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. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Secondary Suites and Backyard Barbecues

We all want to live in an idyllic neighbourhood.  Landscaped backyards where we can have neighbourhood barbeques, and safe streets where our kids can play road hockey, ride bikes and play skipping games.  We want to get along with our neighbours, and for most people, that means that we want those neighbours to respect our own quality of life as much as their own.

Where our idyllic model breaks down, is when we start talking about how our "quality of life"  is defined.  Living on the west hill, as I do, many would include a view of the mountains as a right of home ownership.  Any change in development around us that affects our ability to see the Rockies is treated as an affront to our own property rights.  Let's be honest though.  We all know it's not really an affront to our "rights."  If you check your land-title, you will not see "View of the Rockies" listed on your property description.  When you appeal that egregious development at City Hall, you will find yourself similarly rebuked if that view is the basis of your appeal.  You own your home.  You own your property, and nothing else.  You have an "interest" in the view, but that's as far as it extends.  Most importantly, your rights as a property owner do not extend into your neighbour's home.

Such is the basis of the debate around secondary suites or basement suites in Calgary.  We all want our neighbours to maintain their homes, but not in a way that "negatively" (a word usually defined by perception, rather than fact) affects our own quality of life.  The most common argument against secondary suites is that having them will somehow impact the surrounding neighbourhood.  Parking issues are a frequent concern, as well as how the suites will be managed.  Will the homeowner be living there, as a true granny-style suite, or will it turn into a low income housing project for a property investor threatening to become a slum landlord?

The fact is that we don't get to choose our neighbours.  A family with 12 teenagers, each with their own vehicle, could move into the house next to us, and we'd have absolutely no recourse.  Why then do we now demand recourse, when a young family moves into a neighbourhood and tries to earn some extra money to help pay the mortgage?  Time and again, objections are based on who "could" be moving into the neighbourhood, rather than who is actually moving in.  Opponents of secondary suites, like Ric McIver here, call this process "protecting the character of our cherished neighbourhoods."  He's advocating for a veto over those who want to live on his street.  For many, being able to simply afford a certain style of home, is itself a test of suitability for living in that neighbourhood.  If the City alters the criteria of that suitability-test, we'll no longer be in control of who our neighbours are, and for some that's a difficult reality to face. 

In 2008, when council was dropping a 150-unit affordable housing complex in my community, I don't recall there being any consideration for the "character of our cherished neighbourhoods,"  nor should there have been any consideration.  The need and demand for creating safe and affordable housing options within Calgary trumps whatever rights the social elites claim to have over their communities.  That need is well-documented in Calgary's 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness.  The first principle of that plan is to stop homelessness before it begins, by ensuring there are a variety of housing options available.  That means having a supply of step-up or step-down options, so that people facing economic hardship don't automatically have to jump to a social service or program, or there are suitable options to get off of the social program.  Secondary suites are a key component of that plan.  The affordable housing complex I mentioned, cost taxpayers $40 million.  Secondary suites will cost the city nothing, and bring increased property tax revenue. 

Let's also establish that secondary suites are not a land-use issue, and homeowners should not face the same legislative requirements for zoning changes that a 24 acre green-land  development faces.  The house sits on the same footprint as it did as a low-density dwelling.  Land-use in the City's bylaws defines only the density of housing units (as opposed to number of residents), and that doesn't change with a secondary suite.  Someone living in a 2 bedroom apartment could rent out the 2nd bedroom, but a homeowner with 1200 square feet of un-utilized basement space can't do the same under the current rules, without spending tens of thousands of dollars on a land-use amendment.  Estimates vary, but there are between 50,000-80,000 illegal secondary suites in Calgary.  You already live next to one.  Wouldn't it be reassuring to know that it was built safely and according to fire and building codes?  We'll talk about how to address illegal suites in a future article.

The way to manage the approval process is to lay out a set of criteria to establish the suitability of a home to add a secondary suite.  Safety first.  This is already covered through the development permit and building permit process, and make no mistake about it, Alberta has one of the highest standards for suite safety in Canada.  Ensuring sufficient parking is also covered under the development permit process, as is the opportunity for immediate neighbours and community associations to voice concerns or objections.  If nothing else, going through the DP process will de-politicize the issue and create more defined criteria for approvals.  If a homeowner wants to build a suite, there will be a clear set of requirements and a pathway to achieving success, instead of having to deal with the emotional and ever-changing whims of electioneering Aldermen.   If you compare the voting records on suites of Aldermen in pre and post election years, I know they will be quite different.  It's more than just a little bit unfair to have a homeowner commit vast time and money to an effort, when the outcome will be determined only by the timing of Council's electoral cycle. 

Making secondary suite approvals easier for homeowners isn't going to turn neighbourhoods into slums, or even change their character.  It will still cost many thousands of dollars for the homeowner to renovate the basement to the proper building codes, and the experience of having someone else live in your basement is not for everyone.  It will, however, show that Council is taking Calgary's affordable housing issues seriously, while respecting the homeowner's rights to own their own property.   For most who will build one, a secondary suite is a way for Calgarians to pay down the mortgage, so they can afford to live in a nice neighbourhood, and be in charge of bringing the pasta salad to that backyard barbecue.  Isn't that what our quality of life is really all about?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

City of Calgary Budget - Get Ready for November 29

I'm a little short on time right now, but Better Calgary would like to remind everyone to provide input on the budget. Conveniently, Brian Pincott's office provided an email on how to do this, quoted below. Also, check out Chris Harper's new site where he plans to archive the council meeting webcasts.

Council will begin budget deliberations for the 2011 Calgary budget on November 29th. There has been a lot of coverage of the budget so far, and in preparation for the conversation that we need to have, I wanted to touch base with you.

First off, the numbers:

Back in the spring, Council was advised that there was an expected shortfall of $60M if the 2011 strategic plan was implemented as is. This number was estimated using economic projections of such things as: the price of natural gas, the expected inflation rate (both CPI and MPI (municipal price index), anticipated transit usage, housing starts, etc.  As we got closer to the actual date of budget deliberations these projections were updated with more current estimates. Thus the budget shortfall we are now looking at is $47M. In 2008 the tax rate increase based on the approved business plan was 6.7% - removing $47M from the budget is necessary to reach this 6.7% number.

To put the numbers into perspective for you: a 1% property tax increase represents $10 million of City revenue. For the average homeowner in Calgary, 1% property tax increase is $10 a year*. That means that the 6.7% property tax increase that is budgeted represents an average of about $6.60 a month.

*(Remember this is to the municipal portion of your property tax bill; approximately half of the total bill. The other half of your property tax bill goes to the Province, and that rate is set by the Provincial Government.)
In addition to the $47M adjustment to the budget, Council is also looking at an additional $35M in possible cuts in order to reduce the anticipated tax increase from 6.7% to approximately 3.2%. Both Council and Administration are expecting to achieve the majority of these budget adjustments to reach 6.7% by cancelling yet-to-happen growth to city services; largely leaving services at their current level.
That is Council’s starting point leading up to the budget deliberations. I have received all this information and will be reviewing it over the next days. Not only am I looking at the proposed cuts, but I am also looking through the entire budget looking for any other savings as well as eliminating inefficiencies in processes and programs.
I would like to hear from you.

This year, the City has set up a page on its website to allow you to review the proposed cuts and to give your feedback. The website is There you can see the various proposals (which is the same information I have) prior to the November 29th Council meeting. 

Please take the time to have a look at the documents, and let me know what you think by ...  posting comments to the City’s blog; or by tweeting to #yycbudget. Are there programs being proposed for cuts that you disagree with? Are there other things not on the list that you think could be cut? What about opportunities for generating revenue?

Go to for more information and details.
Brian Pincott 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

This Council is in Session!

On Monday, November 8th the first council meeting will begin at 9:30am. This council is moving fast. It is time to pay attention!

As the Better Calgary Campaign has not yet met and formally mobilized, we want to quickly share a few things you can do right now. The first step: read the agenda for the council meeting at .

Key items on the agenda:
  • City Manager's report: Southeast LRT Green Trip Proposal
  • Notice of Motion: Fish Creek, Lacombe LRT Station Area TOD plan (Alderman Colley-Urquhart)
  • Notice of Motion: Airport Trail Underpass (Alderman Stevenson)
  • Notice of Motion: 2011 Budget Projections (Mayor Nenshi)
Follow the above link to the agenda for more details on each of the key items.

The second step: Let your alderman know what you want before the meeting starts.

The third step: Attend the meeting or part of the meeting or watch it online at and follow and participate in the #yyccc hashtag on Twitter.

It could be dull at times, so invite friends to join you! Also, check out for their Blue Monday plan for the council meeting.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Back to the Better Calgary Campaign

The Better Calgary Campaign sat out the 2010 election as the people with the passwords and email lists were all busy campaigning for specific candidates. We were happy to see so many people engaged in the issues during the election and encouraged by 54% voter turn-out.

What is next for BCC? We still believe in volunteering to make Calgary a more sustainable place to live and in doing this through impacting the political process. We're a City Hall watchdog, keeping a close eye on City Council and the decisions it makes. We champion smart growth, sustainability and vibrant communities. We foster debate and discussion on policies. We hold the politicians to account, celebrating their smart choices and casting light on the bad ones. The new council is already taking action and it's time for Better Calgary to pay attention.

Take a look at the issues page on our website If you agree that these are the six most important issues and want to work towards our vision of Calgary, contact me at info (at) about volunteering. Or talk to me at First Thursday tomorrow night. More info on volunteer roles will be posted on the Get Involved page of the website in a few days.

Kate Easton

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Campaign FInance Reform, again

While this blog has been very quiet, BCC has not been. Please visit for one of the projects on which we've been working, and follow Naheed on Twitter (@nenshi). Here's Naheed's column on campaign finance reform from today:

Thursday, July 30, 2009