Sep 25, 2014

Accessory Units - A Tale of Two Cities



Secondary Suites Council Presentation- September 2014 on how we can move forward with 
a coordinated strategy of education and simple rules focussed on safety and enforcement.

WATCH THE FULL PRESENTATION >>> 


Many people in  Calgary consider our city as world class, modern, having taken our place in the world of great places. We have much to commend ourselves. A high standard of living, excellent opportunities to enrich our lives with amazing amenities, and I will include the ”bridge” and “head” in that category. Yet while many bask in that glow, not all of us are willing to share in the solutions to the huge challenges we face.

Perhaps one of the (two or three) biggest challenges to the well being of this city that locals can influence, is the security of having an affordable place to live. The urban landscape of many successful cities on this continent has been a laboratory for us to see what happens when affordable places to live dry up during the boom years. And when that happens, many of these places lost their competitive edge.

A big factor in the housing crisis we experienced south of the border after 2008, was the cost of housing, not just how it was financed. People moved further out trying to afford a place to live and when the cost of gas, and mortgages sky-rocketed, the lending crisis hit outside the centre cities much harder than inside.

Look at Portland or San Francisco, both desirable places where housing costs are very high and how business is reacting.  Google  is now getting complaints about their shuttle buses in neighbourhoods trying to get their talent pool to the workplace. Companies locating outside Portland to access labour pools. In Toronto, downtown has a rental market that makes up 65% of the housing stock as investors poured in starting as far back as the mid 1980’s, buying up condos to meet the surging rental demand. I remember working on the zoning to permit basement suites back in the early 1980’s there and then thirty years later the Ontario government mandating that all zoning by-laws must allow for the accessory units, with conditions.
A great example of a laneway accessory unit atop a garage
in Calgary's inner-city.

And then there is the made in Calgary response. In a city with perhaps the highest number of illegal, potentially unsafe supply of dwelling units anywhere on the continent; a place with also potentially the fastest growing population;  the highest rent and the lowest rental vacancy in the country; a business economy screaming for labour in all sectors; where we see many streets and lots with trailers or campers with carpenters, framers, office workers living; students five or seven to a bungalow;  all seeking affordable shelter so they can participate or train to share in our prosperity; our solution is to force units into only 47 percent of our residential areas. To leave the other  53 percent to watch as the city struggles to remain competitive in the housing sector.

Our solution is to deny many the ability to purchase a home where prices are at record levels, simply by allowing an accessory unit that could boost their mortgage qualification up another $200,000 by having a rental at $1,000 per month.  Our solution is to create roadblocks that discourage owners of illegal units from coming forward to make their units safe.
A rendering of a garden suite in  Calgary's suburbs. 

And so our housing problem is acute. 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 yes legalization of some our unknown illegal units.

I have sat through the hours at Council listening to all sides of the discussion. What stands out is the voices of opposition that speak about how special their neighbourhood is as a single family place. How they choose to live there for that reason. Yet the very people they rely on to help build the houses to meet our office employment; the folks in the service sector that bring us our restaurant meals, repair our roofs, maybe take care of their children at daycare or teach them in our schools; do they not want them in their neighbourhoods? Must only 43 percent of the city meet these housing demands?

And what of the parents in other cities, whose young adults come here to study? Are they like Calgary parents wanting safe affordable housing choices for their children when they come here to study and hopefully find the opportunity to make Calgary their future home?

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.

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