Calgary

Living in an illegal basement suite? Here's how to spot and report them in Calgary

William Allen has lived in many illegal basement suites and is now worried more Calgarians will be forced to rent in dangerous situations because of the tight rental market — or because they aren't aware they're illegal.

This Calgarian is afraid others will turn to illegal suites in tight rental market

A man smiles for the camera, wearing a blue denim shirt, in his living room. Part of his kitchen in the background.
William Allen has lived in a number of illegal basement suites and says they're "like bunkers — just not designed for human habitation." Now that he's out, he's afraid that others are turning to them because of the tight rental market. (Karina Zapata/CBC)

Broken smoke detectors, small egress windows, no kitchen — these are all things William Allen got used to over the years when living in illegal basement suites.

But rent was cheap, and in Calgary's tightening rental market, he didn't have much choice.

"I absolutely knew they were illegal," said Allen, about the suites he found through Facebook Marketplace. "The whole mentality is, 'OK, well I need a place to go for now. I can hunker down here and then look for something legal or better.'"

Now that Allen has moved into his friend's backyard suite, he's worried more Calgarians will be forced to rent in dangerous situations because of the tight rental market — or because they aren't aware they're illegal.

A small egress window in a basement suite.
This illegal basement suite that William Allen rented in northwest Calgary had a small egress window that wasn't up to code. Years later, the suite is now registered with the City of Calgary. (Submitted by William Allen)

It's something the City of Calgary is trying to tackle. While it can't keep track of all of them, it says there are many more illegal secondary suites than there are legal ones. In a statement, the city said it received around 2,500 complaints regarding secondary suites between 2020 and 2022.

When CBC Calgary asked community members about basement suites, many said they had bad experiences with illegal basement suites and the people who owned them. They noted mice, bugs, faulty electrical systems and fake stove ventilation.

Some knew the suites were illegal when they lived in them; others didn't know until they moved out. One wondered if the suite they're currently living in is safe for their children.

So, how do renters in Calgary identify if a basement suite is illegal, and what can they do if it is?

How to spot illegal suites

In 2009, three young people caught in a basement suite fire in northwest Calgary died. Fire officials noted security bars on some windows and a smoke detector that wasn't working properly.

Over a decade later, Cliff de Jong knows there are "still thousands of existing illegal suites out there." As the manager of building safety and inspection services with the City of Calgary, part of his job is to make sure that Calgarians are safe in their homes.

A man stands in his basement suite. The top half of his head is blocked by a low support beam that he could easily hit his head on.
Along with a low support beam that William Allen says was a 'head injury hazard,' this illegal basement suite also had black mould, beetles, a broken smoke detector and more. (Submitted by William Allen)

"We did a safety blitz back in 2012 where we looked into 50 existing illegal suites, and 80 per cent of them had major safety issues," said de Jong. "And worse yet, owners didn't even know what we were talking about when we were talking about life safety."

This is likely still the case today, he says, which is why it's important for renters to know how to identify unsafe, illegal basement suites.

The first line of defence? The city's online secondary suite registry, which de Jong says renters should check before they sign a lease.

"You just load the registry map, enter an address and it comes up with whether or not it's a registered suite."

Renters should also check if the suite has a City of Calgary sticker on the door, said de Jong. All registered suites come with the seal of approval.

Anyone with further questions about whether a suite is legal can call the city's planning services centre at 403-268-5311. They will confirm whether the suite is registered, de Jong said.

Calgarians can also learn more about legal secondary suites through the city's historical webinars, which de Jong says will be updated later this month.

When viewing the suite

The most common way illegal suites are found and shut down is when a neighbourhood has a serious lack of parking, says Bo Fric, owner of Reimagine Builders and co-founder of Rentfaster.ca.

"What will happen is there's no parking for the illegal suite … and all of a sudden the street gets overwhelmed with these vehicles," said Fric. "That's when it becomes an issue for the neighbours on the street, which is when they red flag it to the city."

Inside the suite, Fric says, the mechanical room is the easiest place to look when figuring out if a suite is legal.

In a legal basement suite, the mechanical room will be smoke sealed. The walls and ceiling will be drywalled, with a fire barrier wrapped around the venting and ductwork.

A man stands in his home, smiling, wearing a black polo t-shirt. There's a bright floral painting hanging in the background, on black walls.
Bo Fric, owner of Reimagine Builders, says there are a number of ways that renters can identify illegal basement suites. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

"Which you would just never see in a house that wasn't done as a legal suite because it's expensive and difficult to do," said Fric.

If not, the suite will have a sprinkler system — a former alternative option for converted suites, before the option was removed from the province's fire code.

Legal suites will also have multiple working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, barrier-free windows that are large enough for an adult to fit through in case of a fire and a separate outdoor entrance.

It must also include a bathroom, sleeping area and cooking facilities.

Reporting illegal suites

There's a spectrum of illegal basement suites, says Fric. On one end, the landlord has done most things to code but has skipped some steps of the legalization process. But on the other end, the suite is unsafe to live in with inadequate windows and no fire protection.

CBC Calgary previously reported that the process of legalizing basement suites can be complicated and expensive.

"I don't necessarily feel it's practical to go and report every illegal suite, but certainly anything that's unsafe I think people should definitely be flagging to the city," said Fric.

Back at the City of Calgary, de Jong says renters should report illegal suites to the city's planning services centre

"We investigate absolutely every single one that comes in," said de Jong.

If the landlord is working on legalizing the suite and no major safety issues are spotted, de Jong says the city will give them more leeway to bring the suite into compliance.

But if there are major issues and the suite is occupied, de Jong says "that's when we really have to take action and require the owner to make sure that it's safe before it could be occupied."

That includes enforcement tools like orders, charges, bringing people to court and more.

A recent change also allows the city to suspend or remove suites from its registry list if they don't meet safety standards.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karina Zapata

Reporter/Associate Producer

Karina is a reporter/associate producer working with CBC Calgary. She was a recipient of the 2021 Joan Donaldson Scholarship and has previously worked with CBC Toronto and CBC North. You can reach her by email at karina.zapata@cbc.ca

Series produced by Elise Stolte

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