Basement suites in Calgary could soon be facing scrutiny due to the new Suite Safety Pilot Program being launched by the city.
The program was launched in mid-October after city council passed a motion to that effect in the spring of 2011.
“We want Calgarians to be safe,” said Kevin Griffiths, Chief Building Official for the City of Calgary.
“Obviously, the possible loss of life due to unsafe building conditions is first and foremost on our minds.”
Griffiths said that there will be 50 random suites selected around the city for inspection, with inspections being conducted at a rate of approximately 10 suites per week.
“The selection process has been completed and we have already contacted most of the tenants,” he said.
“At this point and time, we are about half-way through the 50-suite inspection process in this pilot.”
This program was introduced to city council in the spring of last year and was championed by Ward 9 Ald. Gian-Carlo Carra, citing what he called, “a humanitarian crisis.”
Carra’s primary concern is for what he sees as a growing number of not-so-honest landlords in the city.
“We have by some estimates, 60,000 illegal suites in the city of Calgary. Many of these people are living under a landlord that is a shady operator and the tenants, right now, just don’t have any rights.”
The City’s Development and Building Approvals department is partnering with the Calgary Fire Department for this suite safety program and they’ll be looking for both fire and building code violations.
At this point, the program is based upon consent and doesn’t include any heavy-handed intentions to simply barge into any basement suite the city pleases.
“We’re looking for co-operation,” said Griffiths.
“We want to make the opportunity available to these tenants to bring their suites into compliance.”
When a suite has been randomly selected by the city, a letter is sent to the landlord.
The randomly selected suites are spread out evenly all over the city’s quadrants and the landlord is “encouraged” to contact the city via the 311 phone system to schedule an assessment of the suite in question, which will take about an hour.
The fact that this is a “pilot” program suggests that it may soon become a part of the city’s building approvals process and Griffiths made it clear that his department does indeed want this program to be a permanent fixture within the city’s bureaucracy.
“We’re definitely going to be making recommendations to city council with this program as a go-forward policy and city council will have to make a decision as to how to deal with the situation of secondary suites based on our findings,” he said.
Ward 2 Ald. Gord Lowe has countered that the program conflicts with existing bylaws and suggested that this approach to suite safety is a good example of the government over-stepping itself.
“The difficulty I have with it (the suite safety pilot program), is that it flies straight into the face of the land-use bylaws,” said Lowe.
“The reason is, we should not be able to make sweeping changes to the way people use their homes without asking first.
“Our system should remain on a complaint-based system. If your neighbour complains about a code violation because of your suite, then fix it,” he said.
Kamil Lalji, an associate broker with CIR Realty, who oversees the sale and rental of many secondary suites in Calgary for his company, said that he isn’t worried about a program like this because in the end, “it just doesn’t have any teeth.”
“The whole program of checking basement suites, in my opinion, is a waste of taxpayer dollars because they won’t actually enforce anything,” said Lalji.
“The chance of getting audited is pretty slim, and even if one of my suites were audited, it wouldn’t be that much different from a regular inspection.”
“At the end of the day, I don’t want this program to have any teeth, but I do understand the city’s perspective in wanting to have a safer city.”