The path to legal secondary suites in Calgary may get a little easier, in some neighbourhoods.

A report released by the City’s planning department is recommending changes to the way the suites are handled. City bureaucrats have suggested easing permit requirements in certain districts, such as areas within walking distance of major transit stops and postsecondary schools.

“What the recommendation in the report was suggesting is that we do an overall review of the rules and regulations,” said Cliff De Jong, senior special projects manager for the City of Calgary.

Among the changes recommended by De Jong is a reinstatement of the secondary suite grant program, which reimbursed homeowners for safety upgrades made to their suites. The program provides up to $25,000 to cover 70 per cent of the costs of developing or upgrading an existing secondary suite.

Funding for the program was fully allocated in 2012 and there are no plans in place to introduce more, although homeowners are able to put their names on a waitlist in case someone drops out of the program.

The other recommendation made by De Jong is to ease the restrictions allowing suites to meet building codes, although he stresses the need to ensure safety.

“Right now, there’s a number of different relatively daunting processes when you’re talking about a homeowner and trying to get them to come into compliance,” he said.

Fire and building inspectors checked 50 basement or backyard units in 2012 as part of the City’s Suite Safety Approach pilot, and nearly half of the homeowners opted to shut down their suites rather than try to wade through Calgary’s complicated and expensive rules around bringing units up to code. Under the project, the City selected 50 sample suites at random across all land use districts. Homeowners were then asked to schedule an assessment with the City, at which point they would be informed of any changes required to make the suite compliant.

“To be honest, if you dig into them the numbers are worse, because we had 18 of the suite owners essentially either drop out immediately or declare that it’s a vacant suite that they weren’t going to bother renting,” he said, adding that of the 32 remaining suites instpected, 25 had significant safety issues.

Approval of new suites in Calgary has proved to be a contentious topic since Mayor Naheed Nenshi made their increased acceptance a campaign issue during the 2010 mayoral election. Some city aldermen claimed secondary suites lead to increased traffic and a decreased sense of community.

David Watson, former general manager, City Planning, Development & Assessment and current president and CEO of Attainable Homes, doesn’t think the argument holds water.

“I still don’t buy the argument that that is the end of a community by allowing it,” he said. “I mean Edmonton’s an example. They’ve got [secondary suites] up there and it hasn’t changed the place dramatically, and frankly from a safety point of view I’d rather have legal secondary suites than what we have now, which is a real hodgepodge.”

In Edmonton, bylaw changes have resulted in the approval of more than 1,000 secondary suites since 2009. Over the same period, Calgary has approved just 240. In a February interview on CBC Radio, Nenshi listed secondary suites as the “number one way” the city could bolster the amount of rental housing in the city. In October, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation showed the apartment vacancy rate in the city was just 1.3 per cent, ranking below only Regina and Thunder Bay as the tightest market in the country. Coupled with the fact the city’s rental stock has declined from 34,814 to 34,212 over the same period and with the city’s population increasing, it’s easy to understand renters in and around the city are having trouble.

“I have found the rental market to be especially tight here,” said Adena Cheverie, who rents a secondary suite in Airdrie. “There is not a lot on the market and when a great option comes along there is usually a number of people interested in renting. And then it becomes a matter of selling yourself as the best choice for the owner.”

In addition to helping to boost the number of rental units, Cheverie said secondary suites often help make the goal of owning your own home more realistic by making mortgage payments less onerous.

CREB® president Becky Walters said the suites can also provide benefits outside of the financial realm.

“This is a topic that is very important to REALTORS® and their clients in several different ways,” she said. “As a REALTOR®, it makes sense for some of my clients to have a secondary suite to help them stay in their home longer with the added income, and sometimes the physical help, of a tenant they require.

“For some of my buyers, it would allow them to have the money needed to keep their property better maintained and improve their value.”

See CREB®now’s previous blogs on Secondary Suites here: Mayor Nenshi to Revisit Secondary Suites Issue Secondary Suites Questions Remain City Announces Suite Safety Pilot Program