In Calgary, tenant rights are a taboo topic. At 1.4 per cent, Calgary has one of the lowest vacancy rates in Canada. Despite this fact, city council defeated a motion last week to change the city’s zoning restrictions and lessen stringent secondary suite regulations across the city.
Secondary suites can be built in certain parts of Calgary, but the process is inefficient and time consuming. To get a secondary suite approved, homeowners must present their proposal in a city council meeting, where councillors consider each application on a case by case basis. Recently, council took seven hours to approve eight new suites. This system is time consuming and impractical.
City planning manager Rollin Stanley proposed shifting the responsibility of vetting and approving suites to the city planning team, but the motion, along with the rezoning efforts, was defeated in a deadlocked vote.
Ward 1 Coun. Ward Sutherland, an opponent of secondary suites, stated that secondary suites are not a “silver bullet” solution to Calgary’s housing crisis. He’s not wrong. Just because secondary suites are allowed doesn’t mean that every homeowner will build one and solve our housing problem. But solutions can be necessary and helpful without being perfect. In a city obsessed with urban sprawl, we need to shift our focus to promoting greater urban density.
Calgary is a growing city. People need places to live and that includes rental properties. Especially after last year’s flood displaced thousands of people, it seems ludicrous to oppose a motion that would help relieve Calgary’s housing problems.
Underneath all the rhetoric, this isn’t a city planning issue. It’s a class issue. All of the councillors opposed to secondary suites represent affluent neighbourhoods. They don’t want people who can’t afford a 3,000 sq. ft. mini-mansion slumming up their homogenous, six-figure salary suburban neighbourhoods.
Historically, suburbs were built on segregation and homogeneity. Affluent communities want to keep people unlike them out. In a Calgary Herald interview, Coun. Richard Pootmans showed this attitude when he said residents of his ward “don’t see the utility in disrupting their neighbourhoods.”
Decisions about your private property should be a personal choice. The rhetoric of decreasing property values is usually a mask for discrimination. Renters are seen as a disruption to quiet suburban life. But tenants aren’t an exclusive cult who want to disrupt and destroy communities. They’re people who can’t afford or don’t want to buy a home. Renters are asking for safe and legal places to live, and we’re failing them on a basic human necessity.
If a homeowner wants to convert their basement into an apartment and someone wants to rent it, they should be allowed to do so. For a group of people who love private property so much, these councillors seem to have a problem with people making personal decisions about their homes.
Renter’s rights are a polarizing issue in Calgary and it’s difficult to understand why. It’s a non-issue in other major Canadian cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, which have all embraced the concept of multifamily homes.
Secondary suites are useful for many reasons. As an income property they can help young families pay down their mortgage and allow for greater financial stability. They create safe, low-cost housing for students, seniors and other low-income individuals.
They build community and neighbourhood character. They increase the density in existing neighbourhoods, which lessens the need to expand city limits. The benefits of affordable secondary suites are plentiful and make them an undeniably smart choice.
When you prohibit something, you create an underground. Secondary suites are no exception. Banning secondary suites doesn’t make them disappear. It makes them dangerous. By making it difficult and expensive for homeowners to convert their homes into safe and legal secondary suites, it creates a black market of illegal suites where renters have no rights and are forced to live in substandard conditions.
In 2009, three people died in a basement suite fire in Parkdale because their unit lacked adequate smoke alarms and the windows were barred. If someone chooses to live in a basement, regardless of their reason, they should be able to do so safely and legally.
Calgarians for Secondary Suites has started a petition to call on city council to allow for more suites in the city. To lend your support to secondary suites, sign the petition at suiteyyc.ca.
Liv Ingram, Gauntlet Editorial Board