Mayor says city faces housing crisis

A secondary suite constructed above a garage in a house in Calgary. Photograph by: Files , Calgary Herald

A secondary suite constructed above a garage in a house in Calgary.
Photograph by: Files , Calgary Herald

Mayor Naheed Nenshi started off his recent keynote speech to a crowd of hundreds of area realtors by pointing out June’s flood devastated an already tight rental market.

Before the flood, the vacancy rate was 1.7 per cent. The flood removed many rental units from the inventory, putting people out of homes. While Nenshi didn’t present exact numbers, he surmised there is almost zero supply now.

“We have to figure out where we can build townhouses and row houses and fourplexes, and we have to get our heads around secondary suites. The time for dithering is over. We’re in an absolute housing crisis,” he told the crowd.

Talk about secondary suites goes hand-in-hand with conversations about inner city densification and affordability. They also have a place in new development as well as redevelopment.

“We have tens of thousands of our neighbours living in illegal suites, and they live without the legal rights that the rest of us enjoy,” said Nenshi. “If the landlord’s abusing you, if there’s mould, if there’s mice, if the smoke detectors don’t work, if there’s flood damage, well, you’ve got no recourse. The city will send inspectors to rip out the cabinets, take out the stove and kick you out of your house. This cannot continue.”

The mayor’s office is turning to HGTV’s Income Property host Scott McGillivray for some perspective on how other cities, in particular Toronto, have handled the transformation under the reshaping pressures of rising housing prices and densification.

McGillivray is headlining at HomExpo over the Jan. 18 to 19 weekend, and he planned to meet with the mayor’s office on Friday, Jan. 17.

“I’m looking to work with the city of Calgary this year on a few things, trying to help out with some of the zoning issues, some of the bylaw issues,” said McGillivray in a telephone interview.

“There were so many issues that arose with basement apartments and secondary suites after the flooding happened. There’s an urgency on vacancy in Calgary.”

Secondary suites are attractive to home buyers in Ontario and have increased affordability, said Chima Nkemdirim, chief of staff to Nenshi.

“Income Property shows how young couples can purchase houses in perhaps neighbourhoods they might not otherwise be able to afford to purchase a house in because they can get a mortgage-helper,” said Nkemdirim.

“The suites are beautiful and they’re being rented for a significant rent. That has a huge impact.”

The show has helped governments understand how changes to regulations can make income suites affordable and attainable for average people, and how to construct them in their homes, said Nkemdirim.

Building codes and other restrictions can make it difficult and cost-prohibitive to build a legal suite in an existing resident, such as requiring a separate furnace for a secondary suite.

“We’re really keen on learning from Scott’s experience in Ontario, how Ontario got around some of those barriers to make suites an affordable option for home builders,” said Nkemdirim. “We’re trying to increase affordability and access for homebuyers.”

Secondary suites are also a forward-thinking subject. Rules could be changed to make it easy to include a secondary suite in the planning of an infill.

One sales manager in a new community that I talked to recently said she does many basement secondary suite rough-ins, but because she can’t promise delivery time on the paperwork involved with extra permits, that finishing work is often left up to the homeowner to deal with later.

For many, it would be better to be able to plan and build at the same time as the rest of the house.

This also would avoid the strange shapes retrofitted basement apartments, for instance, can take.

“In terms of even my own business of owning rental properties, my best properties are the ones that were purpose-built as two units,” said McGillivray. “They’re the best. They totally make sense. There’s no weird retrofitting required. They’re just really smart properties, and I think everyone benefits from those.”

To this point, the City of Calgary could check out what the City of Edmonton is looking at. McGillivray is working with the City of Edmonton and some builders on infill projects that include secondary suites.

“The City of Edmonton is actually offering a rebate program for people who build purpose-built new-build homes with secondary suites,” said McGillivray.

“It’s really smart. The whole push behind this is affordable housing, but that also means an opportunity for investors.”

When it comes to secondary suites, it’s important to note that Nenshi and Calgary’s homebuilders and developers are on the same page for all the same reasons — safety, affordability, choice and investment opportunity.

The Canadian Home Builders’ Association-Calgary Region and the Urban Development Institute-Calgary officially supported allowing secondary suites citywide during the recent municipal election.


Developers of new communities have been able to include secondary suites in their plans since 2007.

In existing communities, many areas are not zoned for secondary suites.

To develop a secondary suite, individual homeowners need to find out if their land is zoned correctly and is large enough — and if renovations will meet necessary building code standards.

A Secondary Suites Grant Program that ran between 2009 and 2012 helped offset the costs for some homeowners to develop secondary suites.



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