Calgary’s suite life

The past, present and future of secondary suites in the city

Calgary is a city on the move. Energy sector uncertainty aside, cranes continue to dot the skyline and new communities continue to blossom along the outskirts.

However, despite years of debate, a familiar topic seems poised to remain as a burr under the saddle of the “Heart of the New West” – secondary suites.

Most recently, a council committee was tasked this week with determining whether to hold a plebiscite that would let the public decide whether suites should be allowed in neighbourhoods they’re currently not zoned for. With an estimated price tag of $2 million, reports suggested city staff was fully opposed to the option.

For some, it feels the secondary suite debate has been milling about in Calgary since the RCMP first settled here in 1875. In one of the more memorable council meetings, Coun. Druh Farrell likened the whole process to “giving birth to a chair.”

To the west, Cochrane has blanket approval of suites on a first-come, first-serve basis to a maximum of 10 per cent of the lots in a neighbourhood. To the north, Edmonton approves suites with regularity, rarely seeing an issue in allowing them.

“As far as the negative impacts in Edmonton, I haven’t seen really any to speak of,” Daryl Kreuzer, senior planner with the City of Edmonton, told CREB®Now last June. “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 552 secondary suites.

More than 53 per cent of homes in Calgary are currently zoned RC1 or R1, prohibiting secondary suites. The City was on pace to approve 150 suites in 2014 compared to 178 created, and 62 in development, between 2009 and 2012, when Calgary had a secondary suite grant program. In comparison, Edmonton approved 1,396 suites between 2010 and 2013 under their Cornerstones program.

Last September, a standing policy committee’s proposal to streamline secondary suite approval was voted down 4-4 (as a tie in council means no).

“There’s been some talk about not legalizing any aspects of secondary suites until we make them legal first,” said City general manager Rollin Stanley. “It’s important to remember our current policy is, in fact, driving suites underground. It is adding to our housing problem. It is not creating legal suites and it is not making suites safe.”

Then, in December 2014, amid low vacancy rates, high absorption rates in the resale condo sectors and dwindling supply in the single-detached market, council again voted against suite reforms.

Calgary’s vacancy rate was among the country’s lowest in 2014, hovering around one per cent for most of the year before improving slightly to 1.4 per cent late in the year. The 8-7 vote prompted Mayor Naheed Nenshi to declare he’d leave the room for future secondary suite debates.

The vote also set off a firestorm of criticism from several organizations, including the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.

“The Chamber is highly disappointed that city council failed to move secondary suites forward,” Chamber president and CEO Adam Legge said at the time.

“Eight members of city council blew an important opportunity to make Calgary a better place to live, work and grow a business. Several council members displayed an utter lack of concern for the issues businesses face in our city.”

If endorsed, the framework of that vote would have established a discretionary development permit process for suites where they were currently not allowed, as well as furthered public consultation with Calgarians to fully develop regulations moving forward.

Fast-forward to May 15 when some headway was made after a motion by Coun. Shane Keating was approved in a 9-6 vote after more than 10 hours of debate.

First reading passed on a new bylaw that will apply to Wards 7, 8, 9 and 11. If passed, those wishing to apply for a suite in those wards, which are comprised of 83 communities, could begin with a development permit instead of appearing before council.

“What I see here is a step in the right direction,” said Keating.

Moving forward, however, several councillors still feel a streamlined approval process isn’t the right way to go with suites in Calgary.

“Blanket approval will not empower anyone to bring illegal suites into compliance,” said Coun. Andre Chabot.

“The city currently has more than 80,000 properties that have the appropriate land use for secondary suites, and yet many of these properties currently contain illegal suites, which are evident from the fact that there are less than 500 legal suites in Calgary. This demonstrates that it is not the land use preventing secondary suites from becoming legal.”

Secondary suites return to council June 29.

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