Why We Should Consider Legalizing Secondary Suites in Kamloops

Recently, Councillor Kathy Sinclair has proposed a motion for Council to vote on this week that would request that City staff look at options to legalize secondary suites in all single family residential zones and that would be subject to approval by City staff rather than Council.  The aim of this would appear to be threefold:

  • Help encourage the development of secondary suites to address our rental housing shortage in Kamloops by eliminating the Council process which can be costly and time consuming for the proponent
  • Get more secondary suites into a legalized development process that would provide better oversight from City staff in terms of compliance with the building code and various municipal regulations and policies
  • Save Council time – while this is the least of the issues on this list, the fact that most of the secondary suite applications that make it to Council get the approval of Council leads to the question of what is the point of having Council vote on them.  Frankly, I want the Council of a large city like Kamloops spending time discussing and debating matters of greater substance to the community.

While the motion at this point is simply to request that staff to do some research on the matter and bring back some possible bylaw amendments, I thought I would put out there that I support the legalization of secondary suites for a number of reasons:

More oversight of secondary suites – the fact is, the current process is such that it discourages many people from going through any of the steps of constructing a legal secondary suite.  It is expensive and time consuming.  People are circumventing the whole process and just going ahead and building their suites without any inspection for compliance with bylaws and building code and no notification of the City.  This creates a whole host of potential safety issues.  A process worked through with staff has a greater chance of encouraging the dialogue necessary to solve design issues and ensure that the secondary suite contributes positively to the neighbourhood in which it is located.

We need the rental supply – the rental supply issues in Kamloops have been well documented.  Our vacancy rate is under 2%.  As someone who works for a company that brings a lot of people from out of town to work, it is difficult for people to find suitable rental accommodation and most of them end up in a secondary suite of some sort.  It’s only been in the last couple of years that developers are building rental housing in significant density and even then, it’s probably limited to a few hundred units.  Most new multi-family dwellings in Kamloops have been constructed as condominiums and while these sometimes get rented out, it is somewhat sporadic and at the whim of strata councils.  The growth in secondary suites, legal and illegal, has helped to bridge the gap in the lack of dedicated market rental housing.  Secondary suites help diversify the range of housing available.  This has been pretty important given the growth of TRU and the growth of Kamloops in general.

Our single family neighbourhoods can handle this – most single family neighbourhoods can handle this.  The average household size in Kamloops has fallen significantly in the last few decades.  We have fewer people living in larger homes.  Our neighbourhoods were designed to handle much more people than they are at present.  Even the streets have been designed to handle the increase in vehicles.

We have the Good Neighbour Bylaw – the recently adopted Good Neighbour Bylaw will put the onus on landlords to select good tenants.  By fining homeowners directly for nuisance complaints on their property, the Good Neighbour Bylaw will make landlords more accountable to their neighbours.  This would seemingly address more quickly the issues that can arise from bad renters.

Some other thoughts:

Parking – people are citing parking issues as a reason not to make this change.  There is concern that a house with a secondary suite will require on-street parking and this might spill over to on-street parking in front of the neighbours house.  First of all, people have to remember they don’t own the right-of-way in front of their house.  If parking is allowed, anyone can park there for up to 48 hours (they can actually drive their car around the block and then park there again for another 48 hours).  Second, most streets have been designed to allow on-street parking.  On-street parking can lead to congestion but that is not a bad thing, particularly on local streets where people shouldn’t be driving that fast to begin with.

Just because they’ll be more legal, doesn’t mean that we are going to be inundated with secondary suites – I have no idea how many secondary suites there are in Kamloops but I’d suggest that there are likely as many secondary suites as there are people who want to have them in their house (i.e. anybody that wants to have a secondary suite likely has one already).  Even once legalized, I doubt that there will be a mad rush of people building them.  First of all, most houses haven’t been well designed for them.  Second, it does represent a substantial investment that can take many years to recoup.  The suite in my basement cost about $30,000 to build and for the time that I had it rented, it did not pay itself back anymore than the increase in value of just having the basement finished.  Third, not everyone wants to be a landlord.  I have a secondary suite and I haven’t rented it out for 5 years because I found I liked my tenants one day a month and resented their incursion into my space the other days of the month.  Add to this the complexities of dealing with the Landlord Tenant Act and being a landlord is not always that lucrative.  Remember, we now allow people to have chickens in their backyards and from what I can tell, there hasn’t been a dramatic increase in the number of hens.  Pot will be legal in October and yet it doesn’t mean everyone is going to be out there getting high.  All I am saying is that even when they are more legal, I don’t suspect that there will be a sudden dramatic increase in the number of secondary suites in Kamloops.

Will it affect neighbourhood land values? Perhaps, but I look at the Sagebrush and Downtown neighbourhoods which I would guess probably have the greatest density of secondary suites and have some of the highest land values in Kamloops.  Somehow those neighbourhoods are not rotting away, people aren’t fleeing.  They remain attractive neighbourhoods despite the preponderance of secondary suites and mostly on-street parking.  Somehow they work.  Sure, you could have a bad secondary suite but you could also have a drug house next to you or someone that lets their house deteriorate or someone that chooses to paint zebra stripes on their house or park their rusty boat in the front yard.  We can’t control who buys the house next to us and there is little we can do to control what they do with their house.  If you want that level of control, go live in a strata.

It will better utilize some City services – if we were to increase the density in neighbourhoods such as Aberdeen and Juniper, we might actually see more people riding the bus in those neighbourhoods and there may be justification for even increasing transit.

Housing costs are escalating – while the idea of the mortgage helper took root in Vancouver years ago, the need for a mortgage helper is becoming more pressing in Kamloops now for young people wanting to enter the housing market.  Housing prices have increased much more significantly than incomes.  I earn more than most people and can afford my house but I also bought ten years ago in a more depressed neighbourhood and therefore my mortgage costs are fairly reasonable.  I couldn’t imagine the stress of trying to afford a more expensive mortgage with less disposable income but that is the reality many people must face (my monthly mortgage is less than most rental rates).  You can say that people should be happy just renting but the fact is that so much of our retirement system is still based on real estate and therefore if you want to dream of retirement, you have to be in the housing market.  A secondary suite makes this more of a possibility for young people.

Should we have empathy for people who bought in a single family neighbourhood and now face the prospect of their neighbours having a secondary suite?  Potentially but things change.  We can no longer sustain having predominantly single family neighbourhoods – they are taxing to our services and our land base and a waster of resources.  We need to diversify our housing options and enabling more secondary suites is a way of doing this.

 

 

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