Self contained living units of the sort we are thinking about have many different names: secondary suites, granny flats, family flats, garden suites, coach houses, etc. In truth, the term “secondary suite” doesn’t appear in our City’s district Plan . Instead, the kinds of living unit we are discussing is called a “family flat” in this definition from the Christchurch City Plan:
“self contained living accommodation, whether contained within a residential unit or located separately to a residential unit on the same site, which is occupied by family member(s) who are dependant (sic) in some way on the household living in that residential unit; and which is encumbered by an appropriate legal instrument which ensures that the use of the family flat is limited to dependant family members of the household living in the residential unit”.Volume 3 Definitions: Family Flat; emphasis added
The highlighted bold words are fine. We’re talking simple functionality here – “self contained living accommodation” located on the same site of a residential dwelling which itself is a self contained living accommodation. The living accommodation can be inside the residential dwelling, attached to it, or separate from it – eg as a stand-alone building or perhaps part of or attached to a garage or other stand alone building on the site.
But the remainder of this “definition” – indeed even the simple adjective “family” in the name “family flat” is far from innocuous. Two important regulatory constraints on residential living are embodied: one a social and conventional l constraint , the other an intrusive and costly legal restraint aiding in the enforcement of the social constraint.
What kind of a constraint is this? Should we even care?. Well, I think so. Would you accept this kind of restriction on your own residential unit? I doubt it.
For a single residential unit on a site there is no restriction whatsoever on who may use the living arrangements for that unit. Who in fact does live in residential units in New Zealand these days? Well almost anyone and everyone one if our census is to be believed: old, young; rich, poor; healthy , sick; religious or atheist; educated or being educated; married , in a civil union or single….basically any and every way you might want to slice the demographic cake. Do you have to be “family” to live in a residence? No way! Ditto for tenure arrangements. Owners might live in the residential unit , but as often as not they don’t, and renters use and occupy a residence. Think of a group of professionals or students or workers or stay-at-home mums or dads or …. all of the above… We’d simply call most of those arrangements… a flat – and be done with it. Restricting “flats” in a primary residence to be used only by family would be rightly regarded as an unjustifiable intrusion on home owners and home renters rights and privleges.
So why do we even think of tolerating it for secondary suites – ie self contained living accommodation internal to or external to a residence?
This is a good question. Hold it in (only) your mind for a moment, savor it, let it roll around. But don’t think for a moment that the sensible answer lies in some intellectual rationale about preserving neighborhood values or standards in primarily residential areas. That sort of reply to a question like – why do we have such and such by-law? – is (also) typically a smoke-screen to cover up an intricate thicket of self-interested and often excessively conservative behaviors that brought the by-law into existence and keep it in existence in spite of pressure for change. It may well be that there are “impacts” on residential neighborhood quality from many kinds of typically residential activities, flats secondary suites or otherwise . But typically with a controversial by-law there are at least several self interested groups in action: those wanting a change, those opposing a change, and those “civil servants” wanting to keep control of the regulatory bureaucracy and political processes that are part of local body governance.
As a famous Roman judge is alleged to have asked: Cui bono? (to whose benefit?) (see Wikipedia) “The famous Lucius Cassius, whom the Roman people used to regard as a very honest and wise judge, was in the habit of asking, time and again, ‘To whose benefit?’”
I’ve been reading sections of Graham Bush’s fascinating book Decently and in Order (1971) on the history of local government in Auckland . Did you know that up until the mid 1930’s playing tennis and using children’s playgrounds on a Sunday were forbidden? that bathing suits were required to be neck to knee? that a motion came before the City Council to have a bronze statue of a discuss thrower in the domain “fig-leafed” (it failed to pass)? I mention these as a reminder of how recently social conservatism and prudery ruled the local body governance roost. But even removing the obvious conservative influences, zoning laws and regulations create a playing field for other forms of strategic self interest to emerge. Consider this slightly cynical viewpoint: when self contained living accommodation is restricted to to immediate dependent family members, the restriction needs to be seen not just for what it includes (what decent person wouldn’t want to help out their dependant children or grandparents – hmmm, i can think of some…) but for what it excludes: all the “undesrieables” to those who are already established inside a specific residential area , whoever they might be – students, immigrants, working classes, …. The family flat restriction becomes a blank template for incumbents to fill in the demographic they don’t want in their area of town. Of course they couldn’t get a policy like that enforced on existing residences on site, the primary dwelling – but woe to any “additional” intensification of land use!!
The history of the U-turn in Canadian provincial and local government policies towards secondary suite type self contained accommodation in established residential areas will provide deep insights into the forces for and the forces against. I’ll be synthesizing and commenting on that in an upcoming blog. But a point worth remembering is that the changes in Canada have come in urban areas
- where house prices have made both ownership and rental unaffordable to large numbers of the middle class population (not just the poor) ,
- where green spaces and historical characteristics of residential areas are highly valued and urban sprawl and high rise proliferation isn’t
- where diverse and thriving communities of people living, shopping, working, playing, all close to and interconnected to decent public transport networks (i e reduce reliance on cars, increase cycling and walking alternatives in pleasant and safe environments)
- permit continuity of living through time for all ages – from pre school kids to teens within walking distance of local schools to older adults and seniors being able to “age in place” , in familiar, friendly, pleasant environments for living shopping and relaxing