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Sociology student explores unheard voices in secondary suites debate

By Heath McCoy

The debate over allowing secondary suites in Calgary neighbourhoods rages on, with community and residential associations, developers, student groups, politicians and media among those sounding off, but one crucial voice remains unheard — that of the renters. Now, an MA student in urban sociology at the University of Calgary is seeking to change that.

Pernille Goodbrand is looking to interview individuals who are currently renting an illegal secondary suite, or who rented such a suite in the last three years. She intends to research their experiences for a study entitled The Missing Perspective: The Experience of Renters Living in Informal Secondary Suites in Calgary. 

The confidentiality of participants in the study will be strictly protected, Goodbrand stresses — an important point because it speaks to an imbalance of power that she feels makes this project so necessary. “You’re potentially vulnerable if you’re living in an illegal suite,” Goodbrand explains. “If you choose to speak out about your experience, there is a risk of being ‘found out,’ which could lead to having the City of Calgary shut down the suite. There’s that fear that you could lose your home if you come forward.”

Estimates cited in the media suggest that Calgary has up to 80,000 illegal secondary suites. The public debate over secondary suites tends to focus on the current bylaws, which define many of these residences as illegal. Questions also arise as to the appropriate public policy concerning secondary suites, in view of the housing shortage in Calgary.

Goodbrand adds that there may also be a social stigma connected to living in a secondary suite. “There seems to be a stereotype of these transient, low income people who are there to destroy your neighbourhood’s vibe and take all the parking spaces.” It could be that people in secondary suites are reluctant to speak up, Goodbrand notes, because they’re afraid of being associated with this stereotype.

Goodbrand’s supervisor on the project is renowned urban sociologist Professor Harry Hiller. “We’re calling it creative housing,” Hiller says of illegal secondary suites. “These places primarily turn up in communities where you have single detached homes that were not built with the intent of housing any more than a nuclear family.” As such, the suites don’t always conform to city safety standards, often lacking in areas such as separate entrances, emergency exits and fire precautions. 

Goodbrand seeks to understand what leads people to rent illegal secondary suites. Another key question is how do renters in these suites relate to their landlords?

“Maybe your landlord lives above you and they’ve got kids screaming and hollering,” says Hiller. “Maybe there’s complaints like ‘We don’t like what you’re cooking because it’s creating smells.’ You’ve got so many possibilities for tensions that develop in a residence that wasn’t built for secondary suites. We want to know how the renters experience these situations.”

Goodbrand points out that she’s not looking for stories that are particularly negative or positive, nor is she trying to make any sort of point for or against secondary rental suites. Rather, it’s about providing an important perspective, which has been largely overlooked in the debate.

“This is a concrete problem of real societal relevance,” says Hiller. “We’re trying to figure out how these bylaws and zoning rules are impacting renters.” Adds Goodbrand: “How can we hope to fix this ongoing problem of secondary suites when one of the major stakeholder voices is completely missing?”

If you are renting an illegal secondary suite (or have done so in the last three years) and you would like to be a participant in this study, send an email to or phone 403-220-2224.