New secondary suite rules rolled out at city hall

City council voted to reform the way secondary suite applications are handled at city hall and the new system is already starting to take hold.

Public servants — not politicians — will approve Calgary's basement suites

Calgary council voted 9-6 late Monday night to make secondary suites a discretionary use across much of the city. (CBC)

A new system for handling secondary suite applications is already starting to take hold at city hall.

Late Monday night, council voted 9-6 to make secondary suites a discretionary use across much of the city.

The reform package allows applicants to seek approval of their basement suites through the planning department rather than an appearance before city council.

The fallout from the decision could already be seen at council's land use hearings on Tuesday.

Council approved 20 of 22 secondary suite applications before it. But unlike many past public hearings, only one applicant actually showed up to speak to council.

Mayor lauds new councillors 

Secondary suite reform has been a long-standing promise for Mayor Naheed Nenshi. It was a cornerstone proposal in his "Better Ideas" platform when he first ran for mayor in 2010.

Ever since then, there has been incremental change on the issue, but plenty of disappointment for the mayor, who just couldn't find the votes to make major suite reforms happen.

Even on Monday, he was telling reporters when it came to this latest reform package, they shouldn't "make too much of it" as it wouldn't "actually approve one secondary suite anywhere in the city."

But when the package was approved hours later following a marathon public hearing, he said it was "a really big deal."

On Tuesday, he was lauding the four new members of council for making this change possible.

"All four of the new councillors voted for this reform back in December," said Nenshi. 

"One of them voted against it last night but three voted for it so obviously, without those three (councillors George Chahal, Jeff Davison and Jyoti Gondek), this would not have passed."

Tactics led to reform — over time 

Besides the change in political players, Nenshi pointed out there was also a change in focus.

"I've been framing this as an ethical issue, as a moral issue, as an issue of human rights for a very, very long time," said Nenshi. 

"Who knew that what it would take to re-frame the conversation was 'it's taking too much of council's time?' Oh well."

Calculations showed that numerous public hearings on secondary suites were eating up 20 per cent of council meetings. 

Other tactics may have led to the decision to change the process.

Was a council decision to waive thousands of dollars in city fees to apply for a secondary suite part of a plan to boost the number of public hearings in the council chamber?  

Nenshi would only say that the cards council played over several years on secondary suites made it apparent reform was needed.

"I think it was important for council to understand that the steps that we took, the first downs toward the touchdown, really exposed how big an issue we had, that we had swept under the carpet for many years."

Applications can start under new system

Now instead of starting the process of getting a secondary suite with an application that winds through the Calgary Planning Commission and the city council chamber, Calgarians will submit paperwork for a building permit with the planning department. 

Those that meet the conditions — proper access, adequate lot size and space for parking — will be approved. 

There's also a hope that a two-year amnesty for joining the city's secondary suite registry will encourage the owners of tens of thousands of illegal suite owners to come into compliance. 

Cliff de Jong with the city's building services said the amnesty will officially start on June 1.

Complaints and scanning ads

The city receives complaints every year about illegal suites, which are investigated, but officials will also be watching ads for rental suites.

Rather than punishing landlords during the amnesty, he said the city will work with owners to encourage them to make their suite safe and legal. 

"That would warrant a phone call to an owner, where we'd be able to get in touch with them, advise them of the requirements and the obligation to get it registered and when we say registered, that means development permit and building permit," said de Jong.

The city's goal is that with some enforcement contact, 1,600 suites will come into compliance during the amnesty and join the registry rather than risk fines later.

Hearings will continue for now

However, the unpopular public hearings at city council will actually continue for a couple of months. 

There are about 100 suite applications in the system, so public hearings will happen for a few more meetings unless the applicants choose to withdraw.

New applications for a secondary suite can technically still proceed under the old rules for now but few are expected to do so.

Council voted yesterday to resume charging the $5,000 fee for a land use redesignation for a secondary suite.