Why does the City of Vancouver shut down brand new basement suites and evict renters?
Guest contribution by: Andrew
(For reasons of privacy, CHW has omitted the contributor’s last name.)
A Background on Vancouver Basement Suites
Most people know of at least one person who has lived in a Vancouver basement suite. At one time, basement suites were “illegal” and the City of Vancouver could technically shut them down. The City doesn’t shut down “illegal” suites except in two scenarios. More on that later. But first, some background:
Vancouver’s first basement suites emerged during the Second World War when the government had the incentive to let more people live in productive areas. The federal government issued an order which said that if a home owner wanted to rent out a room or a suite, the cities could not prohibit it.
In the mid-1950s, the City began reversing the trend of basement suites by introducing zoning bylaws which outlawed secondary suites. UBC students, many of whom lived in basement suites themselves, opposed the bylaws. In 1960, the UBC Alma Mater Society pleaded with the City to allow “up to four students per single family dwelling until the housing situation on campus eases” but the motion failed. The UBC students kept trying to amend the zoning laws for the next eight years but failed.
Legalization of Secondary Suites
The good news is that the City eventually did allow “illegal” basement suites to exist. The City wasn’t always consistent in its basement suite policy, at times oscillating between strict enforcement and implicit approval. But the trend over the years has been for increased legalization of basement suites, chipping away at the City’s power to shut down “illegal suites”. For example, in 2004, the City amended bylaws to allow secondary suites in RS, RT and RM zoning districts (S, T, and M purportedly for single-, two-, and multiple-family, respectively). In 2009, the City approved further zoning changes to enable full-size basements in all single-family areas.
In a 2015 Business in Vancouver article, at least 43 percent of Vancouver homeowners said that they rented out either their basement suite, laneway house or other rooms in the house. This comes as no surprise given Vancouver’s high cost of living. (The article speculated that this number might be even higher since some homeowners didn’t want to provide full disclosure in case they were breaching their home insurance policies.)
More recently, in March 2017, Councillor Adriane Carr introduced a motion with the aim of having all existing houses with one or two unauthorized suites in the RT and RM zones be “considered grandfathered existing legal non-conforming suites” under Vancouver’s secondary suite bylaws. After some rigorous debate by the Vision Vancouver dominated Council, this motion was never passed but instead referred to City staff for further study as part of the Vancouver Housing Re:set. It’s been buried for three years so far and no one knows the status of Councillor Carr’s secondary suite motion, nor of the Housing Re:set study.