Secondary Suites? Not In My Backyard!

Legalizing secondary suites can be a polarizing issue. You either have residents who welcome them, or those who oppose them. You also have people who think it’s a good idea from an objective standpoint to deal with affordable housing, as long as it doesn’t happen in their neighborhood.

This is known as NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard…ism); a somewhat of a derogatory term to describe residents who don’t like change.

Most people have an interest in “intensification” of our urban residential infrastructure, with secondary suites being the lowest hanging fruit.

These Include:

  • The government (to address the need for more affordable housing and increased tax revenue)
  • Private sector (investors who need greater cash flow on their properties and local businesses to increase customer base)
  • Owner-occupiers (homeowners who simply need additional rental income in order to make ends meet)
  • Tenants (people who need affordable housing – perhaps the biggest interest group)

The only group of people who oppose them are NIMBYs. Funny thing is, no one likes to think they’re a NIMBY. This is because it makes them sound like the bad guys.

They are the ones who will call into the city and file a complaint if they are suspicious that you are renting out an illegal suite. They are the ones that will show up at a Committee of Adjustments hearing to oppose your secondary suite when you are simply trying to get around a silly outdated by-law.

It’s certainly understandable to be a NIMBY. Say you pay a million dollars to move into a nice single family neighborhood with the expectation that it remains that way. You might be upset if things change for the worse. I wouldn’t want drunken idiots on my front lawn at 2 am either.

"Get off my.....well-manicured and freshly laid sod!" doesn't have quite the same ring to it - Photo:

"Get off my.....well-manicured and freshly laid sod!" doesn't have quite the same ring to it - Photo:

They’re concerned about things like excessive cars on the streets, overcrowding of schools, and yes, the drunken idiot on their front lawn. Often these concerns are unfounded.

Nowhere is the issue more contentious than in the city of Calgary, where the NIMBYism is in full force. The issue has been going on for years without a solution in many communities of that city.

Smart Growth Initiative, a publicity arm of the Calgary Home Builders Association, recently put out a video outlining “7 Things To Know About Secondary Suites”. You can view the video below, but here is my take on these 7 things.

1.       Secondary suites add diversity in housing types and prices that don’t alter the character of the neighborhood.

This is certainly true. Typically developers will only look at high density condos, low density single family homes, or medium density multi-unit apartments. But using existing single family homes to increase density has been an overlooked option; until now.

Where secondary suites are allowed, by-laws enforce how they should blend in with the neighborhood. These typically prohibits the façade of the home changing, maintaining landscaping in the front, and ensuring there is no street parking for occupants of the additional unit.

2.       Secondary suites suit all kinds of people

The fear of most NIMBYs are relegated to the low income tenants ransacking their neighborhood with crazy parties. Not sure how true this is. As an immigrant to Canada at the age of 5 with my family, our first home was a basement apartment in the East end of Toronto in the early 80s. With both of my parents working for about $5/hour, six days a week to save up for our first home, they were frankly too tired to ransack the neighborhood.

A huge proportion of those occupying the secondary suites are decent people who simply aren’t financially able to support their own property. These include young adults, seniors, single parents, immigrants, disabled people, and students. And given where property prices are in major cities, more and more of the middle class.

3.       Legalizing secondary suites means better regulation

When they are not legal, people do them anyway, often unsafely and poorly. They try to hide them and skirt around building and fire safety. When they are legal, the message is clear that they need to be done correctly and recognized by the city.

Regulation can be easier, only if people choose to make them that way. If they choose to go the illegal route, they must assume risk of potentially being shut down or facing a fine. The cities themselves also have a responsibility to make the process as straight forward as possible, minimizing red tape and unnecessary fees.

4.       Single family homes generate as many or more complaints as those with secondary suites

According to the video, the following four issues are the most common complaints to the city:

  1. Parking and traffic
  2. Waste and signage
  3. Vehicles on lawns
  4. Noise

They didn’t have any hard data to back up the statement that single family homes have just as many issues as those with secondary suites, nor do I. My sense here tells me at a very high level, this comes down to simple demographics and the profile of a neighborhood.

For example, a neighborhood with only single family homes in a busy part of the downtown of a small city would likely receive more complaints than a suburban community which contains numerous secondary suites. 

5.       Parking issues don’t discriminate

The video here also states that residents of suites tend to have fewer cars than those of single family homes. There’s also no data here to back this up, so I don’t think it’s fair to assess this one.

It certainly would make sense that the resident of a single suite would have fewer cars than a family living in a whole house just based on finances. But what about the total number of vehicles between the occupant of the main unit plus the occupant in the suite? Again, not clear.

What is clear though, is that most city by-laws require off street parking for those homes with secondary suites, meaning no parking on the street. And of course NO parking on the lawn!

6.       Homes with secondary suites make financial sense

They also state that rental income helps prospective homebuyers qualify for a bigger loan. The home is 22% more affordable when it has a suite (according to CMHC). And the value of the property is increased due to potential for rental income.

This all makes sense to me.

7.       Secondary suites are an effective use of existing resources

This is a big one, especially when it comes to a lot of the low density development that were put in place post-war up until the 70s. Originally these neighborhoods housed large families where the boomer generation was raised.

By adding more residents in the form of secondary suites, it helps to make better use of the infrastructure already in place. This can include sewer systems, utilities, and even under-enrolled public schools.

I'm a big fan of intensifying wartime neighborhoods like these

I'm a big fan of intensifying wartime neighborhoods like these


The Verdict

The issue of increased urban density through redevelopment of single family neighborhoods in the form of rezoning to allow secondary suites is definitely a contentious issue. Some of the arguments outlined in this video may not be clearly substantiated, but in end, it seems clear that secondary suites do make sense for the most part.

On the flip side, the proponents of allowing secondary suites (people like me) also shouldn’t force the issue that it has to happen in every neighborhood. It really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that an extremely affluent community with custom homes needs to be zoned to allow secondary suites. I don’t think there’s a huge demand for basement apartments in Toronto’s Rosedale for example.

The irony is that many of these homes where residents have opposed allowing secondary suites have “nanny suites” of their own, which contain fully functional self contained units, and are….ahem….illegal.

But we’ll save that topic for another day.

No ones arguing for affordable housing in this neighborhood - photo:

No ones arguing for affordable housing in this neighborhood - photo: