News / Calgary

'Find a way:' Mother, sister speak out on suite reform nine years after tragic basement fire

Mitzi Halliday says the City of Calgary's secondary suite reform needs to focus on safety and come down hard on landlords skirting basic rules.

Bria Cox and Mitzi Halliday hold a photo of Tiffany Cox, 19, who died in January 2009 after a fire in an illegal secondary suite in Calgary.

Helen Pike / Metro

Bria Cox and Mitzi Halliday hold a photo of Tiffany Cox, 19, who died in January 2009 after a fire in an illegal secondary suite in Calgary.

Nine years after the death of her daughter Tiffany Cox, Mitzy Halliday still can't watch the secondary suite debate as it continues to unfold because she was scared to be let down.

Tiffany, who was 19 at the time, died in an illegal basement suite along with her fiance Jonathan St. Pierre and Colleen Mantei, trapped by a fire and grated windows. Their stories are often what politicians and those fighting for suite reforms point to. Their stories continue to come up in discussions to this day and again were brought to the forefront on Monday, when councillors voted to reform secondary suite rules across the city.

"There's just been one disappointment after another after another," said Halliday. Bria Cox, her daughter sits across the table, she says it makes it hard to heal and move on with their lives.

"You just feel hopeless," Cox said.

Going over the documents with both Halliday and Cox, it's clear the wounds aren't healed. The city's amnesty plans, and their actions on suites since Tiffany's death, don't go far enough for the family.

As part of the push to bring illegal suites up to code, make them safe and get them registered, the city's target for the amnesty period is to bring 800 suites, new and existing into the legal market over two years. After the amnesty is up, the city's looking at a target of bringing 20 suites, new and existing onto the legal market.

I look at those numbers and it just affects me all over again," Halliday said. "Eight hundred. There are so many illegal suites. They've got to find a way."

Halliday also wants to see higher fines and licensing for landlords, so if they don't comply with safety codes they can't continue to profit off of their rentals. She's also hoping that the province can implement rent control, so renters are able to find safe and affordable homes.

Cliff De Jong, senior special projects officer with Calgary Building Services, said that the 800 figure was put in place to be an achievable target. He pointed to Vancouver, where they've had a registry for secondary suites in place for more than 20 years and said they only have about 9,000 registered – and that's the system Calgary's was modelled after.

"When we're giving out some of our estimates for compliance, I think it's important to remember it's costly," De Jong said. "There's a very high bar to entry for a legal suite ... for an existing illegal suite to upgrade to being a safe suite our estimates range from between $10,000 and $40,000."

He said by making suites a discretionary use in the city's single detached home residential areas, land owners can now get loans from banks, where before if the use in their area didn't permit it lenders wouldn't dole out cash which could act as a deterrent to bringing buildings up to code.

Although the numbers aren't clear, 30,000 is the latest illegal suite estimate in Calgary. So far, the city's registry, which is a tool for tenants to ensure they have a safe and legal home, sits at more than 900 suites.

Now, the city's focus is turning to a proactive approach. De Jong said they're going to focus on getting in touch with landlords who are advertising suites not on the registry to bring those up to code before amnesty is up.

"We will have staff dedicated to connecting with suite owners, there's a lot of different ways," said De Jong.

Halliday said the registry and the city's move to track down illegal suites is encouraging, but more needs to be done.

"There's nothing they can do that will ever heal it," said Halliday. "But you know, taking steps and this process, and starting to hold people accountable will help heal our hearts over time. But it's long overdue."

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