Secondary Suites: Getting from A to B

Posted June 9, 2011
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Calgary has been left in a very perplexing state by the decisions of city council. I speak of secondary suites. Secondary suites are a self-contained living space built into a portion of a house for rental purposes. Currently they're not permitted in most of Calgary due to zoning restrictions. Only after considerable effort may you get the chance to have your property rezoned for secondary suites. I strongly support the broad rezoning of Calgary's residential areas to allow for legal secondary suites. It's a real way to create affordable housing, density and diversity in our neighbourhoods.


When the issue was first debated at city council earlier this year, I chose not to write about it because there were already a ton-of-great-articles in support of secondary suites. The support for them was almost overwhelming. Despite this, city council failed to rezone the city to allow for secondary suites. Actually, smaller efforts to rezone only specific areas near LRT and universities (which would seem like a slam dunk) failed, so no attempt was even made at considering zoning the city as a whole. As disappointing as it was to see the majority of aldermen vote against what Calgarians told them (or abstain from the vote altogether because they were building their own secondary suites), that's not why I'm writing this article now. I'm writing this because like I said, the current state of secondary suites in Calgary is now completely perplexing.

City council more recently did decide to zone areas of Calgary for secondary suites. What is perplexing are the areas they chose to zone. Zoning communities next to LRT that can support higher density? No, that would make sense. Instead  secondary suites will only be zoned across the board in all newly developed communities. Density will be encouraged in the areas farthest from the city's core. Where Calgary struggles the most to serve transit to its citizens and provide proper infrastructure are the only areas in which citizens will be permitted to have multiple dwellings within the same house. It's a completely perplexing policy, and easy to see why it is a bad one. But how did it get this way, and how do we get out of it?


The only thing that can turn Calgary's communities into slums is a disparity amongst them

We're stuck with bad secondary suite policy because of the reasoning of two very different groups of Calgary's aldermen: the aldermen that support a broader rezoning of Calgary's residential areas to allow for secondary suites, and the aldermen that don't. When the motion came up to allow for secondary suites in new Calgary communities, these two very different groups came together to pass it. The supporters of Calgary-wide secondary suites saw this as an opportunity to get closer to that goal, and those against Calgary-wide secondary suites saw the vote as an opportunity to justify their reasoning. Opponents concluded a broad rezoning would outrage Calgarians that bought into neighbourhoods expecting no secondary suites were permitted. This reasoning is flawed on two accounts:


  • Assumes secondary suites are actually a problem. (I say 'actually' because secondary suites can be a problem when illegal and unregulated, as many will continue to be if the city refuses to zone for them).
  • Assumes most Calgarians actually know how their residential area is zoned and what that zoning permits or doesn't permit before buying.


Opponents of secondary suites simply don't want secondary suites 'in their backyard' but don't want to admit to this pettiness. Perhaps these aldermen desire a Calgary of gated communities where you'll never have to see another Calgarian unless you choose to, but that's not what the majority of Calgarians want. I think many opponents of secondary suites oppose it for an irrational fear it will turn Calgary's communities into slums. The only thing that can turn Calgary's communities into slums is a disparity amongst them, which is exactly what now exists on paper with the poor policy settled on from aldermen on both sides of the issue.

Though the new communities that are now permitted for secondary suites will be many years away, we need to make sure we move Calgary off this path and towards secondary suites for all communities. Cities across Canada have already rezoned for secondary suites to great results, yet Calgary remains behind. This is the exact same conclusion I reached in regards to Calgary and Open Data - other cities move forward and establish positive results yet we ignore the facts because of too many dinosaurs on city council, out-of-touch with Calgarians and unwilling to listen. Think I'm exaggerating? Alderman Dale Hodges wished the secondary suites discussion "would just go away". Bluntly put, Alderman Hodges wants Calgarians to stop caring about the issue so he will no longer feel under some sort of an obligation to listen. Unfortunately for Alderman Hodges, this issue won't go away, especially not in it's current failed state. City council will revisit zoning the city for secondary suites in December. Calgarians are ready for our city to go from A to B, Calgary's aldermen should finally take note.