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Saanich explores legal secondary suites

If rules were made to be broken, Saanich residents must be the leading the charge.

With an estimated 9,000 illegal secondary suites in the municipality – or roughly one in every five dwellings – Saanich is now looking at measures to change the rules, in the name of affordable housing.

“Having a tenant is a part-time job,” said Cheryl Sacamano, who has an illegal suite in her Gordon Head home that she rents to University of Victoria students. “If the municipality is on board with measures to support homeowners and renters, it’s a good thing.”

She’s had a suite in her house for the past decade, and says she’s never had any problems with tenants or complaints from neighbours.

“There was a learning curve about how to interview and how to screen people. That’s really important and really useful,” Sacamano said.

Sacamano is one of many Saanich residents supporting the municipality’s recent move to study legalizing secondary suites in most neighbourhoods north of McKenzie Avenue.

Following a lengthy consultation process, Saanich council legalized secondary suites south of McKenzie in June 2010. In the nearly four years since, only 98 homeowners have received a permit for a legal suite.

Cameron Scott, manager of community planning, says it’s not about the number of legal suites, it’s about providing comfort and security for homeowners, renters and neighbours.

“It provides a level of stability to the housing stock. For example, if you’re currently renting out your illegal suite and we receive a number of complaints, that suite could be shut down,” he said. “Suites are a mortgage helper, too, so you’re able to continue on with that.”

Saanich largely ignores the overwhelming presence of illegal suites. They only become an issue if the municipality receives complaints.

In the last 15 years, Saanich has received a total of 1,520 complaints related to illegal suites. Since 2010, Saanich has received 229.

From those complaints, Scott didn’t know how many suites bylaw officers have shut down.

The Gordon Head Residents’ Association executive created a discussion paper looking at legalizing suites north of McKenzie, acknowledging there are pros and cons.

“These suites provide much needed rental accommodation for university students and others who may not be able to afford more traditional accommodation,” the paper reads, while also acknowledging that “the increase in residential density caused by secondary suites puts additional  burdens on municipal services, roads and transportation.”

Rural Saanich and the Blenkinsop Valley are not being considered in Saanich’s north of McKenzie study, as both areas are located outside of the urban containment boundary. The Broadmead neighbourhood is also excluded because there are local covenants in place banning secondary suites outright.

The GHRA suggests Saanich skip the pilot project, and instead look at ways to mitigate the problems associated with secondary suites.

“A major component of the solution should be a public education program that redefines a vision for Gordon Head as a residential community and clearly sets out expectations for residents and property owners,” the paper reads.

Among their suggestions are: develop enforceable bylaws that address the main concerns: noise and parking; consider establishing a Student Housing Zone; and involve the university and students in the discussion.

For now, Saanich is moving ahead on its study, by consulting with residents. The main components of consultation are a series of open houses (April 16, 22 and 30, and May 1), an online survey, and a random telephone survey.

“In a perfect world, we’re kind of looking for an alignment in the areas north and south (of McKenzie). But at the same time, we’re open to suggestions for improving the regulations,” Scott said. As part of the process, Saanich is also exploring the possibility of legalizing secondary suites in accessory buildings, like a converted garage.

He said the planning department hopes to have the issue before council in the summer.

Gordon Head resident Jenny Davis says that while she doesn’t have a secondary suite, she’s passionate about the issue and sees this move as a no-brainer for her neighbourhood.

“Fortunately I don’t need a suite to afford to live in my home, but I must know at least 80 people in Saanich who have illegal suites, and couldn’t live without having that suite,” she said. “It’s unbelievably difficult to live in Victoria. If we don’t do something, we’re in a huge, huge problem. There’s going to be a time where there’s going to be house fires in Gordon Head because things aren’t regulated and you don’t have proper electrical, because people are flying under the radar just to try to make ends meet. They would be quite happy to follow code, except they’re not allowed to.”

For more information, visit saanich.ca/living/community/suitenorth.html.

editor@saanichnews.com

••••

Have your say on secondary suites

• Open houses happen April 16 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at Gordon Head Rec Centre; April 22 from 5:30 to 9 p.m. at Saanich Commonwealth Place; April 30 from 6 to 8:30 at Gordon Head Rec; and May 1 from 5 to 8 p.m. at municipal hall.

• The online survey is available until May 12 at suites.malatest.net.

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