Wednesday, 30 May 2012


Ralph Waldo Emerson said that  foolish consistencies were the hobgoblins of little minds. 

In the mid 1980s there were thousands of illegal suites in the  Greater Vancouver Regional District (METRO). Municipalities responded to them in a variety of ways. The approach of the City of North Vancouver was documented in the case of Pucci v North Vancouver (City) in which it was shown that the Council over the years oscillated between strict enforcement and benign neglect. The incentive for leaving suites alone was that  the City was collecting higher taxes from them and they were obviously serving a need for lower cost rental housing.

All municipalities faced conflicting pressures from voters. Many homeowners demanded strict enforcement, particularly when they felt that the tenants next door were a nuisance. On the other hand, the moment there was discussion of enforcement the homeowners who needed mortgage helpers made their voices heard.

When Gordon Campbell was elected Mayor in 1986 the Council decided to take action and deal with the issue. Campbell initially was responding to the pressures of constituents who wanted the spread of the suites stopped. His analysis was that developers were gradually picking up single family houses and installing illegal suites. Building inspectors went along with it with a wink and a nudge. Developers were buying properties wholesale (single family) and converting them to rental, multi family properties and selling them at retail.

No sooner had he started the policy of enforcement, homeowners who needed the suites to stay in their own houses, reluctantly came forwarded and begged Council to go easy. So did their tenants who were often students or the elderly.

Seeking to please everyone he tried to do both simultaneously. He would continue  strict enforcement and shut down suites. If, however, the owner agreed to upgrade, then the suites could get a permit. .

The problem was, the cost of the upgrades in 1989 dollars was in excess of $10,000 and this immediately translated to an increase in rents. Now no one was happy.

In Gulliver's Travels the Lilliputians engaged in wars between the "Big Enders" and the "Little Enders."  These groups were named after the end of the egg citizens chose to suck. There was no possibility of compromise.

Our Council in the Campbell years had advanced to a higher level of wisdom and there was a compromise. Those who were against legalization of suites (the "No Suiters) would hopefully be satisfied if the suites were only made temporarily legal for say, five or ten years.  Those who wanted legalization (the "Suiters") would be satisfied if the suites received permits could be upgraded, if only temporarily. It could all be sorted out ten years later when they could all suck eggs in their own way.

So the great extinction was postponed ten years.

The important point was that neither the public nor the Council could accept the untidy inconsistencies that had brought us to this point. You either suck the big end of the egg or the little end. You are either legal or your not. Right?

For you, - maybe.  For the City, - wrong!

The Supreme Court of Canada had held in a case known as Polai v Toronto that local governments had an almost absolute discretion to enforce bylaws only to the extent they felt appropriate. In that case Toronto created a list of illegal suite owners immune from enforcement. This was upheld.  Therefore the existing policy of the City of Vancouver and others, i.e. selective enforcement, was perfectly legal. The suites themselves were illegal but the City could, subject to corrupt practices, do whatever it wanted. .

What the City could have done therefore, based on the Polai case, was to adopt written criteria for enforcement. Basically suites in houses that were owner occupied and where the suites provided reasonably safe accommodation, would be at the bottom of the priorty for enforcement list. Suites in houses that were deemed unsafe, low standard, and where the house was not owner occupied would be at the top of the list. The enforcement system would be triggered, as before by neighbors' complaints. The criteria for enforcement could be whatever the City wanted as long as it was not irrational or unreasonable.

This was considered politically unacceptable. The idea of regulating an activity that was not fully legal was, if not satanic, certainly contrary to various eastern and western moral imperatives.

What ultimately happened was that when the ten years was up for the temporary legal suites, the City continued its  policy of selective chaotic enforcement. This led to the decision by  Larry Campbell's Council to simply amend zoning bylaws to allow suites.

Problem solved?  Wrong again!

Legalization did not legalize all existing suites.  Those suites not shown on previously approved plans remained illegal and the city continues to force either expensive upgrades or removals and court actions.

It seems likely that  legalization tended to increase the price of housing.  Rents did not go down. The City continues to enforce against illegal suites not just in single family areas but every where. On top of all that of course is the present unbridled trend to demolish existing houses and build new ones. That way everything is legal.

The City piously claims that this is necessary for the safety of tenants. A few years ago a drug house burned down and several people died in the fire. It turned out that the building inspectors were well aware of the place, having received many complaints but, for whatever the reason, they did little. Had there been a list for enforcement priorities this Pandora Street property would have been at the top of it.

Over the years there have been very few fires. The Pandora fire has given the city the excuse of shutting down suites that do not appear on plans and where owners decide that to bring the building to current standards just isn't worth it.

As Bugs Bunny says at the end of Loony Toons.

That's all Folks.

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