Victoria’s Big Housing Moves – Building the Future We Need

Missing Middle Housing forms. The design guidelines ensure that missing middle homes will fit with and complement neighbourhoood character.

This piece was originally printed in the Times Colonist.

Not everyone wants to raise a family in a downtown condo. And, with the cost of single-family dwellings hitting an all-time high, too many families in Victoria can’t afford a $1.4 million starter home. The “missing middle” fills the gap between these two scenarios.

Missing middle housing is ground oriented housing – houseplexes and townhouses – with front doors that open to the street, and backyards that maximize useable green space so kids can play, and families can have their neighbours over for a barbeque.

With its missing middle housing initiative, the City is trying to address an out-of-date planning and zoning process that currently makes it easy to build homes that few people can afford. The missing middle housing initiative will make it as easy to build homes that more people can afford.

Here is an example: On Pembroke Street, across from Central Park, there are two sixplexes under construction that will provide 12 homes likely to sell for $750,000 or $800,000. These homes had to go through a two-year development process with no certainty that they would be approved by Council, and added construction costs due to cost escalation during the approval process. In contrast, on Chandler Street, a single-family home was recently built. This home required no Council approvals and received staff approvals comparatively quickly. It was listed for $2.4 million.

The missing middle proposal would delegate approvals to staff for houseplexes and townhouses – the same way they are currently delegated for single family homes – as long as the proposed new homes fit within design guidelines that ensure compatibility with neighbourhood character.

Making these changes now will help increase the supply of homes available over the next few decades for people we need to attract to and keep in our communities – doctors, nurses, police officers, tradespeople, and others who are essential to our community wellbeing and economy.  

It was reported in the media recently that a doctor planned to relocate to Victoria but couldn’t find a home. VicPD created a hiring incentive of $20,000 to attract officers from other parts of Canada. While there is keen interest from across the country, few have taken up the offer, as they can’t move here because they can’t find suitable housing.

Missing middle housing is not an affordable housing initiative. It should be seen in context of other key housing initiatives the City is working on concurrently to address the full spectrum of housing needs. To solve the housing crisis, we must work at it from all angles and create appropriate housing for people on income assistance, low-income workers, seniors, and working professionals. We must meet people’s housing needs throughout their lifetimes.

That’s why the City recently adopted new legislation to expedite affordable housing projects built by non-profits and co-ops. We streamlined the process and reduced the time, costs and risk to affordable housing providers. This will encourage the development of more deeply affordable housing and new co-ops.

We also recently undertook a villages and corridors planning process. The new plans will increase rental and affordable rental opportunities near neighbourhood centres and along and adjacent to transportation corridors. This initiative has a strong focus on purpose-built rental housing, with incentives for affordable housing. Protecting and increasing the supply of purpose-built rental is a key objective to provide security for renters and prevent displacement.

Taken together, these three big moves address different housing needs in our community and provide opportunities to increase the housing supply in Victoria – for both renters and owners.

Our goal is to increase the supply and diversity of housing, and to improve housing choice.

With all three of these initiatives, city staff have worked hard to challenge themselves, Council and our community to think outside the box, to be creative, and to push the boundaries of provincial legislation. Doing so means we have been able to successfully incorporate the many things we know our community cares about: affordability, accessibility, equity, sustainability, urban design, mobility, and protection of the urban forest.

The City’s recent Housing Needs Assessment made clear that our housing supply is not keeping pace, that there is a large affordability gap for both renters and owners and that our housing options are not meeting the needs of our residents. To have a future that looks different than the projections of our Housing Needs Assessment, we need to take all these actions.

The housing types we build now, and in the future, will influence who can live and work here and how our city grows. In other words, we need to build for the future we want. 

Missing Middle Moving Forward

On Thursday, at a Committee of the Whole meeting, Council voted 5-4 to forward the missing middle initiative to a public hearing before making a decision. This is the first time in ten years that I made notes to introduce a council motion! So I thought I would share them with you all here as a supplement to the post above. You can watch the meeting and find all the staff reports and relevant documents here.

Not enough or flawed consultation

  • We need to be human about this and we need to be honest about it
  • In ten years at the table this is what I’ve observed:
  • Sometimes when people say there was no consultation its that they were just busy in their lives – as many of us are – and they missed information that was out there, until it comes to committee, which is why we have public committee meetings
  • Sometimes when people say there is not enough – or flawed – consultation it means they disagree with the outcome the consultation
  • Some people feel that there has been not enough consultation on this initiative
  • Some people feel that there has been enough consultation and after two years of engagement, just get on with the decision
  • This is why we have a public hearing at the end of the process – so EVERYONE who has now heard about the initiative as it comes to a public committee meeting can join the hearing and have staff clearly explain the initiative to everyone, all at once, and so that everyone can weigh in
  • Let’s not tear our community, council, or staff apart today debating the consultation,
  • Everyone may have different feelings and opinions about the consultation process … [PAUSE]

Housing Crisis

  • But what is not a matter of opinions or feelings, and is a cold, hard fact that everyone can agree on: we are in the middle of the biggest housing crisis our residents have ever faced. It’s a housing affordability crisis AND a housing supply crisis. And it’s a crisis because we haven’t overhauled the city’s residential zoning process, ever, to catch up to the current reality
  • These are the facts.
  • And in a crisis, we have to act.
  • I’m certain that the Missing Middle Housing Initiative is not perfect, and that there will need to be changes over the next few decades as this rolls out
  • But I am convinced of two things, and I hope that a majority of Council members are as well:

First: Economically, we’ve squeezed everything out of these projects that we can:

  • Adaptable units
  • Accessible parking
  • 20% 3 bedrooms
  • Securing right of way for wider sidewalks, street trees or bike lanes
  • Backyards
  • Canopy trees and protection of the urban forest
  • Transportation demand measures like car share and bus passes
  • Contribution to the Affordable Housing Reserve Fund
  • No matter how much more economic analysis we do, or how many more independent consultants we engage to do analysis, the facts will be the same, we can’t squeeze any more out of these homes without turning them into phantom projects that can never be built

Second: We need to send this forward to a public hearing as is – with the tenant protections we’ve now added – and to allow our very keen, intelligent and engaged public to hear from each other before we make a decision.

  • Right now, our inboxes are flooded.
  • We need to take this conversation out of our inboxes and into the public realm so that everyone can hear each other’s stories and circumstances, and so that council can hear them, before we make a final decision
  • There were some members of council who were uncertain about sending the Expedited Affordable Housing proposal forward to a public hearing. But the majority of council decided to do so. And we were all surprised by the stories that people shared that night, and by the overwhelming support for that initiative.
  • We don’t know whether we will be in for a similar surprise with this public hearing or not, but we need to listen, and see what comes forward.
  • Although I don’t want to see this initiative fail at all I’d rather see it fail – or be postponed, or sent back for revisions – after a public hearing than here on the committee floor

A final few wrap up thoughts:

  • When Council makes decisions, we always consult and focus on the most affected stakeholders. This proposal has been to the Renters Advisory Committee and to the Accessibility Working Group. Of the renters who took the survey more were in support of delegated authority than homeowners.
  • And the Accessibility Advisory Committee is the reason that at least one unit in all MM housing needs to be adaptable and have an accessible parking spot
  • The most affected stakeholders are not the people who already own a single family home in Victoria’s traditional neighbourhoods. They will be protected by the design guidelines that will ensure any new buildings are a fit.
  • The most affected people are people like this young woman who wrote to Council:
  • “My husband and I currently live in Fernwood, and have been at our condo for a few years now. We love the city and the neighborhood, but with a baby on the way, and possibly more down the road, we know we will outgrow this condo in the not too distant future. 
  • “I work as a registered nurse at the BC Cancer Agency, and my husband works at the University of Victoria. Even for two working professionals, the dream of owning a single family home seems to be out of reach. We could however, save up and hope to own a townhome or a unit in a multiplex. This would allow us to stay in the community we call home, and raise our family here.
  • Passing this initiative is critical for us, and many, many families in similar situations.”
  • Thousands of others like her will not be able to call Victoria home
  • THESE are some of the people who are also affected by the housing crisis and who will benefit from this initiative, to the benefit of our whole community
  • My closing point – and I really hope that Council and the public will get the analogy that I’m about to make to the climate crisis: how we tackle the housing crisis is a complex issue with a number of solutions
  • You don’t solve the climate crisis by only building bike lanes
  • You also need zero emission buses
  • And Building retrofits
  • And Waste reduction
  • And carbon taxes
  • And so on
  • So too, we don’t solve the housing crisis only by building below market rental units
  • The Missing Middle Housing initiative is not an affordable housing initiative
  • It should be seen in context of other key housing initiatives the City is working on concurrently so we can address the whole spectrum of needs.
  • To solve the housing crisis and the affordability crisis, we have to create appropriate housing for people on income assistance, low-income workers, seniors, and working professionals. We have to meet people’s housing needs throughout their lifetimes.
  • Missing Middle housing alone won’t to that. It can’t do that.
  • That’s why we recently adopted the Expedited Affordable Housing program.
  • It’s why through the villages and corridor planning we’re creating housing opportunity zones and mixed residential zones to create more rental and affordable purpose built rental housing near neighbourhood centres and along and adjacent to transportation corridors.
  • Etc etc
  • Taken together, all of these moves – including missing middle housing  –  address different housing needs in our community
  • Our goal is to increase the supply and diversity of housing, and to improve housing choice.   

One final example about how this all fits together.

  • Chard HAVEN Below Market Affordable Home Ownership at Cook at Yates, financed by BC Housing program (which MMH also eligible for) of the 94 homes that have sold so far, 81 have sold to Victoria renters who will be moving out of their rental units when their new homes are built,
  • That’s 81 units returned to the rental pool
  • Just like addressing the climate crisis means doing more than just building bike lanes, addressing the housing crisis means taking a big picture, long-term, ecosystem based approach
  • MMH taken together along with all of this Council’s other big moves does this. It’s one puzzle piece in a very complex puzzle
  • So let’s send this initiative forward to a public hearing so we can hear from the public, and so they can hear from each other and understand each other’s points of view a bit better before we make a final decision

[PAUSE]

Now I will turn to the seconder

More Affordable Housing, More Quickly – Victoria Makes First of Three Big Housing Moves

Renderings of Cool Aid’s Crosstown Building at Douglas and Burnside. Affordable housing buildings like this one can now get under construction more quickly with new legislation the City of Victoria adopted Thursday evening.

At a public hearing on Thursday evening, speaking in favour of Victoria’s proposal to allow affordable housing and co-ops to be built more quickly, Irene from Vic West said when she thinks about the character of her neighbourhood, its the people in her neighbourhood thinks of. Irene wasn’t alone. She and others talked about the need for diversity in their neighbourhoods – for artists, young families, immigrants and refugees, for a range of people to be able to call all of Victoria’s neighbourhoods home.

Everyone who took the time to come to City Hall in person, call in, or record a video spoke in favour of the bold policy move proposed by City staff. Non-profit housing providers shared that this change in legislation will enable them to move projects forward more quickly, with more certainty, and that this certainty will help attract federal and provincial funding.

I’m so proud of Council for unanimously adopting the expedited affordable housing legislation to accelerate construction of new affordable housing in the city. Projects by non-profit, government or co-op housing organizations will no longer require rezonings or public hearings when they are consistent with the City’s Official Community Plan and related design guidelines.

This will get more affordable homes built more quickly for families, workers and people who need it the most. It’s the first of three big moves that I hope Council will make, to improve the housing development process and make homes more affordable, more accessible and more attainable for people living in the city. The next two big moves are, one, prezoning land for rental housing, and two, creating Missing Middle Zoning to make it as easy to build houseplexes and townhouses as it currently is to build a single family home.

With the change we made on Thursday evening, Victoria is the first municipality in B.C. to approve a city-wide accelerated process for qualifying affordable housing projects. Projects that meet all the necessary criteria will be permitted to build up to the maximum density in the City’s Official Community Plan.

We may not be alone for long. Saanich Councillor Susan Brice has given a notice of motion to Saanich Council for April 25th. What this means is that Saanich will consider Brice’s proposal to adopt the same approach in Saanich as we have in Victoria, opening up large swaths of land in the regions two largest cities for faster affordable housing development.

This quick uptake by our neighbour is inspiring. And I think it’s the exact kind of move that the Province is hoping to see from local governments – learn from each other and work together to get more housing built more quickly. Minister Eby, Attorney General and Minister responsible for Housing provided some generous comments in support of Victoria’s decision:

“Cities taking steps to speed up approvals for new public and affordable housing makes it easier, cheaper and faster for the province and the federal government to respond to the housing crisis by building the homes that are desperately needed. Because of the scope of our housing investments, having a partner at the municipal level who facilitates quick approvals helps get doors open sooner for people living in the streets and parks, and also for people who simply need a more affordable place closer to work. A special thank you and recognition are due to Victoria’s Mayor and City Council for taking this important and meaningful step to accelerate approvals of affordable housing.”

Now all City approvals for affordable housing will be delegated to staff, including development permits and variances. This change is expected to cut about nine months off current timelines for a typical project, and even more for others. This time savings will result in a significant cost savings for affordable housing developers and co-ops, and the governments that fund them.

Let’s take for example a typical non-profit housing development with a construction cost of $20 to $25 million dollars. With residential construction cost inflation running at more than one per cent a month, according to Statistics Canada’s building price index, this would save approximately $2 million off a typical affordable housing project. This savings can provide deeper affordability in new buildings, or be invested in future affordable housing projects.

Jill Atkey the CEO, of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, also took the time to call into the public hearing from Vancouver. In a follow up statement she noted that, “There are three key factors that put affordable housing projects at risk once they enter the municipal approvals process: time, cost and uncertainty of approval. Victoria City Council removed all three of those barriers and now shines as an example to other municipalities serious about affordable housing in their communities.”

Nearly half of Victoria’s 27,000 renter households are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. Recent reports from BC Housing indicate a wait list of more than 1,100 individuals and families in Victoria in need of affordable housing. The Capital Regional Housing Corporation has had a wait list of over 2,500 for many years now.

Clearly we have a lot of work to do. My hope is that Victoria’s policy innovation will spur an unprecedented building boom in non-profit and co-op housing. We’ve created certainty which will leverage investment from provincial and federal partners. In addition Victoria can use city-owned land to partner with non-profits and co-ops. And we can purchase additional land for affordable housing and create additional partnerships. All of these actions taken together will help to create a much needed post-COVID housing boom in Victoria for now and for generations of Victorians to come.

Reconciliation Contribution Program – Opportunity for Victorians to Recognize Lekwungen Lands, Contribute to Nations

Eugene Sam of the Lekwungen Dancers performs at a ceremony in Centennial Square on March 11th.
Photo Credit: Kellie Hart.

Over the past few months, in partnership with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations and guided by the insights and leadership of the Reciprocity Trusts, we’ve been working to create a very simple program for local property owners to make a voluntary reconciliation contribution to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Last Thursday, a strong majority of Council endorsed this idea and will likely vote to ratify it on April 7th.

One of the criticisms of this policy innovation that we’ve heard from some members of the public – as well as one of our colleagues – is that local governments don’t have a responsibility or the jurisdiction for reconciliation and should leave reconciliation to the federal and provincial governments.

Municipal Responsibility and Jurisdiction

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its report, including 94 Calls to Action. Five of these calls to action were directed to local governments. In 2017, when Victoria began our Witness Reconciliation Program, we adopted these five municipal calls to action and committed to working towards them.

Specifically, TRC call #47: “We call upon federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and lands, such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, and to reform those laws, government policies, and litigation strategies that continue to rely on such concepts.”

For cities, reconciliation must include recognizing both the impacts of urban growth and the increasing economic value of Indigenous lands, which Indigenous people don’t benefit from because of declarations of European sovereignty and displacement from their own homelands.

As part of the 2022 budget, Council is introducing a five-year pilot project with a $200,000 Reconciliation Grant to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Council made this decision as a small gesture to recognize that the wealth generated by the City in the form of property taxes comes from Lekwungen lands, and that reconciliation and decolonization must involve more than words.

Reconciliation Contribution Program

The reconciliation contribution program proposed last week is in addition to the grant the City has already committed; it is an opportunity for Victorians to participate directly.

Over the past few years, many Victoria residents have participated in reconciliation initiatives – from attending the Victoria Reconciliation Dialogues, to participating in the Victoria Orange Shirt Day event on September 30th (now the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation), to learning about Lekwungen culture through their neighbourhood associations.

Last summer, many non-Indigenous Victorians came face to face with the history of the residential school system – some for the first time – as the first 215 unmarked graves were discovered outside the Kamloops Residential School. Many people have asked at these events and in this context, what more they can do as individuals to participate in meaningful reconciliation.

The reconciliation contribution program really is as simple as it sounds. Beginning in 2022 and each year thereafter, when property tax notices are mailed out, a separate form will be included that explains the City’s reconciliation work and the principle of reciprocity. This form will present an opportunity for property owners to decide whether or not they would like to make a voluntary contribution, over and above their property taxes. Property owners will be invited to voluntarily contribute an amount for example equal to 5% or 10% of their property taxes, or another amount of their choosing.

The City will collect this money and will send it to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations alongside the City’s Reconciliation Grant. The money will be used by the nations to achieve objectives that they have set out for themselves likely including things like economic development, language revitalization, housing, education, and more.

This same process will be followed each year, giving property owners an opportunity to opt in each year. Just because a property owner makes a contribution one year does not mean they are obligated to do so the following year.

Reciprocity Trusts

For the past year, Reciprocity Trusts, a Victoria based non-profit initiative, has been working with south island Indigenous nations, municipalities and residents to create a new way to recognize Indigenous lands. They have been building support across the south island region for members of our communities to voluntarily contribute an amount based on their property taxes to south island nations, including the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. This a way of recognizing where they live and work and the wealth generated from these lands.  

Reciprocity Trusts is in the process of setting up a Regional Trust for Southern Vancouver Island that would facilitate a voluntary transfer of wealth from renters, homeowners and business owners to First Nations in the region who choose to participate and receive Reciprocity payments. Once the trust is set up, the recommended Reciprocity payment will be based on an amount equivalent to 12% of a resident or businesses annual property taxes, and wold be eligible for a tax-deductible receipt.

In the future, as work between Reciprocity Trusts and the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations unfolds, Council can consider working with the nations and the Trust to hand over administration of the program to them.

Why the Link to Property Taxes?

As Councillor Potts pointed out on Thursday during the Committee of the Whole discussion, the reconciliation contribution program is part of the ongoing government to government relationship the City has been building with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations. Government to government relationships are key to reconciliation and decolonization.

The Songhees and Esquimalt Nations are not a charity or a cause. They are sovereign nations, which, through the process of colonization have been displaced and removed from the heart of their territory as we occupied it to build the City of Victoria. The principle of reciprocity means recognition of the fact that residents, businesses and the City itself generates wealth from living on Indigenous lands; with this wealth comes responsibility.

Councillor Alto put it most eloquently, “The reason to tie the reconciliation contribution to the land is that people who have a benefit from the land have an opportunity to share the benefit of that land with the original stewards and owners of the land.”

In Closing

During Committee of the Whole, we discussed whether people who rent and don’t own property or people who live on Lekwungen lands outside of the City of Victoria may also wish to make a contribution. When the proposal comes forward to Council on April 7th, we will hopefully amend it to make this possible.

Even for those who aren’t able to contribute this year, I hope that when people receive the new form in their property tax envelope, it will be an opportunity to think about the Lekwungen lands from which our wealth is generated. And I hope it might inspire each of us to ask how we might participate in meaningful reconciliation and decolonization with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

City Supports Songhees Nation in Treaty Negotiations with Province and Canada


In 2017, the City of Victoria declared a year of reconciliation, adopted the five municipal calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and began a journey of reconciliation with the Songhees and the Esquimalt Nations on whose homelands Victoria was built. We realized quite quickly that a “year” of reconciliation was a naive notion. We’ve worked well beyond 2017 – and will continue to work for the next many decades – to decolonize the City of Victoria.

When we began the reconciliation process, we went to both the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations and asked if they would like to participate in a reconciliation task force. They kindly told us that a “task force” was a colonial structure and suggested instead that we create a family, as the family is the unit of governance in Lək̓ʷəŋən culture. So we created the City Family, and set out on our journey.

Over the past five years, the City Family, as well as Victoria Council and Songhees and Esquimalt Councils, have shared food and ceremony. We’ve deliberated and made decisions together. We shared a private box when Victoria hosted the World Juniors, and we were all thrilled when a young Songhees member was broadcast on the large screen in the arena, doing the floss!

We co-created and co-hosted the Victoria Reconciliation Dialogues to share our learnings and Lək̓ʷəŋən teachings, culture and ceremony with the community.

We gathered together and wept together when the first 215 bodies of children who died in residential school were discovered in Kamloops last summer. And together we decided to postpone Canada Day celebrations, as Lək̓ʷəŋən elders were grief stricken and unable to participate.

We worked together on the removal of the Sir John A Macdonald statue from the steps of City Hall in the summer of 2018. We did this to make Victoria City Hall more welcoming and inclusive for Indigenous members of our community. And we stood together in the summer of 2021 when the statue of Captain Cook was toppled in the inner harbour. We unequivocally denounced the tearing down of the statue, the vandalism to churches, and asserted that we will get further by standing shoulder to shoulder than by tearing down each other’s cultural symbols.

Songhees and Victoria staff have worked together on park re-naming, street re-naming, the gathering of elders’ stories to share in the new Songhees Park extension that will open this fall on the west side of the Johnson Street Bridge. They’ve collaborated on the design of the Lək̓ʷəŋən Plaza as part of the Government Street Refresh project. And so much more. They too are developing relationships with each other.

We’ve made lots of mistakes along the way. And each time we do, we’ve been lovingly yet firmly corrected. The ongoing generosity of the Lək̓ʷəŋən people, despite everything that has happened during colonization, which continues to this day, is humbling.

This years-long collaborative process – “Na’tsa’maht”, which means, “We are one,” in lək̓ʷəŋiʔnəŋ – brought us to last Friday, when the Songhees Nation and the City of Victoria held a public ceremony in Centennial Square. The ceremony marked an important next step in the return of Lək̓ʷəŋən land as part of the Songhees Treaty negotiations which began in the 1990s.

In a show of solidarity with the Songhees Nation, the City provided a formal letter supporting the Songhees’ Treaty Settlement Lands within City boundaries. (See below.) Although the treaty negotiations with British Columbia and Canada continue, this represents a significant step in the Treaty process. The Province and Canada consult with local governments when considering the return of lands within municipal boundaries to First Nations as part of the Treaty process.

Municipalities can either get in the way and object to the land back proposals, or we can stand by and support. We’re choosing to stand and support because we know this will assist the Songhees in their negotiations and help bring the decades long Treaty process to an end.

When a nation acquires lands as Treaty Settlement Lands, it means that they own the lands outright – unlike reserve lands – and that they are not subject to local government zoning bylaws or the City’s Official Community Plan. In essence, Treaty Settlement lands are a recognition of the right to self determination and self-government.

This is what Songhees Chief Ron Sam said in a joint news release from Songhees Nation and the City:

“Today we celebrate and honour Mayor Helps and Council in their efforts to rebuild the relationship with the Songhees Nation. We appreciate their support in our mission to negotiate return of our traditional lands in Lək̓ʷəŋən territory through Treaty, and for their unwavering commitment to working government-to-government with our leadership over the years.  It is a truly historic day, and we look forward to continuing our respectful and valuable relationship to benefit all families who live in Victoria and the surrounding area.”

To hear more from Chief Sam please watch this terrific CHEK news story. To learn more about the history of the Treaty process, please read this excellent CBC story.

Before each public meeting, we acknowledge that the City of Victoria is built on the homelands of the Lək̓ʷəŋən speaking peoples. To be meaningful, reconciliation needs to be more than land acknowledgements. Reconciliation must be accompanied by decolonization and decolonizing practices. So when the Songhees asked that we stand with them and support them in their treaty negotiations to reacquire land that was wrongfully taken from them – land in the heart of their territory – Council voted to do so.

We did so because we cherish the opportunity of working towards decolonization and addressing the wrongs of the past by supporting the Songhees Nation in their efforts to get some of their land back. Over these past five years, we have built a strong relationship with Chief Sam and his Council that we value very much. It is this relationship that will lead to meaningful reconciliation between the City and the Songhees Nation, to the benefit of their members and our residents. 

Letter to Chief Sam

Dear Chief Sam,

We understand that Songhees Nation is negotiating a land claim agreement under the British Columbia treaty process through the Te’mexw Treaty Association to acquire the following lands as part of its treaty negotiations:

• 1112 Wharf Street
• 430 Menzies Street, and
• 613/615 Pandora Avenue

On behalf of the City of Victoria, I write to express the City’s support for the Songhees’ treaty process and the City’s support for Songhees’ acquisition of the above-noted lands as Treaty Settlement Lands. On June 10, 2021, City Council adopted a resolution to reiterate and confirm this support.

The City looks forward to developing the foundational framework for establishing the collaborative working relationships and servicing arrangements between our two governments in anticipation of the lands becoming Treaty Settlement Lands. We view this collaboration as an important aspect of the reconciliation process.

Please do not hesitate to reach out should you have any questions. Sending my best to you and all of our colleagues at Songhees Nation.

Sincerely,

Lisa Helps, Victoria Mayor

Black in BC and the International Decade for People of African Descent, 2015-2024

Pulchérie Mboussi, Executive Director of the African Arts & Culture Community Contribution Society – Issamba Centre.

Systemic racism exists. It exists in policing. In local, provincial, and federal government programs and services. It exists in health care and education. Systemic racism is rooted in the historical acts of colonization, displacement, slavery — acts which were foundational to the creation of western society and western institutions. Even though it has historical roots, systemic racism exists to this day, and it negatively impacts Indigenous people, people of colour and black people / People of African Descent, while those of us with white-skinned privilege continue to benefit.

February is Black History Month. It’s an opportunity to learn about the significant contributions that People of African Descent have made to Canada, British Columbia and Victoria’s history. And, it’s also a time to get educated about, and begin to collectively address, the continuing and distinct racism that People of African Descent in British Columbia and Victoria face on a daily basis.

To help uncover the contemporary experiences of People of African Descent in B.C, the African Arts and Culture Community Contributor Society (AACCCS), headed by the inspiring, passionate and amazing community leader, Pulchérie Mboussi, received funding from the provincial government to undertake research. At a symposium last week they released their report, “Black in B.C. Convenor Pilot Project.” They also rolled up the recommendations into a second report to create an International Decade for People of African Descent (IDPAD), Action Plan for BC.

The United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent runs from 2015-2024. As noted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in her statement at the halfway point of the decade a few years ago, “Throughout the world – and regardless of whether they are descendants of victims of enslavement, or recent migrants – people of African descent endure intolerable discrimination and constitute some of the poorest and most marginalized groups … The Decade is a unique platform that emphasizes the important contribution made by people of African descent to every society, and promotes concrete measures to stop discrimination and promote their full inclusion.”

In Victoria, British Columbia, and Canada, we have a lot of work to do in the next three years to address anti-black racism and promote full inclusion. Here are some of the findings from the AACCCS survey and research about the lived experience of People of African Descent in BC. I encourage everyone to read the full reports, linked above.

Key Findings

The report notes that, “The findings show inadequate progress in terms of recognizing, promoting and protecting the human rights of People of African Descent (PAD) in BC. We find:

  • The endurance of systemic and structural anti-Black racism and discrimination across all
    eight thematic issues in British Columbia.
  • The continued absence of PAD-focused policy and legislative acknowledgments, and interventions by the provincial government as a consequence of multicultural, Indigenous,
    Black and People of Colour (IBPOC) frameworks. While such inclusive frameworks
    are important, they must not diminish the peculiarity of PAD experiences and conditions.
  • The relatively low representation of PAD in professions such as medicine, nursing, teaching and politics. This trend also reflects in the number of PAD in leadership and decision-making positions across organizations. This trend is curious considering the relatively high academic and professional qualification we find amongst PAD in BC.
  • The persistence of an education system that marginalizes and fosters ignorance about ‘Black’ knowledge forms, practices, innovations and histories.
  • The poor transparency, accessibility and cultural sensitivity of anti-racism accountability systems across institutions in BC.
  • The absence of aggregate race-based data to inform assessments and policy changes
    related to institutional equity, diversity and inclusion across institutions in BC.
  • The conspicuous scarcity of PAD-focused cultural and community spaces; the persistent
    adverse/under- representation of ‘Black’ identities, values and cultures in the media, school curriculum, public art and the built environment of BC.”

The report goes on to remark, “Even amidst the aforesaid challenges, we note the remarkable agency of the PAD community in BC. The PAD community has continued to show resilience and innovation as they push to provide solace for members and non-members of their communities, and also fight against systemic anti-Black racism.”

There are a few key findings and recommendations that stood out for me.

First, don’t lump People of African Descent under the acronym “BIPOC” and assume that Black, Indigenous and People of Colour all experience the same kind of racism. As noted in the report, “Anti-Black racism is viewed as a necessary frame to understand the peculiar challenges faced by People of African Descent and the need for customized policy remedies.”

Second, People of African Descent experience significant racism in the workplace. Ninety-six percent of those surveyed said that racism is a problem at the workplace, with 78% indicating that it is a serious or very serious matter. Only 25% felt that anti-racism training would help address this. What would help the most is having People of African Descent in leadership positions and on hiring and promotion committees. In other words, we can do all the training we want, but until we start to change the composition of our organizations and companies, we will not be able to address systemic racism in the workplace.

Third, 70% of respondents felt targeted or concerned about their safety when dealing with local police or the RCMP. The report also found challenges with access to legal resources and a low representation of lawyers and judges of African Descent. The recommendations made in the report to address these issues (pgs 13-16) are clear and strong. If implemented by the Province, we will begin to see the dismantling of systemic racism in policing and the justice system.

While the recommendations are made to and for the provincial government, there is action we can all take. I’d encourage everyone to read the recommendations and think about how they can be translated into your own workplaces, community organizations, arts and culture programming and so on.

At the City, we have recognized the International Decade for People of African Descent and created an International Decade for People of African Descent Task Force. Council has provided the task force with some initial resources to begin their work, including funding to develop a grant program to support youth of African Descent. Councillor Dubow and I are the councillor liaisons to that task force and will continue to observe and support the work.

At the City, we have also created an office of Equity Diversity and Inclusion; one of the core staff in that office is a person of African Descent who is working with the Human Resources Department to develop specific anti-Black racism training for City staff. As noted above, however, training is not enough to dismantle systemic racism in our organizations and companies. Clearly, the City has more work to do.

Dismantling systemic racism is a collective responsibility and should not be left to those who are disproportionately harmed by it. Here is a great resource to understand what white supremacy culture is. And here’s another with the characteristics of White Supremacy Culture .

If you’re inspired to share any actions you take coming out of reading the Black in BC Report or anything inspired by this post, please email mayor@victoria.ca and I will share your stories in a follow up post. Please feel free to share this post and these resources with others who might need them. Thanks in advance for helping to build less racist, more truly inclusive communities. To those of you who have already been doing this work for years, decades, or your whole lifetime, thank you.

Part 4. Missing Middle Housing and More Inclusive, Climate-Friendly Cities for the Future

A single family subdivision being built in the westshore, where a forest once stood.

This is the final part in a four-part series to make as strong a case as possible for Missing Middle Housing in all neighbourhoods in Victoria. This initiative is key to the city’s future.

In a nutshell, Missing Middle Housing will allow for more inclusive housing forms “as of right”, which means without needing to go through a rezoning process. Missing Middle zoning will create more townhouses and houseplexes (including duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, etc.) to help diversify housing choices. It’s aimed at people who will never be able to afford a single family home in Victoria.

Missing Middle Housing will also help to address climate change and contain urban sprawl by making homes available for families closer to the urban core. This reduces transportation emissions by locating housing within walkable and transit oriented locations, unlike the depiction in the photo above.

Fundamentally, Missing Middle Housing is about changing the way we regulate land use. Currently, if an owner of a single family home, or a duplex, or triplex wants to demolish that building and build a new single family home, all that is required is a building permit. Yet if a homeowner wants to demolish their single family home and build a houseplex, it takes a couple of years to go through a political process, with no guarantee of success.

Here’s how this has played out: the City approved fewer than 250 missing middle housing units between 2012 and 2019. By contrast, in the same period, the City approved over 600 units in the form of single-family dwellings or suites therein.

And, a current market update presented by the Condo Group at a recent Urban Development Institute webinar shows the dearth of supply when it comes to townhomes, not only in Victoria but also across the region.

“Months of supply” is a calculation that quantifies the relationship between supply and demand in a housing market. It quantifies how many months it would take the market (in its current condition) to absorb the entire active inventory. A healthy housing market has between four and six months of supply available. The 0.6 months of supply for townhomes across the region is extremely concerning. Developers have the advantage in this situation, as they can charge a premium on new townhouse units, because there is virtually no competition.

More Inclusive Cities

But this lack of supply puts young families and others seeking to afford to purchase a home in the the city at a disadvantage. Census data shows that Victoria continues to lose young families with children to the suburbs. This is worrisome when thinking about inclusion, but it’s also a public health and well-being issue. Census data also shows that Victoria leads Canada’s mid-sized cities in walking and cycling to work. There are health benefits to being able to afford to buy a home in the city.

In a previous blog post, I’ve laid out the efforts the City is making to create more truly affordable housing for those who are struggling just to make ends meet. Since publishing that post, Council has taken a step forward to make affordable housing (run by non-profit housing operators, co-ops, or government agencies) as of right anywhere in the city, as long as it fits with the City’s Official Community Plan. The final step in that policy change is a public hearing sometime in the next couple of months.

As noted in the post on the housing affordability crisis, unlike the City’s other housing policies, Missing Middle Housing won’t create affordable housing for very low, low and moderate income earners. But it will make home ownership more attainable for more working people in the city. This is also an important objective if we want to have a healthy, diverse community, and a strong economy. Many businesses are having trouble filling jobs and attracting people to Victoria because housing is too expensive, even for working professionals.

The Victoria Real Estate Board’s past decade of data shows that townhouses have continued to cost 20% less than a single-family dwelling in Victoria. Prezoning land through the Missing Middle Housing initiative can help bring the costs of townhomes and houseplexes down even lower.

Here’s how:

The City of Victoria’s planning staff have identified alignment between the City’s Missing Middle Housing initiative and the provincial Housing Hub’s Affordable Home Ownership Program (AHOP), as well as other provincial priorities, including affordability, accessibility, and CleanBC objectives.

Having Missing Middle Housing forms allowed as of right / without a rezoning process required substantially de-risks these projects from a provincial financing point of view. Provincial programs through AHOP could increase the proportion of missing middle units sold at below market prices, including three-bedroom units.

For example, on a potential sixplex project, an AHOP program partnership could translate into an estimated savings of $50-$90K on the purchase price of each below market housing unit. Combined with AHOP’s second mortgage equity support, AHOP program partnership contributions could help couples with children and other households purchase a home in a missing middle project.

Facilitating the creation of more Missing Middle Housing in Victoria improves the availability of critically lacking housing choices, including three-bedroom homes for young families and homes that support aging in place and accessibility. This will help create more inclusive neighbourhoods and a more inclusive city.

Climate Friendly Cities

In 2020, the South Island Prosperity Partnership and the City of Victoria commissioned a series of reports from The Business of Cities to understand how Victoria and the region measured against peer cities globally. We wanted to understand our strengths, opportunities and threats from a global perspective, coming out of the pandemic.

In the report, “Global Benchmarking: Putting Greater Victoria’s Economy in International Perspective,” I was alarmed to read the author’s assessment that, “Greater Victoria’s efforts to preserve natural assets have on the whole been less successful.” The authors note that, “From 2004 to 2018, the proportion of natural land surfaces and tree covered areas declined by around 2%, putting Greater Victoria in the middle of the pack relative to its wider peer group for preservation of natural assets … [this] represents a long-term threat to the region’s resilience to natural and climate change disasters.”

The researchers didn’t map the degradation of natural assets. But we can do that ourselves, driving out of town on Highway 1, where single family homes now stand where forests once did.

Making better use of Victoria’s land base and making more room for more people at more attainable housing prices will slow down deforestation and urban sprawl. Missing Middle Housing is critical to our city and region’s ability to successfully weather climate change.

The author of The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, doesn’t mince words in his assessment of the negative impact of single family homes on the environment. In an interview he said, With respect to the environment, the development of single-family houses directly consumes an enormous amount of land for suburban or ex-urban style sprawl, disrupting and displacing prior ecologies. By virtue of sprawl, houses also encourage people to drive everywhere, boosting greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, houses generally require more energy to heat and cool than other types of dwelling, further leading to greater greenhouse gas emissions. Just about any way you look at it, single-family houses tend to be bad for the environment.” (The whole interview is definitely worth a read!)

Let me be very clear: this doesn’t mean that people who live in single family homes don’t care about the environment. After my first post on Missing Middle Housing, about the racist and exclusionary history of single family zoning, there were some people who felt I was saying that people who live in single family homes are racist, so it’s worth clarifying here.

What I am saying, however, is that we are at a pivotal moment in the future of the city and in our ability to prepare for the challenges coming our way with climate change. If we know that single family homes are the least energy efficient form of housing, then we should change our zoning rules to make it easier to build more efficient housing types.

Let’s look at the energy use of different building types in more detail, and also the impact of location on energy consumption.

In 2009, in the US the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and U.S. Department of Transportation formed a partnership for Sustainable Communities. A key research paper produced through this partnership examined the energy efficiency of both housing form and housing location – comparing compact, transit-oriented development against conventional suburban development.

The results are striking. They strengthen the case for Missing Middle Housing and also for greater density in regional cores like Victoria, if we are serious about climate mitigation and preparing for a resilient future.

Location Efficiency: Household and Transportation Energy Use by Location Bar Graph

This graph shows clearly that single family attached homes – like rowhouses, houseplexes and townhouses – consume less energy than single family homes. And, when located in transit-oriented, “15-minute neighbourhoods,” the energy savings are even more substantial. In our region, transportation accounts for 50% of greenhouse gas emissions, and buildings generate 40% of greenhouse gas emissions. Missing Middle Housing in Victoria can go some way to addressing these impacts.

Conclusion

After two rounds of in-depth public engagement, the next step in the City’s Missing Middle Housing initiative is for staff to bring a report for Council’s consideration. At that meeting, Council will decide whether or not to hold a public hearing, before making a final decision on Missing Middle zoning. My hope is that even the councillors who may not be fully supportive of the initiative at this time vote to hold a public hearing on the matter, so we can hear from the public on the most important land-use decision a Victoria City Council has made in decades.

We will surely hear lots of stories at the public hearing from people who feel they will lose something if Council proceeds with Missing Middle housing – most notably a fear of losing neighbourhood character. If this is your concern, please read this post. We will also hear from people who will benefit from these changes, and about their fears of being priced out of the city if Council doesn’t adopt Missing Middle zoning.

We will need to consider all of the input. And, we will also need to fulfill our responsibility to think about the long term. We are not only making a decision for now, and for the people in the Council chamber on the evening of the public hearing. We are also making a decision for their children and their grandchildren, a decision for the next 50 years.

 

Reconciliation Grant: The Real Numbers and the Rationale

This past week, the Grumpy Taxpayer$ published a blog post and sent out a newsletter with inaccurate information about the proposed reconciliation grant to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations that Council is considering as part of our 2022 budget process. The Grumpys are calling the grant a “reconciliation tax” which it is not. But more troubling, they printed an inaccurate and misleading financial analysis of how the grant program would work.

When we pointed this out, instead of issuing a correction themselves and saying that they had made a mistake in their analysis of the amount of new assessed revenue that would go to the nations, they simply issued a follow up statement noting that the City had “clarified” the potential costs. They suggested that the City had only just released a report with the potential impact of the annual grant. In fact, this information has been public since December 9th as part of the budget report at the public Committee of the Whole meeting (Item F2).

Their follow up statement did not ensure that everyone who received the original newsletter knew their analysis was flawed. Their misrepresentation and inaccurate statement is continuing to cause confusion among media and their readers. This is unfortunate for a group that claims to be champions of transparency and accuracy.

This blog post shares the real numbers and the reason for the proposed reconciliation grant.

What is “new assessed revenue”?

New assessed revenue is the amount of new tax dollars that a local government receives in a year from new development. Let’s take for example a downtown property that used to be a parking lot but is now a new office building. BC Assessment – which assesses property values – would assess a new commercial building at a much higher rate than a parking lot. What this means, is that the year the new building is built, the City will receive additional tax dollars for the new building.

The next year, and every year after – and for the whole time the building is standing – the City will continue to receive property taxes from that building. Every year, new buildings are built in the city. In the year they are built, the City receives the money from the new buildings that were constructed, as well as tax dollars from the buildings that were new the year before. And so on, year after year.

The idea behind the reconciliation grant to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations is that as the city grows, the nations on whose lands the city was built should also benefit from that growth. This Times Colonist article from November lays the proposal out clearly.

In order to understand the potential impact of the grant over a 20 year period, in November, Council asked staff to report back on the amount of new assessed revenue the City had taken in over the past 20 years. In other words how much had the city grown in that time and what were the financial benefits of that growth?

I’m not going to share the Grumpys original analysis because that will definitely confuse matters. I am going to share the spread sheet with staff’s calculations and explain what it means.

Between 2002 and 2021, the City generated $30,646,375 of new assessed revenue. This number is not the cumulative financial impact of the new revenue to the City over that 20 year period.

If we had started a reconciliation grant 20 years ago, and given 15% of new assessed revenue to the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, in 2002, they would have received a grant of $161,799. In 2021, they would have received $4,596,956.

The last two columns of the chart show the cumulative impact of new assessed revenue and the cumulative impact of the grant. This means, between 2002 and 2021, the total new revenue to the City as a result of development in that 20 year period was $271,549,247. If 15% of that had been granted to the Nations over a 20 year period, the total grant amount they would have received over a 20 year period is $40,732,381.

How will the reconciliation grant work?

Public input from those who filled out the budget survey indicated low support for the proposed reconciliation grant. Some people said that we will be putting the City in financial dire straits if we create such a grant program. Others said that reconciliation is a provincial and federal, not a municipal issue. And others objected because it is a lot of money over time.

In response to public feedback, I am not proposing to drop the idea all together, and I hope Council won’t either. But I am sensitive to the fact that in order to succeed for the long term, big ideas like this need to be implemented carefully.

For that reason, when we get to this item in our budget discussions, I will propose to Council – in response to public feedback – that the reconciliation grant start at 10% of new assessed revenue; if a future Council wishes to raise the percentage, they can do so.

Since 2000, Council has had a general policy of putting some new assessed revenue into the Building and Infrastructure Reserves to ensure we are saving to invest in the City’s infrastructure for the future. In 2015, we amended the Financial Sustainability Policy so that the first $500,000 of new assessed revenue must go into reserves, taking an even more aggressive approach to saving for the future.

When I propose the reconciliation grant during the budget deliberations, I will clarify through a proposed amendment to Council’s Financial Sustainability Policy that the 10% reconciliation grant be given to the nations after the first $500,000 of new assessed revenue is added to the City’s Building and Infrastructure Reserve so we continue with our fiscally responsible approach to infrastructure maintenance and repair for the long term.

Each year we put far more into the City’s reserves than would be given out in any year through the reconciliation grant. In 2022 alone we are adding over $24 million into reserves. For details on the City’s reserve fund balances head to pg 17 of this staff report.

Why is a reconciliation grant important?

Over the past five years, we have developed a close relationship with the Chiefs and Councils of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations and with their community members. We’ve witnessed up close their tenacity and resilience. We’ve seen their respect and care for their elders. We’ve seen how they hold up and honour their youth. We’re struck continuously by their generosity, how they invite us in, share their culture and stories with us, how they stand shoulder to shoulder with us, despite everything that has happened through our colonization of their homelands.

Forty million dollars over 20 years could do a lot of good, especially if leveraged to secure matching funds from other levels of government, or invested in economic development initiatives. If City Council in 2002 had started the grant, perhaps housing conditions on reserve would be a little bit better than they are today. Maybe there would be less Indigenous homelessness in Victoria. Perhaps there would be more youth who could speak Lekwungen. Perhaps the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations could have opened more businesses in downtown Victoria. Maybe more action items in the Songhees Nation 10 Year Strategic Plan would have been accomplished. And maybe our whole community would be a little bit better off because of all of this.

It is 2022. Victoria was incorporated 160 years ago this year, and has grown substantially since its incorporation. The Songhees and Esquimalt Nations have not benefited from this growth, in fact they were pushed out to make room for it. In an era of reconciliation where actions need to speak as loud as land acknowledgements, it is time to ensure that going forward, the nations benefit as the city continues to grow and change. We will all be better for it.

Part 3. Missing Middle Housing, Design Guidelines, and the Protection of Neighbourhood Character

This post will be as much photo essay as written word. I want to show that Missing Middle Housing already exists throughout the city’s traditional single family neigbourhoods and how it fits in and is complementary and pleasing. Next time you’re out for a walk in your neighbourhood, see if you can spot the Missing Middle Housing. The last photo in this post provides one clue as to what to look for! With thanks to Gene Miller for providing the photos and for his passion around making Affordable Sustainable Housing (ASH), a reality in Victoria.

The City is currently undertaking consultation on a proposal to implement Missing Middle Housing in all neighbourhoods and allow for more inclusive housing forms “as of right”, which means without needing to go through a rezoning process. The Missing Middle Housing initiative is focused on creating more townhouses and houseplexes (including duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, etc.) to help diversify housing choices. It’s aimed at people who will never be able to afford a single family home in Victoria.

Fundamentally, Missing Middle Housing is about changing the way we regulate land use. Currently, if an owner of a single family home, or a duplex, or triplex wants to demolish that building and build a new single family home, all that is required is to apply for a building permit. Yet if a homeowner wants to demolish their single family home and build a houseplex, it takes a couple of years to go through a political process, with no guarantee of success.

Here are 12 units of Missing Middle Housing under construction at 945 Pembroke Street across from Central Park and Crystal Pool.

An email I received from a resident commented on this project and is relevant to share here: “I want to bring your attention to two properties with very similar characteristics, but in different areas of town. The two properties are 1645 Chandler Ave (Gonzales), and 945 Pembroke (North Park), which those on council might remember as it was rezoned with zero votes against. These are both very large rectangular 11,000+ sf lots, they have both recently started construction, and they are both within one block of a bike route (Richardson and Vancouver). 

“The differences are:

  • 945 Pembroke will include 2 sixplexes with 12 car light homes
  • 1645 Chandler will have a single family home with a 2 car garage, an accessory dwelling unit, and most importantly, an in ground swimming pool
  • 945 Pembroke had to go through a very long rezoning process
  • 1645 Chandler submitted building permits under its current zoning

“I’m unsure how much the 945 Pembroke units are being rented or sold for, but I am very confident they can’t compare to the $2.4 million 1645 Chandler is being advertised online for.”

A Times Colonist story this week shows the escalating cost of housing during 2021, exacerbated in part by a lack of supply. The average price for a single family home climbed from around $1 million at the beginning of 2021 to $1.3 million at the end. The average price for a townhouse went up from about $650,000 in January 2021 to $822, 876 by December.

There are rallying cries of support for Missing Middle Housing, some rallying cries against, and lots of people with really good questions, concerns and ideas. In this four part blog series, I’ll address these topics:

  1. The Racist and Exclusionary History of Missing Middle Housing (Dec. 5)
  2. Missing Middle Housing, the Displacement of Renters and How Missing Middle Upzoning Alone Won’t Solve the Affordability Crisis (Dec. 19)
  3. Missing Middle Housing, Design Guidelines and the Protection of Neighbourhood Character (Jan. 9)
  4. Missing Middle Housing and More Inclusive, Climate-Friendly Cities for the Future (Feb. 13)
Another example of Missing Middle Housing that retains neighbourhood character.

Missing Middle Housing and Neighbourhood Character

One of the biggest fears people have about Missing Middle Housing is that allowing houseplexes as of right on all lots currently zoned for single family homes, and townhouses on block ends, will fundamentally change the character of our beloved single family neighbourhoods. And, I sense that some people have a concurrent fear that this change will happen overnight rather than over the next few decades.

I’ll approach this fear from a couple of angles. First, by looking at the City’s House Conversion Policy which has delivered much of the Missing Middle Housing depicted in the photos in this post. Second, I’ll share highlights from the proposed Missing Middle Design Guidelines, which have been widely circulated for public input as part of the City’s missing middle engagement process last fall. The Missing Middle Design Guidelines can be found here, near the bottom of the page, right hand side in the documents section.

The design guidelines are the promise to the public about the retention of neighborhood character, even as we make more room for more people in our traditional residential neighbourhoods.

House Conversion Policy

The City’s House Conversion Regulations were first established in the 1950s. The purpose was to offer a viable option for re-purposing larger, older houses. Council at the time recognized that there was a significant stock of houses built at the turn-of- the-twentieth century which were designed to accommodate large families and/or staff and that no longer served their intended purpose and could be redesigned to accommodate a number of smaller suites.

As the report to Council in December 2019 outlines (item F2), “The conversion regulations were structured to allow property owners to convert qualifying single family dwellings, constructed primarily before 1931, to a set number of self-contained dwelling units, based on the overall floor area of the building, with larger buildings allowing a greater number of units and smaller buildings allowing fewer.”

In their report, staff go on to note that, “These regulations have had the intended effect of facilitating many conversions throughout the city, resulting in what could be described as small multiple dwelling buildings nested within existing homes in low density neighbourhoods, with little disruption to the immediate neighbours or the existing character of the area.”

In the fall of 2020, Council updated the house conversion policy from the 1950s to make more homes eligible for conversion, make it easier to convert a single family home to multiple units, and incentivize affordable housing and heritage retention. Key changes include:

  • Houses built in 1984 or before are now eligible for conversion.
  • More opportunities to use the space within a building, such as attics and under height basements.
  • Relaxed restrictions on exterior changes.
  • Incentivize heritage designation, the creation of rental units, or affordable units by allowing more units if any of these elements are included in the house conversion.
  • No minimum vehicle parking requirements and new long-term bike parking requirements.

The policy directions set out in 1951 were in place for seven decades; over that time there was a gradual conversion of many eligible homes into multi family dwellings. The policy was successful in achieving one of its key aims: ensuring that the limited land base in the city provides as much housing for as many people, while maintaining the character and feel of Victoria’s neighbourhoods.

This home used to be single family and has been converted to multiple units to house more people.

Missing Middle Design Guidelines

Like the Council in the 1950s, we are innovating in response to current needs: a housing affordability crisis, a limited housing supply, a growing population, and need to live sustainably given the climate crisis (more on that in the next post). And our approach takes its cues from the 1950s objective of preserving and enhancing the character of the city’s neighbourhoods.

The two main forms of Missing Middle Housing that Council is considering are houseplexes and townhouses.

Houseplexes are very similar to house conversions except they are newly built and designed for the purpose of containing multiple dwellings in one building (duplex, triplex, fourplex, fiveplex, and sixplex). They appear similar in size to a large, historic house and can maintain the pattern of green usable backyards with tree planting space.

Townhouses deliver more two- and three-bedroom, family-oriented housing units compared to any other multi-family housing form. Although the homes generally sit side by side, they could include suites, or be stacked where one townhouse unit sits above another. Townhouse units typically have individual walk-up entries from the street, with access to private outdoor green space.

The Missing Middle Design Guidelines are a comprehensive set of directions to ensure that the houseplexes and townhouses built as part of Missing Middle zoning over the next few decades will enhance existing neighbourhood fabric. The design guidelines aren’t optional, or just a suggestion, they are the criteria that homebuilders will need to adhere to. The guidelines can be found here (bottom of the page, right hand side) and are worth reading in their entirety.

What is clear when reading through them, is the thought, care and attention that staff and the public who provided feedback have put into ensuring a good fit for Missing Middle Housing in Victoria’s urban fabric. The guidelines address the following elements:

Site Planning – To site and orient buildings to maintain the pattern of landscaped front and back yards, that makes a positive contribution to the streetscape and that achieves a more compact and efficient residential building form while maintaining liveability.

Orientation and Interface – A Friendly Face to the Street – To ensure new development is oriented and designed to present a friendly face to the street, enhancing public streets and open spaces and encouraging street vitality, pedestrian activity, safety, and ‘eyes on the street’.

Building Form and Design – To achieve buildings of high architectural quality and interest with human-scale building proportions that support and enhance the established streetscape character and pattern.

Neighbourliness – To ensure a good fit and sensitive transition to existing adjacent buildings to minimize impacts on neighbours and contribute to an enhanced, varied, and evolving streetscape and neighbourhood context.

Materials – To use materials which are high quality, durable and weather gracefully.

Open Space Design – To enhance the quality of open space, support the urban forest, provide privacy where needed, emphasize unit entrances and pedestrian accesses, provide amenity space for residents, reduce storm water runoff, and to ensure that front and rear yards are not dominated by parking.

Just like City Council in the 1950s, our Council recognizes the need for policy innovation to do more with the city’s limited land base and make room for more people in all neighbourhoods. Not everyone wants to live in a downtown condo, and many young families starting out in Victoria will never be able to afford a single family home. Missing Middle Housing is a gentle, gradual approach that will unfold over the next many decades. It will add more housing and more people, and create more inclusive neighbourhoods, now, and for the future.

This picture gives a sense of what is possible: Many homes for many families on one “single” family lot!

New Year’s Message: Co-Existence Key to Healthy Democracy, Community in 2022

The apple and the aspen, two very different trees happily co-exist side by side in our backyard.

At the beginning of 2021, we were in a pandemic. We were living with significant restrictions in terms of how and where we could spend our time and who we could spend it with. In the summer, restrictions eased up a bit – we even stopped wearing masks inside for a few weeks.

Our small businesses, which were hit so hard in the first year of the pandemic, started to see signs of light. The City released data in December that painted a promising picture. We saw a 27.7% increase in downtown pedestrian counts between February and October 2021 over the same months in 2020. There was an increase in building permits between August and October 2021, to a number even greater than pre-pandemic levels. And, some businesses in downtown Victoria are reporting their best Decembers ever.

Yet now, at the end of the year, with Omicron upon us, it seems that we are back to where we started.

Except that we’re not. We know more about COVID-19 than we did at the beginning of the year. The Island Health region has some of the highest vaccination rates in the world. The global scientific community is working on a COVID-19 anti-viral. Booster shots are rolling out more quickly than planned.  

When this pandemic ends, we’ll celebrate that we made it through. What’s important for 2022 is how we make it through and how we live well together, despite the challenges we face and the differences among us.

My word for 2022 is “co-exist”. It’s easy when people disagree with us, to paint them into a corner, paint ourselves into another corner, and end the conversation. Or name call. Or worse. We’ve seen this in the past year, locally and around the world.

The City has many key projects in 2022. From Missing Middle Housing, to rezoning for affordable housing, to finishing phase one of the bike network, work on equity, diversity, inclusion and reconciliation, planning the Arts and Innovation District, piloting the alternative response to mental health calls, and much more.

These topics will generate public attention and feedback. Some of them will generate controversy. And it’s an election year, which may make some of these issues feel like they’re in a pressure cooker.

What’s really important in 2022 – as challenging issues face us and differences arise – is that we have those difficult conversations. We listen to each other. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we change our minds, but at the very least, we come to understand another person’s point of view more deeply.

After spending an hour in conversation with someone with whom I disagree – just listening to them, without trying to change their mind – I go away a little bit richer if only because my own perspective is broadened.

It makes me realize that co-existence is not only possible but also necessary among people who disagree – especially if we are going to continue to nurture the community and the democracy that we need as we head into our third year living with the pandemic and with change afoot in the city and at City Hall.

This piece was originally published in the VicNews here.

Part 2. Missing Middle Housing, Tenant Protections, and How Missing Middle Upzoning Alone Won’t Solve the Affordability Crisis

NB Please consider this post a “long read”. I appreciate you taking the time to sift through the complexities and nuances. Please share this post with others who also might be interested in understanding the multi-faceted approach the City is taking to addressing the housing crisis.

The City is currently undertaking consultation on a proposal to implement Missing Middle Housing in all neighbourhoods and allow for more inclusive housing forms “as of right”, which means without needing to go through a rezoning process. The Missing Middle Housing initiative is focused on creating more townhouses and houseplexes (including duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, etc.) to help diversify housing choices. It’s aimed at people who will never be able to afford a single family home in Victoria.

Fundamentally, Missing Middle Housing is about changing the way we regulate land use. Currently, if an owner of a single family home, or a duplex, or triplex wants to demolish that building and build a new single family home, all that is required is to apply for a building permit. Yet if a homeowner wants to demolish their single family home and build a houseplex, it takes a couple of years to go through a political process, with no guarantee of success.

This month, the average price of a single family home in Greater Victoria rose to over $1.3 million. Missing middles homes – family homes in houseplexes or town houses – sell for a lot less than a single family home.

There are rallying cries of support for Missing Middle Housing, some rallying cries against, and lots of people with really good questions, concerns and ideas. In this four part blog series, I’ll address these topics:

  1. The Racist and Exclusionary History of Missing Middle Housing (Dec. 5)
  2. Missing Middle Housing, the Displacement of Renters and How Missing Middle Upzoning Alone Won’t Solve the Affordability Crisis (Dec. 19)
  3. Missing Middle Housing, Design Guidelines and the Protection of Neighbourhood Character (Jan. 9)
  4. Missing Middle Housing and More Inclusive, Climate-Friendly Cities for the Future (Feb. 13)

Victoria Housing Strategy: Focus On Renters

The majority of people who live in Victoria are renters, fully 61%. Renters aren’t a special interest group but are people at all stages and phases of life, from university and college students, to young families, to mid-career adults, to seniors.

Some renters are more vulnerable than others. According to a recent Housing Needs Assessment for the City of Victoria, “Renter households relying on a single income likely struggle to find affordable and suitable housing in Victoria. Renter households led by lone parents or households with at least one senior are the households most likely to be in Core Housing Need in the city (i.e., living in housing that is inadequate, unsuitable, and/or currently unaffordable, and unable to afford the median rent of alternative local housing).” Almost 30% of renters are in core housing need in Victoria.

This precariousness makes fear of displacement and the inability to afford a new home in the city very real. And very stressful.

This is why the City and the Provincial government have put in place new protections for renters and also policies to ensure the creation of new purpose built rental and affordable rental housing. This means that there is more security for renters now, and in the decades to come.

Given that the majority of our residents are renters, the first goal of the Victoria Housing Strategy, adopted after a Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability in 2015, was to focus on renters and their needs. As guided by the Housing Strategy, the City is improving its support and protections for renters by developing policies and taking actions that:

  1. Increase the rental housing supply to create less competition for available units
  2. Create more opportunities for choice in the types of rental housing available
  3. Create and strengthen municipal regulations to protect tenants

Policies and actions implemented to better protect and support renters since 2015

  • Tenant Assistance Policy – Support for renters in the form of relocation assistance, moving expenses, and financial compensation when required to move because their building is rezoned for redevelopment.
  • Rental Retention or Replacement Policy – Official Community Plan (in place since 2012) requires 1:1 replacement of rental housing in instances where more than four rental units are being redeveloped or demolished and discourages developers from redeveloping aging rental to condo developments.
  • Renters Advisory Committee – Gives renters the opportunity to provide advice and recommendations to staff and Council on rental housing and tenant related matters.
  • Tenant Planner – A new permanent position in the Community Planning Department to work with tenants and developers to implement the City’s tenant policies and related housing programs. 
  • Tenant Engagement Toolkit – Guidance document to support fulsome tenant participation in City engagement.
  • Rental Property Standards of Maintenance Bylaw  – Ensures minimum maintenance requirements for landlords of rental units are upheld to protect interests of renters. 
  • Greater Victoria Housing Security and Rent Bank Program – Provides loans and grants to tenants at risk of homelessness. The City supported it’s development, provides funding, and staff sit on the advisory committee. 
  • Short-term Rental Policy – Designed to regulate short-term rentals and keep more units in the long-term rental housing market. Taxes collected from short-term rentals are directed to the Victoria Housing Reserve Fund.  
  • Residential Rental Tenure Zoning – New rental only zoning to protect existing rental housing from conversion to strata. Applied to nine new projects to date.  
  • House Conversion Regulations – City regulations updated these regulations to encourage more house conversions and to provide incentives where projects create new rental units as well as affordable rentals.
  • City Land for Affordable Housing – City has purchased land and used City-owned land for close to 600 units of affordable housing currently in development, to be operated by the Capital Regional Housing Corporation and Pacifica Housing, to be affordable in perpetuity.
  • Regional Housing First Program – City led movement at Capital Regional District for $120 million housing program to create up to 2000 units of housing currently in development, including up to 400 units that rent at $375 per month, to be publicly owned in perpetuity.
  • Provincial Changes to Residential Tenancy Act – Effective July 1, 2021 gives more protection to renters from displacement during a renovation of a rental building. The City advocated strongly to the Province for this police change since 2017.

For the past six years – and well before addressing Missing Middle Housing – the City has taken substantial action to help ensure more security and certainty for our residents who rent. There is still more work to do and we will continue. And, at the same time, we now need to also turn our attention to Missing Middle Housing, which is meant to address a shortage of available ground-oriented homes (where front doors open up onto the street) for families.

Some people rent by choice. But increasingly, with the high cost of home ownership – and in particular homes for families – many are stuck renting, unable to afford to purchase a home. This is putting additional strain on an already tight rental market.

Missing Middle Housing is part of fixing the entire housing ecosystem in the city. This means that as more reasonably priced ground-oriented housing for families becomes available, some people will be able to move from rental housing to home ownership. This will free up rental units for others. This has already happened in Victoria with the Vivid building on Johnson Street. This is a below market condo building financed by the BC Housing Hub and it provides entry level home ownership for working people in Victoria. Close to 70% of people who purchased homes in the Vivid moved out of rental housing in Victoria, into the Vivid.

Tenant Protections and Missing Middle Housing

As we move forward with Missing Middle Housing, it’s important to keep the same focus on renters that the City has had for the past six years. We need to ensure as much predictability and as little disruption as possible for existing renters through the new land use approach that we are taking with Missing Middle rezoning.

The majority of renter households (81%) live in apartments buildings, and will not be impacted by Missing Middle zoning. Of the remaining 19%, 8% live in houses with suites (whether in the main house or suite), 7% in rowhouses or side-by-side duplexes and 4% rent single family homes. This means that the implementation of Missing Middle zoning has the potential to impact 19% of tenants over the next few decades. (It is anticipated that new missing middle housing forms will be built gradually over a long period of time, not overnight.)

Even so, the fear or worry about displacement is real and can create unnecessary stress for already stressed renter households.

This is why City staff have been asked to be as creative as possible to find a way to have some form of tenant assistance built into the Missing Middle zoning. This could include a monetary contribution by missing middle home builders to the City’s Housing Reserve, which could then be used to provide assistance to tenants in the same way the Tenant Assistance Plan currently does at the rezoning stage.

Rezoning to allow Missing Middle Housing throughout the city will make it easier to build homes that are less expensive than single family homes, but there will be tradeoffs. We need to use the full extent of the City’s authority to ensure that these tradeoffs don’t disproportionately negatively affect existing renters. We also need to ensure that with everything we ask of missing middle developers – in terms of provisions for existing tenants, other amenity contributions, etc. – that these projects still make financial sense and can actually be built.

The Missing Middle resource page has a quick fact sheet with information about the financing of Missing Middle Housing. And also a more detailed analysis that digs in a bit deeper to the issue. Please see “Documents” in right hand sidebar. Staff have engaged consultants to do additional financial analysis as part of this round of engagement that we are currently in.

One key element of Missing Middle zoning that will benefit renters in the long term is that all forms of Missing Middle Housing (houseplexes and townhouses) will allow secondary suites. This will likely substantially increase the number of suites in the city over the next few decades, as people opt to build suites to make their mortgages a little bit more affordable.

Upzoning and Affordability

“Planopedia” provides a simple definition of upzoning as “a commonly used term in urban planning that describes an alteration to a community’s zoning code to allow new capacity for development.”

This thoughtful piece in the Tyee by Brian Doucet, Canada Research Chair in Urban Change and Social Inclusion at the University of Waterloo, dives into the issue of housing supply, demand and the need to curb speculation. Its worth a read and points to the complexity of resolving the current housing crisis in Victoria, British Columbia, and Canada. While regulating speculative demand and curbing the financialization of housing are important jobs for the provincial and federal governments, cities need to use the tools available to us to do our part. Zoning is one key tool.

Doucet argues that, “While there are many good reasons to upzone, there is little research indicating that on its own, market-driven upzoning produces the types of housing cities need in sufficient quantity to tackle affordability problems.” He goes on to say, “To make cities affordable, upzoning will need to consist primarily of new social housing and other forms of ownership such as co-ops and rent-controlled apartments that are off limits to speculators.”

There has been so much talk about upzoning and Missing Middle Housing, that we haven’t been discussing the first upzoning that Council is proposing to make, even before we get to Missing Middle Housing later this year.

Early in 2022, staff will be bringing a report to Council to recommend that we upzone the entire city to allow for affordable housing if the housing is owned and operated by a non-profit housing society or the Capital Regional Housing Corporation, and is affordable in perpetuity.

This is a really big move. And it directly addresses affordability. What it means is that affordable housing can be built anywhere in the city if it fits within the Official Community Plan and adheres to design guidelines. It means that the entire approval process for affordable housing will be delegated to staff and will take far less time than the current process. With escalating construction and labour costs, this means affordable housing can be built faster, reducing costs and therefore keeping rents as low as possible.

Equally important, prezoning the entire city for affordable housing means certainty for non-profit housing providers when it comes to funding. Usually federal and provincial funding is confirmed only after zoning is approved. Removing the need for rezoning makes it more likely more money will flow into Victoria to provide more affordable housing which is much needed for families, seniors, low-wage workers and people currently experiencing homelessness. Only after we upzone for affordable housing (subject to a decision of Council early next year), will we turn our minds to Missing Middle upzoning.

The research and economic analysis undertaken as part of the City’s Missing Middle Housing initiative demonstrates that when only a certain portion of a city is upzoned, land increases in value and can drive speculative demand. It also shows that rezoning the entire city to allow for missing middle housing forms in all neighbourhoods will not have this same effect.

Yet it’s also true that Missing Middle zoning, and increasing the supply of ground-oriented family housing, will not create more affordable housing. As noted above, we’re approaching affordable housing from a different angle. Missing Middle Housing will make home ownership more attainable for people we rely on to provide essential services in our communities like teachers, nurses, firefighters, a young dentist or doctor starting out in Victoria, and many others too.

By delegating the approval process to staff, we save time and create certainty. What this means is more predictability for homebuilders and the banks that finance them. And it also results in lower housing prices, in two ways.

First, zoning that allows Missing Middle Housing as of right (without a need for a lengthy political process) provides certainty that makes it easier for a would-be builder of missing middle housing to secure financing, including through BC Housing’s Affordable Home Ownership Program, or other senior government programs that support co-operative ownership. This creates below-market home ownership opportunities for qualifying buyers – people who would not be able to afford to buy a home without a subsidy or some financial support.

Second, saving time in the development process saves construction costs and makes housing prices lower than they would be otherwise. Here are two examples. In their original project estimate, a home builder building missing middle housing in Esquimalt had planned to sell units at $520,000. In the time it took to go through the approvals process, the cost of labour and materials increased, and the units will now sell closer to $650,000. In Victoria, a townhouse project which has been in the public consultation phase for over two years, originally had units for sale at $750,000, with no down payment required. Now, because of the time the political process is taking, labour and materials have increased in costs, and these same units will likely sell for around $900,000.

The whole point of Missing Middle Housing is that rather than considering one sixplex at a time, or one townhouse development at a time, Council will (hopefully!) make one big decision at a public hearing to rezone the whole city all at once. This is why we’re undertaking an extensive public engagement process right now. It’s also why Council will be asked to approve Missing Middle Design Guidelines (see Documents sidebar bottom right hand side) to preserve and enhance the character of existing neighbourhoods (more on this in next post).

After making these important policy decisions early in 2022, Council can then get out of the way. This will make it as easy to build a $650,000 home as it currently is to build a home that costs on average $1.3 million, a home that few people who live and work in Victoria will ever be able to afford.