City set to ease bylaws on secondary suites

By Kay She

In the heat of Calgary’s housing crisis, City Council is proposing a bylaw that would legalize secondary suites in single-family districts, including the residential areas surrounding the university.

Secondary suites, such as rented basements and garages, are currently illegal due to zoning issues, the lack of safety regulations and general community dissent. The bylaw change would acknowledge the existence of secondary suites and set rules to ensure their safety.

“I think it would be a pretty good idea,” said first-year University of Calgary student Brian Cardone, who came to Calgary from the Red Deer area for schooling. “Housing is already so expensive, it’s ridiculous for an unemployed student to be able to afford it.”

According to the Calgary Action Housing Initiative website, the City of Calgary estimated 57 per cent of rental units were informal in 2002.

“Particularly in the student housing area, it is quite common for there to be secondary suites,” said Students’ Union president Emily Wyatt. “This would formalize the process, and although it won’t guarantee everyone who has these suites [will] legalize them, I hope it will encourage empty-nesters and people who have been turned off of renting out to students to turn out their places.”

Despite students’ optimism Ward 1 Alderman Dale Hodges said even if the bylaw passes it will not have much effect on the Calgary housing market.

“It’s simply a structure for a builder to apply for land use permits,” said Hodges, noting that if the bylaw passes it will not take effect until January 2008. “It’s up to the private industry to bring affordable housing to the market.”

The city held a public hearing March 19-20 to allow homeowners and city organizations to discuss the proposed bylaw, which will likely go to its third reading in council May 7, said Hodges. He noted the proposal has garnered mixed feedback.

“I think it’s someone’s own choice if they want to rent their house out,” said Wyatt. “It’s not like it will become a huge party centre, it’s just a place for students to live with another family.”

Some homeowners suggested amendments to the bylaw so it would apply exclusively to new communities.

“That definitely concerns me because the new communities aren’t close to transit or any of the post-secondary institutions,” said Wyatt. “That makes it extremely difficult for students who don’t have a car to live there.”

If the bylaw passes without amendments, landlords in existing communities will still have to go through a process in order to legalize their secondary suite. They would need to submit an application and attend a public hearing process to gain the approval of their neighbors before their house may be re-zoned as a designated secondary suite property.

“I’m hoping the process will make the suites safer and I’m hoping it won’t deter potential landlords away,” said Wyatt. “I need to stress that in the event this does go through, students don’t need to live in a place that isn’t safe. If you’re not comfortable in a place, don’t rent it.”

Currently, the city only polices illegal secondary suites if there is a complaint from a neighbour or a former tenant, said Hodges.

“We don’t have money for dozens of bylaw officers to be rooting around the neighbourhoods,” he said.

Hodges said he will vote in favour of the bylaw with the necessary amendments.

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