Secondary Suites

Can Calgary put this debate to bed?

By Jeff Doherty

Like many Calgarians, Martin and Diane Tremblay live in a large suburban home that has more floor area than they need. After their two sons moved out, the walk-out basement, which backs onto Coral Springs Lake, was largely unused. The couple began exploring how the basement space could be altered to create a home for Martin’s aging mother. She could’ve simply joined her son and daughter-in-law as a roommate, but she wanted privacy. Even more significant, she wanted her own kitchen.

When a second kitchen is added to a single-family house, the new living area becomes a secondary suite. As defined by the City of Calgary, a secondary suite is a basement or garage unit that has sleeping, cooking and bathroom areas separate from the main dwelling. In some newer subdivisions the zoning allows secondary suites to be approved as a discretionary land use if the specific property meets minimum size requirements and has sufficient off-street parking. In those cases, approvals can be made by the City’s Planning and Development Authority. However, in most of Calgary’s subdivisions, including in Coral Springs, the rules prohibit secondary suites. If homeowners in these neighbourhoods want a secondary suite, the zoning of their home has to be changed by an application to City Council.

For the Tremblay family, this meant changing their zoning from contextual one-dwelling residential (R-C1) to contextual one-dwelling residential with a secondary suite (R-C1s). If council approves such an application, the “s” is added to the zoning and a secondary suite becomes a permitted land use for that specific property. The homeowner can then go ahead and apply for building, electrical, plumbing and gas permits. Inspectors ultimately need to ensure that the heating system, smoke detector and stove were installed correctly and are operating safely.

Getting approval from the City entailed notifying the Tremblays’ neighbours that there was a rezoning application in their area. The City also notified the community association. The neighbours were supportive once Martin explained the details—that he and his wife would still own and occupy the house and that it would be his mother living in the basement suite—but the community association was concerned about parking congestion and the precedent established by an approval. When Martin and his mother presented their case to council, all were in favour except councillors Jim Stevenson and Joe Magliocca, who often vote against individual rezoning applications.

Although the Tremblay family didn’t have unanimous support for their suite, they had followed the process as instructed and they did get approval. The planning department now publicly touts their approval as a success story. “I believe everybody should go through the process to ensure that their homes are safe,” says Martin Tremblay, in a video clip uploaded to the City’s YouTube channel.

The fact remains that the rezoning process is lengthy and expensive and the outcome is uncertain. Not all homeowners who want secondary suites are willing to go through the required steps, so they build illegal suites instead. The problem with an illegal suite is that the owners can’t apply for safety permits. The results can be tragic. In 2009 a Parkdale house fire killed three young adults, in part because their escape from the basement suite was blocked by security bars covering the windows. The horror could’ve been avoided with a simple safety inspection, but the City can’t issue a building permit and mandate safety inspections for a secondary suite it doesn’t know exists.

With this safety problem as their primary concern, many Calgarians think secondary suites should be permitted in all residential zones. The reasoning is that the city’s many illegal suites could finally be regulated and made safe. But another group of Calgarians just as large wants the City to leave their zoning alone. Their argument is that they purchased homes in one-dwelling residential neighbourhoods, and that’s the way they want the neighbourhood to stay. The resulting stalemate has confounded Calgary’s politicians for years.

“Legal secondary suites offer a safe, affordable and relatively quick solution to Calgary’s rental housing crisis that requires no government subsidies.” —Druh Farrell, Ward 7

When he was campaigning for the mayor’s office in 2010, Naheed Nenshi promised to finally put an end to the secondary suites debate. “This is one of those areas,” he explained in a campaign pitch, “where our city council could have acted decisively so long ago and they just haven’t.” With secondary suites reform at the top of his list of Better Ideas, Nenshi was unequivocal about the way forward: “We need to legalize secondary suites. We need to legalize them across the city, and we need to do it immediately.”

As mayor, Nenshi won considerable public support for blanket zoning—that is, for making secondary suites a permitted land use in all one-dwelling residential neighbourhoods. Early in 2011 a poll conducted by Zinc Research (commissioned by the University of Calgary Students Union) suggested that 75 per cent of Calgarians supported secondary suites in their neighbourhoods. Also on board were the Calgary Real Estate Board (CREB), the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Home Builders’ Association (Calgary Region). Even community associations long opposed to secondary suites began to come around to the idea of blanket zoning. The Springbank Hill Community Association, representing an upmarket suburban neighbourhood in the city’s southwest, stated that more secondary suites would provide more Calgarians with an opportunity to enjoy life in Springbank Hill.

In 2011 a Calgary homeowner suffering from multiple sclerosis was given the go-ahead for a basement suite so that she could continue to live at home and rely on a tenant to take care of the yard work. Nenshi expressed regret that it had taken 18 months and cost the homeowner thousands of dollars. The process had also required her to share intimate details of her life (her income and the details of her disability) in front of council on live television. The irony, Nenshi noted, was that she could have moved out and rented her house to a university fraternity with no requirement at all to notify City Hall.

But when a motion calling for city-wide approval of secondary suites was put before council in March 2011, it was defeated. The issue came back on the agenda in 2014–15, this time as a pilot project for blanket zoning in inner-city wards 7, 8, 9 and 11, and was defeated again, by a 9–6 vote. “Council has yet again kicked it down the field,” Nenshi said to reporters following the vote.

But it may not be fair to point fingers only at council. City councillors represent Calgarians, and, several weeks before the vote, a poll conducted by Mainstreet Technologies revealed that, on the question of going city-wide with secondary suites, Calgarians were statistically divided: 42 per cent for blanket zoning, 37 per cent against, and 21 per cent unsure. This led to speculation that some of the apparent public support in earlier polls was not enthusiasm for secondary suites so much as resignation that such suites were fated to exist, whether legally or otherwise.

According to an estimate used by City staff, there may be up to 16,000 illegal suites scattered among Calgary’s 280,000 one-dwelling detached residences. By contrast, the City’s registry of legal suites numbers in the hundreds. Such a lopsided statistic indicates a colossal failure to regulate on the part of the City of Calgary. But the alternative—having bylaw officers root out the illegal suites and thus put thousands of renters out of their homes—is not popular either. The upshot seems to be that, regardless of reviews, reports, plebiscites or polls, secondary suites are here to stay.

The economic and social benefits of Calgary’s illegal secondary suites are indisputable. Rental income helps offset homeowners’ mortgage costs. A separate living space allows families to keep their adult children or aging parents close—but not too close.

Secondary suites can also provide income in retirement, allowing seniors to stay in their homes as long as possible. In October 2015, for example, council approved a laneway house in Rutland Park. The applicant said he and his spouse had explored several options, including downsizing to a condominium, but settled on a secondary suite on the advice of a realtor. “We believe we can build a safe, comfortable retirement home and create a potential source of income for our retirement,” said the applicant, speaking to city councillors before they approved his proposal.

For renters, secondary suites increase the range of affordable housing options. While vacancy rates have increased during the current economic downturn, rents in Calgary remain among the highest in the nation, with two-bedroom apartments costing $1,319 a month on average. Such high housing costs are an economic and social drag.

That secondary suites could offer a reprieve for such renters is councillor Brian Pincott’s line of thinking. In his third term as councillor for Ward 11, he also chairs the board of the Calgary Housing Company. Like Nenshi, Pincott has long advocated for the social and economic benefits of going city-wide with secondary suites. While he’s careful to point out that secondary suites aren’t a cure-all for Calgary’s affordability gap, he draws attention to a benefit that is often overlooked: “We create two affordable units for every secondary suite we allow,” he says, adding that both units are created “using no taxpayer dollars.”

For urban planners, secondary suites encourage compact and sustainable growth, both of which are priority goals in Calgary’s Municipal Development Plan. Gregory Morrow is an assistant professor in the faculty of environmental design at the University of Calgary, where he specializes in urban design, land use reform and affordable housing. He’s also a citizen-at-large on the Calgary Planning Commission. As he explains, secondary suites provide a legal means to add “invisible density” that curbs urban sprawl without physically altering the character or built form of a neighbourhood. The extra people, he adds, contribute to a stronger customer base for local retailers, making neighbourhoods more sustainable.

Morrow suggests the benefits of secondary suites can be realized with little effect on neighbourhoods. He says that in cities with no restrictions (including Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa) the number of secondary suites is spread out in such a way that impact on property values, traffic and on-street parking has been minimal.

“I don’t believe in  a blanket rezoning for secondary suites. However, we should make applications as easy and as low cost as possible.” —Shane Keating, Ward 12

Given all the positive arguments for more secondary suites that have been in the local media over the years, why do so many Calgarians remain opposed to secondary suites? Morrow suspects it’s less about the suites and more about the people who live in them. “Much of the opposition to secondary suites is a proxy for anxiety about renters generally,” he suggests.

Morrow isn’t the only Calgarian to pick up on the anti-renter sentiment. In a recent Metro Calgary column on the topic, the writer was more direct: “The way some city councillors talk, you would think Calgarians who don’t own property are dangerous parasites bent on spoiling communities wherever they can.” It’s a fair observation. Indeed, Calgary’s daily newspapers have published more than a few letters to the editor where naysaying homeowners openly blame renters for, among other things, parking disagreements, front yard furniture and general disrepair.

It may be true that some homeowners in Calgary do not like renters as a group, but it is unlikely that all of the opposition to secondary suites is mean-spirited. For many Calgarians, the push for blanket zoning is an affront to something else that they hold sacrosanct: their homeownership.

A large majority of Calgarians are not renters. According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), 74 per cent of Calgarians own their own homes. This compares to 71 per cent in Edmonton, 68 per cent in Winnipeg and Toronto and 55 per cent in Montreal. At the same time, the median house price in Calgary is $425,000, making it one of the most expensive markets in the nation. That Calgarians continue to purchase homes in this environment illustrates that they believe strongly in home ownership.

A neighbourhood’s zoning should be an important consideration when buying a house. It is understandable, therefore, that homeowners would be sensitive about after-the-fact zoning changes, especially if they believe rezoning could negatively affect their property value or their quality of life. Some go so far as to argue that zoning changes to allow secondary suites amount to an unfair and uncompensated expropriation of the value of what they purchased. While it might be difficult for some of those homeowners to specifically identify and describe what they have lost, their position isn’t entirely without principle or merit.

Eran Kaplinsky teaches property and planning law in the Faculty of Law at the University of Alberta. As he explains, zoning spells out what homeowners can and cannot do on their property, and it is part of what they acquire at the time of purchase. Without zoning rules, nothing would stop your neighbour from operating a dog kennel in her garage, for example. The purpose of zoning, according to Kaplinsky, is to protect property values and enhance community welfare. “Zoning mimics what private owners would do among themselves if they could,” he says.

While council is responsible for zoning decisions, some Calgarians don’t trust the process. At a recent public hearing, activist and frequent political candidate Larry Heather spoke to council about the lack of information before them as they deliberated whether to allow a suite on an R1 property in Evergreen. “How do we know how many illegal secondary suites are on that street?” he asked. That his question went unanswered supports the suggestion that centrally made decisions can have little sensitivity to local circumstances or neighbourhood values.

Ward 2 councillor Joe Magliocca rarely votes in favour of secondary suites, out of consideration for the homeowners in the communities he represents. “They bought in R1 for a reason,” he says. “They paid a premium for that and want to keep it that way.” Magliocca would prefer that the zoning of the city’s established neighbourhoods be left alone. “We have areas zoned for secondary suites,” he says, referencing the newer neighbourhoods where secondary suites are a discretionary use. “Let’s fill them up first.”

At public hearings Mayor Nenshi often has to remind neighbours speaking against rezoning applications to limit their comments to the secondary suite itself. If he doesn’t they go on at length about how renters change the character of a neighbourhood by neglecting the grass or by parking older model vehicles on the street. Council often refuses to rezone for a secondary suite when these types of concerns are raised. From Pincott’s perspective this is discrimination. “We’re imposing restrictions on renters that we wouldn’t put on owners,” he says. While some opponents of secondary suites are careful to couch their arguments to avoid saying as much, a good many would probably think that this kind of discrimination is justified.

“Legalizing secondary suits makes sense if in new communities, potential homeowners know their community is zoned as such and suites are built to code.” —Joe Magliocca, Ward 2.

Where does this leave us? Elected officials at all levels of government make public policy changes that are unpopular but necessary. Does blanket zoning for secondary suites fit into that category? We know that secondary suites, both legal and illegal, are here to stay. We also know that roughly half of Calgarians support secondary suites in their neighbourhoods. Unless there’s going to be a massive crackdown on illegal suites, which is highly unlikely, the duty to act in citizens’ interest demands that council go city-wide with secondary suites so that homeowners can get their illegal suites brought up to code, thus eliminating a serious safety hazard. If council doesn’t do this, if they continue to postpone meaningful action, they should expect that owners of illegal suites will only do the same.

As Calgary continues to engage in this debate, the rest of Canada is moving on. The CMHC recently announced it will factor in 100 per cent of secondary-suite rental income when qualifying homebuyers for mortgages. To be eligible the owner must prove that the suite meets municipal regulations—which would exclude most of the secondary suites in Calgary. Over time this may make other cities more attractive to young people pursuing career and family.

In most Canadian cities secondary suites are a non-issue. In 2014 CMHC surveyed 650 Canadian municipalities and found that more than 8 out of 10 permitted secondary suites in some form; more than half of those that didn’t were rural municipalities. When other cities have gone ahead with blanket zoning, the sky hasn’t fallen. Edmonton allows secondary suites in all low-density residential neighbourhoods, and Saskatoon and Regina have no restrictions at all. These cities remain great places to live and great places to invest in residential real estate.

But despite the apparent stalemate following the defeat of the pilot project in wards 7, 8, 9 and 11, progress has since been made in Calgary on the secondary suites file. The City announced recently that it will waive development permit application fees to encourage owners of illegal suites to make their suites safe. City staff also recently launched a secondary suites registry in the form of a searchable online database that prospective renters can use to check if the suite they’re interested in is legal and safe.

These incremental measures may decrease the number of illegal suites and increase the number overall that are safe and legal. Maybe a future election will shake up city council and blanket zoning will finally become a reality. Brian Pincott, for one, contends that secondary suites neither ruin neighbourhoods as opponents contend, nor dramatically increase the availability of affordable housing as proponents often claim. It’s ironic that one of Calgary’s most intensely debated public policy issues may also be one of the most quickly forgotten when it’s finally settled.

Jeff Doherty lives in Lethbridge. His previous story for Alberta Views, on urban oil and gas drilling, ran in the April 2015 issue.

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