What's on Second-ary?

Is it just me or is City Council bound and determined to hit each and every contentious issue in the book while they’re riding the Nenshi honeymoon high? 

One of the things I’ve been doing a little lately is going back and reading what I wrote as the election was happening.  It serves as a really nice reminder to what we were talking about and what never hit radar as far as issues went.  One of the reasons I’m thinking about this is that I’m cat sitting at the moment and dealing with a lot of the “out of area” issues that I tried to consider in my own thoughts during the election.

This week I was locked into the traffic jam issues people were talking about while I was door knocking.  I hadn’t experienced it for a few years, and I’m stunned how much worse it’s gotten.  Add that to the snowfall that we had last Monday and I was in for a long haul of a commute.  It’s a little bit nicer to get out to a different part of the city and experience another taste of what Calgary has to offer.  We truly need to remember to dip our toes into the whole of Calgary so we can keep in mind what’s best for the entire city.

A little bit of that came back with the Tunderpassel debate.  I’m very concerned with the East Calgary - West Calgary split.  The aldermen do need to represent their areas, but they need to balance it with what will be most productive for the city as a whole.  I didn’t hear the debate yet - nor am I likely to hear it soon.  But I sure hope it was as reasoned and fleshed out as Mayor Nenshi alluded.

One of the topics that came up just today was secondary suites.  We talked about this a lot over the election, I blogged about it during the election and touched on it several times over.  The gist of my view was to simplify the process by setting parameters and if those parameters were met, then there is no need to drag some home owner in front of city council proper to argue whether they could put a stove downstairs.

My idea was sound, but Naheed Nenshi had a Better Idea on secondary suites.  I still really like it, for a whole pile of reasons.

Premise 1.  We want to standardize secondary suites in Calgary to be safe and healthy places to live.
Premise 2.  We want to standardize the rules around secondary suites.
Premise 3.  We want to eliminate slum rentals and make it easier (or even possible) for the renters and neighbours to redress problems with the suite.

I think that order is really important.

1.  Safety must come first.  We need suites that meet building codes and that are not death traps waiting to happen.  When we don’t even know where the illegal suites are, we have no hope whatsoever in enforcing safety standards.  We cannot let more people die in this city while living in unsuitable housing.

Fix it, please.  What we have now isn’t working, it isn’t enforceable, and it’s clearly not safe.

2.  The rules over secondary suites are byzantine in Calgary.  “The regulations concerning secondary suites are complex, as they derive from a number of land use and zoning by-laws and differ vastly from community to community and even from street to street.

That’s flat out insane.  How come there are so many illegal secondary suites in Calgary?  If you manage to figure out which particular rules apply to your particular property and then go through the effort to have it zoned properly, you could have had someone set up and living in the basement for a year all hush-hush.  It doesn’t make it right, but it does make it easy.  And with half-ish of our suites illegal already, it sounds like Calgarians are voting through civil disobedience.

We need simplicity.  We need city wide regulations.  I know that’s going to irk some people in Eagle Ridge and Brittania and Mount Royal with the possibility.  But likewise, a widower in those communities may benefit as well as anywhere else with a tenant willing to do extra maintenance in exchange for a good place to live.  Someone in Brittania may charge twice as much in rent on their secondary suite than someone in Albert Park - that’s okay.  City hall is too much the middle man here, the people in the communities deserve a chance to work out the details on the finest level.  Maybe I would pay a little more to be in a nicer place in a nicer neighbourhood.  I’d still shovel the walks because I enjoy it and it’s exercise in the winter.

What I feel is the unrealistic expectation that never quite gets spoken out loud is that someone’s going to drop several million on a house in Pump Hill and set up a massive flop house for 30 guys.  Cars on the lawn, parties all night, property values plummet and the neighbourhood goes to hell in a hand basket.

Too over the top?  Let’s change it to Fairview.  Or Huntington Hills.  Or Midnapore.  Or Mahogany.

We have a problem house like that, we need the power to deal with it.  No matter where it is in the city.  Which leads to the third premise.

3.  Clear rules means clear enforceability.  No more glossing over the problem homes because they provide cheap rental accommodation.  No more ignoring problem homes because we’re not sure if it’s a secondary suite or a home with a lot of teenagers.  No more tenants unable to complain about their home for fear of the city coming to take away their stove.  Clear, simple regulations.

Here’s the way I’d like to see it set up.

The home has to meet standards.  The home absolutely has to meet all fire and safety standards.  It has to have off street parking available unless it’s near a transit hub.  That should hopefully solve the majority of parking problems.  (I’ll point out when I last lived in a secondary suite, there were three vehicles between four tenants, all of which were parked in front of the house because none of us wanted to park in the muddy parking pad.  I’m only saying this to demonstrate no matter what the rules, we won’t attain a panacea.) 

Should the home meet standards, then it needs to be registered with the city as having a secondary suite.  I like Wayne Stewart’s idea on the amnesty.  I’d personally give one year for registration.  If it’s not registered, it’s getting shut down and you’re facing a fine.

Upon registration, you’ve got two options.  Owner occupied means that it’s registered and we’re going to trust that you’ll take care of your property like a grown up.  That’s going to solve the problem of seniors facing down city council just so they can rent the basement to their grandkid.

If it’s not owner occupied, then you have to face zoning.  That means it’s the exact same situation that we have today, except with clearer rules in place.  Your neighbours can  express their concerns.  If you can satisfy them, you have a rental property.

If it’s registered as Owner Occupied and it isn’t, it’s shut down and you’re facing a fine.

If you rent a secondary suite you have to be able to provide that registration certificate to the tenant.  No tenant should consider renting one without knowing it’s safe and legal.

Owner Occupied rules make it permissive to the kind of owner that really needs the help instead of being restrictive to everyone.  You are on site with the tenants and keeping an eye out on what belongs to you.  It’s presumed that you’re going to manage the property and care for it instead of letting it get run down into a slum.  Should you let it get run down, we have it on record that it’s a secondary suite and it will be much easier to track it for problems.  It’s a great rule, I wish I thought of it myself.

We’ve been facing this elephant in the room for as long as I can remember.  This is the best solution we have ever had put forward that has clarity, standardization and clear protection for the owner’s property rights.  We’re not going to be problem free, but we at least have a chance to tackle some of the issues that come up instead of sweeping them under the rug like we do now.

We need to act.  I hate getting hyperbolic and saying lives are on the line, but they clearly are right now.  We have rules that lessen the risk for our friends, neighbours and children.  Let’s find a way to make them work.