A tale of two cities

Contrasting secondary suite acceptance in Alberta’s two major centres

* Part three of a three part series on secondary suites in Calgary 

Once restricted to hockey rinks and football fields, the Battle of Alberta is now playing out on the streets of the province’s two major cities.

While the final score is not in yet, Edmonton has jumped out as the early leader in its acceptance of legal secondary suites.

In fact, while Calgary has been embroiled in debate over the suites for years – even before Mayor Naheed Nenshi made it a priority during his first campaign in 2010 – Edmonton’s acceptance has been virtually text book.

“As far as the negative impacts in Edmonton, I haven’t seen really any to speak of,” said Daryl Kreuzer, senior
planner with the City of Edmonton. “If anything, I think the illegality of these suites, in the absence of legal methods to make them work, probably has a more negative effect on everyone concerned.”

Between 2006 and 2011, Edmonton’s Cornerstones plan – designed to increase safe, affordable housing options for lower income households in the city – helped create and upgrade 553 secondary suites in the city. Under the program, homeowners could receive up to $20,000 (up to 50 per cent) toward construction costs of upgrading or developing a secondary suite.

Edmonton has since extended the project, launching Cornerstones II last year with a goal of creating or upgrading an additional 450 secondary suites. In total, the number of approved development permits in the city between 2010 and 2013 numbered 1,396.

Calgary’s biggest stumbling block to approving more secondary suites is sourced to zoning restrictions. A recent study by the Calgary Journal showed just eight of the 20 zoning appeals for secondary suites filed during Nenshi’s first term were approved by the City.

According to Kreuzer, Edmonton homeowners looking to add suites to their homes don’t have to overcome the same sort of zoning hurdles.

“Secondary suites fall under the permitted-use category in basically all residential zones, with the exception of mobile homes,” said Kreuzer. “So it’s largely permitted throughout the city. We don’t break the city up into geographic zones for that, so it’s a citywide thing.”

The City of Calgary ran its own secondary-suite grant program between 2009 and 2012. The $6-million program provided grants of up to $25,000 to cover up to 70 per cent of the costs of developing or upgrading legal secondary suites.

Unlike Edmonton, however, Calgary’s program created 178 suites, with another 62 under development. And unlike its neighbour to the north, Calgary has no current plans to reinstate the program.

The lack of movement on the issue, especially when it comes to greater relaxation of zoning bylaws, has been a bone of contention for Nenshi since he first took office in 2010.

“[Calgary] and Burnaby B.C. are the only cities in Canada where we have not gone down this path,” said Nenshi, whose appeals for citywide acceptance of the suites has met with great debate at City Hall.

“And no, there’s nothing that makes our market different. We just have had a council that has not had the political courage to act on this.”

As one of four inner-city councillors who recently launched a bid that would see zoning limits on the suites lifted on single-family homes in Wards 7, 8, 9 and 11, Ward 7 Coun. Druh Farrell believes Calgary needs to change its ways.

“We’re getting a lot of applications for them and we have a very cumbersome system on approving them,” said Farrell, whose motion goes before council on June 9.

“Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto and Victoria allow them in all parts of the city, and Calgary is lagging behind. Most cities are incredulous that Calgary hasn’t moved forward on this because it provides rental housing with no subsidy from the taxpayer. It’s a market solution.”

The appeal of secondary suites was a key factor in Bryan Backman- Beharry’s decision to add a basement unit to his home last year.

“The mortgage payments would have eaten up a very high percentage of our gross income,” said Backman-
Beharry, who constructed his suite with help from the City of Calgary’s secondary suite grant program.

For Backman-Beharry, having a safe, legal and approved suite rather than operating an illegal suite was an important designation.

“We have eliminated the risk of having a critical source of income abruptly cut off. If we were renting an illegal suite, it could be shut down if reported to the city,” he said. “Also, we know that the suite is safe and meets all fire codes.”

Echoing the need for suites that meet all of the city’s criteria, CREB® president Bill Kirk believes a clearer
course of action would benefit everyone involved. “REALTORS® are concerned about our clients — and these clients include landlords, tenants and investors too,” he said.

“We believe that a clear, consistent, and transparent secondary suite application process across all municipalities would benefit everyone. In the end, the right of people to safe and healthy homes is paramount.
We all need to work together to keep Albertans safe.”

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