Demoralized staff, unsafe homes and questionable motives – the issue of Surrey’s ” Monster Homes”makes front page news in The Province
Welcome news greeted me on the front page of the print edition of The Province this morning , one that left me thanking the author of the article, Kent Spencer, and the powers that be for giving this issue some much-needed attention on a larger scale. Unionized employees from the city of Surrey have come forward, and this is what they have to say:
Surrey has turned a blind eye to illegal monster homes in the city — all of them unauthorized, un-inspected and unsafe, says Surrey’s unionized workforce.
The illegal additions, many measuring an extra 1,000 square feet, were built on the sly, they say.
Second-storey sundecks with patios underneath were sometimes boxed in on weekends following official inspections, despite rules that require building permits for such enclosures.
One North Surrey home was advertised as a full “eight bedrooms and eight bathrooms” and has had a stop-work order posted for years.
Robin MacNair, spokesperson for the city’s local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, says Mayor Dianne Watts knows about the unsafe conditions but has not taken action.
“All of the additions were built without permits and without inspections. The majority were not up to the building code. The work included plumbing and electrical installations,” MacNair said.
But, it gets better. Interestingly enough, the story takes a twist with inferences of the mayor pandering to specific voters before the municipal election last year:
Surrey was ready to take more than 70 cases to court in the fall of 2008, with charges of building without permits and building against stop-work orders.
But council voted to hold all impending cases “in abeyance” on Sept. 29, 2008, several weeks before the municipal election. Altogether, the city has 278 stop-work orders for unauthorized construction which are being held in abeyance.
The city council decision came after lobbying by the Surrey Ratepayers Association, which presented a 4,239-name petition requesting stop-worker orders be “held in abeyance” while house sizes were reviewed.
Now, one councillor says the decision to hold off on those cases was done specifically to avoid alienating a large voter base in the city:
Surrey Civic Coalition Coun. Bob Bose said the city has left itself liable if anything goes wrong, because it knows about the illegal additions and has done nothing.
“The city has exposed itself to liability. If structures are built unsafely and we have failed to enforce bylaws, we are culpable,” he said.
He accused Surrey First of trying to gain favor with the ratepayer group shortly before last November’s civic election, which Surrey First won in a landslide.
“The Sept. 29 vote was directly related to the election. Surrey First did not want to suffer the wrath of a large part of the community,” Bose argued.
Some Surrey residents have had enough, and most do agree with me when I say the city is no longer listening to the people who live here.
Recent decisions by council to allow a controversial, private rehab facility in a family neighbourhood, along with the move to go against their own gaming policy to allow slot machines in one of the cities poorest neighbourhoods speaks to motives that do not indicate that city council even cares about either the quality of life of local residents, or creating a safe and sustainable community.
In fact, if it were not for the very sharp eyes of one Surrey resident, Rosemary Zelinka – ( who also happens to be a wonderful cheerleader for Surrey,as a member of the Surrey Association for Sustainable Communities ) – the entire monster home issue would have been endorsed by council without this weeks public meetings! Kevin Diakiw had this in The Leader:
Darlene Bowyer, with the Port Kells Community Association, is becoming frustrated with what she says is a lack of process in this city.
“I think it’s time to move somewhere else,” she said.
She notes that had it not been for a sharp-eyed member of the Surrey Association for Sustainable Communities (SASC), the issue would have been endorsed by council without this week’s public open houses. Five consultation meetings are taking place from Oct. 27 to Nov. 5. The initial meeting took place Tuesday (Oct. 27).
SASC Coordinator Rosemary Zelinka spotted the item on the May 25, 2009 council agenda and tabled a letter from the association vocalizing concerns about the process.
The article also gives the background on how this issue came to be. The Surrey Residents Association, under the representation of VP Kalvinder Bassi, has been lobbying the city for the past two years asking that the city no longer place limits on the height on homes being built here, and that they increase the allowable square footage of homes from the current 3,550 to 4,550 square feet. The SRA had originally asked to increase to 6,500 sq. feet, which is clearly not a single family residential home when it houses so many unauthorized suites.
The association even presented the city with a 4,239-name petition, however, those names represented only just over 1,700 homes.
One thing that stands out in this issue, is that some Surrey staff say the increase is needed to bring Surrey’s rules closer in line with other cities- but regardless of that, there is one major difference. The city of Surrey does not include basements in their calculations, whereas Richmond, Delta and Coquitlam do. And as anyone who lives here knows, those basements of monster homes often have up the three suites, in addition to the ones on the main levels of the house. This can add up to a total of 5 illegal; suites in one home.
Clearly, as the cost of housing becomes prohibitive for many people closer to Vancouver, the surge towards living in communities twards the valley is only going to increase. That’s part of why I ended up here in Surrey. However, it alarms me to no end that the development has been allowed to expand without taking the effect on local infrastructure into account, as well as the safety of the often vulnerable population who rent these illegal suites. Yes, some are up to code and safe, but the fact is that the vast majority are not.
I’m deeply concerned about this city, and the people who live here. This is part of the reason why the issues facing my old neighbours and friends in Newton are still my issues, despite the fact I no longer call Newton my home. Someone needs to speak out, and keep these issues ‘out there’.
Reality check time. You can build beautiful new buildings, and you can build rehab centres financed by wealthy businessmen who are on some of the mayors own committees, but unless you address and fix the issues that are the heart of why Surrey still has such a bad reputation, it means nothing. Keep allowing these monster homes in unlimited quantities, and you’ll have issues no amount of tax increases can manage.
As one resident, Peter G. told me recently: ” You can dress up a pig, but it’s still a pig. And that is what Watts is trying to do. She wants to cover up the deeper problems of crime and poor people, and it’s never going to work.”
This council has a shameful record of pandering to residential areas they deem to hold the votes they need, and ignoring those that don’t. The Newton Corridor and Whalley are a testament to that.
My guess is, this may be the issue that leaves her in the cold. And here is why.
Upset the vote in the community in favor of the Monster Homes, and she’s going to sacrifice the votes of those people and organizations who are staunchly opposed. Toss in the property tax and utilities increase she’s announced for next year, and the anger is going to grow at these mega home owners who are not paying their fair share. Will she and council take that chance?
I would say that might be quite a trade-off, considering the growing disfavour among many Surrey-ites. for the allegedly non-partisan style of politics the media lauds her for. Time for the people of Surrey to start looking for another viable candidate for mayor – one with enough business backing to consider making a run against her in the next election, and give Surrey residents a chance at a real future.
( One that doesn’t mimic Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals style of putting big business and developers far ahead of the average citizen in value.)