Thursday, October 1, 2015

Barrie makes some suite improvements to the housing picture

I’ve written before on the benefits of allowing second suites (basement or attic apartments) in Barrie homes. Something I’ve long advocated, I was very happy to see them finally legalized city-wide this year, and am confident they will at least partly address current local pressures of low rental housing availability and sprawl development.
However, myths persist about second suites, who lives in them, and their effect on the neighbourhood. Recently news reported a resident’s worries that second suites would cram 4 to 6 more people per home, which is not my experience at all.
That's one suite apartment
You see, on my street are many basement apartments, some registered, some not. And about 15 years ago, I (well, really, the bank) bought three other houses in Barrie, each with a second unit. One of them was already registered, the other two I was able to register under the grandfathering allowance, since they existed pre-1996. Over that period I have learned, firsthand, the reality of this housing type.
One myth is that adding a second suite suddenly doubles the number of people living in the house, and the number of cars parked in front. But that’s not the case, as studies and my own experience attest. The reality is that a large family will occupy a whole house themselves, while a house with two units will house two smaller families. A second suite does not add to the size of a house, it merely re-arranges the space within it from one large unit into two smaller ones. A 4- or 5-bedroom house is built for a family of 6 or more, while a house with 3- and 2-bedroom units will typically house one family of 3-4 and one family of 2-3. It’s the same number of people, just divided differently.
As to the parking concern, my neighbours are a professional couple, each with a car, and when we moved in, had two children in their late teens who also soon got their own cars. (If you’re keeping track, that’s four cars to cram in a 2-car driveway). This family of four expanded as the adult children each acquired a live-in spouse; at one point, there were essentially three families all living there together in this undivided single-family home, needing to park 5-6 cars.
By comparison, my other neighbour, a single woman, rents her basement to another single woman; for 16 years, that 2-unit home has housed only two people with two cars. In my own 2-unit houses, each family generally has only one car; sometimes one family has two and the other has none. Rarely do we need to accommodate a third vehicle, and of course tenants are made aware, when they rent, how many parking spaces they get.
So the idea that second suites double the number of people and cars at the house is a myth, and the concern that whole neighbourhoods will suddenly overflow ignores that only 10-15% of single-family houses ever add second units. Perhaps the strangest fear, espoused by some of our councillors, is that second suites are inappropriate near Georgian College, in areas already overpopulated with student-rented rooms. But if a landlord is maximizing the number of students in a house, adding a second suite actually reduces capacity, because the second kitchen and bathroom (and usually, living room) mean 2-3 extra rooms can’t be let as bedrooms. A 2-unit house thus holds fewer student renters than the same house undivided.
People naturally fear the worst-case scenario, but Barrie’s overall experience with second suites is that they allow our neighbourhoods to maintain population in the face of shrinking family size. The support this provides for transit and local business is key to keeping our communities sustainable and complete.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Second suites make sense in Barrie"

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

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