Secondary and backyard suites are legal across the municipality after Halifax regional council unanimously approved bylaw amendments following a public hearing Tuesday night.
Also known as granny suites or in-law suites, secondary suites are added apartments located inside single-unit homes. Backyard suites are the same thing, but in an accessory building like a garage.
While they can be a home for the in-laws or young adult children, they’re also a way to add rental stock to a neighbourhood without significantly affecting the way it looks. They’re not a replacement for below-market housing or social housing, but secondary and backyard suites can also make housing more affordable by adding lower-price rental units and giving homeowners a way to supplement part of their mortgage.
In January 2018, council started a process to amend municipal bylaws to legalize secondary and backyard suites across the municipality, and the new rules were complete earlier this year.
The bylaw amendments allow owners of single-family homes, townhouses and duplexes and to build secondary suites with a floor area up to 80 square metres, or about 860 square feet.
They allow backyard suites up to 90 square metres, or about 969 square feet. Backyard suites also have to meet the rules for an accessory building in whichever zone they’re being built, including setbacks from property lines.
There are no requirements for parking for either secondary or backyard suites.
At a virtual public hearing Tuesday night, 26 people called in to speak to council. Although the new rules apply to the entire municipality, several of those speakers were residents of the Westmount neighbourhood in Halifax’s west end. Those residents were unhappy with the new rules, and with what they saw as a lack of consultation.
One Westmount resident said the new rules meant the end of single-family zoning in the neighbourhood, and amounted to expropriation without compensation because homeowners would no longer be able to enjoy their property or their privacy.
Another asked council to exclude Westmount from the bylaw amendments to uphold the neighbourhood’s family-oriented values.
Coun. Shawn Cleary, who met with some of the residents last week, told his colleagues that zoning rules in Westmount that aren’t changing mean it’s basically impossible to build a backyard suite.
“We need to do something to get more people safely housed in Halifax,” Cleary said.
Residents’ concerns also included the lack of parking requirements, proximity of the backyard suites to property lines, and a lack of design rules for backyard suites.
There were speakers in favour of the rules, too.
While he recommended changes to strengthen accessibility requirements in the new rules and allow larger suites, disability advocate Gerry Post said he supported the plan in hopes it would create more affordable and accessible housing. (Coun. Lindell Smith plans to move for a supplementary report on adding more requirements for accessibility.)
Kevin Hooper with the United Way told council that while secondary and backyard suites are no panacea, they offer a glimmer of hope in a dismal rental market.
Secondary suites were part of Halifax’s commitment to the Housing and Homelessness Partnership, with its goal to create or preserve 5,000 affordable housing units in five years. The approval of secondary and backyard suites could add affordable housing in the future, but the partnership is nowhere near hitting its goal, and the situation in Halifax has only gotten worse.
The rental vacancy rate dropped to 1% last year as rents climbed.
It’s a problem raised by speakers on Tuesday night, many of them mentioning that it’s been exacerbated by the rise of short-term rentals.
Some speakers worried secondary suites would just create new opportunities for short-term rentals like airBnB in Halifax, but planner Jillian MacLellan noted new regulations are coming to council’s next meeting.
This is something that sounds like a great idea, but will only be great if the city puts in place licensing, inspection and enforcement. I can only cringe while thinking of what the scuzzy landlords in the south end will do with this. It’s move in weekend, and the garbage is rotting on the street while rats run around. Please please develop regulations and hire staff to enforce them.