Secondary suites on the rise
Camila Goes fits everything she needs into a modern 600-square-foot suite above a two-car garage at one of the newest homes in Langford’s Westhills residential developments.
The space is nearly ideal for the first-year university student, who moved from Brazil in September. Despite the 22-kilometre commute in congested traffic to the University of Victoria five days a week, she has her own parking spot in the driveway, plenty of light from large windows and a stacked washer and dryer.
She’s one of the lucky ones. In Greater Victoria, quality secondary suites can be hard to find.
The capital region’s 13 municipalities regulate such suites in different ways, but many have a hard time cracking down on owners of illegal units, who ignore building codes during construction.
“Some of them are deathtraps, quite frankly,” said Russ Godfrey, an adviser at the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre.
Godfrey regularly hears horror stories from tenants who endure substandard living conditions because they can’t afford escalating rental rates. People are forced to live in suites that have moldy walls and lack proper emergency exits.
“We get an awful lot of landlords who collect the rent, but don’t do any maintenance and people think they have to live with that,” Godfrey said.
“Communities and governments have to realize this is getting bad and it’s only going to get worse.” He urges municipalities to recognize and regulate secondary suites, which are becoming one of the more common forms of affordable housing. He said every level of government should give incentives to developers to build more rental properties.
The dangers of poorly constructed illegal suites frustrate fire chiefs throughout Greater Victoria. View Royal fire Chief Paul Hurst said his crews regularly show up to house fires and find illegal suites that fall far short of meeting building codes.
In January, they responded to a kitchen-fire call at a Helmcken Road home. The fire started in the upstairs suite, an illegally converted attic.
The only exit was the front door. The kitchen and the bedroom, where the young mother slept with her daughter, were in the back of the suite.
“One window was maybe two-by-two,” said Hurst. “It’s one of those ones you’re looking at and you say, there’s no way you’re getting out that window.”
Legal suites must meet basic safety standards, such as having properly sized windows and other emergency exits that can save lives. Regulations also force landlords to install inter-connected smoke detectors, so occupants of both the suite and the main house are warned of a fire.
“Obviously, it costs more money to build your suite to code, but these codes save lives,” Hurst said. “Do it right or don’t do it at all.”
With the right design and proper safety standards, secondary suites are an important component in an expensive housing market.
Apartment and condo rentals tend to cost more. Average prices for a one-bedroom unit can range from $700 to $1,300 a month, compared to in-home suites that can range from $600 to $900.
The number of secondary suites and rental condos in Greater Victoria is surpassing rental apartments and townhomes, according to the latest figures from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
Total rental stock in Greater Victoria reached 47,600 units in October. Of those units, 19,244 are categorized as secondary rental, which includes houses and suites. These secondary rental units, combined with rental condos (4,396), make up 50 per cent of the total rental stock, now on par with apartment and townhome rentals.
“With prices increasing in general and the lack of new apartments being built, it’s increased the need for secondary suites,” said Travis Archibald, senior market analyst at CMHC.
Legal suites provide safe, affordable housing for newcomers to the market like Goes, 21, who prefers her small space and amenities.
Suites like hers demonstrate how proper designs can avoid the pitfalls sometimes found in neighbourhoods where secondary suites are used to increase density.
“It’s the perfect amount of space,” Goes said. ”I’m not used to living by myself and I didn’t know how to cook and clean, so this is easy, this is manageable.”
One perennial problem with secondary suites is parking congestion.
The issue is less prominent in urban centres like Victoria, where residents can walk, bike or use transit to commute, but in smaller communities, parking can be a headache.
The problem is particularly acute in areas of the West Shore where most residents commute for work, relying heavily on their vehicles.
In places like Sooke, with rapidly growing populations and a lack of apartment buildings, secondary suites have become a common way to meet housing demand. But the municipality, like many others, has to deal with accompanying parking woes.
Duncan Gray bought a home on Dover Street two years ago. On Sunday, he was reorganizing his garage, making room for one of the household’s four vehicles. He has room for three in the driveway, but Gray, a hardwoodflooring contractor, also has his work truck. Plus, his tenant has a vehicle, which is parked on the street in front of the small patch of lawn.
Four of Gray’s neighbours have secondary suites, contributing even more to parking hassles on the block.
Vehicles were initially allowed on both sides of the street and on nearby Harwick Lane, but the municipality eventually restricted parking to improve emergency-service access.
“My neighbour and I were thinking we may pave the grass,” he said.
“We’d have a bunch of concrete in front of our house, but it might be worth it for the parking.”
Goes has her own space because the Westhills design for detached secondary suites creates room for five vehicles: two in the garage and three in the wide lane-access driveway.
The only downside for Goes is the long commute to classes. Fortunately, her parents agreed to pay for her fuel costs before she came to Canada.