Melanie Bethune

Secondary suites benefit homeowners

By Kylee van der Poorten, November 6 2014 —

Secondary suites have been a big issue in municipal politics for years with councillors and pundits bitterly divided on the issue.

The debate can be sorted into two groups. There are those who believe changing regulations surrounding secondary suites will make renting safer for tenants and help with Calgary’s growing housing problem. On the other side, there are those who worry about parking congestion and deplore the “changing nature” of neighbourhoods. There’s definitely some legitimate criticism of secondary suite legislation, but protecting the homogeneity of suburban neighbourhoods isn’t one of them.

The secondary suite policy under discussion next month at city council calls for widespread deregulation in four inner-city wards. This includes student communities like Brentwood, Charleswood, Banff Trail and Hillhurst, as well as homes located within 600 metres of an LRT station or bus rapid transit line.

Secondary suites give homeowners a financial incentive to supply the rental market with more suites. This would bring down the vacancy rate citywide and lower the city’s high rental rates.

Most people opposed to suite deregulation are concerned about the repercussions for homeowners, but the new secondary suite legislation would help homeowners afford mortgage payments in an unforgiving market. Secondary suites provide two affordable housing units per approval — one for the renter and one for the homeowner. And affordable housing means less people on the street. Everyone is winning, so what’s the big deal?

The most contentious part of the proposed policy is changing regulations on suites near major public transit routes. This is a smart move because affordable housing shouldn’t only be the responsibility of the already densely-populated inner city.

Secondary suite deregulation will also keep communities from dying. A major issue in urban planning is aging communities, where families grow and move out of an area and young families don’t move in. This kind of neglect makes amenities like schools and playgrounds obsolete. A variety of housing units in a small geographic area keep different people living in the neighbourhood, preventing communities from stagnating.

Creating mixed communities prevents vulnerable groups like  students, single parents and first-time homeowners from getting stuck in specific areas of the city and crowding all the problems associated with poverty in one area.

Increasing density around public transit reduces the number of vehicles on the road. Parking congestion is a big concern for those who oppose secondary suites. But people who rent are more likely to use public transit than drive, which alleviates concerns about parking congestion.

The debate around secondary suites is usually framed as a fight between homeowners and renters. But homeowners and renters both benefit from secondary suites. The additional income from legal secondary suites gives people a fiscal incentive to own their own homes. And being part of groups like students or the working poor doesn’t mean that renters don’t make fiscal contributions to the housing market.

As a vulnerable population, students need to enter the conversation. We need to be a key stakeholder in the secondary suites debate. We’re one of the most widely affected, economically vulnerable and politically misrepresented demographics in this city. Students need to remember that consultation on important issues isn’t a favour — it’s a democratic obligation of elected officials.

If our city’s leaders aren’t reaching out to you, start talking to them. Contact your councillors. Direct engagement is one of your most powerful political tools and their information is easily available online.

One policy won’t change all students’ financial burdens — tuition hikes, market modifiers and an economy that rises and falls with the price of oil. Improved legislation on secondary suites won’t make all of Calgary’s housing problems disappear. But just because a piece of policy isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it won’t help. Secondary suite deregulation isn’t the silver bullet, but it’s certainly part of the solution.

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