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While Vancouver City Hall hunts desperately for ways to create new housing, city staff have been shutting down dozens of illegal rental suites every year because certain kinds of units still aren’t allowed, even though vacancies continue to hover at zero and housing prices remain stratospheric. (CHRIS HELGREN/REUTERS)
While Vancouver City Hall hunts desperately for ways to create new housing, city staff have been shutting down dozens of illegal rental suites every year because certain kinds of units still aren’t allowed, even though vacancies continue to hover at zero and housing prices remain stratospheric. (CHRIS HELGREN/REUTERS)

Vancouver’s housing shortage worsened by rental crackdown Add to ...

While Vancouver City Hall hunts desperately for ways to create new housing, city staff have been shutting down dozens of illegal rental suites every year because certain kinds of units still aren’t allowed, even though vacancies continue to hover at zero and housing prices remain stratospheric.

Mac Hartfiel and his family know that. He, along with his brother and sister-in-law, bought a house a couple of years ago near Victoria Drive and 27th Avenue that had been built in 2012 with two basement suites and a laneway house. Mr. Hartfiel, who has a company that creates concrete furniture and accessories, planned to live in one suite, with his brother’s family upstairs, while renting out the two other units – a typical Vancouver solution in today’s high-stress real estate market.

But shortly after they moved in, city staff put a notice on their door saying their second basement suite was illegal – likely reported by an irate neighbour, Mr. Hartfiel said.

“There was a tenant with a year lease. She had to be evicted,” Mr. Hartfiel said, noting that, ironically, the tenant was a city employee who was distraught about losing her housing.

But even she had no luck trying to get some lenience from city staff, though it was evident that other houses were being built nearby with the same format.

“They inspect and then they say, ‘Our hands are tied,’ even though I know a lot of spec builders are doing this,” he said.

Mr. Hartfiel’s family had to spend money blowing out the walls in the basement to turn the two suites into one – a move that cost them money and reduced the income they could generate from the house.

Now, Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr is trying to get a start on fixing the problem.

She has a motion going to council Tuesday asking staff to look into ways to legalize suites in two of the zones where they are currently outlawed in older neighbourhoods.

“Here we are trying to create affordable housing and we’re making it less affordable by imposing rules that are prejudicial,” said Ms. Carr. “That’s just not fair.”

She acknowledged that owners in the zones she is targeting can make their suites legal by going through what’s called a “multi-family conversion dwelling” process at the city.

But that is incredibly expensive, since it’s meant to allow owners to stratify units once those kinds of renovations have been done. So the building standards and the requirements for fire separation and other protections are high.

Those kinds of standards aren’t in place for average secondary suites in single-family houses that are now permitted everywhere.

The city received 180 complaints last year about illegal suites and staff are required to act on them, said a spokesperson.

Equally common among the complaints to the city are suites that have been created in older houses in the city’s inner-city neighbourhoods, which have many duplexes and large older houses. Duplexes get basement suites added or a big house may be converted into three suites.

The suites created in those zones, which are called RT or RM zones in city lingo, are also illegal, although the city encouraged that kind of conversion during the housing shortage of the Second World War.

In 2002, the then new COPE council declared that secondary suites were legal, after a couple of decades of battles over them.

Until then, they were permitted in some neighbourhoods but not others, depending on how those residents had voted when asked to approve basement suites.

But the provision only provided for one suite per single-family house. It didn’t cover duplex zones and it didn’t protect more than one suite in a single-family house.

Councillor Geoff Meggs acknowledged there’s a bump in the system.

“It’s complaint driven so it’s really random,” said Mr. Meggs, who once unsuccessfully tried to help an older woman caught in the same situation. She had been renting a second basement suite in a house, one that had been occupied for 20 years.

But a neighbour had complained and so staff were required to order the second suite closed.

Elizabeth Murphy, a frequent advocate on planning issues and a project manager, said she knows of many people who have been caught in that situation, either as tenants or owners.

Ms. Murphy said it is forcing some owners into unfortunate predicaments, as they try to avoid city oversight or get caught.

“People are depending on these mortgage helpers to get them but, but if it turns out they have unauthorized accommodation, it makes it very difficult for them. And it forces people to do renos without permits.”

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