Courtenay residents with illegal suites 'thumbing their noses'

Nearly 40 per cent (2,760-plus) of Courtenay's properties are zoned to permit secondary suites, largely on the west side of town.

However, records indicate the City contains just 204 legal secondary suites.

Because additional units demand additional services, properties with legal suites are charged a second utility fee (nearly $700) for water, sewer and garbage collection.

Those with illegal suites are not charged a second fee.

The discrepancy does not sit well with Mayor Larry Jangula, who notes honest homeowners pay 40 per cent more than the rule-breakers.

"Basically they're thumbing their nose," he said Monday at committee of the whole. "It just doesn't seem fair to the people who have tried to do this properly."

Discussion considered location and enforcement of secondary suites, defined as additional units subordinate to the main dwelling in a house. Such suites help meet a demand for affordable housing, says a staff report.

Jangula suggests infilling downtown would better accommodate the "working poor." He prefers leaving established neighbourhoods alone.

Coun. Doug Hillian agrees there is a need to create incentive to encourage people to live downtown, but said it does not address the issue for those living in homes not zoned for additional suites but who might need to house an ailing relative, for example. Hillian suggests a policy is needed that can apply across the city.

Permitting secondary suites in all single residential zones has been adopted in Comox, Nanaimo and Qualicum. Another approach is to limit secondary suites to specific areas, or through site-specific rezoning on a case-by-case basis. Courtenay uses a combination of both. Secondary suites are allowed in several residential zones, most notably R2, which covers a large portion of West Courtenay.

Coun. Bill Anglin, a realtor by trade, said blanket zoning can, at times, create bigger problems than site-specific zoning.

"There's no guarantee that what you see on a street is a rental, a suite, legal or otherwise," he said. "You cannot tell generally speaking from the exterior what is going on in any particular house."

Coun. Ronna-Rae Leonard — mindful of a low median income and lack of housing inventory in the community — feels affordable secondary suites are "one of the more humane ways of providing for all of our citizens.

"I would like us to work towards trying to legalize it so we can regulate it better," she said.

The City has reduced rezoning fees and prioritized applications in an effort to encourage the legalization of secondary suites.

Jangula suggests traffic tickets could be a way to penalize illegal suite owners.

"It seems like we're making it way too easy for those who defy us," he said.

The City acknowledges noise, parking congestion and other issues can affect neighbouring properties where illegal suites are added. Also of concern is decreased property values. Enforcement is largely complaint-driven.

"We have taken a lot of flack at this table from neighbours, and rightfully so, I think, in many cases where we basically have insisted that every area should have a suite in it regardless," said Jangula, who likes the idea of owner-occupancy as opposed to a holding company collecting rent. "We have to do something more, I think, to protect existing neighbourhoods."

In January, council rejected a rezoning application at Dogwood Drive. The owners renovated the house so their sons could live upstairs and downstairs, but next door neighbours spoke against the application at a public hearing, citing police responses to noise complaints.

Council had defeated another application last fall at Thorpe Avenue near Valley View Drive. Neighbours worried the proposed basement suite would negatively impact the area by way of noise and higher densification.

Staff will prepare a policy — based on best practice and Monday's discussion — to clarify where secondary suites are permitted and to suggest an approach to enforcement of illegal suites.


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