Secondary Suites: Public Engagement Matters

Jeff is a hard working Calgarian that lives in a new community in the deep southeast.  Jeff’s mother in law has been widowed for five years and has been finding it increasingly difficult to live on her own.  While she would love to maintain her independence, she is realistic that moving into a senior’s facility might be her only option.

Jeff and his wife discuss how they might be able to help.  They come to the conclusion they could build a suite above their rear detached garage.  This suite would afford his mother in law a high level of independence, but also offer her close support when she needed it.  Jeff visits the Calgary.ca page on secondary suites and finds out that in order to apply to build a secondary suite he would need to be granted a land use amendment as he currently lives in an R1 zoned area.

Jeff begins by canvassing his neighbors about his plans for a secondary suite.  While some are hesitant at first, they quickly come around once Jeff describes the situation.  A few weeks later Jeff presents his application before Council, and his land use amendment passes with tremendous support.  Shortly thereafter Jeff begins construction on the suite and within a few months his mother in law moves into the suite.

The scenario I described above is an example of just how simple this entire process could be.  While I don’t want to ruin a happy ending, I feel like I need to inject some realism into this story; Jeff is not a real person, and most secondary suite applications are not this straight forward.

Secondar Suite

Council has discussed the secondary suite topic for what seems like forever.  For the countless hours that Council has spent on this file, I still often feel like we are stuck in first gear.  Some of my Council colleagues have taken a very black or white approach to this issue, but in my opinion there is so much grey area regarding secondary suites.  Parties on either side of this debate need to work hard to find a way forward that works best for Calgarians.

I discussed my stance on secondary suites here.
A few points I would like to highlight:

  • Secondary suites have an important role to play to add density and offer additional housing options to Calgarians;
  • We cannot trample on the rights of R1 homeowners that strategically purchased their homes in an area with less density;
  • Public engagement is a critical component of this process. Historically I have voted against secondary suite applications that have faced significant opposition by the community;
  • Blanket rezoning across the City is not the answer. There are areas in the City where secondary suites make sense, and there are areas where they do not.

I have received feedback regarding neighbor engagement from a number of Calgarians.  They suggested that public engagement may lead to bullying between neighbors and that some applicants may not be comfortable approaching their neighbors for fear of an angry response.  I feel as though the City of Calgary could play an important role as an intermediary in this public engagement process.  The City could act as a neutral third party that would gather feedback from immediate neighbors impacted by the application.  The engagement process could be more comprehensive and honest with the involvement of a third party.

I believe the City of Calgary could better prepare applicants before their land use amendments are brought before Council.  I have witnessed quite a few instances where applicants have come before Council unprepared and without a detailed understanding of how the process works.  I have asked numerous times if the City is prohibited from giving applicants a best practice engagement package regarding secondary suites.  This package would give best practice information that advises applicants on how to provide the best case possible when they come before Council.

It came to light earlier this year that overtime costs for lengthy Council meetings can reach as much as $10,000 per session.  More often than not we spend more time than necessary deliberating over individual secondary suite applications.  While some of our applicants are well prepared with a detailed understanding of the process, we often encounter applicants that lack that same detailed understanding.  It is perfectly understandable that not all homeowners will have an in depth understanding of the secondary suite application process.  There could be more tools at an applicant’s disposal to better understand the process.  If the City is unable to provide something as simple as a best practice guide for applicants, what are they able to provide to assist both applicants and Council?

The Calgarians I speak to about secondary suites are frustrated with this entire process.  While we may never find a way to keep everyone happy on this topic, it is important that we identify what the way forward is.  Multiple years of debate without any real progress is not acceptable to the Calgarians this Council represents.  This is not a debate about ideology; this is about updating a process and creating a reasonable environment that respects the rights of renters and homeowners alike.