Saanich has asked staff to look into ways to encourage more legal secondary suites. Black Press File.

Saanich has asked staff to look into ways to encourage more legal secondary suites. Black Press File.

Saanich looks to ease restrictions on secondary suites

Saanich staff are looking into ways that could bring illegal secondary suites into compliance to ease the housing crunch.

This direction emerged after council earlier this month debated a report from Mayor Richard Atwell, in which he asked staff to bring forward a report about Saanich’s existing occupancy bylaws.

“Given the tight housing market, there a number of individuals who find themselves in either accessory buildings or other places that haven’t been legalized,” he said. Some of these individuals, he added, will receive eviction notices following bylaw investigation, creating a tension between the need for housing and the need to maintain the social peace by enforcing bylaws.

Saanich currently permits secondary suites in most but not all urban areas of the municipality subject to a dozen conditions as described on Saanich’s website. But the actual number of legal suites (a few hundred) appear to be far below the potential suites (some 9,000), the public heard, raising questions about why individuals are not taking steps to bring their secondary suites into compliance.

Saanich also prohibits occupancy of what staff have called “illegally occupied accessory structures.”Two families were evicted in June because Saanich considered their shared duplex an accessory building part of a larger complex. One of the families — a couple with several pets — had lived on the site for 15 years. Saanich investigated the situation after receiving a complaint from the public.

Atwell cited this incident in calling for additional statistics into this phenomenon as part and parcel of an interim bylaw, which could help ease the current housing crunch, especially for individuals struggling to find suitable housing for themselves as well as their pets, and family members facing unique circumstances.

While this number might be small, Saanich needs additional tools, he said.

Atwell’s direction drew support from Coun. Karen Harper. While she acknowledged the irony of the possibility that Saanich might liberalize its bylaws as it enforces them against the homeless camp at Regina Park, the two items are not totally unrelated.

“People are rightly evicted under the bylaw,” she said. “It is interesting to know where they may or may not end up, and we could end up with other problems in that regard.”

Saanich needs to start thinking outside the box if it wants to address the “housing crisis,” she said.

Coun. Vicki Sanders questioned the direction. “The single biggest criticism Saanich has is that they don’t enforce their bylaws,” she said. “I’m afraid it rubs me the wrong way to even consider amending or changing or softening any way in which we approach those bylaw complaints without considering what that means.”

Council eventually signed off on wording that would see staff bring forward a report as a prelude to a “potential” interim bylaw.

Coun. Dean Murdock said ways to make legal secondary suites more attractive could get to the root of the housing problem — with the proviso that any pending changes would ensure residents’ safety.

“If there is a way we can help get legal accommodation approved for rental, I would be quite happy to do that, but I don’t want us to see Saanich simply turn away and leave people at risk.”

Council is set to consider the staff report Aug. 13.