Surrey's big homes issue is a real test of Watts' leadership

Post by Mike Klassen in


Is Surrey giving a boost for builders of monster homes?

It would be accurate to say that we here at have been very supportive of Dianne Watts' style of leadership in the City of Surrey. She has shown herself as someone who can be very inclusive both within her own council, and within the region as a whole. Unlike her counterpart in Vancouver, Watts has led the way on issues facing the region such as transportation and economic vitality.

But Dianne Watts is not entirely impervious to politics in her own community, and her extremely unclear approach to the large homes subject in Surrey has been a rare misstep.

"Monster homes," as they're referred to, are being built to accommodate the large extended families living in Surrey. Critics of the large homes feel that they are too large, often garish and poorly designed. The exact same fight, albeit with different players, occurred in Vancouver's west side during the early 1990s, when many new families arrived in the city after fleeing Hong Kong before its handover to China by the UK.

The crisis of "monster home" development blew up on then Mayor Gordon Campbell, who knew that in spite of the loss of heritage, that the overseas money was giving Vancouver a needed economic boost during a recession. Campbell resisted putting in any restrictions on demolitions, which were mainly happening in the well-off and WASP-y Kerrisdale and Shaughnessy neighbourhoods.

A pair of policies were put in place as a compromise by Vancouver city council in response to the public criticism. First, there was the famous RS-5 zoning for south Shaughnessy, approximately bounded by East Boulevard and Oak Street, and King Edward and 41st Avenue. This set of guidelines for housing design was forced upon a neighbourhood by the community itself. No other part of the city has had the wealth, influence and wherewithal to create similar restrictions.

The second compromise by council was the tree removal by-law, which requires replacement of any trees over 20cm in diameter, and limits the number of trees that size which can be removed on a property per year to one.

New Vancouver homes, with some exceptions, still got a whole lot uglier in the years since, but these two by-laws deflated the racial tension within a city that was undergoing major demographic change. The by-laws in essence forced home builders to respect the value Vancouver placed upon its heritage neighbourhoods, and the importance of trees.

Surrey has its own set of problems, and the underlying tension, from what I can see, is about race and politics. Watts can ill-afford to alienate a strong base built within ethnic communities, which is the best way to explain her waffling on this issue to date. Today's cover story in The Province describes the frustration with Watts on the homes issue from her own city workers, who fear illegal home additions are creating potential liability issues for Surrey:

Robin MacNair, spokesperson for the city's local of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, says Mayor Dianne Watts knows about the unsafe conditions but has not taken action.

"All of the additions were built without permits and without inspections. The majority were not up to the building code. The work included plumbing and electrical installations," MacNair said.

Surrey was ready to take more than 70 cases to court in the fall of 2008, with charges of building without permits and building against stop-work orders.

But council voted to hold all impending cases "in abeyance" on Sept. 29, 2008, several weeks before the municipal election. Altogether, the city has 278 stop-work orders for unauthorized construction which are being held in abeyance.

The city council decision came after lobbying by the Surrey Ratepayers Association, which presented a 4,239-name petition requesting stop-worker orders be "held in abeyance" while house sizes were reviewed.

MacNair said the union asked "several times" for meetings with the city about safety concerns, but it took Watts six months to respond.

Watts in essence has been accused by her opposition of using delay tactics to ensure her victory in last year's election:

Prior to the election, the ratepayer group lobbied Surrey First and the Civic Coalition.

Watts insisted that putting stop-work cases on hold was not about trying to attract votes.

Clearly Surrey has an issue arising out of housing demand, and a strong difference of opinion on whether building big homes (with little regard to design principles) is the answer. Why, in all the rancor, hasn't someone in Surrey offered a creative solution? Are more, smaller homes a possible answer for Surrey's mess? Would a Vancouver-style solution, like creating zoning to allow for denser lots, be one direction?

Sometimes guest editorialist Michael Geller has sounded off in a recent Vancouver Sun Op-Ed about the size of homes and apartments. Geller proposes that a shift is happening to a smaller size of home. In spite of family size decreasing since WW2, home sizes have increased. Recent stats cited by Geller suggest that this trend is changing, but clearly Surrey didn't get the memo.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median size of a new house dropped to 2,114 square feet in the fourth quarter of 2008, down more than 100 square feet from the first quarter of the year.

Perhaps in reaction to the "McMansions" that have been built across North America, there has also been a growing interest in very small houses. This has led to the "Tiny House Movement", which promotes smaller, detached single-family homes that can range anywhere between 65 square feet (yes, 65 square feet) and 750 square feet.

Surrey is charging forth on plans for a denser, more urban orientation that will provide the city with a sustainable future. But the fact that Surrey city council is prepared to approve a 25% increase in the limit for the size of homes is shortsighted and self-defeating. This idea almost ensures that the city will forever hold onto its suburban, car-oriented sprawl designation.

History is repeating itself in Surrey. Vancouver has had its own growing pains over monster homes, and while they were not able to stop it, the city did set in motion some creative ideas to uphold community standards while respecting the growing market for newer home styles.

All signs are that Surrey will make a political decision to accommodate the monster home market. What the city should do is ask stakeholders for new ideas on how to create better quality housing options without using more land.


The RS-5 zoning was started in Shaughnessy and expanded over the years to most of the west side single family areas and pockets elsewhere. One of the EcoDensity action items is to review RS-5. It is shelved for the time being.

I have always had doubts about RS-5. You can get a bigger house if you make it look like the neighbours' houses. It leads to dull architecture. I'd prefer to reward green not dull.

The RS-5 homes consume inordinate staff (and homeowner) time during development and no one has ever analysed whether the effort is worthwhile.

In fact, contrary to your perception of the case, Surrey's housing type and size is changing. The past couple years, we've seen multi-family housing (i.e. townhouses) increase, while the construction of single family homes has gone down.

The general area these "monster" homes are being built in is Newton, which over the past decades has become a predominantly South Asian community. These homes contain a full multi-generational family. It's no surprise then that, despite how these are technically huge single family homes, Newton is still the densest area in Surrey.

It comes down to demographic changes in the city. The established caucasian community dislike the visible change in their neighbourhood. I'm not saying they are racist, but they clearly do not want the "style" of homes to change. Unfortunately for them, there is only one true constant in life - change.

Density has and will continue to be the dominant issue. Transportation is often seen as leading density but if cities are proactive density should determine transportation. The suburban asphalt culture has to change, municipalities need to lead and shape that change.

Generalizations are indeed hard to make in a place as big as Surrey. I need to see more of this "new" Surrey I'm hearing about. You might be a good guide for us, Paul. Drop us a line if you ever want to take us on a tour. We'll pay for gas.

I've always thought we need a large bank of home designs of many kinds, as Andres Duany suggested during his speech in Vancouver a couple years back. Not so much sanctioned by the city, but clearly the work of designers and architects. Too much of what we build around Metro Vancouver are cookie-cutter homes from the minds of builders looking to maximize profit.

Lately I've been asking why we need front lawns, especially where houses are on the south side of the street (no sun in the front yard). Front yards are often just wasted space, unless the house has ground level access like Vancouver specials. People would prefer more backyard space, I think.

What is getting lost in this discussion is that Surrey is putting this to a public discussion on increasing the size of house on larger lots BUT ---- the increased size would now include covered decks in the computation ---- in order to prevent what is currently happening - the decks are getting converted into living space as soon as occupancy is approved - and then often sold with unsuspecting new owners caught up in the legal entanglement and oversized. A creative solution of increasing the size while including the deck measures as part of that size seemed to be a policy worth discussing. The "Open to Below" space (large overheight two level ceilings) would also be considered as square footage. The computation formula is getting lost in the emotional passion. Surrey's current house size on larger RF lots is the smallest in the region.

Councilor Hepner's interpretation of the staff report displays a lack of comprehension. Surrey is the only municipality that doesn't include OTB, covered decks and basements in the calculation. Under the proposed changes, a developer will be able to build up to 7,075 square feet on a lot that allows for basements. If Surrey wishes to lead the way in unsustainable building practices then we will become the undisputed leader. The fact that staff and council admit that the reason for including decks in the square footage is to stop the cheaters is discouraging. I have a novel idea; why not prosecute those who are breaking the law? Could it be that the mayor and two city councilors are part of that group? The fact that council embarked on this questionable public consultation process only after getting caught trying to skip that step back in May, speaks volumes about the way our city is governed.

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