Bring on secondary suites

The decision by the municipal planning commission to support allowing more secondary suites in city neighbourhoods is a good acknowledgement of changing times.

The decision by the municipal planning commission to support allowing more secondary suites in city neighbourhoods is a good acknowledgement of changing times.

Proposed bylaw changes would allow one in five detached homes in neighbourhoods throughout Red Deer to contain a secondary suite, which could be put on the rental market.

When you look back at how the cost of home ownership has shot up in the past decade, it’s surprising this bylaw hadn’t come forward years ago. But when you consider what has happened to the mortgage market since the U.S.-led financial meltdown, it’s surprising the commission and the bylaw proposal are limited to only 20 per cent of detached homes.

Add to that the dearth of apartment-style rental construction in the past 15 years or so in Red Deer — and the number of former apartment complexes that have been converted to condominiums — and the case is easy to make for secondary suites in homes as a solution for affordable housing.

But this change isn’t just about finding low-cost rental units for people living in substandard housing now. This is about making the dream of home ownership available to young people once again.

The heady days of oilpatch jobs making it possible for young workers to qualify for mortgages of $350,000 and up are not likely to come back. Nor, believe it or not, does every job in Red Deer involve the high-paying energy industry.

Half of families in Red Deer earn less than $70,000 a year — and that requires both spouses working. When job insecurity is spread to two people, not just one, qualifying for a mortgage is definitely not as easy as it used to be.

If Red Deer wants to attract young families, the city must make their housing expectations attainable. Building more homes with rental suites isn’t just an answer to a housing shortage — it’s a route to the middle-class dream of owning a home.

Similarly, the parents of these young couples are increasingly finding themselves caring for their own aging parents. If it truly is the accepted social goal for older people to live independently longer into their senior years, many will be glad for the kind of supported independence that a secondary suite inside a regular home will allow. One does not need to live with one’s children to achieve this, but there can be more safety, security and economy being a renter in a nicely-designed secondary suite, than in a regular apartment or in spending one’s retirement savings to buy a condo.

As well, once the children have grown up and moved out, having a properly-designed suite available in your home can become a pretty nice part of your pension plan.

These aren’t options everyone needs, or would even like, but right now, these are options that Red Deer has worked too hard in the past to limit.

Right now, only limited numbers of this kind of housing option are available in a minority of our neighbourhoods, with a few such homes to be designated into the plans for new neighbourhoods.

The proof that the current situation is simply not suitable is the existence of unknown — but probably significant — numbers of illegal suites already in the city. Proposed bylaw changes will allow the owners of such suites until January of 2012 to register them with a development permit.

It would be interesting to know the actual number of these illegal suites (assuming their owners think it’s even worthwhile to bother registering them).

On-street parking considerations have to be secondary to getting people into housing they can afford. When urban design is so married to serving the needs of automobiles that the sight of cars parked on the street is the rationale for setting housing densities, society has indeed crossed a line into absurdity.

The trouble is, we already have. It’s time to cross back into a real, sustainable world.

Increasing housing densities by something less than 20 per cent (not every suite is rented, not every suite holds more than one person), making home ownership available to people in our new economic reality, making safe rental options available to older people, and allowing small-scale rental incomes available from the value you paid into your home — all of these options can be gained by changing the bylaw.

City council has had this issue on the back burner for more than a decade. Time to get this done.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.

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