Suite or sour?

Legal or illegal, apartments in single-family homes can help with an expensive and tight housing market, but they can also be considered a nuisance or worse by neighbours. One recent case dealt with by City council may have opened up new ground on the iss

City council's recent ruling on an illegal suite was an attempt to come up with a compromise between neighbours' concerns and a homeowners' rights.

Council's decision not to rezone and legalize the suite, but to allow it to still be rented as long as there were good tenants, upset some neighbours and concerned at least one City councillor.

For their part, homeowners Rizwan and Zarina Shafi have promised to be careful about who lives in the house. They had one bad tenant whom they evicted as quickly as they could. They also apologized to neighbours for problems those tenants caused.

Zarina Shafi said they tried to be careful when they interviewed applicants for both suites. They'll try to be even more careful in future, because they want to keep the neighbours happy.

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Usually, the City doesn't take action on illegal suites - unless there are complaints. Two complaints are required before City staff will check things out.

The City's concern with illegal suites is that they can be badly built, cause parking and traffic problems, they aren't charged for extra water and sewer, and neighbours can be bothered by the number of people coming and going.

The positive side of suites is that they provide affordable housing and help people buying homes cover their mortgage payments.

City community development manager Randy Lambright said that several years ago, the municipality joined up with what was then BC Tel and where there were two phone numbers at an address, the water and sewer charges were doubled.

People complained, but a raft of illegal suites were caught.

Eventually, the City decided to ease the pressure on undeclared suites, although extra utility charges are included when they are discovered.

Neighbour complaints, however, are now the main driver of suite enforcement. If there are two complaints within one year from two people at two addresses within 150 metres, the City looks into it. The homeowner must apply to get rezoning to legalize it (and make sure it meets the building code) or remove the suite essentially by taking out the kitchen stove wiring.

Last week's council decision that fell in between those two alternatives wasn't a first.

Dave Jones, City property use inspector, said one previous case involved a home on Sifton Avenue where the owner lived and rented out a suite. By the time enforcement steps were taken, the house had been sold.

"I contacted the new owner to rezone. Neighbours came out and expressed concerns. The new owner said he just bought and he evicted the tenants," he recalled.

The new owner moved into the house, so he was on site if there were problems. He went to rezoning.

"Council said because of the new owner, they put the same motion forward to suspend enforcement until new complaints came in."

He hasn't heard of any complaints since.

The difficulty that kind of ruling creates is that City staff are enforcing a bylaw that deals with land use (the suite), not tenants' behaviour.

"We regulate bylaws and we regulate the land use. How do we regulate people?"

The fine for violating the zoning with an illegal suite can run $100 to $2,000. If the homeowner applies for rezoning because of complaints, the usual $1,000 application fee doubles to $2,000 since it's due to enforcement action.

A lot of homes in Kamloops that have been owned by families with European roots have second kitchens that they use for gatherings. When those houses are sold, the buyers put on a separate entrance and rent them out.

Jones said he gets lots of inquiries about suites. He advises people who are buying a house that's being advertised as having a suite to check the zoning. If it isn't there, the suite isn't legal.

"Last the City estimated, there are about 2,000 suites out there that aren't authorized."

Since January, he has had 11 enforcement actions.

"Probably the biggest complaints I get are absentee landlords."

He has two more illegal suite follow-ups to deal with on Renfrew Avenue. He's not certain how council's decision might affect them.

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