The challenge of East Clayton

Jeff Vandermeer is surrounded by coach houses in his East Clayton neighbourhood. The tightly packed homes allow for residential density, a concept that has won designers awards for promoting sustainability. But residents like Vandermeer say not everyone is playing by the city’s secondary suite rules. - Evan Seal / The Leader
Jeff Vandermeer is surrounded by coach houses in his East Clayton neighbourhood. The tightly packed homes allow for residential density, a concept that has won designers awards for promoting sustainability. But residents like Vandermeer say not everyone is playing by the city’s secondary suite rules.
— image credit: Evan Seal / The Leader

New homes, lined up cheek by jowl, face each other over a short distance, thanks to small front lawns and narrow streets.

Surrey’s East Clayton neighbourhood was lauded as an example of visionary community design when it was first unveiled 13 years ago.

Patrick Condon, a UBC associate professor of landscape architecture, along with his team and the public, created the community concept, which was heralded throughout the region as the gold standard for sustainable communities.

East Clayton is located north of Fraser Highway, east of 188 Street, south of 72 Avenue and west of the Langley border (196 Street). The 560-acre neighbourhood will eventually be home to 13,000 people.

But along with high expectations and cutting edge design, the area is a microcosm of the impact secondary suites are having on neighbourhoods across Surrey.

Some East Clayton homes include a secondary suite built to B.C. Building Code standards, while others have coach houses in the back which can be rented.

Because of this, designers of East Clayton have won a host of awards for promoting sustainability.

That vision is how the community is being sold and it’s why 35-year-old Jeff Vandermeer bought one of the $550,000 homes two years ago. He moved from Vancouver and fell in love with the feel of East Clayton.

He’s since learned first impressions can be deceiving.

Residents say several independent builders are playing fast and loose with Surrey’s bylaws, installing basement suites after inspection and putting a door leading nowhere on second floors.

Under the B.C. Building Code, those doors in the middle of the house are known as Juliette decks and are allowed. Surrey staff don’t like them, because they realize they will often become doorways to full-sized decks after inspection – providing more living space on the main floor, making up for what is taken up by a basement suite.

Vandermeer believes about 90 per cent of the homes in East Clayton now have suites in both the main building and the coach house.

Surrey’s bylaws stipulate one or the other – rented coach house or secondary suite – not both.

“If you don’t have a basement suite in this neighourhood, you’re a minority,” Vandermeer said.

Because people have doubled up on their allowable suites, the narrow roads are jammed with cars, the schools are overcrowded, and transients wander the streets. Drug deals are a common sight, Vandermeer said.

He lived in Vancouver for years and didn’t see the level of transiency or drug dealing he sees in East Clayton.

Tony Armitstead has owned a home in East Clayton for two years and said the secondary suite problem has grown way out of hand.

He said three doors down from him, the homeowner has a coach house, illegal basement suite and a rented attic, making room for four families.

“They have a total of seven cars parking in and around the area blocking myself and any guest from parking close to my front door,” Armitstead said. “They have no respect for the other owners when it comes to noise, messy yards, loud music, loud mufflers and then they invite partiers over every weekend.”

Coun. Barinder Rasode heard some of the complaints about East Clayton during a series of community consultation meetings. She also knows about them because she lives nearby.

City council is examining a fix, she said.

“We’re looking at whether the basement and the coach home should be an option at the same time,” Rasode said, referring to new construction. She acknowledged that remedy won’t do anything to solve the existing problem.

Suite stress – a Leader seriesAs for the homes with multiple suites already, bylaw officials are clamping down on those, she said. Officers in the bylaw department are scanning rental ads and visiting the homes to make sure the fridge and stove are removed.

Vandermeer said he’s seen that enforcement in action, and has watched people put the appliances back after bylaw officers leave.

“And that’s absolutely wrong,” Rasode said. “One of the challenges we have is that under the enforcement, once they don’t comply... all we can do is take them through the courts” – a lengthy and arduous process.

In Delta, the municipality is fining homeowners with multiple suites $200 a day, a program that started on Jan. 31.

Delta’s Bylaw Supervisor Mark Dedick said a few fines have been issued, but the municipality is aiming for compliance, rather than a punitive approach.

“It was slow to start, and it’s picked up and people are getting on board,” Dedick said.

Surrey and Delta opened the door to legalizing suites last year, with both municipalities forbidding homes with multiple suites.

Surrey has grappled with the issue for at least 30 years, and felt it had the solution when council passed a bylaw last year allowing one suite per home.

Owners of suites are required to obtain a permit from the city and bring the rental unit up to code. In addition, with or without permit, homeowners with suites pay another $1,091 annually to cover sewer ($439), water ($264), garbage services ($141) and a secondary suite service fee ($247).

The longevity of the problem is what makes a quick fix elusive, said Mayor Dianne Watts.

“Trying to fix a 30-year-old problem with some consistency in there has been a difficult process. However, we’re moving forward,” Watts said.

Critics have long said enforcement is going to be the Achilles heel of the bylaw.

Vandermeer said East Clayton is a prime example of that argument.

It’s a newer neighbourhood, and Vandermeer believes the city is complicit because it stood by and watched while many of the illegal constructionprojects  and rentals were taking place.

“If Surrey can’t stop it in a new neighbourhood, where can they?” Vandermeer said.

The answer seems to be the city can’t.

Armitstead agrees.

“The whole illegal suite issue is a joke with the City of Surrey and the current council as they are afraid they will lose votes if they do something, so we the owners and law abiding suffer,” Armitstead said.

He went to the city’s permit desk to ask what’s going on.

“He told me to get over it, as it’s happening everywhere,” Armitstead said.

There are at least 20,000 secondary suites in the city, with about 4,000 of those homes harbouring multiple suites.

As of last November, 79 homeowners have applied for permits to make their suites legal, representing 0.4 per cent of the total number of suite owners. At that rate, it will take 200 years for the existing inventory to be licensed and permitted.

The biggest workload facing bylaw officers are secondary suite inspections, which numbered 3,821 in the first nine months of last year. That more than doubled the next highest number of files, which was processing business licences  – 1,785 – during the same period.

NEXT WEEK: Surrey to focus on multiple suites.



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