Oak Bay seeks to finalize regulations on secondary suites

After a lengthy process debating the merits of legalizing secondary suites - it appears the end is in sight.

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A beautifully kept two-storey Oak Bay home. This style of home often includes an unfinished basement - a perfect candidate for a basement suite.

At last Monday’s (Jan 11) council meeting, Urban Systems presented the council with a draft strategy on policy options for secondary suites in Oak Bay. The draft strategy proposed a spectrum of options with variables such as parking requirements, permissible zoning, minimum lot sizes, and owner-occupancy requirements.

Unlike the recent news in Saanich, secondary suites in the form of garden or laneway homes are not being considered. Suites must be limited to the existing footprint of the house in these proposed legislation options.

The Secondary Suites Study was initiated as part of a larger housing framework program. It is supported by policy provisions within the Official Community Plan (OCP) to permit secondary suites within the community. 

The five-phased study commenced nearly four years ago in 2018 – reflecting how slow the region’s municipalities are to address the current housing issues. Oak Bay is currently in Phase Four with Phase Five: The Final Adoption Strategy anticipated to occur in March 2021 at a public council meeting.

Urban Systems studied other BC municipalities that have recently introduced secondary suite bylaws. From these case studies, they proposed six scenarios ranging from least restrictive to most restrictive. The least restrictive option (Scenario A) suggests that secondary suites should be allowed of any size, in any single-family home, and with no registration required. At the other end of the spectrum, Scenario F suggests required rezoning, additional parking requirements, and mandatory business licensing.

Scenario A does not require any additional municipal staff while Scenario F will require up to two more full-time employees.

Oak Bay will likely opt to enact one of the more restrictive of the six scenarios, as suggested from the tone in recent council meetings.

Secondary suites are currently not permitted in the municipality meaning the estimated 500-750 current suites are “unauthorized”. Despite the current lack of legislation, the majority of Oak Bay residents support basement suites. In a study conducted in 2014, 78% supported permitting and regulating secondary suites.

Legalizing in-law suites is one of the most politically popular methods of increasing the housing supply. This form of gentle density does not increase building footprints or change the appearance of a neighbourhood. In-law suites also promote multi-generational households allowing for “aging in place”.

As will all urban planning issues, opponents and the vocal minority are ever-present. Neighbourhood community association, “Oak Bay Watch”, lobbies in opposition to allowing income suites. They cite that “the city will require more revenue to support the population increase” and “the probability of fire is greatly increased”. Concerns about parking and increased property taxes were also raised. Oak Bay has the lowest vacancy rate in the region at 0.2% (Oct 2019). This vacancy rate is a symptom of low rental stock. As of 2018, there were 1080 primary (purpose-built) rental units, and this figure has not changed in several years. The number of rental households in Oak Bay even decreased from 2090 in 2006 to 1830 in 2016.

The full Oak Bay Secondary Suite Study can be read here.

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