City battle looms over basement suites

Perhaps the best reason to legalize secondary suites, beyond the advantage for the homeowner, is the inevitable increase in the number of units available for rent.

Perhaps the best reason to legalize secondary suites, beyond the advantage for the homeowner, is the inevitable increase in the number of units available for rent.

Photograph by: Ted Rhodes, Calgary Herald

A long, contentious debate over secondary suites is expected to be reignited at city hall this week in the wake of a recommendation that council allow basement and backyard units in all Calgary neighbourhoods.

A report by city administration going to the land use, planning and transportation committee recommends council consider lifting current restrictions and allowing secondary suites in all residential areas.

The suggestion drew battle lines within hours of being posted on the city's website Friday afternoon.

"This will be another big battle for city council," said Ward 13 Ald. Diane Colley-Urquhart, who has long been sharply opposed to allowing suites in all neighbourhoods and zoning districts across the city.

"There are very few people in my ward that support this and if there ever was an issue to listen to Calgarians about, this is it."

Despite attempts by previous councils to revise the issue of secondary suites, it was revived last fall when it became a key campaign issue for Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Nenshi wants to end all zoning restrictions and has since pledged he is willing to back off on his controversial proposal to allow the suites in all single-family neighbourhoods providing owners live in the house's main unit.

He has also said previously that critics of secondary suites are "demonizing renters."

Nenshi, who is in Toronto, was not available for comment on Friday night.

Dan Meades, director of Vibrant Communities Calgary, is encouraged by the recommendations and is hopeful a "blanket bylaw" could ultimately stave off homelessness for some people.

"We have 140,000 thousand people living in poverty in Calgary and one of the issues they face every single day is affordable housing," said Meades, whose group has been pushing the city for such a bylaw for seven years.

"The more secondary suites we have in this city the more likely it is that those folks don't fall into homelessness because they can afford a place to live."

Indeed, administration's report touches on this issue, noting that the policy supports the target of 2,000 new secondary suites outlines in Calgary's 10 Year plan to end Homelessness.

"People choose to rent secondary suites (legal or illegal) as they provide a suitable home, at a price they can afford," the report reads.

"They add a unique rental option into a restricted rental market."

Meades is urging his supporters to voice their opinions Wednesday to the committee, as he expects council members will be sharply divided when it comes up for debate in the future.

"This is a contentious issue for sure and I don't expect it to pass unanimously," he said, adding the issue is not just about addressing affordable housing, it will also allow council to be more efficient.

"One of the most important things is the amount of money and time it will save for Calgarians.

"Right now, every time someone wants a suite it's dealt with one request at a time. That's not the best use of time and money."

Some aldermen are opposed to the notion of a blanket bylaw, fearing residential parking problems and transient populations will "erode" some communities.

"When people bought into residential districts there was certainty around the fact that it was going to be a single family dwelling. This opens up all kinds of issues as it relates to their quality of life," said Colley-Urquhart.

But Meades argues that parking problems seem like a trivial argument in the big picture.

"That's probably a very valid concern but when I compare that concern to safe affordable housing for people living in poverty I know which one I am more concerned about," he said.

Meanwhile, Meades credits Nenshi with triggering the administrative push to legalize secondary suites.

He noted his group has been working at the issue for seven years to get to this point.

"His big push had a lot to do with it," said Meades.

That doesn't sit well with some aldermen.

"There is this misconception out there that because a person voted for Nenshi that means they support his stand on secondary suites," said Colley-Urquhart.

"Very few people in my ward support that."

Ald. Dale Hodges agrees, and says he is growing weary of the conversation.

"I wish it would just go away," said Hodges, who is on the committee and said absentee landlords are the biggest problem the city faces with current suites.

"There is nobody in my area saying bring me more illegal suites. This came out of someone's election campaign."

It's estimated there are tens of thousands of unregulated suites in Calgary, although it isn't clear how many of those are in houses where both the main and secondary suites are rented.

The city's land-use rules do not dictate whether or not a residential property can be rented.

However, the current incentive program designed to develop safe basement suites does require that the grant recipient dwell in the house's main unit.

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald

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Mike Kandil

Mike Kandil

CENTURY 21 Bravo Realty
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