pilot,” Coun. Sean Chu, Ward 4 inputs. “We’ve come to council 38 times, why do we keep bringing it up? When it gets voted down twice or three times, that should be enough.”

The proposed blanket re-zoning of low-density areas in these four inner city wards aims to fast track secondary suite approval by simplifying the application process.Map-of-WardsMap of low-density areas in Wards 7, 8, 9, and 11 presented to council by City Wide Policy and Integration are targets of new secondary suite reform approval to Bylaw 14P2015.

Photo courtesy of City Wide Policy and Integration

“This rule is complex and I think the average Calgarian looks at these rules and regulations and choses not to apply,” says Mitchell Irving, a homeowner in Ward 10 during the discussion. “The unwritten statistic is that the people who educate themselves and realize it’s too complex, and they’re not going to do it.”

The proposed changes circumnavigate re-designation approval from council. By sidestepping this process, the Calgary Planning Commission hopes to expedite the time required for approval and entice landowners to re-designate their homes and basement suites. Without this step, homeowners are able to start the Development Permit and Building Permit processes immediately.

Cliff de Jong, senior special projects officer at the City of Calgary, says suites built before 2007 only have to comply with Alberta Fire Code. He estimates that in order to meet these bylaws, it will cost older suite owners $10,000 to $15,000. This is 50 per cent less than Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s approximations for the cost for installing a secondary suite.

Cost is not the only reason illegal secondary suite owners remain in the shadows. Current Land Use and Development Permit processes discourage owners from filing re-designation applications, says de Jong.

“I know a lot of people who would like to spend the money to have their suites legalized,” says Teddy MacPherson, a Calgary property manager. “There is a fear factor of people coming forward to say that they have an illegal suite, and then there is the second factor that it’s not being policed, nobody is coming down hard.”

Only 568 suites have received approval over the past seven years, Coun. Chu says.

There are currently 32,000 available secondary suites throughout the city, and of these 43 to 45 per cent reside in the four wards. Calgary Municipal Land Corporation estimates 16,000 illegal secondary suite units exist, although Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Coun. Druh Farrell believe the number actually exceeds 25,000.

“One of our major issues right now is that we have 16,000 or more illegal suites that aren’t safe and we’re still not addressing that issue,” says Coun. Ward Sutherland, representing Ward 1. “We need to come up with one agency that’s able to protect the renter, protect the landlord, and protect the neighbour.”

Coun. Diane Colley-Urquhart also questions the effectiveness of this pilot project in bringing illegal suites forward without the proper measures taken to research this issue.

“Our concern isn’t how big the pool is,” says Rollin Stanley, general manager for Planning, Development and Assessment. “We know there are a lot of illegal units. It far outweighs any we have seen come in through the legal process. What we’re trying to do is get more of them legalized.”

While Stanley is trying to get more suites legalized, he was unwilling to anticipate the number of owners of illegal suites that will apply.

“You cannot put a dollar value on that uncertainty,” says Michelle Pink, owner and founder of Think Pink! Real Estate Solutions, a local real estate consulting company. “I wouldn’t likely change an illegal suite to a legal suite. The economics usually aren’t there because you’d have the downtime of vacating that tenant, then you’d have to undo everyone else’s work, essentially, so it’s actually easier to start from scratch.”

Coun. Sutherland highlights the confusion between suites being illegal due to zoning or safety concerns, and the negligence in not making this distinction clear.

The misconceptions, myths and lack of clarity clouding the rhetoric around secondary suites impact the polarization between opponents and supporters.

“The idea ‘not in my backyard;’ [that] we don’t want secondary suites because of these issues that are going to come along with it. We’ve created the rhetoric and the mentality,” says Pink, “now it’s up to us to change it.”

The opposition comments during the public hearing got off to a rocky start, while speakers used stereotypes to support their perspectives.

“We fall down as a society where we suddenly seem to forget that, ‘Hey wait, I was a renter too, I may be an okay person, and now that I’m not a renter anymore, was I really such a crappy person when I was a renter?’” says Coun. Brian Pincott. “We’ve all at one time or another been a renter. There are very few people who leave living with Mom and Dad and buy a house.”

Coun. Farrell followed this line of reasoning with matching sympathy.

“There is a tremendous amount of myth out there on who is actually looking for these suites and who will be living in them,” she says.

She refers to the broad cross-section of Calgarians applying for suites – A lot of which are intended for seniors rather than rental income.

Young architects, Mark Erickson and Matthew Kennedy, owners of Studio North, a local design build practice, share their visions for a diversified inner city community.

“It makes it more accessible, especially in neighbourhoods where in the 1960s a lot of the same homeowners still live, and there are these aging communities,” says Kennedy. “It allows another option for them to develop a secondary suite or a laneway house.”Studio-North-DesignMark Erickson and Matthew Kennedy shared their vision with council, on Thursday May 12 for a more diversified inner city community. This mock up for futuristic laneway houses mirrors forward planning initiatives dedicated to handling Calgary’s vast suburban sprawl.

Photo courtesy of Studio North Inc.

The pair is restoring Calgary’s historic Heritage House in Parkdale with the renovations of a Laneway home. They want to live in a human-centric community opposed to car-centric city.

Linda MacFarlene, a senior Elbow Park resident, also shared her thoughts on the need for extended living spaces for the elderly, and the benefits discretionary suites offer Calgarians when it comes to the option for maintaining their independence between the nuclear family generations.

But the longer secondary suite reform awaits approval, the longer vulnerable populations, like seniors, the homeless, students, new immigrant families, and single parents have to live in a tight rental market.

“A lot of city councillors are more concerned with where we park our cars than where people are sleeping,” says Dennis Ram, chairman of the board of directors at SAIT’s students association.

With Calgary’s population projected to grow by an average of 30,000 people per year, over the next five years, the issue of affordable and safe housing must be addressed.

In 2014, 77 per cent of 605 Canadian municipalities permitted secondary suites.

In Vancouver and Edmonton, secondary suites make up a fifth of the rental stock. With 55 per cent of first-time homebuyers purchasing single-family homes in the last two years, the metrics for secondary suite availability in the inner city low-density areas is a viable solution.

Research is still needed to address the topics brought forth by councillors, administration and the public when council discusses the topic again on June 29.

Have a look at an investigation by the Calgary Journal on secondary suites at:

The editor responsible for this article is Ali Hardstaff at 

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