Surrey unwittingly painted itself into a corner when it decided more than a year ago to allow one secondary suite in all homes, but crack down on houses with dangerous or multiple suites.
There are more than 22,000 suites in the city, and at least 4,000 are contained in homes with more than one suite.
Closure of the latter means thousands of people will be displaced from their homes, and after 16 months of hearing heart-wrenching stories from tenants, Surrey council has suggested it will back down and explore the possibility of allowing multiple suites in areas of the city zoned specifically for that purpose. Those areas haven’t been identified yet.
Surrey isn’t the first municipality to be dealing with the thorny challenge of secondary suites.
A 2004 report to Vancouver council estimated there were more than 25,000 homes with suites in them at the time.
In 2001, Vancouver’s revenue services undertook exterior site inspections and estimated there were an additional 3,500 to 4,000 houses with multiple suites city-wide.
Letters were sent out to all of them.
Half of the owners flat out disputed the claim, while 500 asked for an inspection (city staff noted it was likely a dispute), and 1,500 called the city to correct the number of suites.
Like Surrey, Vancouver believes multiple suites have the greatest impact on neighbourhoods and pose the most danger to renters.
“Higher standards are necessary in the case of multiple suites, where it is more likely that the owner does not live in the building, and where fire and life-safety considerations are more critical,” Vancouver staff wrote in the 2004 report to council.
Unlike Surrey, Vancouver isn’t considering softening its position on multiple suites.
“We inspect multiple suite properties on a complaint basis,” a City of Vancouver Manager of Communications Barb Floden told The Leader. “If a homeowner is found to have multiple suites, inspectors will order the extra suites be decommissioned.”
Vancouver allows homes to have a suite and a coach house, referred to as a laneway house.
Vancouver is also trying to get in front of the problem of illegal suites.
“Property use inspectors routinely check all single-family dwellings one year after occupancy to determine if there are additional suites added,” the Floden said. “We also rely on complaints (from neighbours) and referrals through agencies such as Vancouver police.”
In Richmond, multiple suites are also forbidden.
City spokesman Ted Townsend said Richmond deals with multiple suites by enforcement at a rate of about 50 units per year.
More recently, Richmond investigations found multiple suites being marketed in classified ads as “residential hotels.” Hundreds more units were exposed.
“In Richmond, we have aggressively pursued these,” Townsend said.
First, Richmond attempts to have the homeowner voluntarily decommission the illegal suites. If that fails, then the city starts issuing fines.
If those measures are unsuccessful, the city takes the homeowner to court.
Last year, a woman was fined $4,500, and when she continued to violate the bylaw, Richmond took her back to court this spring.
She was fined an additional $30,000.
That court finding has served as a strong deterrent, Townsend said.
The Corporation of Delta is also continuing to enforce its no-multiple-suites bylaw by seeking voluntary compliance. If that fails, Delta has the ability to fine homeowners $200 a day.
Hugh Davies, Delta’s manager of property use and compliance, said the process of legalizing suites began slowly last January, but it’s moving along quickly now.
The corporation can process eight properties a day, and now has a six-week waiting period for those who have applied to register their unit.
The first order of business when it comes to enforcement, Davies said, is to address suites that pose a danger.
Next are homes with multiple suites.
Surrey met informally to discuss the issue on Monday, and is expected to hold a short-sleeve session with staff in the coming days. From there, a report to council will be prepared.
In the meantime, tenants and suite owners will be unsure of their future, while communities calling for crackdowns will have to wait to find out what stance the city will take.
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