University of Calgary Students' Union president Levi Nilson believes some progress was made this year on improving safety around secondary suites safer, but feels more needs to be done. Photo by Michelle Hofer/for CREB®Now

A look back at secondary suites in 2015

City council made gains over the past year on encouraging development of legal and safe secondary suites in Calgary, but the topic continued to be a contentious issue for many.

While council approved relaxations to secondary suites regulations in two areas in late November, it also rejected a bid earlier in the year to legalize suites in four central wards.

This year also saw the introduction of a registry program and development permit exemption, both initiatives aimed at bringing more safe properties to the city.

Looking back on the year, Coun. Druh Farrell, who has long championed secondary suites, said some progress was made.

“We continue to debate secondary suites one at a time in council, which is a poor use of our time, but each time we’ve debated the suite policy, we’ve moved forward incrementally,” Farrell said in a recent interview. “We take small steps forward. What seemed radical a few years ago is now more common.”

Those steps included council voting to relax the regulations on lot size, and increase the amount of floor space allowed in basement suites from 75 to 100 square metres. The changes are expected to take effect next year.

Not all news was good news. In May, the Calgary Fire Department laid charges against two property owners for offences related to two illegal secondary suites, after the fire department responded to fires started in the two suites.

And in June, in a 9-6 vote, councillors defeated a proposed bylaw that would have made it legal for property owners in four central wards – 7, 8, 9 and 11 – to build secondary suites.

University of Calgary Students’ Union president Levi Nilson, pictured, said the move was “very disappointing.”

“That would have been fantastic for student,” he said. “Every post-secondary [institute] in the city lies in those four wards, and we know many students live in secondary suites, and many are illegal.”

Nilson said some progress was made this year on improving safety around secondary suites safer, but more needs to be done.

“We want to see full legalization, citywide,” he said. “Small changes here and there are great, but we are so far behind every other major city on the continent in this area.

“It’s something we’ll still push for, and will push for long past the time I’ll be in my post because it’s something students are going to be using for years to come.”

In September, the city launched an 18-month development permit exemption to makes it less expensive, faster and easier for homeowners to develop legal and safe secondary suites.

If properties have the proper zoning and meet all the requirements of the land-use bylaw, the development permit application and fee is waived – saving homeowners an estimated $2,200, plus weeks in approval time, according to the City.

The exemption, which runs until March 3, 2017, is also intended to bring more illegal suites up to minimum safety standards.

A secondary suite registry and sticker program also launched this year. Properties that have been inspected by the City and meet numerous safety requirements under Alberta’s building code appear on an online, searchable registry, and owners are issued a numbered sticker.

By mid-December, 451 secondary suites were listed.

As awareness of secondary suites increases, so too does acceptance and the number of people applying for them, said Farrell.

“With all the drama has come more awareness, and that’s been helpful,” she said. “The more applications we see, the more commonplace they are, the less fear there is on the impact on the community. People are starting to realize the benefit.”