Homeless shelters are filling up, yet we’re closing basement suites as fast as we can find them.
It’s an issue that hits close to home for Calgary MLA Jon Lord.
“What kind of improvements are we giving (tenants) in terms of safety when we say: ‘We’ve protected you from being caught in a fire by evicting you into a snowbank?’ he says.
Lord, who represents the riding of Calgary-Currie, spent his 18th year in a basement suite that featured concrete walls and floors, and a wall-less bathroom facility. The price: $50 per month. The result: saving enough cash to start his first business.
|Photo illustration by Sharon van de Burgt, for Business Edge|
|An Ontario study found that property values in neighbourhoods were positively affected by legal secondary suites, also known as basement suites.|
Whether out of necessity or choice, thousands of individuals across the province choose to live in illegal secondary suites (defined as self- contained living units created in single-family homes that include their own bathroom and kitchen) and yet there are no Alberta Building Code regulations or municipal zonings that apply to the unique issues surrounding the living spaces.
The code states that all secondary suites must meet the requirements for apartments or duplexes, but duck into almost any older basement suite and it’s clear the standards are not transferrable. Eight-foot ceilings are rare, as are separate furnaces and ample-sized living-space windows.
Bringing suites up to duplex standards can be impossible, or so costly it makes little sense to pursue and negates the units as affordable rental options.
Building inspectors have few options when fielding complaints concerning secondary suites. “Legally, you’ve got to close it down and evict the tenants immediately – or you pretend you didn’t see it,” says Lord.
This historic lack of constructive attention is proof that the secondary suite issue is not an attractive one for most elected officials. It’s perceived to be fraught with public-opinion minefields, but Lord sees the necessity for change and has co-chaired a series of meetings across the province to receive feedback from professionals and the public.
If the public pays attention to the issue and secondary suite owners are supportive of the review committee’s proposals, the proposed legislation “could go a long way toward resolving (the issues of) illegal suites . . . and basement dungeons that exist.”
“As a modern society, surely we can do a better job of what we’re doing,” says Lord. “We’re taking a very pragmatic approach. If you set the bar too high, people can’t comply and therefore won’t comply. At the same time, we can’t compromise on safety.”
The proposals being looked at include a minimum ceiling height of 6.5 feet, bedroom windows with an opening of at least 3.75 square feet, a 30-minute fire separation between living spaces, hard-wired smoke alarms and exterior doorways.
Ontario and B.C. (in 1994 and 1995 respectively) have developed a specific set of building standards for secondary suites, giving Albertans a template to follow as well as some statistics and trends.
According to the review committee’s research, common public misconceptions of secondary suites include community overcrowding, negative infrastructure impact, devaluing of neighbouring properties and parking problems.
Studies in Ontario indicate, however, that areas zoned for secondary suites max out at one suite for every 10 houses.
And bringing more residents into aging communities can have positive effects, as stated by Alberta home builder and Safety Codes Council member Avi Amir.
“Any new subdivision that we build goes up in population for the first 15 years and then declines forever.”
Infrastructure, such as water and sewer, is generally able to handle the increased volume and public transportation is generally used more effectively by communities with higher densities.
An Ontario study found property values can be positively affected by the presence of secondary suites.
The finding may be surprising, but consider that if suites can be legalized, they can then become a selling feature, raising the price of the house and affecting surrounding non-suite houses.
To further the positive impact, Edmonton councillor Ed Gibbons suggests that any derelict houses torn down in low-end neighbourhoods should be rezoned to allow for secondary suites in the new house, thereby cleaning up the area and providing increased living space at the same time.
Gibbons says people complain about allowing suites in their neighbourhood “but if they go out for a walk in most neighbourhoods they’ll realize that they (the suites) are there right now.”
With proper legislation, he sees secondary suites as a piece of the affordable housing solution worthy of both provincial and federal incentives.
Secondary suites are a fact of life in any city, and present liability concerns for landlords as their presence can negate insurance coverage, providing owners with huge financial setbacks – not to mention the possibility of having tenants evicted by the municipality at any time.
Without building regulations, tenant health and safety can be compromised.
“Right now, (people living in) secondary suites . . . have no assurance of safety. I see that in my job very often,” says City of St. Albert deputy fire chief Dave Martin, adding that having landlords comply with the proposed legislation would, in itself, be a great help in providing better safety.
Changes to the building code will likely take a while, but it behooves the public and stakeholders in secondary suites to contact their MLAs and voice their concerns so the legislation takes positive and democratic shape.