Why secondary suites matter to Calgary
After years of debate, Calgary City Council has finally made progress on streamlining approvals for secondary suites (units within existing houses, such as basement suites). Council recently passed a motion allowing city staff to approve applications for secondary suites—again, rental units within existing homes—rather than forcing people to appear in front of city council to plead for permission. This move will free up time for Council while (ideally) speeding up the process for applicants, ultimately boosting Calgary’s supply of low-cost rental units.
If well-executed, this move could also benefit low-income Calgarians in several ways.
First, it could quickly increase the number of more affordable rental units in the city. Typically, secondary suites can be cheaper to rent than apartments, offering important options to individuals and families in financial difficulty. If homeowners obtain permits in a timely fashion, they are more likely to build these more affordable units.
Second, streamlining the approvals process brings more rental units within the legal fold. A widely reported study by a University of Calgary graduate student found that only 2 per cent of the city’s 14,000 secondary suites were legal in 2015. Illegal units mean illegal landlord-tenant relationships, leaving room for exploitation of (often low-income) renters. If, through simplified or expedited secondary-suite approvals, the city can encourage more existing and prospective landlords to work within the law, some of the most vulnerable tenants will come out as the biggest winners.
Beyond the benefits to low-income tenants, secondary suites also benefit homeowners. As many Calgarians navigate a difficult economic climate, adding secondary suites to their homes provides additional income, or the possibility of aging in place or near family.
And finally, this decision can help free up council’s timeto focus on other priorities. According to Mayor Nenshi, the issue consumed 20 per cent of city council’s time last year. Given the vast array of pressing issues, allocating one-fifth of council’s time to a niche issue, which administrators are perfectly capable of addressing, made little sense. Councillors should now have more time to focus on matters such as the city’s budgetary challenges.
Calgary City Council’s decision does not come into force until the spring of 2018, so the exact nature and execution of this motion will only be revealed in time. However, it’s heartening to see council come together—after years of gridlock—and act in the interest of Calgarians.
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