By Jeff Doherty
Excerpt from Curb 6.1. “Homelessness: Social Equity in the City”
When he was running for the Mayor’s office during Calgary’s 2010 municipal election, Naheed Nenshi was unequivocal about his position on secondary suites. “We need to legalize secondary suites,” he said in a campaign pitch posted to YouTube, “we need to legalize them across the city, and we need to do it immediately.” Five years have now passed, and the issue is still being debated by Council. Now in his second term as Mayor, Nenshi continues, along with several of his counterparts, to advocate for a blanket approval in all of city’s electoral wards to encourage density and inclusivity. Although many residents, business people, and civic leaders are convinced that such an approval would improve safety and increase the supply of affordable housing, consensus has proven elusive. Part of the problem is the structure of the debate itself: when the discussion becomes heated, the technical and political aspects of the debate become so confounded and confused that Council does little more than resolve to request another study.
In the meantime, many Calgarians continue to live in the so-called illegal secondary suites because there is often little other choice in a city where the residential vacancy rate hovers between one and two percent. Unfortunately, many of these suites do not meet the basic safety requirements of the Alberta Building Code. The hazards include undersized bedroom windows, overloaded electrical panels, and long-expired or non-existent smoke and carbon dioxide detectors. When things go badly, the results can be tragic. Indeed, Calgarians have not forgotten the 2009 house fire that killed three basement dwellers in a northwest community. Yet the safety issues can hardly be investigated or corrected because so many of Calgary’s secondary suites have not in the first place received approval under the municipal land use bylaw.
It is a distinction—between safety codes and land use—that is often overlooked or obscured in the debate. The Alberta Safety Codes Act legislates how secondary suites are to be constructed, with the primary consideration being the safety of the occupants. The requirements include, for example, minimum ceiling heights, minimum window dimensions for emergency exit, fire separation between units, and interconnected smoke alarms. The document that authorizes the work is a building permit, which is issued by Building Safety Codes Officer.
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