Suite relief at city hall, but don’t get too excited yet

Maybe now, renters” will stop being a dirty word in Calgary

Monday morning at city hall began appropriately. In Springbank Hill, a tony suburb on Calgary’s western edge, a homeowner family was seeking a basement suite. They were downsizing; renting out a suite could help them stay in their home. For this, they needed approval from city council, as per Calgary’s age-old requirements. But neighbours were opposed. A suite would create parking problems. More cars would make things unsafe for small children. Property values in their cul-de-sac could go down.

The applicants are “a pleasant, quiet family,” allowed one neighbour couple in a letter. But the neighbours had moved into Springbank Hill “to live in a neighbourhood with families, not renters” (bolding theirs). Council denied the suite and approved seven others. Twitter exploded in outrage over the misconception that families don’t rent.

In Calgary, none of this is shocking. It’s normal. Secondary suite day has long put the worst of Calgary on display: crass privilege unchecked by reason, self-examination or compassion. Opponents of an Evanston suite that got approved yesterday complained that they’d moved there specifically to get away from renters. Alas! They’re still beset by riffraff in the new place, thanks to a rental suite two doors down. “[We] were told this is an estate development,” they grumbled in a letter. “Why on earth would secondary suites be allowed in the first place?”

By now, those who rent are used to such derision. In large swaths of Calgary’s homeowning upper and middle class, “renters” remains a dirty word.

But Monday evening brought relief and hope: council voted 10–5 in favour of changing the land-use bylaw so secondary suites become a discretionary use citywide. That means suites applicants still need to be approved by city admin but would no longer go to council for the green light.

Suite advocates shouldn’t pop the champagne yet, however: the change is not yet made. City admin will write up the revised bylaw, and council will need to approve it in the New Year.

The direction approved on Monday went too far for some and not far enough for others. On one side, Councillor Sean Chu expressed concern that administration would simply approve all suites. On the other, pro-suite councillors hankered to go further and make suites a permitted use, which would mean suites wouldn’t need to be advertised and couldn’t be subject to appeal. Councillor Gian-Carlo Carra put forward an amendment to this effect; it got voted down 9–6.

Before the vote, Councillor Jyoti Gondek called the existing suite system “absolutely embarrassing” for Calgary. “The last time I looked, we didn’t have to check with our neighbours when we get married, when we have kids, when we house our friends who are in need of housing for a period of time,” said Gondek. “All of those actions increase density — but you don’t have to go to your neighbours to ask about that.”

She also picked apart the idea, prevalent in Calgary, that renters are a societal drain. Calgarians who happen to rent are “invested members of our society,” said Gondek. “They live, work and thrive in our communities. A person’s choice to rent, whether it’s forced or it’s voluntary, is absolutely nobody’s business but theirs.”

At day’s end, what council landed on was very much a compromise, which was the idea going in.

Late Monday, after council had made its decision, Councillor Druh Farrell asked the question looming in the background: what if the bylaw itself doesn’t pass? What if councillors who voted pro-suite on Monday weaken, and vote differently on the bylaw? To which we would add: what if they’re sick, or otherwise absent when the big vote happens? It’s happened before. Councillors mysteriously disappear and miss important votes for all sorts of reasons (see: Colley-Urquhart, Diane).

Council veterans, including Farrell, warned against celebrating prematurely. Is this a big day, a reporter asked Nenshi after the vote? “No,” said the mayor, who’s been trying to get this approved for seven years. “The big day will come when the bylaw passes. However, council has made an extraordinarily important step today.”

Now it’s time to wait. But suite reformers are used to that. “If you’re a secondary suites advocate, I think patience has to definitely be one of your skill sets,” said Jeremy Barretto, co-founder of Calgarians for Secondary Suites. “We’ll be keeping the pressure on to make sure that we at least get discretionary use for secondary suites citywide when the bylaw comes back.”

Then, perhaps, “renters” can stop being a dirty word in Calgary—or at least less of one.

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