Talk of legalizing secondary suites stokes debate in Oak Bay

Motion to move ahead on secondary suites hits council next week

A motion to move forward on legalizing secondary suites in Oak Bay is being brought before council next week, and while the Official Community Plan (OCP) lists it as a priority that the majority of residents support, not everyone is happy about it.

Coun. Tara Ney’s resolution entitled, “Secondary Suite Implementation in Oak Bay” is scheduled to come to council on Feb. 26.

“The issue of secondary suites in Oak Bay has been lingering for over a decade. It’s at the top of the Council Strategic Priorities and with the affordability of housing in our region reaching crisis proportions, it’s time to have this conversation,” said Ney.

The motion asks to have staff prepare a report outlining a work plan, that includes timelines and a public engagement plan, to develop and implement policy, regulations, and bylaws for secondary suites in Oak Bay.

This is in line with the OCP’s action item to “develop a policy and regulatory framework to permit secondary suites as a way of providing affordable housing in the community.”

The Community Association of Oak Bay (CAOB) hosted a talk on housing affordability last week that was attended by approximately 80 community members and included discussion on secondary suites.

“Secondary suites did come up as an answer to offering diversity of housing and affordable housing needed in our community. There was general sentiment that there was support and acceptance,” said Kris Nichols, president of CAOB.

Many at the talk recognized that secondary suites already exist so turning back the clock does not make sense as they are obviously filling a need, Nichols said.

“To take that option away would ultimately be removing possibly 100s of units of affordable housing not only for those living in them, but for those that have them in their homes,” said Nichols. “There was support to legitimize those existing suites.”

Other residents however have spoken up to express concern about the “when” wording of the motion, saying that it should be “if” until there has been more public engagement on the issue, particularly around the difference in public support for already established secondary suites vs new or additional ones. While the OCP states that the majority of residents are in favour of regulating existing secondary suites, the Community Survey Report notes that the survey did not answer conclusively the question of whether or not the community supports new or additional suites in their neighbourhoods.

“This is by far the most important neighbourhood densification decision this, or perhaps any council has made to date,” said Oak Bay resident Anthony Mears.

Concerns around cost of suite enforcement, liabilities for the municipality, and safety are key reasons why Mears is asking the municipality to first provide transparency, information and resident collaboration in the legalization decision before “moving forward to Bylaws and Suite Program done-deal resolutions.”

“I know this project is important to our community, and as chair of the Oak Bay Engagement Task Force I anticipate that residents will be highly engaged with this process,” said Ney. “To ensure the secondary suite program is uniquely tailored to our community, we will consult extensively with residents (renters and homeowners) to learn of the issues and concerns.”

A program will then be designed looking at features like parking, suite size, owner occupier, exemptions, piloting, fees, enforcement, etc., Ney said.

“This will be a made-in-Oak Bay secondary suite program that will offer critical housing options, and, importantly, take home owners and renters out of the shadow of the law,” said Ney.

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