Suite and sour

Neighbours pitted against each other over secondary suites

Calgary, like other major cities, is facing economic, environmental and social problems brought on by a surge in population. So far, our city has responded by growing outwards while others have been growing upwards and inwards. As we move towards increased population density, politicians, neighbours and city administration are faced with a new challenge — reconciling the strains of crowding and conflict.

In 1973, Dixie Watson’s first home on a quiet bay in the community of Southwood was just being built. She purchased it four years later at age 21, and that is where she and her husband would raise their two children. “When we bought here, there was a sense of safety,” Watson recalls. “It was all families at that time, and we knew every person on the bay.”

The Arab Oil Embargo of that year propelled worldwide oil prices up and thrust Calgary, with a population of just less than 425,000, into an economic boom that drastically altered the city’s landscape. The communities of Greenwood, Huntington Hills and Whitehorn formed the northern boundaries of the municipality, while Penbrooke Meadows, Millican-Ogden, Canyon Meadows and Glenbrook shaped Calgary’s southwest limits. Construction of Spruce Meadows was just beginning and once completed two years later, would be considered a day trip for local equestrian enthusiasts.

By the summer of 1981, the south line of the C-Train opened, running from Anderson Station, a stone’s throw from Watson’s backyard, to the Eighth Street S.W. Station downtown. After three decades of rapid urban development and population growth, Watson now finds herself in a more crowded, conflicted community than the one she bought into.

Growing Pains

Watson’s community began to deteriorate in the years after she bought her house. Many properties close to Anderson Station became unkempt with weed-ridden yards, littered alleyways, neglected cars and abandoned shopping carts. Many had absentee landlords and transient renters. Watson has witnessed the SWAT team shut down the adjacent bay to arrest drug dealers and car thieves. She believes the increased density of surrounding streets has caused the changes she’s seen.

Watson says her bay has retained some level of safety, however, because the houses are single-family dwellings, whereas surrounding streets are a mix of duplexes, single-family dwellings and condominiums. She believes duplexes and suited houses, by nature, attract investors who rent the properties out. She thinks single-family dwellings are more likely to be owner-occupied. This is one of the factors that attracted the Watsons to this particular bay. She believes this is what keeps property values higher and draws families and longer-term residents. However, this, too, is threatened.

Calgary is now home to over one million residents. The boundaries of the city are bulging with cookie-cutter communities engulfing Canada Olympic Park and Spruce Meadows, hastily assembled houses are pushing past Highway 22X and hugging the airport, and backyards are bordering the sites and smells of the city’s three landfills. The land area Calgary occupies exceeds many other North American cities with higher populations, including New York City and Toronto, no doubt contributing to Calgary’s status as having the highest energy footprint in the country and being one of three cities with the largest overall ecological footprint in Canada, according to a report published by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Calgary has suffered a steady decline in rental units — a trend that started in 1994 — while the population has continued to increase. The rental vacancy rate currently hovers around two or three per cent, and a two-bedroom apartment will set you back an average of $1,037 a month. The housing market, although it’s starting to cool off, is tough to get into with a single family home costing an average $463,000. Homelessness is growing at an alarming pace with recent counts indicating more than 4,000 men, women and children are without shelter.

In Search of a Place to Call Home

People are starting to get creative in order to secure suitable housing — people like Chandy Megaw. Tired of rental increases and frustrated with paying down someone else’s mortgage, Megaw lined up a co-signor and started her search for a house. Knowing she couldn’t manage hefty mortgage payments alone, Megaw sought out a house that could accommodate her and renters. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) reports secondary suites can reduce carrying costs to first-time homebuyers by up to 25 per cent.

A 33-year-old human resources professional, Megaw says, “I really wanted to own something of my own that I could make exactly the way I wanted. I’m very handy, so I knew I could do a lot of the work myself.”

The search for a suited house was challenging. Strict regulations in Calgary make legally suited houses hard to come by. In order to be legal, a secondary suite (defined as a self-contained living space consisting of a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen located within or on the same property as a single family home — most commonly in the form of a basement suite) must be located in the correct land-use designation, must have a separate entrance, must have a designated parking spot in addition to those required of the principal dwelling, must have a minimum ceiling height of 1.95 metres (6.4 feet), fire-protected walls, a separate furnace and ventilation system, must meet specific lot and interior space requirements, among other conditions, and the owner must secure of number of costly building, land-use and development permits.

Megaw found the requirements too expensive and. “I would have preferred to buy a legally suited house, but it was near impossible to find one because so many people don’t make them legal. Most of the suited houses I looked at needed a lot of work, so I tried to find one that wouldn’t cost me too much.”

When Megaw came across a listing for a Southwood house advertised as “suite-ready” (the owner had roughed in a kitchen in the basement) in her price range, she jumped on it. Megaw purchased it and took possession in April of this year. By the end of the month, Megaw had moved into the basement, started work on completing the kitchen and secured tenants for the upstairs.

She had also been reported for her illegal suite by Dixie Watson, her neighbour. A notice arrived from the City of Calgary Development and Building Approvals department notifying her that a complaint had been filed indicating she had more than the allowable number of dwelling units on her property. A development inspector came and took photos of every room in her house. The inspector was looking for evidence indicating another dwelling unit — specifically, upper and lower cabinets and/or cupboards, sink and plumbing, faucets, countertop, cooking facilities including but not limited to a stove, microwave, toaster oven, hot plate and 220 electrical wiring — any of which are prohibited by city bylaw. He found most of these things.

Megaw had become responsible for a mortgage, renovations and three renters within a short time. After getting the inspection notice in the mail, Megaw says, “I was scared, panicked and overwhelmed. I didn’t know where to look or what to do. I didn’t realize how involved it all was.”

Megaw is one of more than 1,000 Calgarians that are reported each year for having an illegal secondary suite. Her home is one of an estimated more than 50,000 illegally suited houses in Calgary.

Other Cities More Accommodating than Calgary

Other cities aren’t closing the door on secondary suites. The City of North Vancouver took the lead in 1997, amending its zoning bylaw to permit secondary suites in the city’s single-family residential areas. It did this because, in the late 1980s, housing prices skyrocketed, making it difficult for prospective homeowners to buy and making it equally challenging for tenants to find affordable housing. With a shift in the market, the city’s leadership responded.

Toronto followed suit in 1999, Vancouver in 2004 and cities like Saskatoon and Edmonton are likewise amending their bylaws and offering incentives to homeowners who are willing to create suites in their homes.

Secondary suites make up close to a fifth of the rental stock in many major cities. The CMHC has found the rent for secondary suites is, on average, lower than that for apartments, and that secondary suites provide relatively affordable housing in a neighbourhood setting without major government assistance.

Ald. Brian Pincott agrees. “Our city is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis with 60,000 residents one paycheque away from homelessness. Secondary suites are the low-hanging fruit on the tree for getting affordability back in the market.”

The confusing jumble of restrictions governing secondary suites in Calgary doesn’t bog down homeowners in other cities. Cities like Vancouver have relaxed various building codes to facilitate secondary suites while still addressing occupant safety through simple building requirements such as the installation of interconnected hard-wired smoke alarms.

In Toronto, homeowners don’t have to provide extra parking to have a secondary suite. The city recognizes that many tenants who rent in secondary suites don’t have vehicles anyway.

Pincott says the main obstacle in Calgary is attitude. He says, “Public attitude is the biggest hurdle. People have misplaced apprehension here. Secondary suites are a non-issue elsewhere,” he says.

He says the way Calgary has grown has only enabled this attitude. “Calgary has grown with the premise that the goal for everyone is to have a single-family home, and we haven’t put in the processes to encourage anything but that.”

A working paper on affordable housing authored by two City of Calgary planners in February 2004 acknowledges secondary suites as a means to increase affordable housing stock at a lower cost per dwelling unit, make home ownership more accessible and make efficient use of existing housing stock, land, municipal services and infrastructure.

Pincott agrees, adding that the city cannot continue to grow out and must make better use of existing infrastructure. He says, “We’re building our city around having a car,” he says. He would especially like to see secondary suites encouraged around post-secondary institutions and public transit.

The city recognizes growth patterns must change. Its Land Use Planning and Policy department states on its webpage, “Cities without geological barriers such as Calgary typically consume large areas of easily available land for low-density development. This pattern of development is costly to build and maintain, and consumes large tracts of productive land.”

The department’s website points to transit-oriented development (TOD) — walkable, mixed-use development located near transit stations — as a way to grow sustainably. “This form of development utilizes existing infrastructure, optimizes use of the transit network and creates mobility options for transit riders and the local community.”

One of the critical success factors for acceptance of secondary suites acknowledged in the city’s 2004 report is a “full citizen engagement process to fight NIMBY.”

Subsequent reports have echoed these findings, while similar studies in other cities and a major report by the CMHC support the promotion of secondary suites as a way of addressing multiple urban issues.

Calgary Slow to Change

The city is looking to become a better host to secondary suites, albeit at a snail’s pace. A pilot program has been approved by council.

Gail Sokolan, affordable housing co-ordinator for the City of Calgary, says the program, slated to begin in spring of 2009, is aimed at bringing illegal suites into conformity and encouraging new suites to be created. The program will run for one year and offer up to $25,000 to homeowners so they can secure the proper permits and finance construction costs. There are caveats on the grants, though. The suites must be in owner-occupied homes, the owner must make the suite available for rent for a period of at least 10 years for a rental rate that is within the median for the area, and the owner must contribute 30 per cent of the total costs.

“The program will increase the safety of secondary suites and serve to legitimize them,” Sokolan says. The problem is the program will only apply to a maximum of 80 suites — a drop in the bucket. “The program is a tentative first step,” says Pincott. “The intent of the pilot is to show that having rental units in your neighbourhood is a non-issue. The pilot is not a solution to the affordable housing crisis.”

Sokolan says there will be an educational component to the program and, after the year, it will be evaluated with results being sent back to council.

“Ultimately,” Sokolan says, “it’s a matter of council deciding whether or not secondary suites will be permitted.”

Suites Under Fire

Megaw is currently trying to bring her suite up to code so it can be considered legal and so she won’t lose the money she’s already invested in renovations. After the inspection, Megaw had two options — remove her basement kitchen and lose all the money she invested or try to bring the suite up to code. She forked over $300 for a development permit and was met with formal appeals filed by seven of her neighbours, including Watson.

On purchasing her home, Megaw says, “I regret it now. If I had known these were my neighbours, I wouldn’t have bought here. I feel I’ve been unfairly targeted because my neighbours haven’t taken the time to get to know me.” She would also lose money if she sold now, so she’s committed to the process of making her suite legal.

The appeals went to a hearing, and Megaw was awarded her development permit. In order to comply with bylaws and building codes, she still needs to put in additional parking, obtain building permits, install a separate basement furnace and ductwork and more. So far, Megaw has spent more than double her original budget. She has until August 5, 2009 to complete the work, or her development permit will be void. Her frustration is palpable, “How are you supposed to own a house as a single person?”

Megaw’s neighbours have expressed concerns over increased density, though, even with her home’s status as a single-family dwelling, she could legally rent to up to three tenants.

Watson says the difference between renting out rooms and converting a house to having a secondary suite is in the long-term use of the property. She says once a property is altered, it no longer appeals to families and instead appeals to investors. She fears absentee owners who won’t necessarily take pride in ownership or take care in choosing responsible tenants.

Watson says the difference between renting out rooms and adding a secondary suite is in the long-term use of the property. She fears absentee owners who won’t necessarily take pride in ownership or care in choosing responsible tenants.

Watson speaks for those who appealed Megaw’s permit. “We are a pretty good group of people, we keep a close eye on each other’s homes and we are always willing to lend a hand. Don’t fault us for wanting to keep our bay unchanged for as long as possible.”

She thinks the city’s process is pitting neighbours against each other. “It seems that those of us who don’t want high density and a constant change of faces are the bad buys.”

Megaw has a different take on it. “It is people who fear change that cause the most problems because they lack an open mind. Change is good when it is well planned and intended to improve the lives of others.”

Watson and Megaw are my neighbours. I moved into the same bay in May 2007. Like Megaw, I installed a kitchen in my basement, investing approximately $15,000. I rented the suite out and lived upstairs along with another roommate in order to pay the mortgage. In September of this year, I received a notice from the city indicating a complaint had been made against my property. After the development inspector came by, I was issued an order to remove the basement kitchen.

I suspect Watson, Megaw and I will remain neighbours for some years to come. We will all be waiting in anticipation to see whether or not our city chooses to put out a welcome mat for secondary suites.

Comments: 2

ChandyM wrote:

Great article!! I think it points out that people who aren’t open to change cause the most problems because they want life to be the way “it used to be” rather than the “way it is”.

on Dec 4th, 2008 at 4:08pm Report Abuse

callam wrote:

I second the first comment, Great Article! I am in a similar situation to the writer of this article, in that I’ve got a secondary sweet, luckily I seem to have more laid back or more open minded neighbours. Times change, people need to understand that change is not always a negative. Anyone with some brains who follows the happenings of the country, and more specifically Calgary, understands that secondary suite bylaws need to be changed, and will be changed very soon. That being said, why can’t people like Mrs Watson realize this and change with the times, for the good of the city, and the good of people less fortunate who need to rent a sweet in someone else’s house. The NIMBY syndrome is really frustrating. It’s a selfish way of thinking, and needs to be eliminated by proper policy! City council knows they need to push these changes through quickly, so I plead to city council to get on with it. We all talk about wanting to help the homeless problem, well, this would likely help that problem more than any other short term solution.

on Dec 5th, 2008 at 6:05pm Report Abuse

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