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Let a thousand rental units bloom: Why Calgary city council should back Mayor Nenshi on secondary suites

Appeared in the Calgary Herald
Release Date: January 30, 2011
Twenty years ago as an undergraduate student in Edmonton, I rented a basement bedroom in the home of a friend’s grandmother. For two years, I shared the common area and kitchen with an elderly fellow who also rented a room. The arrangement benefited all three of us. The other renter and me, both anything but wealthy, enjoyed lower rent than apartments commanded; the rent payments helped the widowed grandmother stretch her small fixed income.

But such natural solutions to housing needs are often prevented by governments that then proceed to spend money unnecessarily when a simple regulatory change would do the trick.

Case in point: Calgary’s pilot program that offers up to $25,000 to eligible homeowners who create secondary suites in neighbourhoods where they are now banned (almost everywhere outside of pre-1950s neighbourhoods). The program is unnecessary as it will only produce an obvious conclusion: secondary suites help people pay their mortgages and those homeowners will like them. If their tenants park in front of the neighbours’ house, the latter won’t.

In his campaign for mayor last year, Naheed Nenshi addressed the parking issue by suggesting that if an extra parking spot in the homeowner’s garage was guaranteed to the tenant, secondary suites should be legalized if they meet building code requirements.

That’s a sensible compromise, though there’s no reason why Nenshi had to add even that caveat. Streets are public, not private. While it’s courteous not to park in front of your neighbours’ house, a guaranteed spot is not a property right, not when it’s public property. But to avoid the reality of irritated neighbours, a simple owner-tenant conversation about local sensitivities can clear that matter up.

There are plenty of good reasons to legalize suites. Start with the advantageous math for homeowners. Someone with a $300,000 mortgage amortized over 25 years at five per cent will pay $1,744 per month before they own their home free and clear. Suppose they create a two-bedroom basement suite and rent it out for $800 per month. If they only meet their regular mortgage payment, all they need in non-rent money monthly is $944. Even accounting for the tax paid on rental income, the rent payment frees up room for more than a few extra running shoes or new sports equipment for the kids.

Or that same homeowner could apply the extra $9,600 in extra annual cash against their mortgage. That means a $300,000 mortgage is paid off in 13 years instead of 25.

On a side note, this personal advantage for homeowners is why former councillor Ric McIver’s assertion last week was in error (“Suite city will become second-class,” January 20). McIver argued the continued ban on secondary suites was somehow a property rights issue. By that, he meant for one’s neighbours. Except that the neighbours don’t own your house and make the mortgage payments, you do. Deny homeowners the reasonable use of their property—and suites fall into that category—and that’s a denial of property rights for the person who owns the property. McIver had it backwards.  

Here’s another reason why city council should support Mayor Nenshi and legalize secondary suites in all Calgary neighbourhoods: a tenant can be a built-in alarm system. The more people in one’s house at various times of the day, the less likely it will be a target of thieves.

And yet another justification: Like the idea of more people in existing urban areas in order to achieve a much-desired smaller environmental footprint? More people in existing homes will aid that end goal.

After all, today’s houses are much bigger than those built a half-a-century ago when many Alberta cities started to ban secondary suites in newer neighbourhoods. It’s well past time to allow a few more people into today’s bigger houses. That doesn’t mean any number of people is acceptable. Council could, for example, limit the number of non-family members according to the size of a particular suite.

Perhaps the best reason to legalize secondary suites beyond the advantage for the homeowner is the inevitable increase in the number of units available for rent. This helps renters with supply and puts downward pressure on rents. Connected to that, in addition to the unnecessary $25,000 per unit experimental program, simply allowing more secondary suites could obviate the need and cost of at least some taxpayer-financed and government-owned social housing.

Mortgage helpers, another pair of eyes to watch over a home, extra money for those on fixed incomes and a greater choice of rental accommodation for tenants. All are great reasons why council should back Mayor Nenshi and legalize secondary suites.