Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Accessory units and affordable housing in a growing city

Many people in Calgary consider our city as world class, modern, having taken our place in the world of great places. Yet, one of the challenges for many Calgarians is having an affordable place to live.

Will breaking down the barriers to accessory units solve our housing challenges? No. But it can play a big role towards a comprehensive solution. YYC has made gains, and a simple change, waiving the $5,000 processing fees has generated a big up-tick in applications and legalization of some our unknown illegal units.

We all have a role to play in educating everyone about the potential to have an ongoing supply of accessory units that can go a long way to making this city, a place that offers everyone the opportunity to live in safe, affordable places so that they can establish themselves and provide the knowledge, skills and creativity to keep growing this city.

Read the full blog written by Rollin Stanley, General Manager of Planning, Development And Assessment at The City Of Calgary.


  1. We unknowingly moved into an illegal basement that met very few of the minimum house standards May 1st. At the time we signed the lease we didn't know that as we assumed it met requirements (at this point we didn't know there was such thing as the minimum housing standards) as it was being rented out and had been for a decade. It was obvious that it wasn't in fantastic shape but it was in the right neighborhood and was cheap enough that we could save up enough money to hopefully buy a house at the end of our lease so we took the short term downgrade so we could get our own house sooner.

    After moving in we starting to discover things that made us nervous (outlets that mysteriously didn't work but were wired, deadbolt that was empty - it had no bolt to lock the door, windows that weren't weatherproof letting wind ants and other bugs in). Our landlord refused to do anything about the issues we were finding so we sought advice from the area of Service Alberta that deal with the RTA and they directed us to call Alberta Health and Environmental Safety as the issues were with minimum housing standards and not the RTA. When we called they set up an inspection of the unit after the inspection a report was created and deadlines of June 20 and June 30 were put in place for our landlord. We were also advised by the health inspector to request an electrical inspection which we did and found horrifying safety codes were being violated and it's a miracle the place hadn't burned down. The breaker box in the house was NOT grounded, there were live wires sticking out in the wall behind the dryer, a large portion of the wiring was done with incorrect gauge wires and the electrical box for the outside light had a hole drilled in it so it was no longer weather proof.

    Now 3 months have passed since the original (and only ones we've been told) deadlines from the inspection and still the repairs have not been completed. Our landlord is moving at a snails pace and Alberta Health and Safety seems to be giving our no incentive to finish, it's just extension after extension and we are being kept in the dark. We went a month without heat and they didn't blink an eye, we were just expected to stay here with one small space heater to heat the entire basement - it was useless as there was no where safe to plug it in because of the ongoing construction.

    Perhaps before worrying about making more secondary suites the city should worry about cracking down (and actually having consequences that are enforced) for landlords who continue to maintain secondary suites that are illegal and do not meet minimum housing standards as what the province is doing is not in our experience effective at all.

    1. I'm wondering if you contacted the Landlord/Tenant group? They have a way to speed things up, as a family member learned this summer, living in less than ideal quarters. Nothing compared to what you've described, but lots of black mold, non-functioning appliances, etc.
      That said, if the suite is illegal, chances are the city isn't aware of it and can't do anything about it.
      My personal opinion is that you can't stop everything to fix the existing issues; you have to progress and fix at the same time. I leap forward to the idea that should there be a larger market of affordable, LEGAL secondary suites available, the illegal suites will be forced to either become legal to continue making money or stop renting altogether. This idea wouldn't happen overnight obviously. But if you were presented with a few options for renting (as I'm sure you did), and there were a couple that were close to meeting your requirements, if the potential landlord of one of the properties were to show you documentation or something that proved their suite was legal, would you choose that suite (if it was more money) over the unknown? At least you'd have options to make the best decision for yourself.

  2. I worked for a provincial regulatory agency for enforcement of the Ontario fire and also having lived in Toronto, there a provincial public inquiry of several fire tenant deaths when a Toronto rooming house, secondary suites lacked fire protection/functional smoke detectors. It is believed most likely that City of Calgary should (if not already has) sought these case(s) from the City of Toronto.

    The inquiry led to changes to the fire code.

    There is a far higher risk of not meeting public /residential safety requirements, with many illegal suites if the City of Calgary has no awareness where they exist, cannot inspect, etc. This is unacceptable. Many of us can (unexpectedly) be at a point in life where we have rented or will rent an apartment, which could be a secondary suite.

  3. Making them legal in some or all zonings will not solve the affordability issue. The cost lies in meeting the building codes standards and that is not cheap. Upwards of 30,000$ for typical basements to be renovated to meet the Alberta Building code therefore either a suite will be ungraded and thus rent for more $ money an/or existing cheaper illegal/non-conforming suites will remain and continue to be built.

    Affordable housing was dealt a huge blow in the early 2000's when vast quantities of rental apartments buildings in Calgary were condominium-ised. Those uints that were bought as income units were rented back out but at a much higher monthly rent. Furthermore the inner city housing stock, much of which is in perfectly fine condition, that were rentals are fast being demolished and replaced by infills that again are either for sale or if for rent, are at a much higher rate.

    1. It's all about supply and demand. And what the market will bear. We have very high rental rates in Calgary; I don't think anyone is going to argue with that. But we also do not have a lot of inventory. This drives the rental rates up.
      As for the renovation price ticket, let's be real. Renovations cost $$$. We all want to do it as cheaply as possible. But if your initial investment of $30K to legally rent out your now renovated basement for $1000/month is looked at, you've recouped your renovation money back in less than three years. That's the simple math. The renovations themselves add to your property value so there's a recoup there too. Finally, if you're living in the rest of the home while renting out the basement, you're also enjoying a significantly reduced mortgage payment.

  4. The cost of retrofitting a secondary suite to minimally meet to safety legislation (whether provincial or municipal bylaw) is an investment and responsibility by the property owner. Let's not get too cheap. Installing a smoke detector AND ensuring it always works, doesn't need to be overly complicated. That's a very simple start...

    That is a separate matter from the problem of affordable housing for potential renter(s) and property owners setting rent rate that is competitive in their neighbourhood.

  5. I think that this initiative is a great idea. It really is a long time coming for Calgary. We need to be forward thinking and not be stuck in the past (we've always been R1 so that's the way it is).

    That said, people who are thinking that the costs associated with making legal secondary suites are too high should look into the real costs. Don't just assume you can't afford to do it. Do your research. There are plenty of ways you can do things according to code that will keep everyone safe that won't set you back financially.

    Perhaps we should look at it from this perspective; it's my home and I want to protect my investment. The secondary suite can be a massive liability FINANCIALLY should something go wrong while you're renting it out.