Support growing for Calgary mayor's plan to legalize secondary suites

To date, there are anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 illegal secondary suites in the city, forcing many renters into what Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi calls a "shadow world with no protection."

"And to me that's morally repugnant," he says. "I think we should do what every other Canadian city has done, which is to normalize and regulate these suites so that there is a safe, legal alternative for people seeking that type of rental housing."

Under the city’s current bylaw, secondary-suite renters living in unsafe or unhealthy homes have no legal recourse.

“If there’s mice, mould, faulty fire alarms or if the landlord is harassing the tenant, there’s nowhere for these tenants to turn,” Nenshi says. “And right now, the only tool the city has is to rip out their stove and kick them out of their house.”

Nenshi’s plan to legalize secondary suites, which received 80% public approval in a city-commissioned survey, consists of three main proposals: first, rental units must meet fire and safety codes; second, the landlords must provide one on-street parking spot if their property is not near rapid transit and third – and obviously most controversial – landlords must live with their tenants. Nenshi’s plan will be considered in committee this week before it goes to council for debate sometime in March.

The first proposal is non-negotiable, Nenshi says, but he is willing to hold talks on the other two.

“I’m very willing to have that discussion, and I think there are a lot of responsible people who would be great landlords even if they didn’t live there. But we’ll see if the community feels that’s the right way to go.”

He’s also looking into rental licensing, but says he has not formed a position on the issue yet.

Nenshi’s plan to legalize secondary suites is facing a fair amount of opposition from councillors and community groups who believe the measure will lead to an excess of rental units, thereby causing more traffic and parking on residential roads.

Despite the uphill battle Nenshi is facing with city officials, a wide range of individuals, including business professionals, bankers, real estate agents and social justice activists, back his plan.

“There’s a really, really broad community coalition and a broad community consensus that this is the right thing to do, and I hope that my fellow council members will see it the same way. I have yet to run into anyone, other than community association executives and my council members who are opposed to this.”

Supporters of the change include the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, the Calgary Real Estate Board, the Canadian Home Builders’ Association – Calgary Region, the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, and the Urban Development Institute. They said, in joint press release, that allowing secondary suites throughout Calgary will increase the use of existing infrastructure and even help young families becomes homeowners sooner.

Calgary has the third highest average two-bedroom apartment rental rate of Canadian cities, behind just Vancouver and Toronto, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

“Permitting secondary suites in all neighbourhoods will cost-effectively expand the rental supply and improve the quality of life offered by our city,” said Adam Legge, president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. “Experience in other major cities including Edmonton and Vancouver shows that allowing secondary suites in all communities has not had the negative impact that some have predicted.”

Don't forget to pick up a copy of our April issue, which will have a full feature on the Calgary market, on newsstands March 29.

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