City hall turns secondary suites into sweet nothings

Calgary City Council has finally moved forward with changes to Calgary’s complex and lagging secondary suites policy. This past Monday, Council voted unanimously to erase zoning restrictions on narrow lot secondary suites, but this doesn’t mean that City Council has the public interest at heart.

Council has spent years divided on whether or not to ease regulation of secondary suites — typically redeveloped basements with a separate entrance from the rest of the house — so that they can be legally rented out to tenants. Motions brought before council to reexamine the issue have failed consistently.

A large contributor to the failure of motions has been the concern expressed by various community organizations, stating that the suites could potentially alter family neighbourhoods and congest parking with more cars.

These fears are ill-founded. A large number of secondary suite inhabitants could and do rely on transit and would not exacerbate current parking congestion. In addition, a city as big as Calgary cannot support suburban neighbourhoods forever. At some point the population will be forced to become more dense — especially in urban areas. This is in many ways for the best: shorter distances between destinations are both community and environmentally friendly.

While community concerns have been part of the issue, existing public policy further frustrates it. A lack of land is currently designated for secondary suites and there are difficulties in zoning more — rezoning is a tedious process involving property owners going before council to have individual proposals approved. This not only deters people from developing suites in general, but also deters homeowners from developing legal suites that are up to code. This is a continuing threat to the safety and security of student renters.

There is no doubt that secondary suites constitute one of the largest student issues in the upcoming municipal election. In fact, the election is likely the only reason the issue was pushed through with little to no resistance in this rare instance. Last Monday, Council voted unanimously to allow suites in districts designated for narrow properties, affecting about 18 per cent of Calgary’s residential areas, in one of the last City Council meetings before the election. The overwhelming change of heart passed amidst aldermen who didn’t understand the issue at hand or didn’t want to make an issue of it right before a tight mayoral race involving a significant number of candidates.

A properly designed City of Calgary policy would reduce regulations on the number of affordable and safe secondary suites. City council should develop sound policy based on the public interest instead of individual political aims.

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