Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Provincial funding and simpler bylaws in sight for secondary suites

Victorians wrestle with pricey construction, complex building rules and fewer tenant protections for these units

By Evert Lindquist
August 9, 2023
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Provincial funding and simpler bylaws in sight for secondary suites

Victorians wrestle with pricey construction, complex building rules and fewer tenant protections for these units

Carla Stucchi outside the entrance to her basement secondary suite. Photo: Evert Lindquist / Capital Daily
Carla Stucchi outside the entrance to her basement secondary suite. Photo: Evert Lindquist / Capital Daily
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Provincial funding and simpler bylaws in sight for secondary suites

Victorians wrestle with pricey construction, complex building rules and fewer tenant protections for these units

By Evert Lindquist
August 9, 2023
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Provincial funding and simpler bylaws in sight for secondary suites
Carla Stucchi outside the entrance to her basement secondary suite. Photo: Evert Lindquist / Capital Daily

For Oaklands resident Carla Stucchi, turning her basement into both a short-term rental suite for Royal Jubilee travel nurses and housing for family and friends was a no-brainer.

“We didn’t need that extra square footage in the house,” she said. “This allows us to pay off the costly renovation and mortgage. These travel nurses are respectful, here doing good work. For us, I think it’s a win-win.”

But the time it took Stucchi just to obtain a building permit doubled the 10 months she’d already spent renovating the basement, and the $23,000 permit fee came as “a bit of a shock.”

She also needed a variance costing as much as $1,000 after municipal staff later realized that her driveway deviated from required dimensions by just four inches. She pushed the City of Victoria to get her the variance in six weeks, but said it could otherwise have taken six months.

People such as Virginia Holden, executive director of the Greater Victoria Housing Society, say secondary suites (contained within the main home) and their cousins garden suites (detached from the main home) help increase housing and housing choice. When she rented a Vancouver secondary suite during her graduate studies 20-something years ago, Holden enjoyed how integrated she felt in the community.

“It really suited my purposes at the time,” she said. “I had my own separate door into the suite. It just allowed me to have access to all those community amenities as if I was a homeowner in that neighbourhood. I really benefitted from that.”

But on top of the five- or six-figure price tag, others argue that the rules around building these units can overwhelm homeowners with approval and architectural requirements. And the tenants often enjoy fewer protections than other renters, leaving them at their landlord’s mercy.

Now, the provincial government is working to incentivize more British Columbians to construct and lease these units, as well as make them more appealing options for renters.

The Homes for People plan BC unveiled in April offers forgivable loans to homeowners who build and lease secondary suites. It aims to make it easier and more affordable to rent these units and accelerate the review of eviction applications to boost confidence of novice landlords that they’ll be able to resolve issues with troublesome tenants.

Less protections for renters

Cleo Philp, campaign director for the University of Victoria Students’ Society and a former secondary suite renter, said sharing a lot with the homeowner poses common tenant-landlord issues, and secondary and garden suites catering to “smaller landlords” means “limited oversight and more opportunities for rental rights violations.”

Malcolm*, a Victoria Tenants Union member and City of Victoria resident who’s lived in a secondary suite for several months, hopes his stay turns into a long-term tenancy but also realizes his limited security as a renter. He requested to omit his last name so as not to affect his relationship with his current landlord, or jeopardize his chances at future rental agreements. Tenant assistance policies in Victoria, Saanich and elsewhere, he explained, while meant to augment BC’s Residential Tenancy Act locally, often ignore secondary suites or only set recommendations—not requirements—for leasing them. In Victoria, this means no relocation assistance or right of first refusal for displaced tenants.

“Unfortunately, the reality is that landlords are out to make money 99.9% of the time,” Malcolm said, noting policy that’s recommended as best practice for them serves little value for renters.

He added that some more desperate tenants in secondary suites might not sign a provincial Residential Tenancy Agreement, leaving them even more vulnerable as unofficial renters.

“These non-official tenancy agreements are on the end of an ever-heightened and ever-imbalanced power [dynamic] with their landlord,” he said.

Though fewer protections for secondary suite tenants means some live with heightened precarity, Malcolm said these units have inconspicuous prominence throughout Greater Victoria as single-family homes continue to largely dominate the region.

Universally legalizing secondary suites

This fall, legislation advocated by Premier David Eby will arrive to legalize secondary suites in every BC municipality, which comes after the province primarily called on Oak Bay, Saanich, Victoria and seven other municipalities to set higher housing targets.

Holden said this reduces uncertainty as local governments must now incorporate these demands alongside the existing BC Building Code.

She added there’s value to increasing homeowners’ use of land already serviced by schools, community centres and other amenities. These suites may appeal to families wanting to house a caregiver on site or needing to move but hoping to stay in the same community, Holden said.

Secondary suites are also one of the fastest ways to add housing stock, Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said by email statement.

“We also know that some people want to do their part and help with the housing crisis but need some financial support to turn a portion of their home into a secondary or basement suite for the rental market,” he said.

Come April 2024, a three-year BC Housing pilot program will also offer financial incentive to at least 3,000 homeowners wanting to turn part of their house into a rental secondary suite. Over five years, they’ll get a forgivable loan that covers up to 50% or $40,000 of renovation costs. Conditions include renting out the suite below market rate for five years, with the goal of adding rental units at a lesser cost than through larger-scale multi-unit developments.

Malcolm likes that the program will encourage more secondary suites. But he said it’s disheartening to see municipalities and the province place so much emphasis on building secondary suites as a solution to helping renters in the long run.

“The amount of money that you’d have to spend as a province to subsidize enough homeowners to build enough secondary suites that are [below market rate] at a significant enough scale to really affect the rental market in a positive way,” Malcolm said, “is just a really inefficient way of addressing a problem instead of purchasing old purpose-built rental stock and turning it into public housing, for example.”

Saanich resident Kyle Sarrasin added it’s frustrating seeing incentives handed to homeowners who are already asset holders, while renters are “being left as ever-more-second-class citizens.” He described the district’s new tenant assistance policy not benefitting secondary suite renters such as him, and he’d like to see “more clearly delineated responsibilities” for landlords and a better response system for tenant claims.

Sarrasin, also a Victoria Tenants Union member, works at the University of Victoria and has lived in his suite with his wife since 2019, enjoying a positive relationship with a responsive landlord.

“But that’s down, really, to a matter of luck,” he said. “It’s just a roll of the dice, that relationship and how important it actually is, particularly for people in these secondary or garden suites.”

He suggested that renters not make onerous changes to how they live, but emphasized that landlords can regulate their tenants’ behaviour.

“You have complete control over the space that you own—not the one that you occupy,” Sarrasin noted.

In the next months, Kahlon said BC will consult with municipalities about Homes for People and provide more info on pilot program eligibility.

For now, suite programs in Greater Victoria municipalities are moving at different speeds, with different rules and guidelines, and some are already considering bylaw changes. But gauging the prominence and popularity of secondary and garden suites proves challenging when municipalities don’t know how many units they truly have, and when numerous homeowners who possess them are doing so secretly.

An estimated one in three Saanich homes had an “illegal” secondary suite by December 2020, according to Oak Bay’s Secondary Suites Study.

In 2021, Esquimalt was the latest municipality to permit garden suites. And Oak Bay, which doesn’t allow garden suites, became the latest municipality to approve secondary suites after several years of consideration. When council voted unanimously in September 2022 to recognize them as independent units, Oak Bay already had 700 unregulated secondary suites.

Navigating complex guidelines

Factors that may stop homeowners from building a backyard or basement unit include the time it takes to acquire necessary permits, limits to how they may use the suite, complex zoning and design guidelines, and the cost of all that happens along the way.

Stucchi said the complexity and rigidity of secondary and garden suite bylaws contradict municipalities intentions to alleviate the housing crisis.

“You go and try to improve your property, and then they just make it difficult every step of the way. It’s just waiting and waiting, and they’re holding these variances to these antiquated rules that were probably set before vehicles were even around,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this chart stated that a building permit was not required for a secondary suite in Saanich. It has now been corrected to show that a building permit is required.

The costs, requirements and timeline of establishing a secondary or garden suite vary by municipality. In Saanich, getting a development permit takes three to four months, and getting a building permit takes six weeks. Victoria charges $1,000 for development permits, and building permits cost $100 plus 1.4% of declared building costs.

Municipalities also require an extra permit to remove protected trees that are dead, dying, hazardous or impeding construction of garden suites. In Victoria, tree protection security for one site can reach $50,000.

Building rules can get complex, particularly for garden suites.

Esquimalt residents who build garden suites must pass BC Housing’s owner builder exam. Design guidelines discourage overlook of adjoining yards, window alignment with neighbouring properties, bright outdoor lighting, obstructed street view of the main entrance and disturbance of vegetation, rock and soil.

Oak Bay has no minimum lot size or maximum unit size requirement for secondary suites, but new units must follow the BC Building Code and current or unfinished builds must follow the code’s alternate compliance methods.

It also varies in Greater Victoria with who can live in which kind of suite for how long.

Saanich and Oak Bay don’t permit boarding—the act of giving non-family members room and board in exchange for payment—in secondary suites, and Saanich residents must choose between having family member accommodation or a secondary suite.

But Saanich garden suites can be used for either long-term rentals or family. In Esquimalt, garden suites can’t serve short-term vacation rentals but may house family, caregivers or the homeowner themselves.

Suites won’t solve shortage, advocates say

Homes for Living, a Greater Victoria volunteer group advocating more housing, supports new units that don’t need rezoning. But its members argue secondary and garden suite requirements are too complex, restrictive and expensive.

Leo Spalteholz is a member and Saanich-based housing analyst who served the district’s housing strategy task force (and has written for Capital Daily). He argues that the number of look-and-feel requirements for garden suites means each municipality will only see a couple dozen new units per year, when they instead need more standardized design requirements.

“People have to keep in mind the scale of the housing shortage, which is measured in tens of thousands of units,” he said. “This is not going to address that kind of shortage. Most of those units are going to come from higher-density apartments.”

Greater Victoria’s long-term, 20-year-average vacancy rate, Spalteholz said, sits among the lowest in the country at around 1.5% (1.2% for the City of Victoria), while a healthy rate in the rental market is about 3.0%. He thus said secondary and garden suites allowing people to age in place and fit more bodies into a single lot still makes a difference.

But fellow Homes for Living member Robert Berry, a Fairfield resident and tax accountant for QuadReal Property Group, said there’s not enough freedom and financial incentive to build these units in the first place.

In Saanich, for example, district inspection services manager Roy Thomassen said secondary suites cost between $40,000 and $85,000 to build, while garden suites cost between $120,000 and $150,000, largely due to added foundational, plumbing and electric work.

Berry also said garden suites provide insecure housing as homeowners can use the provincial “family move-in loophole” and issue a two-month eviction notice in order to house relatives. He added that secondary suites, though cheaper projects, can’t compensate for housing shortages.

“The basement suite construction market is basically tapped out,” Berry said. “Everybody that wants or has space for a basement suite has one. I’m in a basement right now. The houses all around me already have basement suites. Is Victoria going to address its housing shortage by putting in basement suites? No way.”

As well, Stucchi, who renovated her basement for travel nurses and family stays, opposed the notion that suite owners should feel obliged to lease their units.

“Sometimes when we have a vacancy, I’m like, ‘Maybe we should put it up on Facebook Marketplace,’ but I don’t because I’m terrified of being absolutely crucified by people who think we are the enemy because we’re doing a short term. As a homeowner who’s taken out a pretty significant loan to do this renovation, I guess I just really feel like that’s unfair.”

Stucchi's basement secondary suite while it was under construction. Photo: Submitted

Alleviating ‘extremely high’ construction costs

In 2021, Saanich-based LIDA Construction Inc. estimated that a custom-built home in Victoria costs $400-500 per square foot. Cressman Homes Ltd., which builds housing in Abbotsford, Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, reported last December that it costs $275-350 per square foot to build a house in Victoria.

“Construction costs right now are extremely high,” Holden said. “Just getting contractors is tough, whether you’re doing a residential development or renovation or building one of these [suites], so that all gets calculated in how much rent you need to charge.”

She said removing some approvals required for suites could lessen building costs, and subsequently rent prices.

James Davison of Esquimalt’s development services department agreed, saying garden suite construction in the township requires various processes from a “considerable” list of approvals. This includes rezoning, variance permit, covenant and housing agreement bylaw registered against the property, presentations to the advisory planning commission, and landscape inspections.

Esquimalt’s guide says the covenant costs $250, the development permit application is $500, a single new sewer or drainage connection requires $5,000, and landscape and security deposits ask for 120% of estimated total costs. In Victoria, water service upgrades for garden suites cost at least $6,500 and adding a storm drain connection for the unit can cost $8,800.

“The cost of construction currently makes building a retrofit [garden suite] to assist with a mortgage or otherwise turn a profit a difficult proposition in many cases,” Davison said by email, noting that applications and inquiries in Esquimalt are usually about housing family, not tenants.

In contrast, Oak Bay’s 2020 Housing Needs Report says newer households are often too wealthy to need rental income and instead repurpose their secondary suites for family use. It also mentions homeowners fearing penalization over the legality of their suites and removing them from the market.

“Secondary and garden suites are an example of additional housing supply that has not moved forward in Oak Bay,” the report reads. “Despite issues with secondary suites, like taxation and illegal suites, they are one solution towards better meeting the housing needs of the community.”

Possible bylaw changes

In Saanich, Myles Dolphin of corporate services explained that some properties qualifying for garden suites don’t meet the sewer service requirement of access to municipal storm drains. District engineers are exploring on-site system options for properties unable to access municipal drains and will deliver a report to council in a couple months.

“Staff are committed to ongoing evaluation of this successful program and anticipate future amendments to respond to housing needs in our community,” Dolphin said via email.

An amendment from July 2022 now allows certain garden suites to be built in front and side yards without requiring council variance, and staff will soon present a two-year update on Saanich’s garden suite program and recommended changes. The district’s August 2021 housing strategy also proposed looking into allowing secondary and garden suites in the same single-family zone, as well as expanding eligible zone types and not requiring homeowners to live on site.

Victoria, however, doesn’t plan to change its suite bylaws, according to city spokesperson Colleen Mycroft. Last summer, Victoria raised the base garden suite application fee from $1,000 to $2,000, still requiring an extra $250 per variance in applicants’ proposals. As well, recent changes to the BC Building Code now require new garden suites to have 20 per cent-better energy efficiency.

“In some cases, it may be challenging to site a garden suite in an urbanized environment and ensure that all design criteria are met and appropriate for the area,” Mycroft said by email. “There have been no significant challenges for secondary suites.”

In Esquimalt, Davison said the garden suite application process could be streamlined by removing zoning design guidelines for the development permit; by making a permit process delegated to township staff instead of council; or by not requiring the advisory planning commission to review applications.

He added Esquimalt could permit secondary and garden suites in more and smaller lots, noting that its recent approval of site-specific duplexes with secondary units provides an affordable unit while making the duplex more affordable too. Suites can also bring “modest” densification to established residential areas, Davison said.

“They can be a supplier of ‘hidden density’ and increased housing options in a neighbourhood retaining a detached residential form.”

Oak Bay is developing an infill housing implementation framework, which encompasses secondary suites, and has plans to develop its own secondary suite incentive program in 2024.

“It is anticipated that Oak Bay will see more home owners choosing to build a secondary suite to either downsize or as a way to help with their mortgage and help alleviate the housing crisis,” the district’s Hayley Goodgrove said via email.

Suites still an ‘up-hill battle’

According to Community Association of Oak Bay vice-president Bruce Kilpatrick, the district’s legalization of secondary suites doesn’t mean it’s time to sit back when greater housing diversity is still needed.

“It’s great that we’ve got something in place now, but we’ve got to be looking at how effective it is,” he said. “Is it actually achieving the goals that we set out?”

Though Kilpatrick noted secondary suites enjoy “extremely high degrees of support,” he questioned how cumbersome the registration and construction processes are.

Now that the provincial government has brought its Housing Supply Act into force, Greater Victoria municipalities such as Oak Bay, Saanich and Victoria will have to set housing supply targets every six to eight months with the province’s added authority and vigilance on their shoulders.

“As we take action to speed up provincial processes, the targets will encourage municipalities to address local barriers to construction so that housing can get built faster,” Tasha Schollen of the Housing Ministry said by email, adding this includes updating zoning bylaws and streamlining development approval processes.

These municipalities must have three or four meetings with the provincial government to review their respective housing needs and targets and discuss how the province can help. They will receive a draft housing target order midway through consultations and have 30 days to respond before it comes into effect. Schollen noted that current consultations with Oak Bay, Saanich and Victoria will continue through August before the province issues their housing target orders.

Kilpatrick said provincial assistance will help steer local governments and could engage their communities to better understand housing gaps and needs.

“They’re talking about establishing housing targets, monitoring progress, working with the municipalities to address any barriers to meeting those targets, so it looks like it should be a collaborative process,” he said. “My friends’ parents, when I was in elementary school, would be bakers and letter carriers and butchers, and I don’t think that folks like that are able to afford here anymore.”

Stucchi said municipalities must reconsider their costs and bylaws for secondary and garden suites to get more homeowners on board with renovating and leasing their properties so they can help accommodate a growing demand for affordable housing.

“I would say to people, ‘Be prepared for an up-hill battle.’”

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