Let’s get real on secondary suites in Calgary


Every time secondary suites come before city council in Calgary, we hear the usual chorus bemoaning the status of secondary suites in the city. The process is indeed tedious and not an efficient use of city council time as every suite application comes before council for discussion for approval or rejection. There is no doubt that this is a terrible system of approval and it needs reform. That being said, this does not justify the radical changes to zoning that the secondary suite obsessed want to see throughout the city.

Nenshi has a vocal cult following and secondary suites have always been a frustrating pet issue of his. This of course has led to quite the crusade over the years by his faithful to push to have secondary suites legalized throughout the entire city. Every year the hype gets louder and if these zealots were to be believed, everything from homelessness to nose-warts would end if only those darned stubborn NIMBYs in the city would allow widespread secondary suites.

What we have is a mess in the system for approval and regulation that indeed needs to be addressed. The potential benefits of widely legalized secondary suites have been grossly exaggerated by proponents for years though and we have to get back to reality here.

To begin with, how many new secondary suites would Calgary really gain if they were legalized throughout the city? A study back in 2008 estimated that there were 50,000 to 80,000 “illegal” suites in the city already. In the six years since then the city has grown of course so those numbers are likely higher. What this tells us is that those who want to build secondary suites are building them already despite current regulations. Clearly whatever legislation there is against secondary suites is of little to no deterrent for people who want to build these suites. Getting realistic, how many more suites could we expect if the suites were legalized? To be blunt, not a hell of a lot.

The numbers above do not mean that there is no benefit to legalization of more suites, but it does demonstrate that legalizing suites will not be the panacea to solve issues of high rents and homelessness in the city as the fanatical pushers of these suites like to imply they are. The supply really won’t grow by that much.



Druh Farrell has long been a strong proponent of the mass legalization secondary suites throughout the city. Druh loves to wax on about the misery of tenants living in illegal suites as they have limited protections in landlord/tenant issues and can often live in unsafe conditions. Druh then loves to point out how high rents are and how limited availability is within the city. The true depth of Farrell’s rationale came to light in a radio interview though when she vapidly went into circles in confusion when confronted with the reality that if we found and regulated all of these illegal suites as she wants us to that we would actually end up with less suites and much higher rent. Druh and her ideological kin have always had something of a deficit when it comes to the concept of supply and demand.

We may have as many as 100,000 “illegal” (grey market) suites in the city of Calgary. Likely well over 75% of them need at least some upgrades to bring them to code in a legal and regulated market. Bringing a suite up to code in Calgary can range in cost anywhere from $10,000 to over $100,000. It simply isn’t cheap. Landlords who find themselves confronted with the sudden legal need to upgrade these suites will have to choose between closing the suite and evicting the tenants or doing the renovations and raising the rent considerably to recoup their costs. Landlords are not charities people. The bottom line is that we will either lose a suite or costs will rise. Neither of those two options aids in availability of suites or rental costs of course (that supply and demand thing). We need to work to ensure that suites are safe but let’s not pretend that enforcement won’t have a very big impact on supply.

Now the next question is whether or not a big market of prospective landlords is waiting in the wings just salivating at the prospect of opening a secondary suite but has not done so yet because it is illegal. The city of Calgary waived their ridiculous $4,500 application fee which is a good thing. This led to what was described as a “rush” by homeowners to apply for rezoning. How many applications were in this “rush”? 11!!! Yes, folks even with free application costs the grand total of initial applicants for zoning was 11 people. There were a couple dozen more pending. We are speaking numbers in the dozens in a city of well over a million people. Folks who want to rent secondary suites are already doing so in the grey market and will continue to no matter what the regulations.

We need some degree of oversight and regulation on where we will or will not allow secondary suites. Some neighborhoods simply are not well designed to handle them. Some people purposely seek out neighborhoods with low numbers of rental properties and they pay a premium to live in these neighborhoods. These people have a right to speak up and be concerned if the city wants to suddenly change the deal in zoning. The fervent followers of Nenshi spit out the NIMBY term at such folks of course but it has to be kept in mind that most of those followers are hipster renters who dwell in the Beltline who have little regard for the property values or taxation of others. These are issues that cant be dismissed.

There is a great deal of overreaction to prospective suites too. As I pointed out, there really are not that many folks who want to open new suites out there and having a suite or two on your block wont be a disaster by any means. Stuffing 10 suites into a cul-de-sac however will cause havoc and that is why rezoning still has to be considered case by case even if not by city council itself.

There is a need to reform policy on secondary suites in Calgary. Let’s set aside the zealous density ideals though and be rational about what needs to be done and what benefits can be gained. If one’s concerns are about availability and cost of living in the city, they should aim their guns at the essential suburban land freeze that Nenshi’s administration is practicing. The effect that broadly legalized secondary suites will have on homelessness and cost of living in Calgary will be negligible at best.

City council is considering wasting your tax dollars in order to stunt business development.

It is hard to tell which does more damage to Calgary’s business environment; city council’s indecision when it comes to zoning decisions or when city council actually makes a decision on something and intervenes in projects. They both are damaging in general.

There clearly is a great deal of money to be made in generating studies and reports while our cowardly city council tries their hardest to avoid making a simple decision on anything. Despite pretty clear evidence that a bike share program in Calgary is totally unviable and likely would turn into a terribly expensive taxpayer boondoggle, our council of cowards has turned away from completely shelving the program. $24,000 has been wasted on one biased bike-share study and our council has decided to throw more good money after bad in order to study the issue further.

Last year I went to a meeting at my community association where an exasperated lawyer was trying to build his case to get the city to give him the green light to build a small office complex on Center street near 41 ave. He had bought some houses there under the assurances that he would have no trouble in getting his offices approved and he would be able to construct and move into his new facility. This was not to be so and the poor man was jerked around by the city system for a couple years. He has since put all those houses up for sale and one can see the line of realtor signs on Center north of the Tim Hortons there.

You see, there is an element of the hard left who have this long-term utopia in mind where Calgary would have LRT access to all portions of the city and that includes a proposal to run a train right up Center street.  While there is no official plan on the books for this extension and certainly there is no money to build it, there are some members of city council who want to see this happen. What is happening now is that they are stalling all development on Centre Street North as they know that new development on Centre would hinder plans and expropriation of property should the city decide in a decade or so to put a line there. This is similar to the provincial legislation that essentially seizes and devalues private property in anticipation of expropriation rather than just buying it.

The outcome of this unofficial policy on Centre Street North is stark, ugly and obvious. Houses are run down and worthless as owners will not put in any dollars to maintain a place that they expect to be expropriated. Crack houses, massage parlours and general slums are blossoming along this stretch of zoning uncertainty and things will only get worse. Who in their right mind would buy property on Centre right now?

I can’t imagine how much that poor lawyer lost in his attempt to develop something nice and new in good faith. He still hasnt managed to sell those dumps that he purchased.

The impact spreads beyond Centre as well. We have seen a marked increase in general crime and vandalism in our neighborhood as the unsavory element drawn to the run-down houses walks to neighboring communities in hopes of stealing something for their next fix. This devalues houses for blocks around Centre and it is soley due to instability and indecision on the part of our ineffective city council.

Not simply content to meddle with development through their inaction though, our city council is now looking to stop development through direct action. Council decided yesterday to study (surprise surprise) an idea to purchase 19 hectares of land along Highway 1 in order to stop potential development of retail business.  This is getting outright insane people. This is not some rare natural area and it is not an area lacking in open space. Have a look at the picture below to see the massive volume of undeveloped and protected space already set aside in that area.

What we have in city hall these days is an almost religious-like fervour against the concept of what some pejoratively call “sprawl”. This anti-business gang will stop at nothing to try and hinder city growth and this idiotic notion of buying land to stop retail development is a clear indicator of it.

Lets assume that the city wastes millions and millions of our dollars to buy this land in a gross dispay of market intervention. What will the consequences be? Well, our reputation as a good place to do business will sink further as instability in zoning is assured and the anti-development attitude of our council is more clearly exposed. The retail businesses that were considering that site will not simply vanish. What will be more likely to happen is that a larger new retail center will simply be developed farther West this causing people to commute even farther for their purchases. How green. Residential development will push even farther as it chases retail services and the dreaded “sprawl” will have expanded more.

Get real you fools! Calgary is a thriving and growing city. We are blessed with the open space surrounding us that allows us to grow and build good neighborhoods for our families. To those who really want to see the outcome of high density planning may I suggest a trip to Manhattan. There you will see obscenely expensive real-estate values due to lack of supply. That leads in turn of course to neighboring slums and ghettos that are totally unimaginable in cities like Calgary. Homeless and crime levels in densely packed cities are worlds worse than ours and much of the reason is density.

People are welcome to pursue whatever unrealistic utopia they like I guess. What is concerning though is that these blinded idealists have found their way onto city council.

Airdrie, Okotoks, Cochrane and Strathmore will continue to thrive and people will continue to develop outwards to avoid the congestion and discomfort that anti-“sprawl” measures will bring about. We will continue to grow as a city but our development will be an odd hybrid of sattelite cities and a dysfunctional downtown crowded with discarded rental bikes and empty busses.

Please Calgary can we elect a city council with a grain of common sense in 2013? We really need to break the trend.