After slow start, Saanich says legalizing secondary suites about long-term benefits

The two-bedroom basement suite in Amanda Fish’s home boasts large bedrooms, an in-suite washer and dryer, a parking spot – even a dishwasher. But she intends to add another selling feature to that list: a legal suite.

Though Fish’s home isn’t one of the 18 in Saanich with an approved secondary suite, it makes sense to register her home’s suite.

“I believe it’s a really good reselling feature, if ever we have to sell the place, to have it legalized,” Fish said. “Even with insurance claims, that’d be nice to have that comfort. Surely you don’t want to do something that you have to, sort of, hide for the rest of your life. So from a moral point of view, and from the practical side of things, I would prefer to have it legalized.”

Fish and her husband recently bought a two-storey home in Saanich, in an area south of McKenzie Avenue that is currently part of a legal secondary suites pilot project.

The project, approved last June, allows for Saanich homes south of McKenzie to legalize their suite. There are an estimated 9,000 illegal suites in Saanich.

Sharon Hvozdanski, Saanich’s director of planning, says though only a handful of people have taken part in the legalization process, the time and effort staff put in to the project didn’t go to waste.

“We’ve given people an option to make it legal, if they so choose. That makes that form of housing more stable, which is very important and very valuable,” she said. “They also should see comfort in the aspect that it’s safe, formally inspected, in case there’s a fire or health and safety issues.”

In addition to the 18 approved suites, another five applications have been received by staff.

Saanich Coun. Vic Derman says he predicted, based on what’s happened in other cities, that Saanich “would get a very thin veneer of legal suites on top of all the existing ones.”

“That’s because there are disincentives for registering,” he said, citing administrative costs that the owner pays for and potentially expensive upgrades to meet Saanich standards. “And probably the largest one is there could be an exposure to Revenue Canada regarding a situation of undeclared income.”

Mayor Frank Leonard acknowledges that illegal secondary suites are a norm that Saanich residents have come to accept.

“In many way, they’re essential to afford a home or to afford housing, depending on if you’re a landlord or a tenant,” he said. “As a result, our enforcement policy is fairly passive.”

Coun. Leif Wergeland says he suspects that, though many of the illegal suites are good quality accommodations, few owners are interested in investing extra money in bringing them up to code.

“The more hurdles we throw in the way, it does create a disincentive for people to do what is maybe the right thing,” he said.

Derman admitted that the time spent by municipal staff on secondary suites hasn’t resulted in many residents getting on board but it’s still it’s better than the alternative way of dealing with the issue.

“The only way you can do that is decide you’re going to spend a lot of money, hire a lot of inspectors, and start closing down illegal suites,” he said. “But that’s pretty problematic, because they’re here providing a needed service.”

Fish agrees that livable suites are badly needed to meet housing demands in the municipality.

“We’re thinking about this house for the long-term, for our future” she said. She and her husband currently live on the mainland and plan on retiring to Victoria. “If the previous owner didn’t legalize it, it does make sense for us to do it now.”

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