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?