Secondary suites and how we handle them in Calgary, from an approvals perspective, has been a well-discussed topic for years, without much resolution. Recent analysis shows that in the last few years, eight out of ten suite applications that went before council were approved. This is evidence that the current system for evaluating and approving suites is not the best use of City Council or applicants’ time and resources. This is something we need to fix to improve both the efficiency of council meetings (a recent hot topic in the media) and make things easier for homeowners.
As background, it is important to distinguish between the types of secondary suites. The current process divides suites into two categories:
Secondary suite: a self-contained dwelling unit within a main residence that has separate living, cooking, sleeping and bathroom facilities.
These are commonly referred to as basement units. Basement suites have minor effect on the built form. They must have additional off-street parking & other requirements. In most cases they create very subtle variations to the streetscape which can be easily managed through the building permit process and City bylaws. If a proposed basement suite requires a relaxation from City bylaws then it will require the development permit process to be initiated.
Backyard suite: a self-contained dwelling unit in a detached building.
These are commonly referred to as garage suites or laneway homes. Laneway homes are discretionary as they may have more impact on the surrounding neighbours depending on details such as individual layouts of the properties in relation to the laneways, lot sizes, grading etc. These suites provide even more separation from the main home which can give the homeowner additional privacy. They have a unique character that can fit well in some locations.
In general, suites are only allowed within certain Land Use Districts. Each district has different rules and requirements as defined in the Land Use Bylaw. Depending on how your property is zoned, if you would like to add a secondary suite or laneway home, you may currently have to apply for a land-use change (to check your properties zoning, click here and enter your address). In some communities, property land-use designations can vary greatly from street to street, even house to house in some cases, adding to the complexity of the process. In addition to a possible land-use change requirement, you may or may not need a development permit. The construction/renovation of suites will also require a building permit. To say that the process is complicated and difficult to navigate is an understatement. Add to that, conflicting views between residents on suites, the role in each neighbourhood and the perceived effects – things get even more complicated!
I support secondary suites. I believe they are important to our community. Here are some of my ideas and thoughts:
Should suites be allowed everywhere?
Yes. There are many benefits to secondary suites, for home owners, the community and the city. In some form they should be allowed in all neighbourhoods. Here are some of those benefits:
For the home owner:
- A secondary suite can boost income and helps pay down a mortgage
- For some individuals like seniors, this additional income can help them stay in their homes and community longer by providing income they wouldn’t otherwise have to go towards expenses like property tax and utilities
- Secondary suites can also allow caregivers (for children, elderly or disabled family members) to live independently on the same property while providing assistance and support
- Secondary suites often increase the value of a property
For the renter:
- Secondary suites increase the number of places people can live and afford in a neighbourhood. This is important for people looking to downsize but stay in the same community close to friends, family and services they have used for years, as well as people new to the area
- Secondary suites are also helpful for separated or divorced parents wanting to remain in the same community as their children, and be close to their schools, activities etc. They are also a more affordable option for single parents
- Secondary suites provide an alternative to apartment building living. Unlike many apartment units, secondary suites are primarily ground-oriented and have access to things like a yard and garden space
- Homes with secondary suites are well suited to established neighbourhoods as there are already amenities in place such as schools, parks, recreation centres
- Safety – legal and safe secondary suites have met all the requirements under Alberta’s Safety Codes Act (building, trade and fire codes)
- Suites help maintain and stabilize a community’s population with modest growth. As communities age, this is key for maintaining sustainable services and amenities
- Mild density increases help sustain local businesses by growing the immediate, nearby customer base
- Maximizes the use of existing infrastructure in a neighbourhood including parks, roadways, utilities and transit
- Neighbourhoods have more housing options for families looking to live in established communities, helping bring children back into areas where school enrolment has declined.
- More opportunities for seniors to age-in-place and prevent social isolation
- Improves safe rental stock
- Population stability results in better, consistent use of land and City services like transit
- Creates choice in Calgary’s housing market, helping to attract and retain employees in Calgary
How do we handle parking issues?
Additional off-street parking is a requirement of the permitting process. The reality is that we currently can’t regulate how many vehicles people own regardless of their zoning.
Basement suites should be permitted uses. Laneway/garage suites should be discretionary uses. It is important that residents have a clear and objective process on how they can modify their property regardless of where they live. Objective criteria exists as to what properties qualify for which permitted use. For example, permitting basement suites in an R1 district does not allow that home owner to do anything other than a basement suite – they couldn’t build a duplex or split the property. As long as the project fits the specific zoning guidelines, development permits should not be required.
I strongly believe that homeowners should have more control over their investments if they are operating within the criteria. If the home owner wants to do something outside of that permitted criteria, they then would be streamed into discretionary use.
This would require a development permit. A development permit application would lead to community circulation and engagement along with the opportunity for neighbours to comment and appeal where necessary. And of course, building permits are required for all suites to ensure things are built to current safety standards.
Neighbourhoods are unique. Properties are unique. Not all homes will qualify for a suite through the regulatory process. Not all owners will want to redevelop their home. It’s less about geography and more about what is right for a given property and homeowner.
While some neighbours have concerns about secondary suites such as parking availability, population growth, crime, the reality is that most secondary suites do not cause problems. If community standards are violated by any homeowner (regardless of whether the home has a secondary suite), these issues would not be resolved via land use – they would be addressed by bylaw.
As outlined, there are in fact many benefits of secondary suites, for the homeowner, the community and the city. The moderate densification of existing communities makes them stronger. It creates more opportunity and revitalizes aging neighbourhoods. Secondary suites offer benefits to all age demographics – from families just starting out to the elderly wanting to remain in their home in their retirement years. They provide citizens with greater housing choices. Secondary suites and their approvals should be in the hands of administration (Planning Department) through the application process. Once we remove the land use requirement, council will no longer need to be involved. This will enable a faster review process, leaving more time for council to review larger issues and opportunities Calgary is facing.
Problems and concerns can be mitigated with the right approval systems and an equal and fair suite program in place along with proper engagement/communication between neighbours and the larger community. I think this process is definitely one we need to take out of the hands of council and task to the city administration to ensure secondary suites are handled in a fair, efficient and beneficial manner. This will create a better experience for the applicant by creating more certainty of expectation, along with a reduction in the costs, stress and time associated with the current process.