Secondary Suites could be an answer for Renters in Post-Flood Calgary

Commentary, Housing Affordability, Kathleen Canjar

A post-flood housing crisis is looming in Calgary. The race to bring to provide rental space for people, including the hoard of university students coming to the city, is on.

With many people out of their homes because of the flood, both displaced residents and new renters are trying to get into Calgary’s renting market. As a consequence, Calgary’s 1.7 per cent vacancy rate has dropped to 0 per cent. Policy changes are urgently needed to help accommodate those looking to rent.

Secondary suites could be the answer. These affordable options, also called basement suites or granny suites, are self-contained living spaces consisting of a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen, located within a single family home, with a separate entrance, or as a stand-alone unit on the initial dwelling’s property. These suites provide affordable housing to those who need it and they can provide a source of additional income to homeowners.

It is too bad Calgary’s City Council does not see it this way. Mayor Naheed Nenshi has long made secondary suites a political issue, but his Council has not been successful in changing any bylaws. Rather than embracing secondary suites, Calgary has implemented bylaws that restrict secondary suites.

Secondary suites are allowed on a “discretionary basis”, dependent on zoning bylaws. Furthermore, homeowners are also restricted by rules concerning the make-up of the suite, including building height, site area, utilities specifications, amenity space, entrance, and parking.

The most restrictive barrier is the zoning regulations. Calgary’s land use and zoning bylaws differ from community to community within the city and even from street to street. Furthermore, the zones where secondary suites cannot be built are largely those surrounding Calgary’s post-secondary institutions and the C-Train stations, exactly where students and other newcomers would like to live.

Individuals and families who want to live in secondary suites often need quick access to transit and want to be in walking distance to post-secondary institutions. As a result, Calgary’s zoning bylaws work against those who need rental housing the most.

The red-tape that homeowners need to cut through has caused many to shut down their secondary suites. It’s not worth the effort to fight city hall’s zoning regulations, which results in less affordable housing for Calgarians and a greater burden placed on homeowners to weather financial hardships.

Calgary’s municipal elections are in October and already City Council is being grilled about how they intend to prioritize repairs to the city’s schools, parks, bridges and other municipal infrastructure. These issues are important. But what’s missing from the post-flood plan conversation are questions concerning how the city is going to help those who need accommodations.

Modernizing regulations on secondary suites to foster a better renting environment should be a key part of the election. Hard questions need to be asked about what the city is going to do to ease the renting pains and to create bylaws that directly benefit those looking to rent.
The flood’s aftermath should serve as a wake-up call to city politicians that it is time to change the landscape of Calgary’s renting market.

Calgary’s housing situation could be better if the regulations on secondary suites were modernized and if the zoning laws were changed. This would create a more accessible renting market for the people displaced by the flood and for students returning to post-secondary education. In this post-flood housing crisis, the time for bylaw change is now.