On May 11, 2015, Calgary City Council will consider an amendment to our land use bylaws that will reform and streamline the secondary suites application process in the four inner city wards (7, 8, 9 and 11). Currently, anyone who wishes to build a secondary suite in their principal residence that is zoned R-1, R-C1 and R-C1L must apply directly to Council for a Land Use Redesignation. The proposed bylaw change change will remove this step for all residential land use districts in the affected wards.
What is a secondary suite?
A secondary suite is a separate living space created within a property originally designed to accommodate a single family. It is a private, self-contained unit that can take a number of forms including basement apartments, in-law suites, garden suites, and above-garage laneway units. A secondary suite has its own bathroom, kitchen, living, and sleeping areas, but can share a number of features with the rest of the house. Shared facilities may include a yard, parking area, laundry and storage space, and sometimes a hallway.
It is important to note that even if the bylaw revision is approved, above-garage units and garden suites will remain a discretionary use. This means that neighbours and community associations would be able to comment on the proposed development at the development permit application stage.
What would this bylaw amendment mean in my neighbourhood?
Over half of Ward 8 already permits secondary suites, which will mean those areas will be unaffected. In those areas that don’t already allow for applications, the changes will create a more predictable process for applicants and their neighbours.
Currently, the process for approving secondary suites is onerous and unpredictable for land owners and neighbours alike. In neighbourhoods that aren’t zoned for secondary suites, Calgarians can apply to Council to rezone their property for a suite. When coming before Council, sometimes zoning applicants that one would expect to be approved is rejected and vice versa. These bylaws will aim to create a more predictable process for applicants and neighbours. Approvals will not be automatically granted, and a process for approval or rejection will still exist through development permits and building permits. This means that neighbours and Community Associations will still have the opportunity to comment on applications, and appeals can be made to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board.
Why does this only affect four wards?
In December I pushed hard to permit secondary suites city wide, but Council voted against it. I was one of several Councillors who lobbied to permit them in some established neighbourhoods in Calgary, to see the effects of changing the approval process. Council agreed and voted for City Staff to show what a land use bylaw permitting suites in Wards 7, 8, 9 and 11 would look like. That bylaw will be coming back to Council this spring to be voted on.
These four wards were selected because they are in close proximity to transit, to downtown, and have the highest living costs. These four wards also have a high number of illegal suites that have been built, and that are continually being built.
This is our chance to show leadership on an issue. The proposed changes will help encourage suites being installed to follow rules and reduce illegal suite installations, all while maintaining the character of our neighbourhoods.
Why does Council keep debating this issue?
We know that our process is broken, but the issue has become highly politicized. The difference this time is that we will be addressing how we can improve the process for new suites, at the same time as we make recommendations for existing illegal suites. I’ll address that further down.
Right now, in areas not currently zoned every single application for a new secondary suite comes before Council. There are a lot of these. The current process is so inefficient and unpredictable that individuals who want to build a secondary suite in an area that requires a change in zoning have no incentive to follow the process, so suites are being installed illegally.
Illegal installations mean no consultation with neighbours or communities, and ultimately there are no health and safety guidelines to be followed or enforced. There are somewhere in the range of 16,000 illegally installed suites in Calgary, so it is clear that, regardless of zoning, secondary suites are being built. A more straightforward process will result in a reduced number of illegal installations. This should reduce the number of people who are installing illegal suites without properly consulting with their neighbours.
What is happening in other cities?
All other large Canadian cities permit secondary suites city-wide, which has given us the opportunity to learn from their experience. The City of Edmonton enacted a blanket bylaw change to permit secondary suites in all residential neighbourhoods in 2007, and the resulting transition has been smooth and mostly positive.
Why doesn’t the City enforce illegal suites first?
The City is looking at ways to address existing illegal suites at the same time as we improve the process for approvals. I am one of four Councillors on a task force that was created to solve some of the challenges around illegal secondary suites. We are working to address the thousands of existing suites that are unsafe and/or unmaintained, and how they can be better managed and enforced. We have also been exploring suites that are illegal, but not necessary unsafe or poorly maintained, and what sort of process options the City has for making them legal. The goal is to move forward with solutions to illegally installed suites, at the same time as we improve the process for approving new suites. This task force will come to Council with recommendations this spring, before the vote to permit suites in Wards 7, 8, 9 and 11.
Will this affect the value of my property?
There is no data that shows a decrease in property value due to secondary suites. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), building a secondary suite increases the value of an individual home because of the potential rental income. The change in value of adding a secondary suite is often compared to going from an unfinished basement to a finished one. Furthmore, assessed property value is determined by comparing your home to those like it, so if your property does not have a secondary suite, it will not be compared to homes with suites to determine its assessed value, and vice versa.
What about subdividing properties?
The rules related to subdivision will remain unchanged. Property owners would still need to go through the application process, and secondary suite zoning does not make it any easier to get approval. This proposal does not change R-1 properties to R-2.
Will the proposed amendment address concerns specific to my neighbourhood?
Parking – In Calgary there is no limit to the number of cars that can park at any house, be it rental or owner-occupied. Rental units typically have a lower occupancy rate than an owner-occupied detached house. However, to ensure that parking is addressed the bylaws will require secondary suites to provide off-street parking. A suite will require an off-street space to be approved. This will be managed through the development permit stage.
Property maintenance - Poorly maintained properties are not limited to secondary suites, and appear amongst rental and owner-occupied properties. Unsightly properties of all types are best dealt with through bylaw enforcement, not zoning. This is done by reporting the property to 3-1-1. The City is also currently in the process of reviewing and updating its Community Standards Bylaw, which applies to all properties.
Maintaining R-1 neighbourhoods – Residents with R-1 zoning will keep their R-1 zoning. Zoning defines the housing form. These changes will still only allow for single family homes, and will not permit duplexes or other forms of housing. Secondary suites will still be approved on a case-by-case basis by City Staff. Neighbours and Community Associations will still have the opportunity to give feedback on suites through the development permit process, and can make appeals to the Subdivision and Development Appeal Board. If I believed that suites would change the character of Ward 8 neighbourhoods in a significant way then I wouldn’t support them.
Tenant/landlord issues – The City is currently reviewing the Community Service Bylaw, which deals with enforcement of poorly maintained properties. These enforcement bylaws are a more appropriate avenue than zoning to deal with the challenges that a fractional proportion of renters, landlords and homeowners create. Folks who are moving into suites in Ward 8 neighbourhoods are choosing to do so because they like the character of the community.
Change to neighbourhoods – I am working hard to ensure change in our neighbourhoods is thoughtful. Based on current uptakes where suites are already permitted, the effect in any single neighbourhood will be negligible. These changes are designed to improve a broken process, not to overhaul neighbourhoods.
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This content represents the personal views and opinions of the Ward Councillor and should not be taken as a statement of policy of The City of Calgary. The inclusion of any external content does not imply endorsement by The City of Calgary.