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By Mike Raptis, The Province March 4, 2013

Surrey’s illegal suites look like an epidemic to some

A residential appraiser in Surrey estimates there are up to 40,000 illegal suites in the city — nearly double the 20,000 previously reported.


The appraiser stands at the foot of the empty lot, asked to assess its value — as if the home to be is already built.

He comes armed with floor plans sent to the city for approval.


In his eight years on the job in Surrey, he’s now seen thousands just like this.


The plans show an outlying deck and a basement with rec rooms, kids rooms, sewing rooms — “all these rooms that make no sense,” he tells The Province.


He is then handed another set of floor plans, either by the builder or homeowner.


“The revised floor plan? They show secondary suites going in,” says the appraiser, who estimates there are up to 40,000 illegal suites in the city — nearly double the 20,000 previously reported.


“The day (homeowners) get their final occupancy, the day it’s done — they enclose the rear patio and now you’ve just added another 1,000 square metres to your house.”


Not only are thousands of Surrey’s homeowners collecting undeclared income, he says, they are also saving on taxes when the suites are popped into place after city approval.


The owner of an in-demand design firm in Surrey says he’s aware of the illegal suite issue, but insists his company creates plans in accordance with zoning requirements.


“We discuss with the homeowners/ home builders as to their requirements and then prepare house plans,” he said.


“Our design company plays no role during or in the construction of the homes.”


Of the nearly 4,000 residences developed in Surrey in 2012, 1,500 were single family units, namely in Newton and South Surrey.


The city issued permits for 427 secondary suites at 67 coach houses in 2012.


Surrey’s manager of bylaw enforcement, Jas Rehal, says his staff and the city’s building department communicate their bylaws and policies to developers.


“Generally, they’re abiding,” he said.


“These suites in Surrey, they’re all over the city,’ said Rehal. “When brought to our attention, we go out there, state the fee ... once a suite is identified, we start billing.”


Annual fees for a secondary suite range between $500 and $1,300, which includes infrastructure costs such as garbage pickup and water use.


It can cost a homeowner up to $10,000 to properly outfit a home with separate piping, wiring and a firewall to make a suite legal.


With the city welcoming up to 1,000 new residents a month — one-third coming from India — the appraiser contends the issue is a clash of cultures, based on his experience with offending homeowners and builders.


He pinpoints Newton, Sullivan Station, Queen Mary Park, Bear Creek Green Timbers, the north part of Panorama Ridge and North Surrey as areas these “mega-homes” are typically being built.


Rehal disagrees.


“I don’t think it’s a cultural-based issue,” said Rehal. “I think it relates more to cost of housing.”


Surrey also operates on a complaint-based system, something Rehal believes is working.


Residents filed 1,600 complaints about illegal suites in 2012, while the city opened up 6,000 investigations.

Since July 2012, the city has ordered 180 suites to be removed.


Surrey resident Jennifer Dorey has filed several complaints with the city since she and her husband had their Bear Creek home built in 1988.


“No sooner did we build our house [than] we saw suites going in all over the place,” said Dorey.


Her neighbourhood is now crammed with parked cars, creating roads so congested that both residents and emergency vehicles have difficulty getting through, as was the case three weeks ago when two ambulances and fire trucks struggled to reach a home a few doors down from Dorey.


“I just feel that I’ve been raised to follow the rules and I do that, sometimes at our expense,” she said.

“All these other people, they disregard the rules and the city just ends up changing them to make it so it’s not a problem.”


As for the appraiser, he says Surrey needs its secondary suites, legal or illegal, to cope with its growing population.


But it shouldn’t come at the expense of law-abiding residents.


“(Homeowners) should be paying Revenue Canada for declared income and paying double utilities,” he said.

“The tax burden just shifts to other people in Surrey whose houses are conforming.”


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