Are Secondary Suites Positive Additions to Municipalities? 10 Reasons Why…and Why Not


Secondary suites are sweeping the nation, offering an attractive option to add soft density to many Canadian cities. First, let’s take a look at the benefits of secondary suites.

The Benefits

  1. Affordable Housing
    Secondary suites can help to diversify the existing housing stock and provide an array of affordable rental units relative to other market rentals, such as apartments.
  1. Reduces Pressure for Urban Sprawl
    By adding a secondary suite to an existing lot, we can build in rather than out, which gently increases density in existing neighbourhoods. This can help to mitigate the loss of agricultural land and wild habitats.
  1. Mortgage Helper
    A key argument for the creation of secondary suites is that they can create an income flow for homeowners through rent.  This extra stream of cash may help homeowners qualify for or service a  larger mortgage. 
  1. Age-In-Place
    Secondary suites are commonly created for friends and family to live in. These suites can allow seniors to downsize and remain on their property by moving into a secondary suite and renting out the primary house … or by moving their kids, who may struggle to own their own home, into the main house. Did you know?  Starting in 2023, the Government of Canada will offer a refundable credit to help homeowners build a secondary suite for family members who are seniors or adults living with a disability. 
  1. Multi-Generational Living
    Related to point 4, secondary suites can allow multiple generations of a family to live close together while creating more opportunities for privacy and independence than what could be achieved when sharing one living space.
  1. Sustainable Housing
    Adding a secondary suite to a house reduces the average ecological footprint of housing.  By building smaller houses on smaller lots, we can grow our housing stock in an environmentally conscious way.
  1. Location Efficiency
    Location efficiency is a fancy term that refers to how much it costs (in time and money) to get to places you go to often. Adding secondary suites to homes in desirable areas allows more people to be close to amenities and work. Secondary suites can also increase the usage of community facilities and encourage sustainable modes of transportation such as walking, biking, and transit.
  1. Resale Value
    Adding a secondary suite can increase the value of a property, allowing the initial cost of adding a secondary suite to be recaptured upon sale. Potential home buyers may find the possibility of an income suite to be an enticing reason to buy.
  1. Soft Densification
    It is no secret that Canada desperately needs more affordable housing, but large-scale developments are subject to delays or community opposition to developments. Secondary suites can be used to intensify housing density in single-family zoning areas while preserving neighbourhood character.
  1.  Diverse & Inclusive Municipalities
    Municipalities are using secondary suites to expand their affordable housing supply. Progress is being made by multiple municipalities to create policies to legalize, promote, and (sometimes) subsidize secondary suites. 

The Drawbacks

  1. Illegality
  • A large portion of secondary suites are built and operated illegally (without permits) and do not meet the codes and standards required to be considered legal rental units. As such, it is hard (or even impossible) to estimate just how many secondary suites there may be in any given city.
  1. Unsafe Housing
    Unpermitted secondary suites, including those built as ‘DIY projects’ by owners, may pose safety risks to tenants (especially related to fire). One does not have to look long to find news articles reporting yet another secondary suite fatality. For example, one news article from Brampton, Ontario reports that “[of the 595 residential fire incidents that occurred between 2015 to 2019, 56 fires started in a basement apartment, 51 of them were not legally registered with the City.”
  1. Basement Suites: lowest rung on the housing ladder?
    Living in secondary suites, particularly those situated in the basement, can come with stigmas attached.  Tenants report that basement suites can feel like ‘dungeons’ with small windows and little natural light. Low ceilings, dampness, lack of privacy, and noise transfer from the primary residence above can all impact the physical and mental well-being of tenants.
  1. Not Always Rented, Not Always Affordable
    While secondary suitess are often marketed as key sites for affordable housing, not all secondary suites are intended for or available as rentals: a portion is reserved for family and friends of the landlord. These not necessarily available to those who are most in need of affordable housing. 
    Further, many secondary suites end up on vacation rental by owner platforms and are not used for long-term rentals. Secondary suites can be advertised for short-term stays for $100/night ($4500/month) or more.
  1. Insecure Tenure
    Tenants in secondary suites may experience a lack of tenure security due to informal agreements with landlords; heightened risk of eviction due to municipal enforcement of regulations; a breakdown in relationships with resident landlords; and landlords claiming they require the unit for their own or family use (whether or not they actually do is another matter!). 
  1. Impacts on Existing Infrastructure
    Some argue that an influx of people living in new secondary suites could overload existing infrastructure (sewer systems, roads) and shared public facilities (street parking, schools).
  1. Mature Neighbourhood Changes
    New secondary suites can cause homeowners nearby to be concerned about the preservation of the historic characteristics of mature neighbourhoods. 
  1. Opportunity Costs
    Homeowners may experience a trade-off between the benefits of renting out a secondary suite (e.g. for rental income) and losing the use of space in their basement or garage.
  1. Impact on Property Values
    Secondary suites may have a small negative on the value of neighbouring properties, largely due to perceptions of reduced privacy. In some affluent Vancouver neighbourhoods, houses whose neighbours had a laneway home saw a 4.7% decrease in property value.
  1. Inconsistent Municipal Policies
    Municipalities generally did not view secondary suites as a valid form of housing, making them illegal to build and operate in most neighbourhoods, until recent shifts towards accepting and even promoting them. However, many municipalities are only just rolling out their secondary suite policies, leading to inconsistency across jurisdictional lines.

Published by Bon Swanson

I am the Project Coordinator for Community Housing Canada. I help behind the scenes with administrative tasks, communications and research management within CHC. I can be reached directly at btswanso@ualberta.ca.

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