City Requirements for a Legal Secondary Suite

Last month we introduced the topic of illegal suites and the varied positions of Calgary city council members, with one camp prepared to grandfather in all existing suites, provided they meet certain building safety codes, and the other camp in favor of maintaining the status quo of bylaw enforcement penalizing landlords reported to have non-conforming suites. We also considered the degrees of compliance homeowners adhere to vis-Ã -vis provincial building codes and municipal land use bylaws. Certainly there will always be those who will skirt the existing bylaws and building codes in an effort to save time and money in developing a rental suite, but what about those who want to comply with city and provincial requirements in developing a legal accessory suite?

Some property owners contend that the primary reason their income suite doesn’t comply with requisite building codes and zoning bylaws is merely due to the onerous process of meeting the requirements of compliance. They take the position that the city and province make it so difficult to conform, that it is time- and cost-prohibitive to meet the stringent requirements in place. Paired with a low risk of their illegal suite being discovered and penalties being imposed, they create a livable space (some more livable than others) and assume the role of landlord.

So what exactly do the city and province require for an accessory suite to meet legal status? And just how onerous is the process? The requirements for creating a legal accessory suite can be roughly divided into two categories: lot requirements and dwelling requirements. Lot requirements generally refer to zoning issues as well as the size of the lot and ensuring certain renter amenities are in place. Dwelling requirements focus on the actual building, primarily ensuring the safety of the tenant.

Lot Requirements

The city of Calgary has many different zoning designations (called land use districts), many of which allow an accessory suite on the premises. However, just because a lot is in a land use district which permits a secondary suite does not give a homeowner carte blanche to decide to be a landlord.

Beyond having the proper zoning, the lot that the house sits on must also meet certain requirements. All lots in land use districts which allow suites must meet certain width, depth, and area requirements, the minimum parcel width being 9m, and the minimum lot depth allowing suites being 30m.

In addition to size requirements, each lot containing a legal accessory suite is also required to have a private outdoor amenity space which can take the form of a deck, patio, or balcony, but must be at least 7.5m2. Finally, secondary suites must also have at least 1 vehicle parking space in addition to those in place for the primary residence.

Once it is determined that the home is located on a lot of the proper size and dimensions, the home owner must then begin the process of obtaining the necessary development and building permits. Having obtained the proper permits, there are a number of dwelling requirements in the Alberta Building Code which must be met by the home owner to make the accessory suite legally compliant.

Dwelling Requirements

The Alberta Building Code has certain requirements that must also be met when developing a legal accessory suite. The first question a prospective landlord must address is whether the property is a duplex or semi-detached home. If it is, the home owner is not able to develop a legal secondary suite, regardless of whether the home is located in a qualified land use district. After ensuring the home is able to contain a secondary suite, the home owner must consider numerous aspects of the actual living space. Some of the major considerations (if the suite is located in the basement of a home) include:

  • Must have direct access to outside.
  • Living spaces must have a minimum ceiling height of 1.95m.
  • Must have smoke separation from the principal dwelling (typically takes the form of ½ inch drywall on the ceiling of the suite and around common areas and common exits).
  • Must have interconnected smoke alarms between the suite and main dwelling.
  • Each bedroom must have at least one window for an emergency fire escape (at least 1.2m from a property line, and with a minimum size of 0.35m2 and no opening less than .38m).
  • Must have a heating and ventilation system independent from the primary dwelling.
  • Must have either an independent electrical service panel or convenient access to a shared panel (i.e., a panel located in a common area).

Whether or not developing a legal accessory suite involves time- and cost-prohibitive hoop jumping will be determined by each individual who embarks on this process. But in consideration of the number of steps involved, it is unsurprising that a great number of people in Calgary choose instead to keep an illegal suite in their home.