Burnaby NewsLeader

Burnaby city hall may legalize secondary suites

Amanda McCracken and her two-year-old daughter Holly have less than a month to find a new home after the city of Burnaby shut down her landlord
Amanda McCracken and her two-year-old daughter Holly have less than a month to find a new home after the city of Burnaby shut down her landlord's illegal suites following a complaint by neighbours.
— image credit: MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER

Burnaby is one of the few Lower Mainland municipalities that doesn't allow secondary suites but that could soon change now that city hall is exploring the issue.

Coun. Dan Johnston, vice-chair of Burnaby's community development committee, said the city's planning department is currently reviewing the issue.

"We recognize that we're one of the few that doesn't. But saying that, we want to do it—if we do it—in a way that is OK for the community."

Johnston said while allowing secondary suites could mean more fees for city hall, many longtime residents don't want suites so staff are looking into how it could be done while being sensitive to residents' concerns.

The city is studying the issue as part of efforts to encourage affordable housing options in the city, and he expects a public consultation process will be held in late spring or early summer on the issue.

"It's a pretty divisive issue," Johnston said. There are people that want to have revenue-based suites in their homes, while others feel their single-family neighbourhoods should be maintained as such.

Across the region cities have taken very different approaches to the issue, he said. Some simply ignore the liability issue, dealing with it as it happens, others impose high annual licencing or utility fees, while still others simply turn a blind eye.

"It's soup to nuts ... Every city seems to have different requirements and different expectations.

"Suites should be there to provide affordable housing," Johnston stressed. "If the process gets too expensive it kind of defeats the purpose."

In the past, the city's legal department has also advised there are liability issues with legalizing suites that have not been built up to B.C. Building Code standards, he said. And if city hall were to demand all existing suites had to be up to code, many wouldn't pass inspection.

Johnston said it's still to be determined how to deal with that, but suggested there could be a grace period to allow code upgrades to take place.

And, he said, those who continue to rent illegal suites under the table would still be subject to the "informal reporting process" that occurs now—all it takes is for a neighbour to complain about an illegal suite to get it inspected and shut down.

That's just what happened to Cariboo Hill resident Amanda McCracken.

The 33-year-old single mother is facing eviction after a neighbour complained about illegal suites in the house where McCracken has been living the last three months.

Living on social assistance and dealing with chronic health issues, she was relieved after a one-month search to finally find the clean, affordable one-bedroom suite in a good neighbourhood.

But after a visit last week from a city bylaw enforcement officer, she's been told she'll soon have to find another place to live.

Until that visit, McCracken wasn't aware that secondary suites were illegal in Burnaby.

"To just leave it the way it is, what's happening is when there's a disgruntled neighbour who feels like causing somebody's life havoc they can just phone it in and have them shut down. And then people are displaced for no good reason."

Instead of being given an option to bring the suites up to code, her landlord is "not given that option, she's just told she has to shut it all down," McCracken said.

Dan Mulligan, Burnaby's assistant chief building inspector, said the city deals with about 100 complaints a year related to illegal suites. All complaints must be in writing and can't be anonymous.

Burnaby only allows in-law suites which must be inhabited by family members and  be easily accessible from the main part of the house, especially the kitchen, in case  of a fire on the stove, for instance.

While city hall doesn't order evictions, he said, they will require that unauthorized construction in suites, such as kitchens, be removed, so the result is that tenants must leave.

If legalized, Mulligan said it can cost tens of thousands of dollars to bring secondary suites into compliance with the building code, noting the requirements include firewalls, separate electrical panels and heating systems.

As for McCracken's case, she shouldn't have to be the one punished for the landlord's actions, said Sue Collard of ACORN Canada, a member-driven organization for low- and moderate-income families.

Burnaby needs to legalize secondary suites which provide more affordable housing than condominiums, said Collard.

In the meantime, Collard said, for tenants such as McCracken, "the options are [the city and landlord] could find her somewhere else, or they can turn a blind eye, but it's not an acceptable option to simply evict her."

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

twitter.com/WandaChow

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