COLUMN: Dealing with secondary suites

If most are registered, and homeowners are paying the city for extra services they consume, there will be few problems.

Surrey appears to be finally getting a handle on an issue that has been a sore point for most of the past 40 years – secondary suites in what are optimistically called “single-family” homes.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the suites were not as common as they are today, but there were still a fair number of them. In the 1980s, when there was a significant economic downturn in the B.C. economy and interest rates were at record levels, they started to become essential in ensuring that many people could pay their mortgages. They were frequently called “mortgage helpers,” a description that is still used on occasion.

As the late 1980s and 1990s rolled on, many larger homes began to appear – often with several suites. These were designed for multi-generational families who lived together under one roof, but often included suites for rental to others.

Homes have continued to get larger, and few homes are built today which cannot easily have one or more suites added. Given the price of real estate, it is unaffordable for many younger people to live in anything but a suite, at least as they are starting out on their own. In addition, wage growth outside government work and the trades and professions is stagnant, giving little opportunity to people to save for even the most basic home of their own.

The City of Surrey said Tuesday in a press release that 25,551 secondary suites have been registered, as of the end of September. In addition, 1,063 coach houses, most of which are located in East Clayton, have been registered.

This is a huge increase from even a few years ago. The city notes that it continues to do active bylaw enforcement in attempts to find unregistered suites, with 170 infraction notices issued recently.

We need to know just how many suites there are in the city. It is important to know the accurate population of any given neighbourhood in order for proper planning for city services – which range from schools and police, to water and sewer lines.

It is safe to say that suites are much more accepted as part of day-to-day life in most neighbourhoods than they were 20 or 25 years ago. Most people know that housing is expensive and many younger homeowners count on the rent from suites to assist in paying their mortgages.

There are still some problems which remain thorny. Many first-time homeowners do not know much about screening tenants and collecting rent and get stuck with bad tenants.

Perhaps the biggest single problem from suites is the lack of parking. The city has never acknowledged in its development and zoning bylaws the effect that suites have on neighbourhood parking. Thus in many dense neighbourhoods, such as East Clayton, parking is at a premium.

Surrey addressed the issue of large trucks years ago, requiring that they be parked in separate lots in industrial areas. It is much harder to solve this problem for cars and trucks which people use for daily travel.

Some years ago, former councillor Marvin Hunt stated that the city really didn’t get many complaints about suites, but received plenty about parking. This issue remains a challenge, with no easy solution in sight.

Better transit will encourage some people to sell or never own cars – a trend that is pronounced among the younger generations. However, it is hard to get around in Surrey without a car.

Suites are here to stay in Surrey. If most are registered, and homeowners are paying the city for extra services they consume, there will be few problems. Parking does need to be addressed, but what might work best is a town hall-type meeting where people can propose solutions.

Frank Bucholtz is the editor of The Langley Times. He writes weekly for The Leader.

Surrey North Delta Leader

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