November 9 2017 —
Only two weeks after being sworn into office, the four new members of Calgary city council had their first experience with the secondary suite approval process — an issue that has embroiled council for years.
On Nov. 6, council debated 20 applications for secondary suites, which are self-contained basement or backyard dwellings attached to existing residences. The entire process took almost eight hours. Overall, 19 applications were approved and only one was declined.
Calgary is the last major Canadian city that requires residents who want secondary suites to make their case before council. While reforming the process has been a priority for Mayor Naheed Nenshi and a collection of other councillors since 2010, nothing has changed. With some councillors vowing to reform the process, this term could finally bring meaningful change to the broken, inexplicable secondary suite debacle.
The fact that Calgarians must get council’s approval to legally install a stove in their basement is a farce, especially when those citizens feel forced to disclose intimate personal details to get sympathy for their application. The Calgary Herald reporter Annalise Klingbeil highlighted this by tweeting about a couple who want to develop a secondary suite in their home so that the wife’s parents can live in their basement and care for their daughter, who lost her legs to lupus. That’s more information than anyone should have to disclose.
Arguments against secondary suites almost always lack substance. Opponents make sure to emphasize that, yes, they are sympathetic to the applicant’s plight. But in the same breath they defend their own ability to live on a street with restrictive zoning. On another application, someone argued that a new secondary suite would take away street parking spaces they needed for their grown daughters’ vehicles, even though they no longer live at home.
Those are just two particularly illustrative examples. There were 18 more throughout Monday’s marathon council session. It’s hard to imagine any other use of council’s time more pedantic than this, yet these sessions continue to occur. At least two new councillors, Ward 3’s Jyoti Gondek and Ward 5’s George Chahal, are keen to find a solution, speaking to the Gauntlet among others about potential fixes. Nenshi, obviously frustrated during a recess in Monday’s proceedings, called for a solution by the end of the year.
Many avenues for secondary suite reform have been proposed, including delegating the process to an administrative body, making secondary suites discretionary or having plebiscites for communities affected by suites. None of these solutions are perfect but all are doubtlessly better than the current system. And the creation of each individual secondary suites — which can offer affordable housing options for students and many other low-income Calgarians — shouldn’t rest in the hands of councillors.
It’s embarrassing that Calgary is still hung up on secondary suites. The new council has a chance to make it right. Anything less than full reform is inexcusable.
By Jason Herring, Gauntlet Editorial Board