A recent pilot project from City Hall has once again cast a spotlight on the hotly contested issue of secondary suites in Calgary. One of Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s major talking points during his 2010 campaign, the citywide legalization of secondary suites, remains an unrealized goal as the Mayor comes to the end of his term.

Although city council agreed in April to allow the suites in all new neighbourhoods, it’s unlikely such a move will make much of a dent in Calgary’s hot rental market.

Bryan Backman-Beharry is one of those Calgarians whose home purchase was aided by the option of adding a legal secondary suite. Having already tackled the biggest hurdle by purchasing a home already zoned to allow secondary suites (RC2 as opposed to RC1, where secondary suites are not allowed) – Backman-Beharry’s southwest home contained a pre-existing suite that the first-time homeowner hoped would be grandfathered in.

“The fact that the home had an existing suite, albeit illegal, was a significant factor in our decision to purchase the home,” said Backman-Beharry, who purchased the home along with his fiancée earlier this year. “The home was outside our budget, but we decided that income from the suite would enable us to make up the difference in time.”

Due to changes made to the suite over the last 60 years, the suite was not granted legal status. After the previous owner informed him of the City of Calgary’s Secondary Suites Grant Program, which offers a grant of up to $25,000 to cover 70 per cent of the costs of developing or upgrading a legal, Backman-Beharry decided to make the necessary changes to legalize the suite.

In Backman-Beharry’s case, those changes required installing a second furnace, a different type of window in the suite bedroom to meet fire code requirements, adding lights and handrails to front and back entrance steps, fire/smoke separation between the suite and the home and interconnected smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.

Along with the significant financial cost of the process, which – along with more cosmetic changes to the suite – has cost Backman-Beharry over $40,000, the effort involved in legalizing his suite has been substantial.

“Well, getting everything going is very time consuming – it’s like having a part-time job,” said Backman- Beharry, who estimates that his suite is 65 per cent completed. “One of the hardest parts of the entire process was fully understanding the requirements to make a suite legal, and meeting the stringent requirements for the development permit. The process would have been much easier if only a building permit were needed.”

Under the City’s Secondary Suite Pilot Program, 50 homes across the city will be inspected for relevant permits, land-use designation, provincial fire and building code standards. Inspectors could then ask owners to renovate to meet safety standards, or shutter the suite. If the suite is in an area where only single-detached homes are allowed, the owner would have to either apply through council for a rezoning, or close the suite.

Given that Mayor Nenshi has previously described the city’s rather bewildering rezoning process as “untenable” and that the $6 million funding for the Secondary Suites Grant Program was fully allocated in April, leaving all applicants on a firstcome, first-serve waitlist until more funding becomes available, Backman- Beharry believes the city’s efforts could be better spent in opening the doors for more homeowners like himself to add more suites to Calgary’s tightening rental market.

“Safe and affordable housing should be encouraged throughout the city, and a big step toward encouraging legal suites is to loosen the zoning requirements. As things stand today, many homeowners cannot make their suite legal even if they want to, and that exposes them to significant risks if they choose to rent regardless,” he said.

The City’s Secondary Suites Grant Program was extended in May of 2012 until the current funds available where committed. A proposal requesting $2 million in grant funding to extend the program for an additional two years was sent off to the Province in early July but to date there has been no response from them. Currently, there are 19 applicants on the waitlist.

Backman-Beharry’s words are echoed by CREB® president Bob Jablonski, who is onside with the city’s efforts to make the suites more accessible for both buyers and renters.

“Secondary suites give first-time homebuyers an opportunity to help subsidize their mortgage payments,” said Jablonski. “I think the city should grandfather in or provide time for owners to bring the suites up to code, and then everyone’s happy.”

Having made the citywide legalization of secondary suites a primary concern during his last campaign, Mayor Nenshi said Calgarians wishing to see wider acceptance of the suites should make their voices heard.

“What we have not been able to achieve is normalizing the current illegal suites in R1 districts, and I still firmly believe that is something we have to do from a moral and ethical standpoint, as well as helping us deal with the affordable housing crisis that is coming. So I still believe it is important, and I would encourage people who agree with me to contact their aldermen and remind them that this is an unfinished piece of business.”

Are you building a secondary suite? Have you faced any troubles along the way? Share your insights in the comments below.


  1. I recently completed a secondary suite at our home in Auburn Bay. From the start i told people what i was doing in regards to building the suite but also entering the grant program to recieve the 25000 the city provided and alot of people were surprised that I would be doing it legal because of the “hoops” you have to jump through with the city. At the end of the day, the “hoops” were not bad at all. Sure there has to be a seperate entrance, sure there has to be a SMOKE seperation, sure there has to be a seperate heating and ventilation system, but this is what makes living in the suite comfortable and feel like home. We live upstairs and have a tenant downstairs. With the seperate entrance we dont hear or see the tenant come or go. With the SMOKE seperation we cant smell what the tenant is cooking. With the seperate heating and ventilation they have there own controls.Doing all this creates a TRUE seperate living space that pays our mortgage.

    Jumping through the hoops of the city was worth it. I wouldnt even call them hoops, if you do your research there should be no problem with the city. It just means everything is built right and its to a minimum standard. I had to apply for a Development permit, which in a sense, is really just a plan outlining what your plan of attack is, which is all the city wants to see.

    I built the complete suite for a total cost to me of $6200. It will take approx 6-7 months to pay for itself. If anyone has any questions or would like to actually see the difference in a LEGAL conforming suite, come see for yourself!!!!!!

  2. I built a very nice suite in my first house right after I bought it 15 years ago. House was R1 zoning(single family). I always rented to nice tenants, usually always students(not just cause I am near U of C but because basement suites are perfect for students). I made a couple of mistakes along the way, I rented to a bad tenant and had a terrible time while she lived below me, she was very difficult to get rid of and once she was gone: she ratted my suite out to the City. City came and told me to get rid of my lower cupboards, sink, and stove. I did all this and then they came back to inspect and said “fine, but dont put suite back in and dont rent to tenants”. Fine, I didnt for at least 2 months–then I put the cupboards and sink back in and rented to great tenants again. The extra income allowed me to off my house in under 7 years. I never worried about parking because I dont park in front as I have mega covered parking in back of house, only my tenants would park in front and so no problem. Recently, I had a great nursing student tenant, –I did not realize that it was her habit to park in front of snotty neighbors house until I received another inspection notice from the city. Snotty neighbour elected to Not speak to me but to ratt me out to the city. My tenant was really sorry but her schooling was done and she elected to move out now that she has a job in her profession. That was cool–I pulled out the cupboards, etc and the city came by and said. “fine there is no suite here” I am not going to put my suite back in untill Nenshi and the city can figure out what they will do about secondary suites. i believe that it is too expensive and just too much to build a proper legal suite with all the rules. But I also know that there are some bad landlords who allow tenants to live in very substandard conditions–Not right! When a house is rezoned to R2 from R1: it adds $50k to the value of the house. Will new laxer secondary suite requirements add $$value to R1 houses with existing suites?? The only thing that I know is there has and always will be a Demand for secondary suites. They are perfect for students and people with limited incomes.

  3. Calgary needs secondary suites for students and seniors and families that just cant afford a new house or an expensive apartment. The illegal R1 suites are already here, they always have been and always will be. I think most are good because homeowners have pride in their house and also their rental suite. There are a few scumbags who should not be landlords like those people in Parkdale who had the fire. Snooty people with the NIMBY attitude should get a life, the ability to put a rental unit in your property add $$$value to the property value.—Fact is the suites are already there.

    I hope that Nenshi can get the vote this time. Most R1 suites should be legal–it would provide housing for many that need it.

    Good job Nenshi!! Shake it up a bit!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here