For 20 years, until his election as mayor of the City of North Vancouver, Darrell Mussatto worked as a paramedic. As a first responder, he attended to ambulance calls across the Lower Mainland. Many of these brought him inside people’s homes.
So when Mussatto says there are a lot of illegal secondary suites in duplexes in North Vancouver, he’s not relying on information provided by city staff. He’s seen these living quarters himself.
“Secondary suites are happening in duplexes,” Mussatto told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “They’re out there.”
The city wants to legalize these suites. But to do that, the provincial government must first make changes to the B.C. Building Code.
“We want to make sure that they’re safe and that they’re regulated,” Mussatto said. “And right now, the building code is quite restrictive in this regard.”
The law allows secondary suites only in single-family homes in B.C. These dwelling units must be self-contained. Mostly basement rentals, they are required to have their own entrance, kitchen, bathroom, and living area.
Legalizing secondary suites in duplexes would accomplish two things. “It makes the units safer, because owners of these buildings will be more inclined to have an inspection done on them,” the mayor said.
It would also increase rental-housing supply. “Generally, it’s the lower end of market housing,” Mussatto said.
In March, Mussatto wrote to Rich Coleman, the B.C. Liberal minister responsible for housing, suggesting that the province pursue changes to the building code. According to the North Vancouver mayor, his city has yet to receive a reply.
Mussatto also circulated the letter. A copy landed on the desk of Delia Laglagaron, the interim commissioner and chief administrative officer of the Metro Vancouver regional district. Because of this, Metro’s senior housing planner, Janet Kreda, prepared a report on North Vancouver’s push for legal secondary suites in duplexes. The report is included in the May 24 agenda of Metro Vancouver’s housing committee.
Kreda wrote that secondary suites in single-family homes account for 70,000 to 75,000 of the estimated 318,000 rental dwellings in the Lower Mainland.
The housing planner also noted that, based on 2009 B.C. Assessment figures, there are about 14,000 duplexes in the region. “Permitting secondary suites in existing duplexes would provide one of the few remaining opportunities to add affordable rental housing in existing buildings,” Kreda stated.
In an interview, Kreda explained that although the National Building Code of Canada allows for secondary suites in duplexes and row houses, provinces have primary authority over building laws in their respective jurisdictions.
“The national building code is a model code, so provinces can adopt the whole thing or adopt certain parts of it,” Kreda told the Straight by phone.
She also said that cities like Vancouver and New Westminster are interested in having legal secondary suites as part of duplex homes. In her report, Kreda recommended that Metro Vancouver’s housing committee encourage the City of North Vancouver to discuss its proposal with members of the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
In Mussatto’s letter to Coleman, the North Vancouver mayor points out that Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Manitoba, and Nova Scotia have adopted the national building code’s provisions regarding duplexes and row houses.
According to City of North Vancouver councillor Guy Heywood, renting out secondary suites in duplexes is currently considered a violation of the building code. He noted that the city hasn’t adopted a moratorium on enforcing the law.
“We need the building code amended to specify exactly what needs to happen, so the enforcement can be based on updated criteria,” Heywood told the Straight by phone.
Mussatto stopped working as a paramedic in 2005, the year he was elected mayor, but safety remains one of his top concerns. Among many things, this applies to making sure that secondary suites in duplexes do not pose fire and other kinds of risks to their occupants. “That’s the most important thing,” Mussatto said.