SURREY – – Imagine living in a home with no heat. Or a bed bug problem. Or perhaps unwanted pet rats.
Then imagine living there for months. That’s the case for many Surrey renters, according to ACORN Canada, a national organization with 70,000 members in 20 neighbourhood chapters across the country.
Tabitha Naismith, chair of the Surrey-Newton chapter, said she had a "slumlord" for five years in Surrey.
"It was hell," she said. "My apartment was situated right beside the boiler room. It was a one-bedroom apartment. I had no thermostat in my apartment, I couldn’t control the heat. My heat was still on in June.
"My stove lit on fire," she continued. "It took them about a month to replace my stove."
Seven years ago, she got into a subsidized BC Housing home, currently residing in a Surrey public housing complex for lowincome families called Greenbrook. "It’s tough to get into those," she said, noting there are only three BC Housing complexes in the city.
She said the difference is astounding. "Knowing that my rent is cheaper, that I’m able to pay my rent, being able to have food on the table, knowing that my repairs are going to be done, knowing that they’re going to take me seriously, and protect my rights as a tenant," has given her a quality of life she didn’t have before, she said.
ACORN is calling on Surrey to address the lack of affordable housing in the city and to take strides to strengthen tenants’ rights in those that currently exist, so more people can have the peace of mind that Naismith now has.
A modest crowd of 25 rallied at Surrey City Hall Tuesday afternoon calling for solutions.
Chanting "Who are we? Acorn. What do we want? Affordable housing," the group marched around city hall to its front steps.
ACORN penned a letter to Mayor Linda Hepner, asking for two things: mandatory "in building" inclusionary zoning and expanded powers in the city’s Standards of Maintenance bylaw.
Inclusionary zoning, explained Naismith, requires a certain percentage of new construction built to be affordable for those with low income. She noted New York has utilized such a concept.
"What we want to see the City of Surrey do is with all these new developments is include subsidized housing in the developments," said Naismith.
"They’re tearing down all the affordable housing around here," she said standing outside city hall.
Homes are demolished to make way for new developments that price out previous residents, she added.
"It’s totally pushing people out." As for the city’s Standards of Maintenance Bylaw, Naismith said ACORN wants it to encompass issues like mold and infestation, which aren’t written into the current legislation.
"If you have cockroaches or your kids are getting asthma because they’re breathing in mold, we have no legal protection here in Surrey," she said.
But a law is only useful if it’s enforced, she added, which is why she called on the city to increase the number of bylaw officers.
"We also want the bylaw officers to be more empowered. What we mean by that is ticketing infringing landlords on the spot.
"We want repeater penalties as well."
Furthermore, she would like to see a registry of landlords that have been fined so "people know not to rent from these people."
Asked why it’s important to ensure an adequate stock of affordable housing, she said, "Because the cost of living is going up these days. It’s so ridiculous. A lot of people are low income. If you’re on income assistance, you can’t afford to live in nonaffordable housing. You dip into your rent portion, then you go hungry and can’t buy food. It affects seniors as well."
Mayor Linda Hepner said all of council recognizes the city’s challenge with affordable housing.
"Anything we can do to advantage that, we would be looking at all avenues," she said. "We’ve certainly got in mind, utilizing the Surrey City Development Corporation as well, to do some of those projects."
Asked if inclusionary zoning is something she’d consider, Hepner said she would have to consult with the development industry to see if it makes economic sense.
Hepner said one route the city could go is offering "lifts."
"If, for instance, you could get in your zone a housing unit of four storeys, then we could give you a lift to six storeys," she said, on the caveat that developers "make many of the units that you get from the lift as affordable housing units. There are lots of avenues of exploration."
Another possible route could be increasing development cost charges (DCCs) to provide funding for elements of affordable housing, she added.
"If the fundamental question is, as a city, do you have an affordable housing strategy? Then that’s easy to say yes, we’re looking at many avenues," said Hepner, adding she doesn’t think inclusionary zoning is the only solution and said zeroing in on that option alone would be a "narrow focus."
As for adding infestation and mold components to the Standards of Maintenance bylaw, Hepner said "that doesn’t seem unreasonable."
"The only hesitation I would have is I don’t know where that responsibility lies," she continued. "Whether that responsibility lies with the province under tenancy or whether that responsibility lies with standards of maintenance at the city. So I would need clarification around who actually then ensures that that is happening. Because the one thing I don’t want to become is the province’s residential tenancy branch."
Asked if she would consider an increase in bylaw officers, Hepner said the city added new officers this year.
According to Surrey’s bylaw enforcement manager Jas Rehal, Surrey currently has 31 positions, three of which were added this year. Six of those positions are currently vacant and the city is in the process of filling them, said Rehal.
"I think it needs to be recognized that Surrey is probably the only city in the country that has put $9 million into a housing fund," Hepner said. "It continues to be a front-and-centre issue for us. Plus, don’t forget, most of the reason that 1,000 people move here every single month is because we have the affordability factor."
Of ACORN’s proposed solutions, she said, "If they’ve got some good ideas that we can implement, I’d be happy to do it."