Over the past few years the issue of secondary suites has repeatedly returned to City Council for a decision on whether the City should go ahead with a plan to legalize. We have yet to receive a decision over an issue that has polarized Council and Calgarians.

Is this issue a simple black and white problem? Is it possible that the issue is in fact highlighting a more foundational shift in the overall culture of our city?

Specifically, at the core of the secondary suite matter are, and this is only my opinion, two significant questions: the costs of potentially upgrading existing secondary suites to code if legalizing was successful; and how can the City as whole increase affordable and safe housing options?

Prohibitive cost being a pragmatic question of money, and safe housing being simple question about human rights. That means individual preference on what our ideal neighborhood should (or did) look like does not take precedent over very serious issues for any growing city–safe and affordable housing. If a system is in place that enables unsafe housing we shouldn’t be OK with it. We already have proof this is our system in Calgary.

So we need something better to both address unsafe living conditions and housing supply. A one size fits all solution, however, is unlikely to work, or in the least, risk polarizing the city further.

These two issues, however, don’t look at the root causes as to why secondary suites have become an issue in the first place.

The obvious reason is we’re growing, our reality is one of significant and constant change. The change means it’s now unreasonable to expect any community will stay ‘as it once was’ amidst growth that’s beyond our individual control. That doesn’t mean we stop trying to come up with ways to make our city a better place even in the upheaval of change. But we do need to expect and be a part of an unfolding cultural shift rather than working against it (trying to prevent the change).

How can that look?

Changing the way we think about our city and our own neighborhoods is a step and won’t be without its growing pains found in any big city. Sure, this isn’t LA, Chicago, or New York, but we can’t pretend we can control our own population increase and that increase does not have significant cultural and economic impact. Take for example the issue of gentrification. The economies that see revitalization of urban neighborhoods in fact pushes lower income demograhpics out and into the suburbs where the ‘new’ affordable housing emerges. Do we stop gentrification (can’t do that) or do we find a way to balance and be proactive with changing demographics in our neighborhoods? The shift is already happening even without any secondary suite foray.

So how should we respond?

There seem to be two predominant ways: participate in being a part of a healthy response to change that contributes to our neighborhoods and includes everyone of all demographics, or unbridled NIMBYism for anybody who doesn’t fit into community standards of conformity usually put together by a few (and usually from a past time).

The hope that Calgary will always offer a street somewhere in the sprawling suburbs where we can live out a dream of raising 2.5 kids, dog, with two SUVs in the double car garage, with people who look and act like us is quickly becoming a myth. It’s not necessarily a loss, but it does mean the story of our changing city isn’t dominated by a single narrative.

Part of these changes could include secondary suiting. The pursuit of safe housing, and affordable housing, through a variety of measures, including secondary suiting, is something the church can stand for as well (it is a matter of justice). Churches should also be a vocal part of the fabric of their neighborhoods and encourage homeoweners and renters alike to be a part of building vibrant communities.

Calgary’s identity is/has changed and we have to change with it, which can be done, and for the better. We just have to ensure that along the way we don’t create systems that ignore and marginalize the least among us.