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Facing eviction over parking, Surrey renters say there has to be another way

As many as 300 renters could be affected by a city order to shut down basement suites in Clayton Heights.

Jeff Phillips and Heidi Thomas with Heidi's six-year-old son. The family is one of hundreds of renters who may have to move because of a crackdown on basement suites in Surrey's Clayton Heights neighbourhood.

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Jeff Phillips and Heidi Thomas with Heidi's six-year-old son. The family is one of hundreds of renters who may have to move because of a crackdown on basement suites in Surrey's Clayton Heights neighbourhood.

Tenants and homeowners are getting organized to fight an order from the City of Surrey that could see 300 people evicted from their homes this January over parking congestion — even as the municipality faces a rental housing crisis.

“It doesn’t feel real because I can’t believe the city would actually evict people,” said Heidi Thomas, who has rented a three-bedroom basement suite in the Clayton Heights neighbourhood for four years. She lives there with her partner and two children, aged 17 and 6, who attend nearby schools.

“It just seems so asinine.”

After receiving hundreds of complaints over parking congestion in Clayton Heights over several years, the city sent 175 homeowners in the Clayton Heights neighbourhood a letter stating they must decommission the unauthorized suites in their homes by January 31, 2018. Homeowners in the Surrey neighbourhood are allowed to rent out either a basement suite or a coach home, but not both.

More homeowners could receive orders as the city continues to receive information from residents about who has an illegal suite.

Landlords and tenants have started a petition, and are hoping to present to council on Oct. 23. Thomas agrees that parking is “horrendous” in the neighbourhood, but, she argues, there just has to be a better solution than forcing renters to move, in the middle of winter and the middle of the school year, when Surrey’s rental vacancy rate hovers just above zero.

Patrick Condon isn’t surprised parking has become a hot-button issue in the neighbourhood, which was first planned in the late 1990s and gradually built out over a 20-year period. Condon is a professor of urban design at the University of British Columbia who worked on the initial concepts for Clayton Heights.

Surrey's Clayton Heights neighbourhood was designed to be a dense, walkable neighbourhood, but has been plagued by parking congestion.

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Surrey's Clayton Heights neighbourhood was designed to be a dense, walkable neighbourhood, but has been plagued by parking congestion.

The neighbourhood was designed to be a walkable, relatively dense neighbourhood, with the option to rent either the basement suite or a coach house above the garage. Parking concerns were the basis of that limitation, and Condon notes the “city has looked the other way” when it comes to the additional suites for a number of years.

While the City of Vancouver now allows all single family lots to have a basement suite and laneway house, Surrey's Clayton Heights was innovative at a time when Vancouver didn’t even officially allow basement suites.

Condon recalls Surrey city staff raising the parking issue in 1998, and carefully calculating for each lot to be able to accommodate a total of five cars: two in the garage, one off the lane, and two in front of the house.

Some Clayton Heights residents point to inefficient parking on the neighbouhood's streets and say the city could do more to improve the situation, instead of moving to shut down the basement suites.

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Some Clayton Heights residents point to inefficient parking on the neighbouhood's streets and say the city could do more to improve the situation, instead of moving to shut down the basement suites.

“The calculation (in 1998) was, we’ll be very happy if we get maybe half of these houses end up getting rental units, maybe three-quarters, because it just isn’t done in the suburbs,” Condon recalled.

Instead of evicting people, Condon believes the city should try a residential parking permit system, similar to what’s in place in Vancouver. That’s an option the affected homeowner-landlords would also like the city to try. Transit is another huge missing piece: the community was built to be “transit ready,” but after a funding freeze for many years, it’s only now that service levels are finally increasing — and residents say it’s still not nearly enough.

Thomas pointed out that her 17-year-old daughter has a job at a nearby mall, but her shift ends at 9 p.m. and bus service stops at 8:30 p.m. So at some point, the family might have to add another car to their household.

Thomas’ partner, Jeff Phillips, has another idea: paint some guidance lines on the streets to encourage people to park without big gaps. He added that while it can be hard to find a spot, he’s always been able to park — sometimes a block or two away. That’s normal in dense urban neighbourhoods like Vancouver’s Kitsilano, added Condon.

Despite the complaints, Condon said Clayton Heights was an urban planning success story. "The neighbourhood is extremely popular," he said. "There is no problem selling houses there — or finding tenants."

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