Ask Pat: Legalizing secondary suites.

I am way behind on my Ask Pat responses, because there are some tough ones there that really challenge my know-it-all attitude. I am especially ignoring ones that refer to the 4th Street Elevator, because I have stopped believing it will ever be done. But here we go…

Someone asked—

Some Canadian municipalities will waive permit fees for homeowners looking to legalize an existing illegal secondary suite. Is this in the cards for New West? It would be a great incentive for homeowners and would also assist the city in creating more affordable living spaces!

Secondary suites are a challenge and an opportunity for every municipality. The sad reality of the Lower Mainland experience in the new century is that one income very rarely pays a mortgage on a single family detached home, and two incomes is often not enough. A working couple often needs the extra $1,000 a month that comes from a basement suite. This also means there are a lot of people for whom a mortgage is out of reach, and a $1000 basement suite is a good lifestyle choice. Secondary suites help with housing affordability at several levels.

That said, there are reasons for Municipalities to be careful and not take a laissez-faire attitude about secondary suites. Often, home-renovated suites are not built to building codes, and simple things like making sure a bedroom window allows escape in the case of fire can be lifesaving. People with extra suites also arguably need more water, sewer, parking, emergency services, libraries, pools, and all of the things you pay for through your property taxes, and in the interest of fairness should pay more property taxes.

So the City tries to strike a balance here, since its Secondary Suite policy was developed in 2008. We generally allow one secondary suite in all houses, as long as they meet design standards and building codes to keep the occupants safe. The City does not take extraordinary action to seek out or remove secondary suites that may be uninspected (i.e. illegal), but has the authority to ban the occupancy of one determined to be dangerous to the health and security of a resident. If you have an occupied secondary suite that you rent out, you are expected to pay a 50% premium on your non-metered utilities for the reasons listed above.

But back to the original question. I know there was some media recently relating to the City of Calgary waiving some fees in making secondary suites legal, but those were specifically the Development Permit fees and building permit and inspection fees were still applied. They allowed the homeowner to skip over the entire development permit process when making their secondary suite “legal”, likely to encourage the large number of illegal and unregistered secondary suites in Calgary’s rapidly-expanding suburbs to be registered. This does not relate well to New Westminster, because we do not require a Development Permit for this process (in other words, you already are waived this fee), and we do not have that rapid a rate of growth. A few others have created short-term incentive programs of waiving the fee for initial inspection or some part of the application process. I have not heard in New Westminster of any similar program being suggested. There was talk at Council in 2011 about how to deal with the large number of “illegal” suites in the City, but I have heard no discussion past this.

So without a call from the public, and a solid policy reason to support it, I don’t think we will see any increased incentive program any time soon.

4 comments on “Ask Pat: Legalizing secondary suites.

  1. Could you clarify, in New Westminster there is a 50% premium on the “utilities” portion of the property tax ie water, sewer, garbage. But not on the actual Property tax?

  2. Yes people if you have purchased a New West home with a basement that is somewhat suited but have no tenants in your “illegal suite” you could still be paying the 50% upcharge, review your property tax statement and get in touch with the city if your suite is unoccupied. The cats out of the bag the city knows what you have nothing to hide and your only paying extra tax for utilities for tenants you don’t have.

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