With updates to its secondary suites enforcement policy on Tuesday, city council hopes it has struck a balance between protecting renters from unsafe living conditions and landlords who have been operating thousands of illegal rental suites in the city for years.
“This sounds like a really, really balanced approach to the idea that not every unauthorized suite is a problem suite,” Coun. Arjun Singh said.
Council approved what is now called the Residential Suite Compliance Policy.
It will focus on education to ensure new suites are built to code and encourage landlords to legalize existing suites. The city also rubber-stamped new zoning and business licensing that will make it easier to install secondary suites and legalize them, due to suites now being permitted in more areas of the city without the need for rezoning and a public hearing.
The changes are being made as part of an effort to address a shortage of rental properties and make suites safer. The most recent Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation data indicates the city’s vacancy rate is at about one per cent.
Community planner Carmin Mazzotta said the city will educate through a new secondary suites guide, which will be worked on through the summer, and a suite registry that will identify legal suites for renters. He said a key theme during public consultation was lack of clarity, noting city will try to “demystify” the process.
“This may be serving as a barrier [to legal suites],” Mazzotta said.
Two councillors, however, took issue with changes to the policy that puts more discretion in staff hands.
The policy previously required two written complaints within one year from two properties within 150 metres of a suite before staff investigated. The revised policy now requires one complaint from within the neighbourhood.
Coun. Denis Walsh was concerned the policy change could lead to a “possible crackdown that isn’t required.”
Based on Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation and census data, the city estimates it has 6,000 suites, with only about 200 of them legal. The concern is costs to legalize a suite would be prohibitive to the point of taking suites out of the rental market, resulting in even fewer rentals.
However, staff maintain the city will not proactively enforce illegal suites as it doesn’t have the manpower in its bylaws department to do so.
“The city will not seek out unauthorized suites,” Mazzotta said, noting they will continue to be addressed on a complaint basis.
Mayor Ken Christian wondered about landlords who evict tenants, only to have them complain to the city about unsafe living conditions, with the city getting wrapped up in “bad blood” of tenant disputes.
Development director Marvin Kwiatkowski said the city has been involved in disputes for years, noting situations are not black and white. The city would prioritize renter safety, with one complaint enough to act, he said.
“I think this discretion here is warranted,” Kwiatkowski said.
The policy apparently mirrors that of other communities, with staff noting the city’s was outdated.
Singh said he initially also had concerns, but found solace in the fact residents could come to council to dispute a decision.
In the end, council voted 7-2 in favour of adopting the new policy, with councillors Walsh and Bill Sarai opposed.
In the Residential Suite Compliance Policy, enforcement is complaint-driven unless, during an inspection, a city official identifies a residential suite constructed without a building permit.
The policy notes complaints will be investigated on a case-by-case basis. Noise, nuisance and unsightly property can be addressed through the Good Neighbour Bylaw. Regarding on-street parking complaints, the policy notes the city will only respond to violations set out in the traffic bylaw. On-street parking is not owned by residents.