Decision comes after homeowners, students, voiced opinions in all-day public hearing
Following a marathon five-hour online public hearing on Saturday night, the District of Saanich Council voted to increase the limit of unrelated people living in the same dwelling from four to six. Six councilors voted for the motion, while three voted against.
The restriction, under section 5.20 in Saanich’s zoning bylaws, was initially implemented in 1988 with a limit of six unrelated occupants. Four years later, however, the limit was reduced to four after consideration on what constituted the definition of “family.”
The bylaw, “Limitation of Residential Occupancy by Unrelated Persons,” has divided homeowners and tenants in the district. It received nationwide attention last year when seven UVic students were evicted from their home in the middle of the school year.
In January the District of Saanich Council promised to bring the bylaw to a public forum. This followed a Dec. 31, 2019 report from Brent Reems, Director of Building, Bylaw, Licensing, and Legal Services that recommended council increase the limit from four to six.
With the COVID-19 pandemic restricting the number of people who can physically gather together, Saanich Council held the forum online on Jun. 20 and allowed community members to call in and voice their opinions on the controversial bylaw.
After Saanich Mayor Fred Haynes brought the meeting to order just after 10 a.m., calls from Saanich homeowners, landlords and students who have been impacted by the bylaw flooded the phone lines for five hours — illuminating the large divide between renters and homeowners, the two parties in the city who support and oppose the bylaw.
Homeowners expressed concerns that raising the occupancy limit would create parking, noise, and garbage issues. Some homeowners also worried that changing the bylaw would destroy family neighbourhoods near the university. Meanwhile, students called the bylaw classist and discriminatory against students or people with low incomes.
Saanich homeowner, Vernon Lord, started a petition in January asking Saanich to keep the limit at four. Lord’s petition received roughly 600 signatures.
After seeing Lord’s petition, Philip Marciniak, a recent Camosun graduate, started a counter petition to voice support for increasing the bylaw limit. At the time of the public hearing, Marciniak’s petition had over 1,600 signatures.
“I wasn’t aware that this was a bylaw in Saanich,” Marciniak said in a phone interview with the Martlet. “I live in Saanich, I live in a house with five other people in it so I was surprised to see that me and my roommates could potentially be evicted by a bylaw.”
Marciniak had never heard of the bylaw until the CBC story broke regarding the seven UVic roommates who were evicted in 2019.
“I’m not surprised that we have so much more support online, and it is encouraging,” said Marciniak. “This whole bylaw really unfairly attacks students who have limited housing options.”
Emma Edmonds, who was one of the seven UVic students who were evicted from their Gordon Head home, has been fighting to change the bylaw since being evicted and spoke at the hearing. In her speech, Edmonds detailed how after the eviction she was forced to move into another home — with more than four unrelated people living together — which was also deemed illegal under the old rule.
After she found out the council voted to increase the limit, Edmonds expressed an overwhelming feeling of joy.
“I have goosebumps, I’m literally in tears, I know it’s such a small thing but I’m so excited,” said Edmonds in a phone interview with the Martlet.
Since the CBC story of her and her roommates went public, Edmonds said she had received a mix of criticism and support from members of the public online and while going out for groceries.
“All the crap that I’ve been through, getting yelled at Thrifty Foods, getting people sending [me] horrible, mean messages… and I just feel like it was all worth it.”
She also credited the University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS) for their support of the bylaw increase and hosted a Facebook event for the public hearing encouraging students and others in support of the amendment to speak out.
Emily Lowan, the UVSS Director of Campaigns and Community Relations, was responsible for managing the Facebook event page “Decriminalize roomates – Saanich Council Public Hearing,” and reaching out to students, community associations, and renter groups.
Lowan says that she was impressed with the event turnout, despite it being a relatively “high-barrier volunteer activity” requiring both email registration and a waiting period to have the chance to speak during the event.
Lowan also spoke at the hearing herself, citing her support for the increase. She also spoke about the structural and economic factors related to student housing insecurity, such as domestic violence and crime rates.
Lowan views the bylaw’s expansion as a step in the right direction, but one that needs to go even further.
“This tension has been ongoing for decades,” she says. “I don’t think that’s something that’s going to end now. It is one step, but I’d like to see it pushed to be unlimited — meaning, removing just removing the bylaw altogether.”
While Edmonds would prefer to see the restriction on unrelated people be abolished, she says that increasing the limit is a good first step to addressing the housing crisis impacting students and other vulnerable tenants in Saanich.
“In a democracy, a lot of the times you do have to compromise and I still think [the bylaw] is not right,” she said. “In this last hour I changed from being in an insecure housing situation where I could be evicted at any moment to where there’s no way I can be evicted by this bylaw.”
With files from Dorothy Poon.