Chris Vrabel said it takes him hours to mow the 12,000-square foot yard that borders his detached house in the Edmonton suburb of Westbrook.
As he mows, Mr. Vrabel said, he thinks about how many more homes one could build in all the yard space. “My lot’s big enough that I could build three [other housing] units here,” he said. “In a heartbeat.”
But the rules don’t let him.
Mr. Vrable operates a small construction company that builds infill housing in Edmonton. And he said he continually runs up against a city bylaw that prohibits homeowners on similarly sized lots as his from creating both a secondary suite in their main house’s basement while also adding a rental suite above their garage out back, known as a garden suite or laneway home.
The idea – which planners call ‘gentle density’ because it doesn’t visually alter a neighbourhood’s appearance from the outside but significantly increases its density nonetheless – has become common in space-starved cities such as Vancouver. In Edmonton, however, where land pressures are almost non-existent and neighbourhood opposition to added density has at times been fierce, the rules say a property owner can have a basement or garden suite – but not both.
But advocates note that Edmonton, one of Canada’s fastest growing cities, is also a place where a staggering 90 per cent of new housing units are still built within the sprawling outer city, while inner-city neighbourhoods have shed more than 70,000 residents since the mid 1970s. The overwhelming majority of houses are single-family, on large lots.
For the city to become sustainable and offer more diverse housing options, advocates say, the rules have to change.
“We feel that it only makes sense to increase the number of suites allowed in Edmonton’s most dominant form of housing – single-family homes,” said Ashley Salvador, president of YEGarden Suites, an advocacy group. “’Gentle density’ is a good fit for Edmonton because of the largely single-family housing makeup of the city. We see gentle density as a way to bridge the gap between car-reliant older suburbs and more compact, dense neighbourhoods.”
Ms. Salvador’s group has already won several battles, but the war remains to be won.
Late last month, YEGarden Suites was one of several groups that successfully lobbied Edmonton’s city council to relax bylaws for secondary suites and allow them to be legally added to duplexes, row houses and so-called skinny houses, or two narrow houses on a sub-divided single-house lot. That bylaw will see density increase in established neighbourhoods as it will allow up to four addresses on a lot that once just had a single detached house.
Ms. Salvador’s group was also successful, in 2017, in pushing Edmonton council to allow homeowners to add garden suites, or rental suites above a garage.
But their push to allow both types of suites concurrently remains an unrealized goal. Ms. Salvador said the bylaw change would be a “win-win” for home owners, renters and the city itself.
But not everyone in Edmonton agrees.
The city’s continuing infill changes, including allowing lot subdivision and skinny homes, have drawn outrage from several corners. In one neighbourhood, a pair of skinny homes has irked residents so much that they organized to get a stop-work order. In another, some have placed restrictive covenants on their property titles to prevent them from being subdivided at all.
The city has worked to appease this sort of backlash with a basket of rules for older neighbourhoods, known as the Mature Neighbourhood Overlay, that some say severely restricts what’s allowed to be built within them.
The situation – in which the city says it wants infill but also empowers neighbours to limit it – has reached a comical level, Mr. Vrabel said. “I’ve been to Montreal, Paris, Amsterdam, and you see all this density that works,” he said. “And you come back home and you’re arguing with somebody because your garage is six inches too far to the right. It’s absurd.”
Anne Stevenson, a principal planner with Edmonton, said the city is continuing work on its infill guidelines to get the balance right.
She said the city estimates that, at most, about 10 per cent of all households in Edmonton would be interested in adding a secondary or third suite to their properties, meaning it won’t be a “huge game-changer.”
Still, Ms. Stevenson said, residents have made it clear they want more housing choice. “Right now, it’s looking likely we will address the mix of suites as part of our overall zoning bylaw renewal project,” she said. “We’re looking at all of our regulations.”
Discussions continue, but there is no firm date for completion of the the zoning bylaw renewal or when multiple suites on a property might be allowed.
Jeanette Sesay will be watching it all closely.
Last year, when the rules changed, Ms. Sesay and her husband, Pimpy, discovered garage suites and even took a tour of them organized by YEGarden Suites. The couple reasoned they would like to add one to their own property, in Edmonton’s High Park, to complement the basement suite they currently rent out. They’ve been stymied by the current proscription on multiple rental suites
“We got a little bit excited – and then realized we weren’t allowed to do it,” Ms. Sesay said. “So, we kind of put it on hold for now and I’ve just been keeping my eyes on things to see if any developments have been happening. We’re just kind of on pause.” Adding to the push for the change, the couple now have a four-month-old son. They look to the future when they’ll need the basement space for their growing family – but still want to maintain a rental property to help with the mortgage. And on top of it all, their 1950s-era garage will soon need to be replaced.
“If we’re building a new garage anyways, why don’t we just add on a garage suite as well?” Ms. Sesay said.
It’s a conundrum Mr. Vrabel is well familiar with.
“A lot of people are asking for both and we have to tell them it’s A or B right now,” he said. “Everybody’s just going with basement suites because garage suites are so much more expensive to build.”