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Housing expert calls on Surrey to legalize Clayton Heights suites

It's in the city's power to protect renters from the "whims" of their wealthier neighbours, says Nathanael Lauster.

Streets tightly packed with parked cars in Surrey's Clayton Heights neighbourhood.

Jennifer Gauthier / For Metro

Streets tightly packed with parked cars in Surrey's Clayton Heights neighbourhood.

One housing expert is calling on the City of Surrey to legalize basement suites to protect renters, instead of evicting hundreds to appease homeowners annoyed by parking congestion in the Clayton Heights neighbourhood.

“The city is going to be evicting a whole bunch of people as a result of that minor annoyance," said Nathanael Lauster, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia. "That’s the kind of inequality that I think cities should really be on guard against.”

Lauster recently wrote a book about how single family zoning in North American cities was designed to keep out people who were not wealthy enough to own a home.

That’s what he sees happening in Clayton Heights, and it’s happened before. Vancouver’s wealthiest neighbourhood, Shaughnessy, was once home to renters living in secondary suites during the hard times of the 1930s and 40s.

But after the Second World War, the neighbourhood organized to get rid of the “illegal” suites, Lauster said. Secondary suites for single family zones were only formally legalized in Vancouver in 2002, and since then the city has also allowed laneway homes to be rented out as well.

Clayton Heights was designed to be a more “urban” and dense neighbourhood, with smaller lots, basement suites and coach houses that could be rented out. Surrey homeowners are allowed to rent out just one basement suite, but despite the rule, multiple suites have proliferated in Clayton Heights.

Like other areas of fast-growing Surrey, the neighbourhood is poorly serviced by transit and has overcrowded schools.

After receiving thousands of complaints about parking congestion and the illegal suites, and after several proposed parking solutions were rejected by the community, Surrey now has no choice but to shut them down by Jan. 31, said Mayor Linda Hepner.

That will leave at least 175 renters searching for new homes at a time when Surrey’s rental vacancy rate is near zero, although the city now says some may be granted extensions if they have extenuating circumstances.

Heidi Thomas and her son, Brandon, in their basement suite in Clayton Heights. Their suite is one of hundreds the city has ordered landlords to decommission in the neighbourhood.

Jennifer Gauthier/For Metro

Heidi Thomas and her son, Brandon, in their basement suite in Clayton Heights. Their suite is one of hundreds the city has ordered landlords to decommission in the neighbourhood.

Metro spoke to one Clayton Heights homeowner who wanted the renters gone, because, he said, they are loud, their children are overcrowding local schools, and visitors have trouble find a parking spot in front of his house.

Metro also spoke to renter Christine Dubecki, a single mother of three on disability assistance who fears she may end up in a woman’s shelter because it’s nearly impossible to find another landlord who will rent to her.

Homeowners might find their homeowner-neighbours loud and annoying as well, Lauster pointed out. But they don’t have the power to get them evicted.

"It’s more or less poor people, people who are less wealthy, being evicted in the face of the minor annoyances of the more wealthy," he said.

As for the parking problems, Lauster believes they can be solved through better city planning.

“Cities are really tasked with making these choices between more room for people and more room for cars,” he said.

“And any time they’re making the choice to make more room for cars, they’re making the wrong choice.”

Hepner told Metro that if the community wants to change from a single- to multi-family neighbourhood, they can come to the city — and request to be rezoned.

“We have to manage that community’s concerns, where there are homeowners who say we expected to live in a single family neighbourhood, and those who are turning it into a multi-family neighbourhood,” she said.

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