News / Calgary

Calgary's secondary suites concentrated in low-income, immigrant communities

Researcher used public data to calculate how many suites exist in the city

Kylee van der Poorten has been studying and mapping Calgary's secondary suites.

Jennifer Friesen / For Metro

Kylee van der Poorten has been studying and mapping Calgary's secondary suites.

Uncovering the mystery behind illegal secondary suites, one Calgary researcher has lifted the curtain and is hoping her work can help reshape the conversation behind the contentious living arrangements.

Kylee van der Poorten recently published her work in the Canadian Geographer, cracking tropes about the Calgary suite narrative using a combination of publicly available data sets to show where suites are hidden in the city, and who may own them.

In 2015, the city had at least 13,812 suites, and 2 per cent of those suites were listed on the city's suite registry as fully sanctioned. From that original number, she was able to determine 67 per cent as being operated by absentee landlords.

When it gets into the classic "illegal" suite narrative, she applied land use data along with census information about housing structure types to narrow down single-detached homes and further identify which ones had additional single-dwelling units. These numbers, the remaining 13,534 units, she divvies up into the 73 per cent that exist in suite-permitted zones and 27 per cent in restricted zones.

"What we do through local law ... it shapes the housing market. It's not as simple as supply and demand," van der Poorten said. "The geography of this housing and the geography of opposition really speaks to that."

The geographical paper shows that illegal suites – on various levels of compliance – are concentrated in Calgary's low-income and immigrant-rich areas, especially in the northeast.

Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra said illegal suites the city's seeing proliferating in poorer neighbourhoods are exactly what opponents are worried about.

"The legalization of suites we're talking about results in something different altogether," said Carra. "All we're looking to do over time is take out the black market that exists with a regulated market that makes more sense."

Carra said the study backs up what some of council has been saying, and the only question is what politicians will do about it.

van der Poorten spoke passionately about the issue, but she looks at the housing disparity through a different lens than the NIMBYs fighting out their property and community rights at city hall. She's looking past the mob and media coverage at what she thinks the core of the conversation should be: have we made secondary suites any safer for people?

"These social relations are what's shaping this conflict and driving this conflict, and we need to talk about that more than we need to focus on vilifying people," van der Poorten said. "That story about the 3 tenants who died in the basement fire ... I really think those three tenants and the fact that they lost their lives has not been the centre point for what we've been hearing about this issue."

In creating the rules and regulations surrounding secondary suites, she writes policy has been shaped by unequal power relations and focused more on oppositional neighbours, community associations and landlords based on the premium paid to live in single detached residential areas.

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