Secondary Suites (or How to Listen and Give Voice to Peoples Concerns)

Let me be the first to say I am completely in favour of Secondary Suites (typically basement suites), Garden Cabins or Lane Way Housing (often known as Mother In Law Suites) as well as other forms of market based housing that are typically less expensive than apartment and single family rental housing.

Secondary suites in Calgary,  whether legal or not, provide a significant amount of housing for people of modest means.

Legalizing secondary suites and improving the approval process for new secondary suites throughout Calgary is necessary to provide more options for this form of housing for a few key reasons:

  1. Legalization gives Tenants rights. When living in illegal suites, tenants have no recourse to their landlords for unsafe conditions (or anything else for that matter). If tenants in illegal suites complain, landlords can simply threaten them with eviction. If legalized, tenants can have recourse as per tenants in any legal suite. Landlords can be required to remove safety hazards for instance.
  2. Legalization gives oversight agencies options. Fire, Bylaw and Police are loathe to shutdown illegal suites, no matter how unsafe. They know that by doing so they are likely evicting tenants in to a state of homelessness – even with the relatively highy vacancy rate in Calgary over the last two years. With legalization, these same agencies have tools to work with landlords, tenants and the community to enforce safety and other rules.
  3. Blanket legalization should improve the approval process and increase stock of housing. Many home owners would like to have a secondary suite in their home but with the process so cumbersome, they often avoid putting in a secondary suite all together or do it on the sly without the proper approvals. Young Families and first time home owners can often use a “Mortgage Helper” suite when they first buy their home. Elderly couples and Empty Nesters often have excess space in their homes that could easily accommodate a tenant to supplement their fixed incomes.

Despite the many good reasons to move forward with legalizing secondary suites, of which the above are only a few, the proponents for secondary suites on Calgary Council have not been able to move the dial on this issue at all. They can trot out all the good reasons they want, how Edmonton (yes, THAT city), Vancouver, Toronto and others have all moved forward on this issue with community support and no political backlash against council members that vote for legalization. They can allow bureaucrats to wrap it up in a grab bag of other housing crunch solutions as was reported back in 2013. They can also stomp up and down and say that “It is simply the right thing to do!” and hold their breathe until they turn a certain shade of indigo in Ward 7 and hope all their supporters on this issue don’t notice that their righteous indignation has not changed reality on the ground one iota.

Why? Because they don’t know how to incorporate the concerns of residents of R1 (Single Family Housing only) zoning in to their solutions.

It does not matter that the vast majority of Calgarians want secondary suites legalized, that there are a pantheon of good reasons to legalize them, that R1 neighborhoods are a small minority of Calgary housing stock or that secondary suites are not going to pop up over night in to every second basement in R1 neighborhoods and ruin their neighborhoods. What does matter is that R1 home owners do have a point – and it is a simple one based on basic democratic principles – that democracy may be about the will of the people, but it is not about the tiranny of the majority. In this case, the majority already live in neighborhoods that ostensibly allows for secondary suites (though they are far from all being legal). Many R1 owners argue that they purposely purchased in Single Family zoned neighborhoods for that specific life style and they do not want that taken away from them. Many council members agree with them, and not just because R1 home owners tend to be better off, more likely to contribute to election campaigns, more likely to vote or are louder at public forums.

To move forward, the City must:

  1. Implement a blanket policy that legalizes secondary suites. It remains the right thing to do.
  2. Give voice to owners/residents in R1 neighborhoods. And when I say voice – I mean a real, concrete format to allow R1 neighborhoods to opt out of the blanket policy if they so choose, such as:
  3. Localized Democracy. Allow R1 neighbors to force a write in vote on secondary suites if they collect, say 20%, of their neighbors signatures on a petition. For the opt out to succeed, the write in vote would require a threshold of 50% + 1 of all their neighbors to write in opting out of the new secondary suites for their neighborhood only. There are many details that would have to be ironed out – the wording of the ballot question, the exact parameters of the neighborhood being polled, who would be able to vote, time frame for ballots to be received, amongst many more. It must be a secret ballot to ensure responses are not unduly influenced by proponents and opponents on the issue.

The above would allow for Calgary to move forward on Secondary Suites.

Democracy is messy, but it is well worth it.


4 thoughts on “Policy”

  1. Secondary suites in the form of lanehousing has been a problem in our community in that lanehouses very negatively effect the surrounding neighbours in terms of privacy and shadowing and in some cases just plain massive, ugly design. The City has approved permits in spite of neighbour and community objection. To add insult to injury, every lanehouse in our community has not been built according to plan and has had to have bylaw relaxations after the fact to legalize variances. Having neighbours fighting over insensitive lanehousing has been horrible for community spirit. I hope your secondary suite policy will include more stringent lanehouse design criteria.

    1. Hi Kara,

      Thanks for this note. I have discussed this with Parkdale residents and heard the same issues and concerns about the approval process not taking their views into consideration (even when they are in favour of lane housing – just better design or lot placement) – I agreed with them that this must be improved, not just for better consultation, but actual impact on outcomes. All secondary style housing, whether laneway, garden/mother-in-law or basement need to fit well within the neighbourhood, minimizing overlooking and other privacy issues and address parking issues on site, or be relegated to end of block locations where on street parking is more abundant.

      You are the first to mention that many are not built according to plan and get post relaxations for variances from plan. But I am not surprised as this is so common for regular home development. Both situations need to end. That can only happen with real repercussions such as a need to bring it back to original plan.

      I look forward to working with you and your neighbours to determine better overall design criteria.

  2. I have a couple questions about the blanket approval you’re proposing. First, do you favour any minimum lot size for qualifying for a suite? For example, would a 25 foot lot with a detached house be allowed a suite? What about a semi-detached on the same size lot?

    Also, given the distinction you make between R1 and R2 neighbourhoods, what do you propose where a neighbourhood has both? For example, in Montgomery, there are blocks that are R1 on one side and R2 on the opposite side of the street.

    1. Thanks Darren for the note and questions. Excellent points all. I do not favour a minimum lot size – but I do believe we have to retain the ability to accommodate parking on site of at least 1 per unit – which would essentially require a minimum 25 foot lot, whether detached or semi-detached.

      Regarding mixed neighbourhoods – and most R1 neighbourhoods are mixed with other zoning, however limited. It would only be the R1 neighbours voting on whether to allow secondary suites in their portion of the neighbourhood. Their decision would not impact the allowance for R2 neighbours to have secondary suites.

      There will not be a rush in any neighbourhoods towards additional secondary suites with the blanket legalization/approval. If there is, it would be a first in cities across Canada that have moved in this direction. Given our relatively high vacancy rates in Calgary, there is nothing to suggest that we would be anything different. What the approval would allow, however, are for tenants in existing secondary suites to suddenly have rights, landlords to have confidence to be able invest in safety upgrades and neighbours to have recourse to address grievances.

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