Calgary’s Secondary Suite Debate and the Stress of Growth

The Story

The city of Calgary, Alberta, is in the midst of the latest round of debate over whether to legalize secondary suites – typically a set of rooms that a homeowner rents to a secondary tenant within their home – as a means of managing booming population growth over the last decade. Calgary’s City Council held a public hearing on May 12 on the most recent proposal, which would allow for secondary suites in the city’s central neighbourhoods (Wards 7, 8, 9, and 11) while keeping existing zoning restrictions prohibiting secondary suites in the city’s outer suburbs.

While proponents of secondary suites, including Mayor Naheed Nenshi, argue that expanding their presence would help increase the availability of affordable living options in the city’s red-hot real estate market, opponents have long maintained that their legalization would lead to increased strain on the city’s neighbourhoods, including higher traffic and safety risks. Additionally, detractors worry that allowing secondary suites would encourage property owners to rent out their entire homes to tenants, changing the character of some neighbourhoods that have historically been anchored by homeowners.

 

Although City Council has debated the issue without resolution over the last 10 years, it remains a priority of the mayor and city councillors from the already high-density inner city. In the meantime, unofficial secondary suites are already suspected to be growing across the city, in response to the demand for more affordable living spaces as the city’s population continues to grow. The potential compromise discussed in last Tuesday’s council meeting may represent a new opportunity to resolve the long-running debate, but a vote on the proposal was postponed until next month while other alternatives are developed.

Background Article

Key Quote

‘I find it to be a truly Calgary mentality,” said  Michelle Pink, a landlord who would like more areas in which to invest and create regulated suites. She cautioned about a rental market so tight that a three-bedroom Ramsay home she offered up last fall drew 900 responses.”

Context

 At its core, the debate in Calgary over secondary suites is really a broader discussion on how to accommodate booming population growth. The fundamental issue can be explained through basic systems theory: As the city’s economy expands, largely fuelled by its oil and gas industry (notwithstanding a recession in 2007-2008 and this year’s slowdown), the demand and opportunity for employment draws new residents from elsewhere in Canada and the rest of the world. An expanding economy can often create a positive feedback loop, in which new arrivals to the city contribute to further growing the economy, drawing even more new residents. Indeed, since 2005 Calgary has added 239,000 people, representing a 25 percent increase in population over the last 10 years. This growth isn’t just a Canadian or Western trend – the 10 fastest-growing cities in the world last year were all found in either China, Turkey, or the United Arab Emirates.

 

One of the potential pitfalls with such a positive feedback loop is that it threatens to outpace the many ways in which a city has to keep up with population growth. While the city’s developers have been busy building homes for new residents, they have not kept pace with the rate of population growth; consequently, the average price for a Calgary home has increased by more than 80 percent over the last 10 years. Without a significant increase in availability of other affordable options, this imbalance threatens to reverse the positive economic and population feedback loop. Once living in or near the city becomes too out of reach for too many people, fewer new arrivals migrate to the city, the cost of labour rises, and economic growth slows or declines, potentially leading to a net migration out of the city.

 

Another outcome of an imbalance between the rate of population growth and the ability of cities to accommodate that growth is a fundamental re-structuring of cities’ social and political systems. In most of Canada’s major cities, for example, sky-rocketing housing prices have led families and young adults to become more and more indebted – perhaps contributing to greater personal insecurity and more volatility in voting patterns. It also may lead to increased economic and social segregation that drives greater polarization over the future course of a city, perhaps most starkly illustrated by the election of suburban-friendly Rob Ford in the 2010 Toronto election. In developing countries, where political institutions have typically not yet matured, explosive population growth fuelled by migration from the countryside may also outpace cities’  abilities to provide for new migrants, and in some cases even contributes to political violence and revolution (Doug Saunders’s Arrival City provides several powerful examples of this trend).

 

 If it wishes to continue riding the wave of economic and population growth (to the extent that the city can control these trends), Calgary will ultimately have to settle on a long-term approach to managing the influx of new residents. The city faces at least three distinct options: (1) continue the status quo approach, which may choke off growth and/or drive a greater portion of the population into “black market” living situations; (2) allow some more affordable living options in certain parts of the city, which may help alleviate the pressures of growth but also increase economic segregation; or (3) adopt a city-wide approach to provide for more affordable homes, which may alter some neighbourhoods’ social patterns but also gives the city greater influence on its future development.

Suggested Discussion Questions

  • What challenges do population and economic growth place on a city?

  • What are ways for cities to effectively keep up with population growth, and what are potential consequences if they don’t?

  • If Calgary’s currently secondary suite proposal were accepted, how might it change the city’s social make-up in the next 10-20 years?

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