Posted on December 10, 2009

Debate Rages Over Surrey ‘Monster Homes’

Kate Allen, Globe and Mail (Toronto), December 10, 2009

For Kalvinder Bassi, the massive houses sprouting up throughout Surrey are part of his community’s–and his own family’s–way of living.

For Rick Hart, those same homes are an urban blight, and a sign of a “cultural divide” in the Vancouver suburb.

As the debate over monster homes rages, outsiders may be surprised to learn it began over a seemingly innocuous zoning bylaw amendment. For more than a year, Surrey city council has been mulling a change to municipal regulations that would expand home sizes on single-family lots to 4,550 square feet from 3,550, based on a petition from the Surrey Ratepayers Association.

Mr. Bassi, the association’s vice-president, says big homes are a necessity for multi-generational families. A long-time resident and realtor, he lived in a Surrey mega-home as a young father.

“With three kids, my grandma and my parents, that was the only way we could live,” Mr. Bassi said. “You need the extra bathrooms because you have eight people. You can’t have two bathrooms and a lineup every day.”

But Mr. Hart, president of the Fleetwood Community Association, worries about what a spike in urban density will mean for communities. “We need to deal with the fact of common values and common vision for the city,” he said at a recent town hall meeting. When asked later, he said his reference to common values reflects a concern about large homes that are overbuilt, breaking the current bylaws.

Mr. Hart welcomes multigenerational families, but says, “if that is a legitimate requirement to deal with, then we need to take care of these other things,” such as infrastructure and school capacity.

Many citizens who oppose mega-homes believe they mar the character of Surrey neighbourhoods, where 1950s-built, ranch-style bungalows predominate. They say large homes consume green space, invite increased traffic, and bring heavy construction onto quiet residential roads.

Some of the community’s ire also stems from illegal partitioning of mega-homes into multiple suites where as many as four rent-paying families live. Bob Bose, a city councillor, admits city hall has ignored bylaw infraction problems for decades. He estimates there may be as many as 30,000 extra suites in the city, representing $800,000 in unpaid taxes. Last month, two councillors admitted to owning illegal secondary suites.

Paul Fitzgerald, a local plumber and gas fitter, says he has witnessed alarming safety violations inside such homes. “The building code of Canada isn’t a racist document, it’s a safety document,” he said at the meeting.

Mr. Fitzgerald, also a Surrey citizen, believes 3,500-square-foot homes are “unnecessary,” even if built legally. “They displace neighbours. I got friends, they walk out their side door and there’s a 30 foot wall up, 50 feet long. And that’s all they see now.” He says the homes are built right to the property line, so “there’s no privacy.”

Peter Simpson, CEO of the Greater Vancouver Home Builders’ Association, believes all houses must be built legally. But he sees much of the opposition coming from areas where there are no illegal residents.

“Just to say we don’t want these homes in our neighbourhood is a NIMBY reaction,” said Mr. Simpson, a resident of Surrey’s Newton neighbourhood. He is an advocate of “housing affordability and choice, and both of those issues are addressed in these large homes.”

Nathan Lauster, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia who studies immigration and housing, said that South Asian families in particular tend to have multiple generations living at home, children who only leave home in late adulthood, and a slightly higher birth rate.

“The trend is to find larger homes,” Dr. Lauster said. In Vancouver, “that tends to concentrate in Surrey.”

Coquitlam, Richmond, Burnaby and Langley all permit homes within the range of the maximum sizes under consideration, according to documents presented before Surrey city council.

Mr. Bassi says “fear mongering” is at the heart of the opposition to large homes. “If it’s in Shaughnessy, or Richmond, or Morgan Creek, [or] some of the posh neighbourhoods up in Fraser Heights, it’s a mansion. But if it’s here in Surrey, it’s called a mega or a monster house.”