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Secondary suite regulation up for debate before Monday’s vote

By Fabian Mayer, September 18 2014 —

New regulations to simplify landowner applications for secondary suites will once again go before city council. A proposal to make the application process for secondary suites easier was defeated in committee this summer, but the proposal will still be voted on at a general council meeting on Sept. 22.

Secondary suites are housing units inside single-family homes, typically a basement with a separate entrance, kitchen and bathroom. Zoning restrictions make most secondary suites illegal. The municipal government estimates Calgary has between 40,000 and 50,000 illegal secondary suites.

Currently, all secondary suite applications come before City Council. Landowners’ private information goes on public record and the process sometimes requires hours of debate to approve a handful of suites.

University of Calgary Students’ Union vice-president external Levi Nilson said easing secondary-suite regulations is critical for students.

“From survey data we know that a quarter of students rent and then a fifth of those renters are in basement suites. That means that most of those basement suites are illegal,” Nilson said.

Nilson is involved with Calgarians for Secondary Suites, a group that advocates for more legal secondary suites in the city. The group created an online petition in hopes of swaying councillors — many of whom have long opposed secondary suites — to lift standing restrictions.

“It’s about showing councillors that this isn’t something that can be put to the wayside. It’s letting them know that there are people who are willing to put in some time to talk about it and put their name out there to push it forward,” Nilson said.

Ward 6 Coun. Richard Pootmans opposes changing secondary suite regulations. He voted against the proposal that came before the planning and urban development committee on Sept. 10. He said residents of his ward don’t like the idea.

“They just don’t think it’s the bargain they made with that neighbourhood. They simply feel on principle that they are not interested in seeing suites as a permitted use,” Pootmans said.

There are many problems associated with illegal secondary suites in Calgary. Bylaw officers can shut down illegal suites. Renters risk losing their home if renters complain to the city about conditions in their suites.

Liberal MLA for Calgary Buffalo Kent Hehr supports citywide secondary suites.

“In my view, city council should have passed a law making secondary suites legal a number of years ago. Why it hasn’t come to pass is beyond me,” Hehr said.

He said concerns from homeowners should not stop council from changing current regulations.

“If we look at what the overarching needs of the city are, I think those arguments pale in comparison to the reasons we need secondary suites,” Hehr said.

According to CIBC, Calgary’s vacancy rate is one per cent, the lowest in the country.

However, Pootmans doesn’t believe changing regulations on secondary suites will alter that.

“If there is a shortage, that’s an entirely different discussion. Should the municipal government have a bigger budget for affordable housing? Absolutely, but that’s an entirely different discussion than a planning discussion and a land use issue,” Pootmans said.

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