Another Uproar Over Monster Houses


Another uproar has risen over the issue of immigrants proposing to build monster houses in an old neighbourhood. The latest incident has raised a number of old questions about the conflicts that occur when major changes are proposed for an area, particularly when those changes are introduced by newcomers who have very large amounts of cash.

The location this time is Surrey, B.C., the largest municipality in the province. Sikhs in that area have tried to get permission to build large houses in an older section of Surrey which has been home to World War II veterans and other Canadians since the early 1950's. Sikh immigrants have moved into other areas of the Surrey municipality in large numbers. Census Canada shows that Surrey had a total population of 345,780 in 2001. At that time, Sikhs comprised 16.29% of the Surrey population. Surrey's projected census for July, 2006 was 412, 823. Census Canada does not provide a projection of ethnic sizes. But, since population increases in Canadian communities are now more attributable to immigration, the Sikh percentage of Surrey's population has probably increased disproportionately.

The two chief sources of Canada's immigrants are India and China. A significant part of the immigrants from India are Sikhs who come from its Punjab Province. A significant number of the Sikhs who have come to British Columbia have settled in Surrey. A large number have entered through Canada's “Family Class” category, meaning they are probably unskilled.

The houses currently in the older section are traditional Canadian bungalows, ranchers or split level dwellings typical of the mid-20th century. Before building the new houses, the Sikhs would have to demolish these older ones. Opposition to the Sikhs' proposal has erupted because the proposed houses would dwarf the existing structures. In addition, some residents would lose the panoramic views they have of the Fraser River and nearby cities if high houses were built. The general name for the area is Saint Helen's Park because of historic St. Helen's Anglican church nearby which sits on the same hill and which was built in 1911. The area is well-kept, but the existing houses are modest. In contrast, the planned houses have been described as “palaces”. Residents have said that if the large houses were built, the planned dwellings would conflict with the established character of the neighbourhood.

The Sikhs have said they want to build the large houses in order to accomodate their extended families. The latter term refers to parents, uncles, aunts and other relatives of the house owners and their children. They also explain that they want their children to be close to a Sikh school which is being built in the neighbourhood. They claim that protests by St. Helen's Park residents are discriminatory.

Surrey City Council voted 9 to 1 on December 4 to limit the size of new houses in the area to 3200 square feet. In Canada, this is an unusual expression of support for the host population which, over the past 16 years, has been forced to adapt to newcomers, not the other way around.

The Mayor of Surrey has said that a plan to limit the size of houses in that area had been proposed over two years ago and that house-size limits are not a new issue. A Surrey city councillor has justified the size restriction by stating that the residents who have lived in the approximately 150 houses have to be respected.

The Councillor says that the principal reason for the Sikhs' interest in the area is the large lot sizes as well as the affordability of housing in that part of Surrey. According to Surrey's Planning Department, the minimum size of lots in the St. Helen's Park area is 60 feet by 120 feet (7200 square feet). A standard lot size for the past 5 years in many parts of Surrey is smaller, currently around 40 feet by 90 feet (3600 square feet), and the lots are more expensive.

The councillor also notes that in areas where Sikhs have built monster houses in the past, the houses became “mini-hotels”, often containing a number of suites from which revenue is probably not declared. Suite dwellers owned vehicles in addition to those of the house owners and the number of vehicles on the streets was far beyond that of average streets with one-family dwellings. The resulting congestion was a significant negative for the neighbourhoods involved.

Because the monster houses are so expensive, this issue inevitably raises the question: Where did the money to build these “palaces” come from? Most Sikhs are probably honest and the money being used to pay for their dwellings may be the result of pooling of legitimate resources. But can it all be classified as such?

Immigrant groups often defend themselves by saying that they have acquired their wealth by working hard. But the owners of the very modest houses in Saint Helen's Park would probably respond by saying that they too have worked hard. However, their efforts have not yielded the same results, particularly the relatively quick wealth.

Revenue Canada has undoubtedly been alerted to this issue before with other groups, both long-term citizens and new arrivals. However, Canada's Revenue Minister should use this incident to remind officials about this activity and to tell them to step up their diligence in looking into such matters with all groups.

Revenue Canada should not have to put up with the standard intimidation that has accompanied the Surrey monster house issue and which accompanies many similar inquiries.