News comes nearly a year after seven UVic students were evicted from their seven-bedroom home
When Emma Edmonds moved into a seven-bedroom house with six roommates in September 2018, she had never heard of section 5.20 in the Saanich zoning bylaws.
Living in a Gordon Head neighborhood just minutes from UVic, Edmonds and her fellow UVic students enjoyed a spacious house close to campus, until Dec. 5, 2018. That was the day a Saanich bylaw officer knocked on their door and told the students they had to move out in the next two months, in the middle of the school term, because they were breaking a bylaw, “Limitation of Residential Occupancy by Unrelated Persons,” that bans more than four unrelated people from living together in the same dwelling.
In the ensuing weeks, Edmonds and her roommates received national attention resulting from their issue with the bylaw, and the students scrambled to find last-minute living arrangements in Greater Victoria — where the rental vacancy rate hovers around one per cent.
“The whole process … has been a pretty awful experience,” Edmonds told the CBC last year. “I just felt that even if we couldn’t save our own house it’s really important that we make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else because what’s happening to us … is legal and that’s the problem.”
Edmonds went on to speak in front of Saanich Council last January, detailing how the bylaw cripples students searching for living arrangements in a city facing a housing crisis. She remembers leaving the session in tears after being repeatedly told she couldn’t talk about bylaw enforcement in an open session.
“I felt totally embarrassed, and I was crying,” said Edmonds in a telephone interview. “But the thing is that the people cared, people resonated with our story and our message, and once it hit the news there was an outpouring of support.”
In February, based on a recommendation from Mayor Fred Haynes, Councillor Zac de Vries, and city staff, Saanich council unanimously agreed to look at options to amend the bylaw. A date for discussion around bylaw reform is still to be determined.
However, the decision hasn’t been met with universal praise from citizens in Saanich.
In a council meeting on Feb. 4, 2019, Saanich homeowners lined up to oppose any changes to the 1993 bylaw. The CBC reported that more than a dozen residents showed up to discuss the bylaw, with most speakers not wanting it changed.
One speaker questioned council about what would happen if they changed the bylaw and as many as 10 students could start living together.
“We often hear about renters’ rights and landlords’ rights. What about homeowners’ rights?” said Carol MacDonald. “We would have 10 students with potentially 10 vehicles. Ten adults who potentially enjoy a good, noisy party … 10 busy students with little time nor desire to engage in property maintenance.”
Edmonds says safety should be a main priority in discussions about updating the bylaw, and understands the concerns from homeowners who oppose any changes.
“I completely get it, you’ve been living in this community for 20 years, and you’ve just watched these slum landlords — who don’t have any interest in being a part of your community — just take over… And it’s students [living there] so maybe they’re not that clean, or there’s garbage around, or parked cars,” said Edmonds. “I would say to them, where do you want me to go?”
After finding another place to rent in Saanich last spring, Edmonds moved back home to Nova Scotia in the summer for work and decided to take a year off from school for reasons unrelated to the bylaw issue.
At UVic, the University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS) is planning to move forward on a motion drafted last year to advocate for students, and work with the District of Saanich to address the divisive housing bylaw that has caused rental stress for students.
At a board meeting at the beginning of November, the UVSS board passed a motion to write a letter and call on Saanich Council to repeal the bylaw. The bylaw was passed in 1988, and was updated in 1993 to reduce the limit from six people to four.
“As this debate is ongoing, I think it’s really important for us to show our support in favour of repealing it … This bylaw disproportionately impacts students, and can create unstable, uncertain, and insecure living situations,” said Juliet Watts, UVSS Director of Campaigns and Community Relations, who also cited Edmonds’s case as an example at the Nov. 4 meeting.
Jonathan Granirer, UVSS Director of Outreach and University Relations, said he wants to address this issue because he’s concerned that the city is making the housing crisis worse with the bylaw — while also discriminating against students and other low-income people by making it harder to access safe and reliable housing in the middle of a housing crisis.
In a follow-up email interview with the Martlet, Granirer said he’s heard from multiple students who were threatened with eviction due to Section 5.20 of the zoning bylaws, and plans to submit the proposed letter to Saanich council after the district have released their solution to the discussion surrounding bylaw reform. He added that the letter will either oppose or endorse the solution, depending on whether it serves the best interests of students.
Moving into the early months of 2020, Granirer plans to work with Saanich councillors regarding potential changes to the bylaw.
“In the new year I intend to work further with Saanich councillors (primarily Zac de Vries and Ned Taylor) to ensure that appropriate changes are made to this bylaw,” he said. “I also plan on attending the Saanich Council meeting where this bylaw reform is discussed and speaking in favour of a solution that the UVSS deems as favourable to students.”
Edmonds has been in contact with de Vries regarding potential changes to the bylaw, and is planning to come back to Victoria this month for a separate work project. However, she hopes to be here when the bylaw is brought to council.
“So many people after all the news stories came out were reaching out to me, and telling me ‘I had this story, I had this horrible landlord that took advantage of me, or had this horrible situation I was in.’ So I learned this really is a crisis,” said Edmonds.
“Victoria is a beautiful, well-off city on the surface, but beneath the surface there are people [who] are really struggling.”