Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Some Suite-#YYC Facts Before the Debate Begins

It was disconcerting to read in Saturday's newspaper that several Aldermen continue to muddy the waters of the conversation around secondary suites.   Alderman Diane Colley-Urquhart and Dale Hodges are  intentionally lumping the challenges and negative experiences  associated with duplexes and illegal suites in with the experiences of owner-occupied homes with legal suites.

As Aldermen, they should know the difference, and their attempt to mislead Calgarians on the issue is disappointing.

Since the last Better Calgary Campaign post on the issue, there have been many letters written to the editors of the papers and on online comment-boards about the negative effect that secondary suites already have on Calgary's neighbourhoods.  Let's cut to the facts.  To date, 76 (0.03%) of the 257,854 single family homes in Calgary have taken advantage of the City's grant program to create legalized secondary suites, and are spread across the city's 146 communities.  Only 16 of those have actually completed the development permit and building permit process, and are now approved as a legal suite.  Whatever stories we have heard or experienced about suites, it's probably not the result of a legal basement suite.  

To find out what a post-suite approval world accurately looks like, we can look north to our good friends in Edmonton, who changed their suite rules several years ago to what we are now trying to do.  In the first year, there were 130 new secondary suite applications (less than one per community), and after two years, there have been 353 suite applications, most of which are for the conversion of previously illegal suites to the appropriate legal version.  These are hardly the kind of numbers that are going to destroy the fabric of our communities.

As we have talked about previously, the current basement suite approval process is costly, and uncertain.  Council approves suites on a case by case basis, through land-use approval applications.  This gives communities and neighbourhoods the opportunity to comment or object at the land-use stage, as well as the development permit stage.    It does bestow an unusual and perhaps inappropriate amount of authority in the hands of the community association.  Through a typical real estate transaction, communities are never afforded the opportunity to pass judgment on "who" is living in their neighbourhoods, or audit how many cars the new homeowners will possess.  Why then do we extend that opportunity to the communities for review of secondary suite applicants?  I respect that communities have an interest in the aggregate issues, such as on-street parking, traffic and appearance of the community, but the weight of these concerns cannot be isolated to one single address.  

The only people deterred by Council's current policy for managing secondary suites are those that want to do it legally.  For most, it's not worth the headaches, cost, and uncertainty to do it legally.  Meanwhile, tens of thousands of illegal suites currently get away with sub-standard safety measures.

The Mayor's proposal for secondary suites is simple:
Make them a permitted-use in all R1 designated neighbourhoods with three conditions:
   1) they are built and approved to the current building codes
   2) the home must be the primary residence of the homeowner
   3) there must be a reserved off-street parking spot for the tenant
   Point number 3 could be waived if the address is within 500 meters of an LRT station.

It's a responsible solution that still allows neighbours and communities the opportunity to comment via the development permit process.  It ensures that renters will be living in safe conditions, and allows them recourse if issues do arise.  It does not retroactively approve all of the illegal suites that currently exist.  Those homeowners will have to go through the same permitting process as everyone else.

To me though, there is no greater rationale for secondary suites than the economic impact it will have on Calgary's bottom line.  Ask anyone in the home renovation industry about the potential benefits they see from new suite applications.  Homeowners will be able to pay down their mortgage faster and the demands on the City's affordable housing programs will diminish.  The City has paid up to $300,000 per single unit of affordable housing, and that's money that could be used for other capital projects in our cash strapped city.  We're always looking for "private sector solutions" to our challenges.    Here it is!

The final argument we'll make today is simple. Regardless of income, wealth, or social standing, no one wants to be relegated to an inferior standard of housing, or be forced to live in areas that are less than desirable.   Affordability should be spread throughout the City, and an increased number of legal and safe secondary suites are the easiest, least intrusive way to do it. 


Duane said...

I'm assuming the proposal is to make suites a discretionary use, not a permitted use. Where suites are currently allowed, they are a discretionary use.

Brent Mielke said...

Thanks for the question Duane.

There were three options put forward by administration on suites this week. One was to leave the rules as-is. Option #2 was to make suites a discretionary use, and option #3 suggested allowing suites as a 'permitted use' in situations where the footprint of the house was not required to be changed to construct the suite. This would also require an amendment to all existing suite regulations for zones where they are currently discretionary uses.

For the benefit of those not aware of the differences, a 'permitted use' would mean a suite application could proceed through the development-permit process without a circulation with neighbours or the community association. A 'discretionary use' would mean they those groups would be circulated and given the opportunity to comment. As well, a permitted use is not appeal-able under the land use bylaw.

Personally, I am advocating for it to be a 'discretionary use'. This involvement of the neighbours adds a layer of accountability to the homeowner to follow the owner-occupation rules and mandatory parking rules, after the suite is approved.

Council will consider all three options on March 7, and as you're likely aware, LPT did not make any recommendations of one option over the second. - Brent.