Multi-Generational Housing: A Case for Secondary Suites

The ongoing discussion around secondary suites continues in Calgary, with frequent conversations at City Hall and references in newspaper headlines. Much of the “pro” side of this issue has revolved around affordable housing and increasing rental units, but the growth in multi-generational living is also emerging as a key factor behind this push.

Calgary is one of the most diverse cities in Canada. One quarter of the city’s population are first generation Canadians. Over 156 countries are represented amongst Calgary’s population. Such a wide range of people and cultures has led to an increasing demand for diverse housing options, including multi-family configurations.  

Changes in cultures, changes in ownership

Calgary continues to be one of the leading choices for international immigrants. Many of the city’s new residents have different values and priorities when it comes to housing.

While North American culture has been entrenched in a model of single family housing, with adult children eventually moving out by purchasing their own home, cultures in Asia and other parts of Europe prefer to have several generations of a single family under one roof. Not only does it help with finances and household chores, but it’s also seen as a benefit to child rearing while solidifying familial bonds. 

It’s a trend that’s growing across Canada. In a recent article, Avenue Calgary cited a Vanier Institute of the Family study (with information from Statistics Canada) that showed the percentage of households with grandparents living with grandchildren under the age of 14 increased from 3.3 per cent to 4.8 between 2001 and 2011. And the number of people living in multi-generational households has doubled in the past 30 years south of the border, sitting at 57 million (or 18.1 per cent of the population).

However, living under one roof is not without its challenges and why a separate living space within a single family home can provide privacy while maintaining important interactions between generations.

This is where secondary suites come into the equation.

The same Avenue Calgary article spoke to Calgary Mom, Marion Bosch, who emigrated along with her parents and husband from Germany. Her family has found success living in a multi-generational home with a secondary suite after co-habitating in a single apartment together for a year.

“My mother did a lot of cooking and laundry,” says Bosch, “but you get on each other’s nerves in such a small space. And there’s different thinking between the generations. Once my parents moved into the basement, things were much better.”

Building for a wider family model

The building industry is seeing a trend in multi-generational housing across Canada. For example, Ottawa recently changed zoning regulations to allow for laneway homes and secondary suites. The CEO of the Canadian Home Builders' Association of British Columbia told the Globe and Mail that multi-generational living is bound to become more common as the population ages. As a result, builders are designing housing to be a better fit for extended families. In Edmonton several homebuilders are unveiling a new project in West Edmonton where homes will be built with a fully developed, rentable secondary suite.

Secondary suites, when properly regulated and managed, can be a useful option for families looking to subsidize their income or share space with relatives. A concerted push towards urban densification and affordable rental units is part of the secondary suite issue, but the demand is further spurred by an aging and culturally diverse population looking for multi-generational housing options.  


May 28th, 2015
Updated: September 18th, 2017

Can a changing family living dynamic add to the demand for secondary suites?