May 2019 Newsletter
On April 3, 2019, Council’s Standing Policy Committee for Planning and Urban Development convened for its monthly meeting and as its second order of business unanimously recommended that Council approve a path forward for legalizing suites in semi-detached houses throughout Calgary. Later that day I found myself sitting in my home office - a place where, prior to becoming a City Councillor in 2010, I did most of my academic, community, and professional work as a city-builder - reflecting on the momentous change this represents and the long journey it has taken to get within reach of this laudable goal.
Eighteen years ago, sitting in that office, looking out on the street in a similar state of very early springtime, I penned a letter in my capacity as Redevelopment Chair of the Inglewood Community Association to Calgary City Council. I was attempting to intervene on behalf of a landowner and their tenants in Inglewood who were facing eviction because the City was acting against the illegal condition within their building.
The building in question, a ubiquitous “seventies special,” had been built in the mid-1970s as a fourplex and then, years later, had been zoned & redefined within the 1980 land use bylaw as a semidetached (two units). The owner had bought it as a fourplex unaware that it was an illegal condition, and his tenants, long-standing and contributing members of the community, had been living there for years. It came to pass that a neighbour of their’s had a dog that was left outside day and night and barked constantly. When they complained to bylaw about this unacceptable situation, the neighbour with the dog retaliated by calling in the illegal fourplex condition of their living arrangement. I don’t know how the dog situation ultimately resolved itself, but the fact that despite my attempt to intervene the four units were reduced to two units and two members of our community were put out on the street became an early point of dissatisfaction for me that, combined with an accumulation of successive dissatisfactions, ultimately lead me to create the Great Neighbourhoods platform and seek office as Ward 9’s City Councillor.
Around nine years later, early in my time as Ward 9 City Councillor, and on account of our brand new Mayor Nenshi having made suites a significant civic issue, we were able to address a big chunk of the problem by allowing secondary suites in all R-designated land uses (with the exception of R-1 properties - we wouldn’t solve that issue until 2018). At that time I thought that we had finally solved the semi-detached problem that had weighed heavy on my mind since my Inglewood experience many years before.
To the collective disappointment of Council members who were proponents of suite reform, we learned that we had not in fact solved that problem - due to certain definitions in the Land Use Bylaw, despite existing within a R-designated land use district, a semi-detached with suites qualified as a multi-family structure, and solving that was a whole other political mountain to climb. It would not be until early in the tenure of our current Council (2017-2021), with public hearings being consumed by hours and hours of applications for suites within R-1 properties, that we were able to amass the political will to address what many people considered the final piece of the suite agenda. But I hadn’t forgotten.
A couple months after we solved the R-1 suite issue I brought a Notice of Motion before Council with the melodramatic title, “Improving Safety for Thousands of Calgarians.” My argument to my colleagues was that addressing suites in semi-detached houses was the actual final chapter of the saga and until we addressed it, there would be thousands of Calgary households with no path to legality, and more importantly no path to safety.
On April 3, Committee learned that roughly a year into our R-1 suite solution, all indicators are that the broad suite reform program we’ve enacted is working - new and preexisting suites are being registered in record numbers, their residents are safe and secure, and appeals of these applications by surrounding neighbours have dwindled to nothing. We also learned that there are around 27,000 semidetached structures in Calgary (which contain an unknown but significant number of illegals suite conditions). Administration, on account of my Notice of Motion, recommended redefining semidetached suites within the bylaw by December of this year to allow for the legalization of their existence.
Four people from Penbrooke came to Committee to speak in favor of Administration’s recommendation. They were the landlords and tenants of a seventies special in that community. The landlords, seeking to meet the new fire safety codes for their elderly tenants of over fifteen years had contacted the City for building permits. The City informed them that their tenants were residing in an illegal condition and that 90 day eviction notices had to be issued. But, they were told, Council was debating a possible reprieve to this unfair situation and when they contacted my office we invited them to come down and present their case.
Eighteen years after my introduction to this unjust situation, I’m over the moon that not only did Committee unanimously recommend finally solving the issue, they also ordered a stay of my Penbrooke neighbours’ eviction notice until we put it to bed in December. On behalf of the thousands of Calgary households currently living in this precarious situation, I hope I can count on your support of this historic and final reform of secondary suites in Calgary.
Calgary City Councillor, Ward 9