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Most two-unit houses said to be illegal

Realtors say strict enforcement of bylaw would evict thousands

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

City staff are looking into the possibility of creating a committee to review Oshawa’s bylaw regarding two-unit houses.

At the latest meeting of the city’s development services committee, two local real estate agents spoke on the need to address illegal housing.

Roger Bouma, an Oshawa realtor and former city councillor, said his request ties into the “looming stress”  coming on housing in the city and entire GTA.

He noted there is “insufficient stock of quality, safe rental units,” particularly in Oshawa and Durham Region.

Bouma was a member of council in 2014 when significant changes were made to bylaws regulating two-unit houses.

“In retrospect, I wonder if Oshawa made our bylaw more restrictive than the province had intended, but more importantly, more restrictive than our neighbouring municipalities,” he said.

He estimates around three out of every four basement suites in two-unit homes are not legal or safe, and haven’t been properly inspected by Oshawa’s fire and building departments.

“There’s a lot of people living in unsafe locations,” he said.

Bouma’s fellow realtor Michael Dominguez joined him in calling for the committee’s creation.

Dominguez owns 13 rental properties across the city, including 11 legal two-unit dwellings.

He too noted a lack of affordable housing has created a complicated rental market in Oshawa.

Dominguez said only a few years ago, a typical three-bedroom apartment would run between $1,200 to $1,300 a month in the city, but now the same apartment would rent for about $1,600 to $1,700 a month.

He said the city and region cannot “rely on new builds” to meet affordable housing needs.

“Builders and contractors haven’t been able to keep up with the [required] new supply of rental units,” Dominguez said.

In his profession, Dominguez said he’s seen his share of “filthy, unsafe units.”

“No fire separation…Electrical panels that give me shivers when I see them,” he told councillors.

Explaining he “doesn’t want to have illegal, unsafe units in the city,” Dominguez said he fears the possibility of renters being either killed or injured in a fire.

Despite their concerns, both Bouma and Dominguez warned against the city using heavy-handed enforcement to address this issue.

Dominguez said this would result in “thousands and thousands” of people being evicted, while Bouma believes the city “would have a much larger homeless population.”

Under the current system, houses with two-units are required to be registered on the city’s inventory list.

However, Bouma believes the majority of such units in Oshawa are not registered.

He and Dominguez again agreed it would be best to encourage those who have not registered to do so, and make necessary     improvements to make their units legal.

“It’s not a matter of how can we prevent it, it’s a matter of how can we make them safe, because people are going to do it anyway,” Dominguez stated.

Ward 5 city and regional councillor Brian Nicholson questioned what the real estate industry itself is doing to stop these illegal units, noting he feels some realtors may encourage it.

However, Bouma said agents are “very careful to let people know they are not purchasing a two-unit home.”

“I think our industry does a very good job policing it,” he said.

Dominguez added investors who want to rent out “illegal units” are people he chooses not to do business with.

Despite this, Nicholson believed their proposal seemed to be “orientated to real estate agents and landlords who would benefit.”

While Bouma and Dominguez were arguing young families, among others, were living in unsafe basement units, Nicholson said there are other issues.

He noted “absentee landlords” are buying up single-detached homes, and turning neighbourhoods into “slums.”

Nicholson said families who have saved up money to buy a modest first house can’t do so because prices are being driven up by out-of-town investors willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars over value.

Secondly, he questioned if so many two-unit houses are illegal in the city, then shouldn’t there be a strict crackdown against them.

Nicholson said he was told in 2014 the changes to the bylaw would address issues with two-unit houses, but it doesn’t seem to have happened.

“How can I expect anything different in 2019 or 2020 moving forward, if in the previous five years all the previous promises were made and they didn’t occur either,” he questioned.

Ward 2 city councillor Jane Hurst worried more secondary units, either legal or illegal, is changing the dynamics of neighbourhoods in the city.

“These neighbourhoods were not designed to have so many people in them,” she said.

She questioned why some owners of two-unit houses aren’t registering with the city.

Bouma said it is likely because they know enforcement is on a complaint-only basis, or their units don’t meet legal requirements.

Ward 5 city councillor John Gray said more two-unit houses could lead to the city “jamming more people into neighbourhoods than were intended.”

But again, Bouma said even though the city’s bylaw doesn’t allow these illegal units, they are still there, and he is worried about safety.

“When I see a young family in a basement apartment where their only exit is to get out through a furnace room, I get concerned,” he said.

Ward 4 city councillor Derek Giberson said he isn’t of the mind that “single-family dwellings are sacred,” and neighbourhoods with two-unit houses can be vibrant.

But he wanted to know if real estate agents would notify the city if a client was renting out an illegal unit.

Bouma said the issue of “agent law” comes in and sometimes they wouldn’t be able to disclose that type of information.

He explained he wasn’t asking council or the proposed committee to make any suggestions “very quickly.”

“Please make use of a broad spectrum of this community, so you can create a bylaw that works well for all residents whether they are homeowners or tenants,” he said.

The committee eventually supported a motion from Mayor Dan Carter to refer the matter back to staff for a future report.