Details are still under construction, but the province’s plans to subsidize secondary suites is a move being welcomed by the president of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities.
“Secondary suites are critical to the housing continuum and being a part of the housing system and how local governments interact with that policy is very important to us,” said Jen Ford, who is also a councillor for the resort municipality of Whistler.
The 2023/24 provincial budget earmarks up to $91 million spread over three years for a pilot project encouraging homeowners to develop new secondary suites on their properties for long-term renters.
Finance Minister Katrine Conroy said the project hopes to get underway early next year.
“It’s an exciting initiative and we have heard from home owners, who really do want to put a rental suite in their homes,” Conroy said.
It is not clear how many new secondary suites the pilot project would potentially add to the existing stock.
Estimates from the ministry of housing peg the current number of secondary suites at just under 229,000 based on BC Assessment and CMHC Rental Market Survey data. By comparison, some 197,000 long-term tenants live in purpose-built rentals, which account for about 30 per cent of the overall rental market.
The remaining 70 per cent consist of rented condos and houses, secondary suites and social housing.
Another unknown is where the project would create additional secondary suites, especially as municipalities have control on approval.
“While we understand that most do allow them, it’s with varying bylaws, and there are some municipalities who do not allow secondary suites at all,” a statement from the housing ministry to Black Press Media reads.
Incentives for the creation of secondary suites are of themselves nothing new.
Some municipalities across the province already have incentive programs for secondary suites of different kinds, but the provincial announcement signals growing recognition of a housing type once shunned to the margins.
A 2022 report by Community Housing Canada found that a large – but ultimately unknown – share of secondary suites exist without the necessary permits in failing to meet building codes and standards, creating safety risks.
Secondary suites also often include low ceilings, limited space and lack of privacy, which may give tenants feelings of living in a “dungeon”, Community Housing Canada said. Tenants may also live with the fear of having to move out quickly, especially if their landlord arrangements are informal or if municipalities do not permit such suites.
Even if municipalities green-light this type of housing, homeowners may fear that offering suites to tenants could degrade property values or become costly due to wear-and-tear or damage.
A 2021 UBC study found that laneway houses reduce resale values in Vancouver’s more affluent neighbourhood – an effect not evident in neighbourhoods more aligned to typical benchmarks.
But secondary suites offer many advantages, starting with the fact that they can help to create more housing quickly with fewer resources when compared to building new housing.
“They really help homeowners achieve affordability, they allow for downsizing while remaining in our community, they lead to a more complete community where people of all demographics can live,” Ford said.
Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon did not tip his hands when asked whether the provincial government would bring in legislation to legalize secondary suites across the province.
“You certainly have to wait for the housing strategy, but we are looking at every single way of getting housing units on line,” he told reporters this month.
Ford said UBCM has been supportive of secondary suites and tools that would allow municipalities to increase density. While B.C. mayors expect the province to work with municipalities on this pilot project specifically and secondary suites generally, it would support a uniform policy, Ford said.
“Whenever we simplify things, that’s a positive. However, any time that we have these conversations, we want to make sure local government is being considered.”