Re: "Coquitlam explores affordable housing," Friday, Feb. 1.
According to its recent Housing Affordability Discussion Paper, Coquitlam expects to lose many lower-cost suites in older buildings over the next 10 years.
It's interesting to note that only one-third of Coquitlam's rental units are in purpose-built rental buildings; the rest are secondary suites. But these are only the legally authorized suites; there are of course many, many more suites that are not known to the city - no one's sure how many.
Coquitlam is justifiably proud of its support of secondary suites in single-family zones. Secondary suites increase density at very little cost to the city - the construction and management is all handled by the private sector. In fact, it's come to the point where the city actively encourages secondary suites in new neighbourhoods, which is a far cry from the practice in years gone by.
But anyone who's been shopping for rental accommodation knows that many basement suites are to be found in older duplexes as well. These suites are largely the same as those in single-family homes except for the party wall shared with the other half of the duplex. They do differ, however, in one important way: unlike suites in single-family homes, secondary suites in duplexes cannot be made "legal" under current rules.
Is this a density issue? Perhaps, but it seems strange that it's acceptable to double the density in single-family zones (by potentially adding a suite to each house), but it's not acceptable to similarly double the density in duplex zones. Presumably the duplex zones were originally laid out with the intention of a higher density than the single-family zones. Is this no longer the case?
Perhaps, then, it's a building code issue. Too many people in a single building? Too many unrelated families in a building causing fire-safety questions? If so, why are suites acceptable in single-family zones, where the construction techniques and isolation between the house and its suite are exactly the same as in duplex zones?
If you look at floor plans of typical "Vancouver Special" duplexes, it's clear they were expressly designed for easy separation into suites. Why else would they include features like full bathrooms and roughed-in kitchens on the lower level, separate entrances for each level, and lockable access between the floors?
With the extreme cost of housing in the Lower Mainland (both to rent and to purchase), it's clear that these older duplexes will continue to contain secondary suites, regardless of what the rules say. It's just economics in action - the purchase price is so high that suites are necessary to pay for the building, and high rents in regular apartment buildings mean that basement suites are an acceptable alternative for many families.
Rather than pretend that these suites don't exist (and shut them down randomly), wouldn't it be better to emulate the city's success with single-family suites? Provide a workable path to make these suites safe and legal, and the market will follow it. As with many other things (like alcohol and gambling, for instance), it's far better to legalize and regulate than to prohibit something that people are going to do anyway.
How could this work? We might take Burnaby's "lock-off" suites as a model.
Some of the new buildings at the top of Burnaby Mountain include two-bedroom suites in which the master bedroom and ensuite bathroom have a separate door to the hallway and can be "locked-off" from the rest of the apartment to form a secondary micro-suite. That's right; a secondary suite in a two-bedroom apartment.
How exactly do these lock-off suites differ from locking off the lower level of one side of a duplex to form a separate suite? In concept, they don't. In practice, there may be safety upgrades needed, but I believe that owners will make the investment if it's reasonably possible to do so. Their payoff would be to end the risk of a random shut-down of their suites.
At the end of the day, if you want someone to serve you in your bank, your grocery store, or your local coffee shop they need a place to live. Duplex secondary suites are already a part of the solution. It's time to acknowledge this fact and provide a viable way for owners to make them safe and legal.
If you travel to London, England, you can see the alternative. There, service workers travel two hours each way by bus simply to work in restaurants. We can and we should do better here.
David Querbach Port Moody