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Single mom ‘living in fear’ as Surrey cracks down on illegal suites

PART 1 IN SERIES: Clayton family lives ‘day-by-day’ as they anxiously await another eviction notice
Angela Matassa says she’s one of hundreds of renters in the dense Cloverdale neighbourhood “living in fear” after the City of Surrey decided to crack down on the area’s many illegal suites. (Photo: Amy Reid)

After being evicted once this year already, Clayton’s Angela Matassa and her son worry they may soon be facing it again.

The single mom said she’s one of hundreds of renters in the dense Cloverdale neighbourhood “living in fear” after the City of Surrey decided to crack down on the area’s many illegal suites.

“I feel sick to my stomach. I really do,” she told the Now-Leader.

“The other day my son came home from school and I guess they were talking about it in class. He asked, ‘Are we going to have to go live in a park?’ Here’s my eight-year-old concerned we’re going to have to live in a park.”

Fighting back tears, she explained her son is well established in the community and she worries she will be forced to uproot him.

“He’s been going to school here for four years, he takes taekwondo here, his friends are here,” she said.

The city says it is left with no other choice but to force the removal of illegal suites. It says it has tried everything to resolve the parking issue.

The irony in Matassa’s case is that she doesn’t even have a vehicle.

See also: Surrey cracks down on illegal suites in Clayton

She wonders where she’s going to go if she receives the seemingly inevitable eviction notice.

“Yes, it’s like sardines, as you know, up here,” she said. “But you don’t go uplift all these families who can’t afford a home to move out. Where are they going to go?”

As for herself?

“Honestly, I have no idea. There’s no housing available and to try to rent a place is pretty much impossible today.”

“It’s really hard for a single parent who doesn’t get any extra help,” said Matassa.

Earlier this year, she was evicted from another Clayton suite in a basement just two doors down from her current home, when the owner decided to sell.

She ended up couch surfing with her son for a few months, before finding a one-bedroom coach home, which she lives in now with her son. But it’s less than ideal, at less than 500 square feet – the two of them have only one bedroom.

Matassa pays $850 a month for the roughly 475-square-foot coach home, and that’s inexpensive, compared to others she’s seen advertised on Craigslist.The majority of her furniture – and many of her son’s toys – are in storage she was forced to downsize from her larger basement suite.

“When I left there it took me two days to find a storage locker because everywhere was full. I went into Langley U-Lock and they had one left. I said, what’s going on I’ve been driving around for two days? She said, ‘Well, people can’t afford to live in houses so they put all their stuff in storage and they’ll sleep wherever, they’ll come in once a week get a change of clothes, bring a suitcase back, take another one.”

Now, she may be faced with eviction a second time this year.

She’s terrified in the midst of a housing crisis.

“I’m going day by day, waiting for it to drop,” said Matassa. “I think that’s everyone (living in coach houses), too. It’s not just me wondering.”

‘About fear and survival’

While it’s only legal in the City of Surrey to have one suite if you live in the home, many of the houses in Clayton were built with a basement suite as well as a coach home.

The city allows homeowners to rent one or the other out, but many rent both.

In August, the city sent letters to 175 homeowners that they must remove their illegal suites by Jan. 31, 2018.

And, the city has said it continues to look for more.

Matassa’s landlord Amanda – who declined to give her last name – hasn’t yet received a notice from the city, but both agreed it’s simply a matter of time.

Sitting in her coach home, along with tenant Matassa, Amanda explained that for 15 years she has worked at a transition shelter for women and children at risk of violence.

“What I do for work, the values carry through for me,” said Amanda. “I see the need that’s there.”

See also: Crackdown on illegal suites in Clayton immoral, says Surrey landlord

She said that’s why she rents to two single mothers. The thought of being forced to evict either into the current housing market makes her sick, she added.

Amanda said it’s a jungle out there.

The Bristol received 1,900 registrations for the 97 available rental units when it held its grand opening on Sept. 19.

And before Matassa moved in a few months ago, Amanda said she put her coach home on Craigslist and had 130 applications within 24 hours.

“Of the 130, one person gets it. I think for the most part, landlords are not looking in the vested interest of the larger community. They’re looking for the easiest rental. You see it all the time, looking for a working professional.”

People are desperate, given the lack of available rental stock, she said.

In her case, people were trying to outbid each other, offering more than she was asking for the rental. But in the end, she chose Matassa because she knows how hard it is for single mothers to secure housing.

At the transition house she works for, women are supposed to stay for about 30 days but end up there for four or five months because housing can’t be found.

“For what I see at work every day for women I work with, the choice is to live on couches with their children because they can’t get into the market.”

When they do, it’s in Clayton, she revealed.

“Clayton is the place where single moms are most likely to be able to rent. This is the entry point for them into the private housing market, because of the coach homes and their affordability,” she said of the women she helps.

“What used to be women moving into basement suites turned into coach homes, and it’s now shifted into staying at friends and family and sectioning off dining room tables with curtains and putting a bed in because that’s what’s affordable.”

The trouble is, these women are competing with everyone else for rental stock that is already in short supply.

“Where does a single mom on income assistance fit into that?” Amanda questioned. “I believe both of our tenants are struggling to pay what they are now. The idea of getting pushed out of this, and looking at an increase? Where are these women left to go?”

The issue has caused a lot of division in the community, said both women, nodding in agreement.

“I think the stories of the tenants have gotten lost in this. All of the sudden, for the tenants who have been given notice, their focus now is about survival and a roof over their head. This is about fear and survival right now.”

That fear and survival is something she deals with every day at the transition home.

“This is not about winning. This is about peoples’ lives.”

City council’s next move

Meantime, residents packed Surrey council chambers Monday night, many awaiting Surrey city council’s comments on a report about the suites that are being decommissioned.

The report details city efforts to alleviate the parking situation, such as campaigns to get people to use their garages.

It also notes several initiatives the city has assessed, but turned down, including using school parking lots (which was not supported because of crime and vandalism concerns) and utilization of green space for parking (which the city says is fundamentally against its objectives).

After much discussion, city council voted to send the report back to staff.

Councillor Bruce Hayne was met with applause from the audience after stating he’d “like to see more on this corporate report from staff.”

While Hayne said there’s no point in having bylaws if they’re not enforced, he acknowledged this is a “human issue” and said, “We have to work very closely and compassionately with the community.” Hayne said he’d like to see tenants worked with on an individual basis to “make sure lives aren’t disrupted to a great degree.”

“We have to do this in a very passionate and caring way and I don’t think this report completely addresses that,” he added.

Councillor Tom Gill asked how staff would accommodate residents to ensure people don’t end up on the street. “Specifically issues I would like staff to deal with is to look at how we will be assessing individual cases,” said Gill. “Whether you’re a senior, whether you have students… I want to be sure our youth have an opportunity to finish out this school year.”

Councillor Judy Villeneuve thanked all the residents in council chambers for attending, “because it’s a tough issue.” The report before council stated there are more legal secondary suites being built - 500 to be available in the next six months and 1,000 in other forms of housing - but Villeneuve pointed out that those “may go quickly or be brought on board at different rates.”

Meantime, Councillor Dave Woods brought up the fact that the city has been collecting fees on many of Clayton’s illegal suites. “Quite frankly, I don’t agree with that,” he said.

“Every councillor sitting up here is very concerned about families,” Woods added. “We’re concerned about the housing situation in the city, and it never is our intention… to displace young families that are in schools through the school year. I think that somehow we need to go back out to the community, Madame Mayor, and we need to convey in writing to the community, more what the direction of council is… But the bottom line is, I will tell you right now, my position is the suites are illegal.”

Mayor Linda Hepner said there have been more than 7,000 parking complaints in the area. But she noted the city has what may be the lowest vacancy rate it’s ever had, at 0.4 per cent. “I think that’s contributing to our homeless count,” she said.“In the midst of our haste to solve the parking problem, we have now confronted, and have, an enormous housing problem.” She, too, called for more of a “transition” for those being forced to leave illegal suites.

City staff will now draft a report addressing council’s concerns.

Coming up in Part 2

Next up, we’ll introduce you to father Darrin Dighton, who hopes the city has a “change of heart” because he can’t afford to move.

“I’d be on the street,” he says.

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