Citizen group alarmed by growth of illegal housing

City Hall took the owners of this house at 340 Fanshawe Dr. to court after it was converted into an illegal boarding house for college students. Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson

Carol and Greg Chudy say they want growth and prosperity for Sarnia, but not at any cost.

So they’re asking City Hall to take action now before the shortage of affordable housing grows and more illegal rooming houses take root.

“We are concerned people will purchase houses for the sole purpose of renting to temporary workers or students,” says Greg Chudy.

The Chudys know what it’s like to have an illegal boarding house nearby.

They had lived in an upscale neighbourhood near Lambton College for just a few months when numerous college students began moving into a nearby home.

“It was Labour Day and there was an immediate increase in cars coming and going, and people making a lot of noise when they got home at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.,” Greg Chudy said.

The quiet neighbourhood wasn’t so quiet anymore.

They told the city the house didn’t appear to comply with College Park zoning that stipulates single family homes and a maximum of three non-related people in one unit.

City officials inspected and found eight bedrooms, some in the basement, and each with its own lock.

When discussions with the owner of 340 Fanshawe Dr. went nowhere, the city took legal action. Last September, a provincial court judge found the owner guilty of running an illegal rooming and boarding house.  She was fined $3,500 plus court costs.

The Chudys’ noise problem is gone.

“But this issue next door made us realize there’s a deeper issue and this is only the tip of the iceberg,” Carol Chudy said.  “There are people capitalizing on the shortage of affordable housing and we worry it’s just going to get worse.”

Sarnia’s interim Chief Administrative Officer agrees.

“I’m aware of four different cases like this, where the city has taken these homeowners to court,” Alan Shaw said.  The worst involved up to 20 students crammed into a single house.

“The city always wins,” he said.

But staff only responds to complaints, and Shaw is concerned many other homes are being converted into illegal boarding houses that don’t meet health and safety standards.

“We’ve got a perfect storm with development in the Valley, increasing college enrolment – which are both good – and a lack of affordable housing,” he said.

“It’s an extremely tough issue that touches a lot of people. Other cities are facing similar problems.”

The Chudys teamed up with other College Park residents to form Home Owners Watch Sarnia (HOWS). The group is urging the city to take a hard look at what it calls an impending housing crisis.

HOWS has done extensive research and interviewed city staff, police, fire, industry reps and Lambton College officials.

“It’s totally okay with us if a few students live in our neighbourhood,” Carol Chudy said. “But the communities closest to the college shouldn’t have to absorb the additional students if there’s not sufficient accommodation.”

HOWS wants Lambton College to provide a student residence.

The college has 3,400 full-time students and houses 280 of them in residence, according to the group’s research.

Meanwhile, City Hall has begun a review of it housing bylaws.

Ideas under discussion include a licence for homeowners who rent to multiple people, and promoting more secondary units in single residential areas to create more affordable housing.

Consultations will continue this winter, Shaw said. Everyone from property management companies and the local real estate board to Canadian Mental Health and the Inn of the Good Shepherd are being asked for input.

The Chudys hope HOWS and other members of the public will get their say too.

“We’ve always felt the city took our concerns seriously and listened to us,” Carol Chudy said.

“However, we have concerns about the secondary unit idea. There’s just got to be a better solution.”