News / Calgary

‘It’s completely random’: Councillors find no trends in council's approval of Calgary secondary suites

Findings reveal planning principles have nothing to do with decisions

There’s no telling why council approves or denies your secondary suite application – and now we have stats to back that up.

Coun. Brian Pincott and Druh Farrell pooled some cash from their budgets to study secondary suites. It cost them a total of $5,000 to hire someone to work more than 200 hours poring over council meeting videos and minutes to decode why and how councillors were voting on secondary suites between 2014 and 2016.

Turns out it’s a statistical mystery and not at all based on planning principles; and no one is surprised.

Pincott said they chose parameters like gender, whether the applicant was a visible minority, had an accent, whether the application had a laneway or a garage, hoping to find some sort of pattern in council’s maddening process of going through each and every single suite.

“I’ve always described going to city council for a secondary suite as a crapshoot,” said Pincott. “When you are basing a planning decision like this on the personal foibles of 15 people who obviously to me don’t separate out planning, and non-planning decisions, that reinforces that we’ve got to clean it up.”

Pincott said they noticed that council responds better when an applicant brings forward a personal story, even though it’s not a planning consideration, and they don’t need to air their dirty laundry.

This behaviour, according to the Ward 11 councillor, opens council up to jeopardy.

“There’s no common thread, it’s costing us time and money,” said Farrell. “Each hour of overtime is $2,500. Just the financing doesn’t make sense if we’re not adding value, and consistent planning rationale behind it.”

Jennifer Maximattis-White and Erin Meyers work for Permitmasters and help clients through the maze of getting their secondary suite application approved. And although Maximattis-White is a planner, she doesn’t just look at those famous principles to help applications through.

“Council votes in favour of most secondary suite applications - there are few that they actually refuse,” Maximattis-White said.

When a suite application comes across her desk she will also look into more political aspects like what ward the suite is in, or if the community association is supportive, to decide whether or not to take on the applicant as a client.

Last council meeting, two suite submissions should have looked familiar because it was their second time coming before council. Although the applicants made no changes, this time around their suites were approved.

Pincott wants secondary suites to be a key election issue, and he says this data set is an argument, in his eyes, for blanket legalization.

“We’re not being fair to residents, we’re not being fair to city administration, we’re not being fair to the planning commission,” he said. “The problem with the secondary suites is actually just the 15 people that sit around the table – Calgarians are not the problem.”

From 2014 to 2016 there were 265 suite applications and council denied 46 of them. Suite applications have been increasing steadily over three years with 2016 totalling 161 applications.

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