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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.

  • W. K. Lis

    Lower property values? I guess that is one reason Toronto house prices are lower than Brampton’s. Not.

    As for the extra cars, improve Brampton’s public transit to be more like Toronto’s (24 hour service, 10 minute headways, rapid transit, etc.) and there would be a less need for extra cars.

  • poh

    The people that continue to support the ban on basement apartments simply don’t want visible minorities in their city and support their argument by making bogus claims like it would increase traffic congestion. Chances are if you are recent immigrant to Canada and living in a basement apartment in Brampton, you’re taking the bus, because you probably don’t have enough money to pay for a car, gas, insurance, etc.

  • margarets

    I think we should hold the line on basement apartments because they’re generally not great places to live. No matter how nicely they are done up, it still feels like you are in a basement, and it’s not a great feeling. I don’t think tens of thousands of GTA residents living in basements is a good thing for anyone.

    A better way forward is wage increases and affordable, good-quality housing.

  • mimicoguy

    OK, the funniest thing I read here was “The people that continue to support the ban on basement apartments simply don’t want visible minorities in their city” And in Brampton, that would be white folks.

  • re-electrobford?areyoumad

    and how margaret do we create the revenue for the increased wages and to build this housing? it is so easy to say increase the wages and build affordable housing. inflation is a nasty business-it is like a dog chasing its own tail.

    i would rather see legal basement apartments than more and more condos. house prices make house ownership unattainable for many-but condos keep people at the working poor level without most 1st time buyers understanding that they must pay a mortgage, condo fees, taxes, insurance, utilities and everything else…sure it sounds great at $299,900 for 700 square feet but once the fees and everything else are factored in the income to dwelling ration has moved from its proper 25% to 45% (i think its 55% in vancouver-ouch!)

  • Jen

    The government getting involved while not putting plans in place that actually fix the issue…..big surprise. Way to point a finger in an absurd direction – blame the poor working class. Way to go.

    Why why why are we so divided? Why would a community that is stating it understands the crawl from the bottom up, close the lid on whomever is behind them? Property values?! That’s a silly argument. The area requires a bigger base line of taxes – it already sounds long overdue. Having a large property is a privilege. A privilege! One that demands one pays for that privilege. If you’d like a prestigious address without a rental community – take a hard look at your current finances. The middle class doesn’t fit that bill. What is with this (dated) 1950′s attitude of arrogant entitlement once you hit a moderate level of income? Look left and right – that just isn’t realty anymore. Inflation as a solution is passing the buck. The owners need the renters as much as the renters need the owners. For crying out loud – we’re all interconnected, and involving this bureaucracy (that clearly can’t be accountable for their part past law enforcement) into the fold makes things very inefficient.

    Finally – to @areyoumad – yes – I went from renter – to condo owner – carrying at the peek a 60% ration – the banks didn’t bat an eyelid (I was very young hence entering the contract) – we need to rewrite the books on economics 101 (personal and integrated) – and we could if we all weren’t rushing off an ever growing cliff, together (one thing we are blindly working on as one, sigh).

  • Rex Saigon

    Meanwhile, in modest-size cities in Ontario FAR REMOVED from over-priced Toronto — and I mean CITIES with populations of, say 75,000 to 150,000 people — $750 – $850 a month can get you a fine one-bedroom or even two-bedroom apartment in an actual apartment building. Some will (typically) argue that these cities don’t have the opportunities that Toronto does for new arrivals, but it’s just not true. The SAME KIND of opportunities for these folks are all over the place, especially when one considers just how many newcomers start off in low-end jobs or even self-employed. But no, why encourage new immigrants to go to these places — to BLEND IN in cities where multiculturalism is still on the rise (even if slowly) and where they might be able to AFFORD a decent accommodations — when we can just encourage them to keep joining “their own people” in Toronto’s increasingly closed-off, closed-minded and sometimes even crime-ridden ENCLAVES (and you talk about white people? Ha!!). Ontario as a whole needs many of these new immigrants just as much as Toronto does, arguably moreso, but their desire to be among their fellow countrymen all but forces them into basements to work their way up (and always the legal way, I’m sure) when they could expedite the whole process by getting outside Toronto.


    These are NEW planned communities( To live in one you are very lucky). Planners, Architects, Engineers, Sewage, Density, Parking, Water, Builders and City Plans. To discount all the time, effort, planning, knowledge, that went into this is crazy. You purchase a house in this planned new community, you need to understand that people bought into this, they a right to live the way it was planned.

  • Last of seven

    Bravo Jan. Well put. I lived in Brampton all my life. My parents immigrated from Ireland in 1952. They bought a beautiful Victorian Home in downtown Brampton. It had a 2nd floor 2 bedroom apartment. My parents were very resourceful. Dad worked in construction and throughout the years as more children would come along (7 of us in total) he would bust out a wall and build on to the existing home. It now stands as a legal four plex. Because of the rental income my mother was able to be at home to raise us. As the youngest of the seven, I had the opportunity to purchase the home with my husband, from my mother after my Dad’s death. We had lived there as property manager’s for my mother for several years before taking it on ourselves. We had looked elsewhere to purchase a home. Nothing made sense but to continue living there in one of the best neighborhoods in Brampton. My eldest sister lives 3 houses down the street. I too was able to stay at home to raise our four children because the rental income was my salary. Cu-dos to new immigrants who struggle to make a better life for themselves and their families. The City of Brampton needs to “get with the program” and start working to legalize the existing apartments. The process, however is cumbersome, to say the least and frankly no one wants to deal with the bureaucracy and somewhat corrupt manner with which they are presented when wanting to bring an illegal apartment into the light. In renovating and upgrading our property over the years, I have been working with several contractors. Their profession is not an easy one. Consistently I am told of the ring of bribery that rules the process for building permits. Many immigrants coming from 3rd world countries and know well of these underhanded methods and want to stay clear of them in this new land. How can you blame them? My worry is for those living in the illegal and unsafe apartments. This will become a bigger problem if something is not done to make it easier for those with illegal apartments to come forward. With such a shortage of affordable housing it would make sense to provide a subsidy to landlords to bring their apartments “up to code “.

  • HP

    The problem now is that everyone and their brother thinks that they can be a landlord. In fact most are interested in dollar signs than the responsibility of maintaining suitable rental units. If we as a country have deteriorated to the point where people must live in other people’s basement because we don’t have proper affordable housing – then these basement landlords need to be regulated. Being a landlord should be a privilege and there should be proper regulation and the authority to revoke landlord this privilege should landlords violate these regulations. How do we fund this? Make landlords pay an annual fee to this governing body.