North Cowichan Councillor Kate Marsh. (Citizen file)

North Cowichan Councillor Kate Marsh. (Citizen file)

North Cowichan to formalize policies around illegal suites

Unknown how many are in municipality

North Cowichan is looking to formalize its approach to enforcing bylaws related to illegal secondary suites in the municipality.

Council decided to direct staff to draft a policy on the issue at its meeting on Aug. 18 after a report by manager of planning Chris Osborne.

Osborne described the current practices used by municipal staff in dealing with issues around illegal suites in his report, and acknowledged that there is a benefit to setting out these procedures in a formal policy as it would help provide predictability and consistency within North Cowichan.


He pointed out that, in regards to infractions to B.C.’s building code, having secondary suites that don’t meet the requirements of building code is problematic since the code’s requirements exist to keep people safe and housed in appropriate accommodations.

“However, an overly zealous approach to taking action may result in needless suite occupant evictions through no fault of the tenant, and potentially place people in less secure and less safe situations than a non-code-compliant suite,” Osborne said.

“This concern is particularly heightened during the current prolonged housing availability and affordability crisis. A balance, therefore, needs to be found that ensures minimum standards of safety are met without exacerbating the existing housing availability situation.”

Osborne said the proposed new policy would categorize building code infractions as either life-safety issues or non-life safety issues.

He said life-safety issues represent a clear risk to inhabitants and must be corrected.


“Generally, an owner will be given up to 30 days to apply for a building permit and 90 days to perform all corrective action,” Osborne said.

However, Osborne said that once council has adopted a structured policy on illegal suites, there may be some impact on the number of affordable rental housing units available in North Cowichan.

“But given that the proposed policy would largely formalize the approach already typically taken by staff, this impact is not expected to be particularly significant,” he said.

Count. Kate Marsh had staff confirm that while North Cowichan is moving forward with firming up its rules around illegal suites, enforcement will still be restricted to responding to complaints in the community.

“We won’t be going out hunting for illegal suites,” she said.

Coun. Christopher Justice said there are no good estimates of the number of illegal suites in the municipality, but the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation has estimated that, according to insurance data, approximately 15 per cent of suites across Canada are illegal.

CAO Ted Swabey said that when he was working with the City of Nanaimo, it was determined that there were between 10,000 and 20,000 illegal suites in that city at that time.

“It was a massive number,” he said.

“Liability starts to mount the more you know so I suggest we’re in a good position in developing a policy not knowing what we’re dealing with. I kind of like the position we’re in now in which we don’t know as much about it.”

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