Students’ Union still hopes for secondary suites

While a new students’ council has taken office, many important issues raised by previous councils, such as secondary suites, are still a priority. Students’ Union vice-president external Hardave Birk plans to capitalize on the upcoming municipal election to build on the progress of secondary suites.

Birk said that a plan drafted by the Urban Calgary Students’ Association, a campus club devoted to urban issues, is “a great solution” for addressing the need for affordable housing for students. The plan calls for any area within 400 meters of an LRT station to be rezoned to allow secondary suites. Renters in these suites would be barred from parking permits to combat complaints of parking shortages in areas with secondary suites, and only owner-occupied suites would be allowed. Urban CSA suggests a pilot project be conducted at one LRT station to determine the idea’s success.

Progress with civic leaders and administration has been slow. Birk admitted that it does take time to meet with all the stakeholders in order to get the process going.

“The best we can do right now is to get it on the radar of all Calgarians,” said Birk. “We want to make it an election issue.”

Birk is also meeting with other post-secondary institutions in the Calgary Student Caucus to gain their support on the initiative. The Calgary Student Caucus includes representatives from Mount Royal University, SAIT and the Alberta College of Art and Design.

Birk noted that most Calgarians do support secondary suites, and most aldermen are on board with looking at ways to increase the number of these units, as long as there is support from the community associations.

Kay She, the previous VP external, believes the SU made great strides this past year on secondary suites despite other pressing issues, such as the tuition increases. She said the SU was able to present its plans to the Brentwood Community Association and meet with various aldermen on council to address the issue.

“Secondary suites have always been an important issue for students,” said She. “We felt this was an innovative and cheap way to increase secondary suites.”

She indicated this plan would appeal to a very niche market, but also cater to students. She pointed out that many students don’t have cars and accessible transit will give students more options. The plan also addresses community associations’ problems with noise and litter associated with frat houses because owner occupancy would act as a deterrent.

The municipal election year has brought the issue to a standstill as politicians prepare for re-election, but She is confident that the new VP external will “have the opportunity to bring this forward as an election issue.”

MRU business professor Naheed Nenshi took a different stance, saying that city council is terrified of negative feedback from communities that would result if secondary suites were legalized. He said the ideas proposed by the SU and Urban CSA are only band aid solutions.

“We need to solve it for everyone, not just for students,” said Nenshi.

Nenshi believes a more ambitious plan can be achieved in Calgary. He cited Edmonton as an example where a recent bylaw amendment will increase affordable housing for the city and students. Edmonton’s zoning bylaw now removes location restrictions on secondary suites in mature neighborhoods.

Ward Eight Alderman John Mar said that the issue of secondary suites in Calgary has made council “very divisive.” He agreed with Nenshi that this is “not just a student issue, but a Calgary issue.”

“It’s going to be an ongoing issue for many years to come,” said Mar. “There’s a lot of fear of the unknown.”

Mar also said that the city has some programs in place to encourage secondary suites, such as a grant program available to homeowners which was extended earlier this month. A successful secondary suite applicant would be reimbursed up to $25,000 to develop or upgrade a suite.

While the SU hopes to garner more attention about affordable housing in the upcoming municipal election, Mar believes most Calgarians will be focused on the mayoral race rather than student housing.

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