COLUMN: The pros and cons of legalizing secondary suites in Burnaby

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Many cities do a strange little dance when it comes to secondary suites.

It’s all secrecy. Hush-hush, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

Throughout Burnaby there are hundreds and hundreds of such suites, despite the fact they are illegal—unless they are used by family members and easily accessible from the main part of the house.

In fact, most people living in these suites have no idea they’re illegal, or exactly what that means.

For those who do know, they might feel they have little recourse if there are issues with their living conditions.

But that could soon change, as city council may make it possible for people to legalize existing suites and for builders to build the suites into their future houses.

So what does it all mean, really?

It’s being touted as a way to give more housing options in an increasingly unaffordable city, but it’s unclear whether it will have much impact.

The legal route may actually be too cost-prohibitive for people considering adding a suite to their home.

A downside to the current system though is, if you live in a suite and your neighbour suddenly decides they don’t like your new hairstyle all they have to do is call City Hall.

Inspectors will stop by and might say to the homeowner/landlord well, everything in here looks OK but you’re going to have to get rid of that second stove.

Take out the wiring and we’ll be back for inspection.

And then suddenly you, the renter, are out on the street.

Sure, the owner/landlord could just rip the wires out, get inspection, then put them back in (as some do). But that’s not really ideal, is it?

That’s the strange dance that goes on right now.

City inspectors know it well.

In fact, when a new home is built, wiring is often stashed in the walls so that once the final inspections are done, the crews can quietly return and suite it.

Will it meet code? One hopes.

If Burnaby moves to a legal suites situation, there will still be those who choose the illegal-suite option.

It will no doubt be cheaper, and even let them have three and four suites, which is not unusual in Burnaby. And for people who want to make their existing suites legal, they might face a big bill to bring it up to code.

Advocates for low income people, like Acorn Canada, say legalizing secondary suites is a positive move.

But those at Acorn and Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre (TRAC) would also like to see Burnaby adopt a Standards of Maintenance bylaw for all rental propertes, which would effectively give the city the power to inspect everything from three-storey walkups to secondary suites, to ensure they’re safe, clean and in good repair.

After all, saying a suite is “legal” doesn’t mean it isn’t deplorable.

And there is some awful accommodation out there.

It’s an awkward reality that with illegal suites, we turn a blind eye because low income people need a place to live.

And yet, upholding a standards bylaw could be pricey for the city. Hiring additional inspectors would be expensive, though the fines generated from slum landlords could offset some of that.

So as the city moves forward in coming months and fleshes out its plans, and decides whether it will begin legalizing suites, the effectiveness of the shift will depend upon how they execute the new regime.

• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader.

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