Jan Wong: the simmering class war over basement apartments in Brampton

Jan Wong: the simmering class war over basement apartments in Brampton

The Urbanization of the Burbs
(Image: Getty Images)

I once moved into an illegal basement apartment in Toronto for a newspaper series about working undercover as a maid. At $750 a month, it was the most affordable roach-free dwelling I could find. What’s more, it helped my landlord, himself a cleaner at the Four Seasons, pay his mortgage. Secondary suites are mutually beneficial for renters and homeowners. So I applaud the controversial new legislation that has finally legalized the subterranean world of basement apartments. The province-wide law, which took effect in January, overrides any municipal bylaws prohibiting them—bylaws that were typically passed due to residents’ complaints about traffic congestion, overcrowded schools and, though less often vocalized, there-goes-the-neighbourhood fears.

The laws that regulate secondary units are confusing, thanks to some political flip-flopping over the past two decades. In 1994, the provincial NDP government under Bob Rae passed Bill 120, permitting second units in houses, regardless of local zoning laws. A year later, Mike Harris’s new Conservative government introduced Bill 20, restoring to municipalities the right to outlaw secondary suites. Brampton, the epitome of sprawl, quickly took advantage of Bill 20 and banned the apartments. Pre-existing units that had been built to code were grand­fathered, but anything built after 1995 was deemed illegal. (Secondary suites, for the record, are legal in Toronto, where they constitute 20 per cent of the rental stock and tend to be 10 to 15 per cent cheaper than apartment building units.)

Brampton is the fastest-growing munici­pality in the country; between 2001 and 2011, its population increased by 61 per cent, to 525,000. The downside to this substantial growth has been a housing crisis—a very 21st-century suburban housing crisis. Nearly half of Brampton’s residents are new immigrants, many of whom can’t afford to buy one of the area’s predominant single-family detached homes. At the same time, there’s a dearth of affordable rentals; the CMHC estimates that the Peel region is in need of 1,900 new rental units per year over the next nine years. And for low-income residents requiring subsidized housing, the wait time is up to 11 years—one of the longest in the GTA. All of this explains why so many newcomers are landing in illegal basement suites, of which Brampton has an estimated 30,000.

Few neighbourhoods welcome basement apartments with open arms, but they’re especially unpopular in the supposedly bucolic burbs—low-density neighbourhoods where people have traditionally relocated to get away from the riffraff. Not surprisingly, many Bramptonians are furious about the new law. Legitimizing basement apartments, they argue, will decrease property values and increase pressure on the city’s already strained infrastructure. They worry property taxes will go up in order to cover the costs of bylaw enforcement and added municipal services. Chris Vernon, the managing editor of the Brampton Guardian, dislikes the proliferation of basement apartments because of overcrowded hospitals and street parking that impedes snowplows in winter. Grant Gibson, a city councillor, says there’s been “a huge outcry” over basement apartments, with complaints about safety issues and overcrowded schools. “We used to know we’d get three kids from every household,” he says. “Now a lot of times the schools don’t know where the kids are coming from.”

It’s true that the estimated 60,000 illegal basement apartment dwellers wouldn’t be counted in the census, nor would they be factored into property taxes, creating a challenge for the municipality. But what opponents fail to see is that any added strain on the system is a result of the population boom itself. Bramptonians are desperate not only for affordable housing, but for other services as well. Their hospital, Brampton Civic, has only 553 beds—not enough for a city of Brampton’s size. Social services agencies are stretched. Basement apartments are merely filling a need that’s not being met by the city and the province. They’re an environmentally friendly form of social engineering that, if legalized and regulated, doesn’t chew up taxpayer dollars.

It makes economic and environmental sense for two households to share the same pile of bricks and mortar, the same furnace and water heater, not to mention the same roads and public transportation—especially in a city like Brampton, which has half the population density of Toronto. And basement apartments have the healthy side effect of integrating newcomers into the middle class—where they can mingle with homeowners who go to work, mow their lawns and send their kids to university—instead of ghettoizing them in public housing.

At the moment, Brampton’s basement apartments exist in a judicial twilight zone while the municipality figures out how to conform to the new legislation. Queen’s Park hasn’t set a deadline for implementation, and the city is holding a series of public consultations. Inspection teams, as well as fire and safety regulations, could be in place as early as the fall.

To see the Brampton basement brouhaha for myself, I decided to visit both legal and illegal units. My guide was the affable Major Singh, so named by a father who had aspirations for his son’s career in the Indian army. Instead, Singh became an architect. He arrived in Canada in 1987 and, like so many of his compatriots, spent his first few years in a basement apartment. “Basement apartments are the stepping stones for most immigrants to Canada, whether Indian, Chinese, Portuguese or Italian,” he says. “You start in the basement and work your way up.” Today, the 56-year-old lives in a 2,300-square-foot four-bedroom home with a garage, a driveway, a meticulously kept garden and, yes, a basement apartment that he sometimes rents out. It’s legal, one of 3,000 that predate the ’95 ban.

We got in his dusty Toyota van, which was crammed with rolls of blueprints, stacks of work files and scattered fundraising pamphlets for the Rexdale Sikh Spiritual Centre, of which he is a director. In several hours of driving around in afternoon rush-hour traffic, with school buses off-loading children of every hue, we visited four basement apartments—three legal and one illegal—in homes worth between $550,000 and $700,000.

The last one was the nicest. It also happened to be the illegal one. The owner allowed me inside on the condition that I not reveal the address or his name. He told me that in 2007, when his house was being built, he paid the builder an extra $7,000 to create a separate entry to the basement. The two-bedroom apartment has its own washer and dryer, a spacious living room, an immaculate kitchen and windows in both bedrooms.

The tenant is a young widow with two boys, aged seven and three. When I asked if she worked, she shook her head. Singh explained that she scraped by on social assistance. She and the homeowner get along so well, he added, that she had moved with him from his previous home.

I realized that didn’t quite add up. So I phoned Singh the next day and asked for the real story. The widow, he admitted, helped out the homeowner with housekeeping and child care. She also cleaned other neighbourhood houses for cash. The arrangement may not have been entirely above board, but it was a happy one. And it showed the resourcefulness of these new suburbanites. In Brampton, there’s an Occupy movement that works.