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 (Jan. 30)
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 (Jan. 30)

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.

Part 1. The Racist and Exclusionary History of Single Family Zoning

The majority of the light yellow areas – which comprise a large portion of the city’s limited land base – are zoned exclusively for single family homes.

NB I have updated this post after receiving feedback from Gordon Price through his blog post in response to mine. He and I come to different conclusions about the history of single family zoning and the current need to replace it with more inclusive zoning.

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 past week, 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 a three part blog series, I’ll address these topics:

  1. The Racist and Exclusionary History of Missing Middle Housing (Dec. 5)
  2. Missing Middle Housing and Displacement of Renters (Dec. 19)
  3. Missing Middle Housing and Inclusive, Climate-Friendly Cities for the Future (Jan. 9)

The Racist and Exclusionary History of Single Family Zoning

There are currently many civil society organizations, government agencies, and all levels of government committed to tackling systemic racism and fighting for inclusion. This momentum stems largely from the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s death, more concerted efforts at reconciliation after the uncovering of the children’s bodies at residential school sites, and strong reactions against the anti-Asian racism at the beginning of COVID.

The racist and exclusionary origins of single family zoning in North America has been well documented, yet that history doesn’t seem to be well known, and it’s not yet part of the conversation we’re having about Missing Middle Housing and the elimination of single family zoning that the City is proposing. It’s important to understand that the early 20th century artifact of single family zoning – still the main residential zone in all cities in North American, including Victoria – has racist, exclusionary roots. Dismantling single family zoning is yet another way we can address systemic racism.

In 1916, the City of Berkeley, California implemented North America’s first single family zoning in the Elmwood neighbourhood. Although the language of the zoning itself was written without reference to race, the explicit purpose of the bylaw was to keep the neighbourhood white and to exclude Blacks and Asians.

Gordon Price, editor of Vancouver Viewpoint cites Matthew Fleischer, the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page editor who writes about single family zoning in the Bay Area: “Its intentions were nakedly segregationist. The idea was conceived largely as a tool for white homeowners to eject Asian laundries from an otherwise segregated neighborhood, and to stop a ‘negro dance hall’ from setting up shop on ‘a prominent corner’.”

Other cities in the United States did use racialized langauge in their land use policies, including prohibiting “coloured” people from moving into certain neighbourhoods. This was challenged in a 1917, US Supreme Court case, where the court ruled that racially based zoning was unconstitutional. However, because Berkeley’s single use zone was about the type of housing – one house per lot – rather than explicitly about racial exclusion, cities across the United States began to use single family zoning as a work around.

This article from the Bay Area Sierra Club sums it up well:

“At the time, a half-dozen Mid-Atlantic states had experimented with explicit racial zoning, but were facing legal challenges based on the 14th Amendment. A city, using its regulatory authority, was not supposed to discriminate based on race. 

“Zoning experts helping the City of Berkeley were aware of the challenges, and suggested single-family zoning as a clever work around. It assured that only people who could afford a mortgage would live in the neighborhood. In 1916, that effectively excluded almost all people of color.

“When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1917 that explicit apartheid was unconstitutional, Berkeley’s ordinance became the legal alternative rapidly embraced by the rest of the nation. In 1928, then Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover published a “Zoning Primer” that claimed everyone in America wanted to live in a Berkeley-style single-family zone and chastised cities that were not getting fully with the program.”

The the first municipality to develop a single family zoning bylaw in Canada was the Town of Point Grey (previously a standalone municipality adjacent to Vancouver), in 1922. It appears that the purpose of single family zoning in Canada was similar to the United States: to reserve certain areas of the city for certain people, and to exclude others.

In his article, “What Motivated Vancouver’s First Zoning Codes,” Reilly Wood cites the Town of Point Grey’s Planning Commission Chair who noted, “Such by-laws as these served, in no uncertain way, to implement the ideals held by the residents that their municipality was to be one in which the best type of home could not only be built, but also adequately safeguarded from the encroachments of undesirable types of development … At the present time over ninety per cent, of the municipality is zoned for one-family dwelling districts. Point Grey has no slum district.”

In 1930, when Town of Point Grey, the District of South Vancouver, and the City of Vancouver amalgamated, the same planning principles with the same exclusionary rationale, were used to keep Vancouver as a city of single family homes. From this unfolded single family zoning as the norm in all cities across Canada, where the majority of a city’s land mass is made up of single family zoning. In Victoria, fully 68% of residential land is zoned as single family.

This exclusionary form of zoning remained uncontested for a hundred years until, in 2019, Minneapolis became the first city in North America to dismantle single family zoning. This doesn’t mean that single family homes can’t be built, or that existing single family homes must be demolished. It means that it’s now just as easy to build more inclusive and accessible forms of housing, like houseplexes on previously single family lots.

In February of 2021 Berkeley City Council followed Minneapolis, voting 9-0 to remove single family zoning and right the wrongs of the the past.

In Minneapolis, “Advocates of affordable housing, civil rights, and the environment joined forces with labor unions, tenant activists, the young, and the old, to bring down the invisible but durable wall of government-mandated, single-family zoning.” My great hope is that in Victoria, we can build a similar broad-based coalition to undo the exclusionary legacy our city was built on, and to build a more inclusive city for the future.

NB Please take the time to read this article on Minneapolis process of eliminating single family zoning. The City of Victoria already has in place an Inclusionary Housing Policy, and significant investments in affordable housing through the $120 million Regional Housing First Program. These are two of the programs that Minneapolis brought in in conjunction with the elimination of exclusive single family zoning. In addition, Victoria is alreayd using city-owned land for the purposes of building affordable housing.

Privacy, Loneliness, and Climate Adaptation

Our backyard adjacent to our neighbours.

At just about every land use public hearing I’ve sat through for the last seven years, the issue of privacy comes up. Often neighbours are opposed to new developments because they feel like their privacy will be compromised. Applicants building the housing go to great lengths to stress the “privacy screens” they’ve incorporated into their developments: six foot fences, tall hedges, fast growing trees, frosted glass.

We’ve heard strong support so far for the City’s Missing Middle Housing project – which will replace single family zoning throughout the city with zoning for houseplexes and townhouses. But one argument we’ve heard against is the need to maintain privacy. Some people don’t want new neighbours in two and a half storey townhouses looking into their backyards.

And, one proposed rental apartment building at 1475 Fort Street has been sent back to staff three times because the neighbours nearby don’t want to lose their privacy. The new building would be approximately 30 feet away from their homes.

We are obsessed with the privacy.

Yet we are also so lonely.

An article in the Capital Daily in August, “Isolated in Victoria: Forging Friendships in a City Renowned for Its Chilliness,” shared stories of Victorians struggling with loneliness during the pandemic.

But the phenomena of loneliness predates the pandemic and is a chronic condition of modern western societies. In their 2018 article, “The Growing Problem of Loneliness,” in The Lancet, John T. Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo write, “Imagine a condition that makes a person irritable, depressed, and self-centred, and is associated with a 26% increase in the risk of premature mortality. Imagine too that in industrialised countries around a third of people are affected by this condition, with one person in 12 affected severely, and that these proportions are increasing. Income, education, sex, and ethnicity are not protective, and the condition is contagious. The effects of the condition are not attributable to some peculiarity of the character of a subset of individuals, they are a result of the condition affecting ordinary people. Such a condition exists—loneliness.”

The constant demands for the protection of privacy when new buildings are proposed has me wondering why we are so fiercely protecting our privacy even when we are so lonely.

When our new neighbours moved in a few years ago, we brought cookies over as a welcome. It was the first and last time we used their front door. Our backyards are adjacent; there are no privacy screens. We watched Whitney go from crawling to walking, Zoey get really good at ball hockey. We can hear when bedtimes are difficult. They can see right into our kitchen at night.

We built stairs from the slope of their yard down into ours so the kids can get here easily. We’ll be out in the garden working in the summer and then all of a sudden all four of them are over here, kids crawling all over us, adults talking up a storm. Summer dinners at the big picnic table in their yard. During COVID, they became our bubble.

They aren’t exactly our friends. Not really our family. They are our neighbours. And it has become a sacred bond.

Last week Naomi had surgery. At 3am the morning she was supposed to go to the hospital, Zoey woke up throwing up. The chaos unfolded from there. Between sick kids and surgery complications that saw her back in the Emergency Room later that night, our four-person text stream became logistics central. We concluded that with four adults and only two kids, we could work everything out. And we did. Hospital pick ups were arranged. Cookies were baked. Prescriptions were delivered. And when she needed to go back to the ER later that night, she didn’t have to go alone.

We are already together. We were already connected. Dealing with an emergency felt easy.

It seems that even when people aren’t connected, in emergencies, privacy becomes less important. With the recent catastrophic floods in BC, when 1100 people were stuck in Hope, residents opened up their homes and took in perfect strangers to stay the night. The media accounts of these heartfelt stories didn’t talk about people worrying about their privacy, or strangers seeing into their homes. The stories were about generosity, the triumph of the human spirit. They demonstrated our instincts as humans to care for each other.

Why does it take an emergency to throw our privacy out the door? Maybe because it’s only short term and we can bear it for the time being. But I wonder if those full houses in Hope had a sense of connection and belonging, a sense of deeper purpose, that would be missed when the stranded residents left. And I wonder what our communities would be like if we lived every day with the same sense of responsibility and connection as when stranded strangers show up on our doorsteps.

Doing so isn’t only important because it makes us feel less lonely and more connected. It’s also the only way our communities will be resilient in the face of the climate catastrophe that is coming. One of my wise mentors recently said that the most successful climate adaptation will take place in living rooms across the city. With forest fires, heat domes and atmospheric rivers here to stay, it’s probably a good time to take down those privacy screens and invite our neighbours in.

Victoria’s 2022 Budget Sets the Table for the Future

This piece was originally published in the Times Colonist here.

I’ve been at the Council table for 10 years; this is my 11th budget, and it’s going to be the most difficult one yet. Budget 2022 is the City’s third pandemic budget. It’s also difficult because like other cities across Canada, Victoria is facing big challenges: pandemic recovery, housing affordability, climate change, public safety, equity diversity and inclusion.

The main source of revenue that cities have to address these challenges is property taxes – a municipal funding formula that dates back to 1867 and doesn’t grow as the economy grows. It would be great if cities got 1% of the PST generated in their jurisdiction on an annual basis to help address the issues facing us and meet demands from the public for action.

But as of now we don’t. And with parking and conference centre revenues still down from pre-pandemic levels, a key question becomes: how much do we raise property taxes this year to support recovery and invest in the future?

In 2020, we didn’t raise property taxes at all, yet continued to deliver all the services that Victorians rely on. In 2021, to support our struggling businesses, we reduced business taxes by 2%. This approach is not sustainable.

The City’s core budget for 2022 proposes a property tax increase of 3.25%. This includes key city services like parks operations, road paving, underground infrastructure, and a new firehall with affordable housing. Budget 2022 also proposes millions of dollars of spending on climate action; making these investments now provides substantial savings to taxpayers of the future. And almost a quarter of the core budget funds VicPD and bylaw.

Yet Council has heard over the past few years, from a wide range of people, that the proposed core budget doesn’t meet the needs of our growing and changing city. Here are some of the supplemental requests Council is considering:

1. Pandemic recovery. Everyone loved those pandemic patios; making them permanent comes with costs. Demand has grown at the City’s Business Hub with an uptick in new business licenses over the past two quarters; the City’s one Business Ambassador needs additional resources to continue to support start-ups and expansions.

Development applications keep pouring in; the planning department requires additional staff to process applications and get new housing built quickly. Arts and culture venues and artists hit hard by the pandemic need a boost in 2022. And the City’s new Arts and Innovation District needs rezoning to facilitate future development on under-utilized commercially zoned land.

2. Climate action. Earlier in the year, there was strong public opposition to expanding the Hartland Landfill. New zero waste staff are needed to implement policies to reduce single use items and construction waste, extending the life of the current landfill.

Victorians love trees, so Council recently strengthened the tree protection bylaw, making it more difficult to cut down trees for new development. Additional staff resources are now required to process permits and protect the urban forest for the future.

3. Affordable housing. We’ve received thousands of emails over the past few years asking the City to do more on homelessness and affordable housing. Even though these are primarily federal and provincial responsibilities, we’re responding in Budget 2022 by proposing to play a larger role including a new position at the City to work on homelessness, funding the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, funding Our Place to extend their hours, and an additional quarter million dollars to accelerate the implementation of the Victoria Housing Strategy.

4. Public safety. VicPD needs 10 new staff including six officers to help address the challenges police are taking on because of a downloading of mental health and substance use issues to local governments. And City bylaw requires more resources to keep up with increased resident demands on the bylaw department.

5. Equity Diversity and Inclusion. From George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020 to the discovery of hundreds of children’s bodies in graves at former residential school sites in the summer of 2021, Canada and Canadian cities have entered a new era. In this era, the voices, experiences and needs of those left too long on the margins must be addressed, to create inclusive, prosperous communities that benefit everyone.

This means: anti-racism and reconciliation training for city staff, better integration for newcomers in the City’s recreation programs, a cultural liaison officer at VicPD, an Indigenous Relations function at City Hall, and potentially, a Community Reconciliation Levy to transfer some of the wealth generated by new development to the Songhees and Esquimalt nations, on whose lands the city was built.

As you scroll through the supplementary items in the budget survey, a story starts to emerge of a city preparing for the future. There is a cost attached to this; we will have a higher tax increase than has been seen in recent years. But making these investments now will help to meet the demands Council has heard from the public over the past few years and will lay the ground for a continued strong and inclusive recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

To participate in the process, take the budget survey at www.engage.victoria.ca and join us November 17th at 6:30pm for a virtual budget town hall.

The World Is Coming Apart at the Seams and Why We Should Embrace It

A few weeks ago, the City of Victoria, the Victoria Foundation and the Canadian Urban Institute came together to host an “urban intensive” called CUIxVictoria – Vital Conversations for Our Shared Future. It was a very powerful three-day series of discussion and dialogue. If you missed it, you can catch all the sessions on the CUIxVictoria website, some of which I’ll highlight in this post.

As event organizers, we deliberately profiled and foregrounded voices and experiences that are often left in the margins: Black, Indigenous and people of colour. The event was powerful because their voices and experiences are powerful. But it was also powerful in that it gave me hope that even though the world is coming apart at the seams as I wrote in a previous blog post, a new world is possible. Indeed, it is already emerging.

The CUIxVictoria sessions gave me greater motivation to work at helping to create that world. I also feel a keen sense of responsibility – a big one – as a white middle class settler woman to de-centre myself, to get out of the way, to provide support and resources where necessary, and to stop that “trickle of whiteness” as Charity Williams so eloquently called it in the video featured at the top of the post, “Hope Meets Action: Echoes Through the Black Continuum.”

The “trickle of whiteness” that seeps into processes led by and for Black, Indigenous and people of colour is the product of unconscious bias and the systemic racism that infects so many of our processes and institutions. In “Hope Meets Action” – which is also the name of an exhibit at the Royal BC Museum (RBCM) – we heard about what is possible when institutions like the RBCM hand over power, authority and resources to the Black community.

The museum exhibit, and the process to create it, centres the lives and stories – past and present – of Black British Columbians. The process of deciding what stories to tell and how to tell the stories was in the hands of Black community members, not in the hands of the museum curators. “Hope Meets Action” is a remarkable story. I highly recommend watching the panel discussion above if you work in an institution or setting that is decolonizing and working to address systemic racism.

In “Belonging in Victoria: Muslim Voices for Change,” (video below), we heard directly about experiences of Islamophobia and racism that Muslim women face in Victoria. Aisha exclaimed in disbelief, “How is Islamaphobia worse now than it was when I was in high school?” Zara noted that racism is rooted in colonization and that colonization is dehumanizing. We have an idea in Canada that we are not racist, she said, that we think, “This isn’t who we are in Canada.” If racism is rooted in colonization and Canada was created by way of colonization, then there is racism in Canada, and in Victoria. These Muslim women face it every day.

Yet also, they shared stories of resilience: their recommendations presented at the end of the panel for how to make Victoria more inclusive, less Islamophobic; their very presence and courage to organize a plenary session for CUIxVictoria and to speak so vulnerably, so openly, and with such generosity; and Chrystal’s moving spoken word poem where she asserts, “I deserve to be held with love, dignity and awe.” Please take the time to listen to the conversation as part of helping to usher in the new world we need. Addressing Islamophobia is work for all of us.

The CUIxVictoria sessions left me thinking about what concrete actions I can take in my last year as mayor and in whatever I do next, to support decolonization, dismantle systemic racism, create more inclusive economies and low-carbon prosperity. Those of us with white privilege, class privilege, settler privilege have to work hard to help create this new world, this new way of living together.

How do we do this? In the “Inclusive Economies” session profiled below, one of the panelists quoted Lilla Watson, a Murri visual artist, activist and academic working on women’s issues and Aboriginal epistemology in Australia: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Working together involves those of us with power and privilege handing over power, resources, time, centre stage, and more, to those whom patriarchal-colonial-extractivist capitalism has left out and left behind. What I learned from CUIxVictoria is that the view from the margins holds the wisdom for our shared future.

There was one additional and simple piece of advice that came through from the Black, Indigenous and people of colour participants on many of the panels, and was especially highlighted by members of the Welcoming City Strategy session profiled below: build new relationships. Members of the City’s Welcoming City Task Force suggested that if you are Caucasian, ask yourself if most people in your social circle are also Caucasian. Work to change this. When you meet someone who is different from you at work, picking up your kids at school, in your neighbourhood, invite them for a cup of coffee. The work of welcoming belongs to all of us.

With so much hopelessness around climate change – which we heard a lot about in the youth session – and hopelessness about the opioid crisis, the housing crisis, mental health challenges, experiences of racism, discrimination, the ongoing impacts of colonization, CUIxVictoria was a peek into the world that is possible and a sense of what it will take to get there.

Welcoming Victoria: An Inclusive, Anti-Racist City

To learn more about the process of developing the Welcoming City Strategy and to meet some members of the Welcoming City Task Force, join online this Wednesday October 20th from 5:00-6:30pm for a virtual panel discussion as part of CUIxVictoria – Vital Conversations for Our Shared Future. You can register for the Welcoming City session here.

For the past year I’ve been honoured to participate in the City’s Welcoming City Task Force and to work alongside newcomers, people of colour, Black and Indigenous people, agencies that work with and serve them, and with Councillor Dubow as task force co-chair. The task force began in November of 2020 by asking, “What makes Victoria unwelcome?” And we worked together over the next many months to develop a Welcoming City Strategy and Action Plan, which are coming to Council for consideration this Thursday.

Racism makes Victoria unwelcoming to people who are – in increasing numbers – moving here from around the world, and to Indigenous, Black and people of colour who have been here for longer. A survey conducted by the Intercultural Association (ICA) confirms the experiences of the Welcoming City Task Force members and others engaged in the consultation process to develop the Welcoming City Strategy.

The ICA survey found that 71% of who identify as Indigenous, Black, Asian or a person of colour personally experienced racism in the past five years in Greater Victoria, either daily, weekly or monthly. And 70% of people who identify as Indigenous, Black, Asian or a person of colour feel undervalued, isolated and unsafe in Greater Victoria because of their race or ethnicity.

What can also make Victoria feel unwelcoming is a lack of readily available information on services for newcomers, discrimination when seeking employment or housing, lack of access to and understanding of the legal system, inability to access City services in their first language, fear of calling the police for help, worry about their kids attending school without teachers and other parents having cultural awareness and anti-racism training, lack of access to affordable, culturally appropriate food. And more.

What I experienced as a white settler woman engaged in the Welcoming City Task Force was the extreme warmth and generosity of the task force members and others we engaged over the past year. These are folks who experience systemic discrimination, who are hurt and frustrated by systemic racism. Yet they showed up, shared their painful experiences, trusted us, and trusted the process even though in so many instances trust has been broken and processes have failed them.

To wrap up the engagement process as task force co-chairs, Councillor Dubow and I held a virtual town hall meeting, an open forum to catch any thoughts or ideas that may have been missed in the more structured “Welcoming Standard” workshops (more on that below). Right after the town hall meeting, we had a quick debrief with City staff who were involved in the task force process and attended the town hall meeting.

One veteran staff member who has attended many town halls, public forums and engagement opportunities in their time, remarked on the gratitude and generosity of the participants. The staff member was struck, as was I, that many of the people in attendance who spoke, began their remarks with comments like, “Thank you Councillor Dubow and Mayor Helps for this opportunity.”

Despite the fact that almost all the participants were Black, Indigenous and people of colour, accustomed to experiencing discrimination and racism, generosity and gratitude prevailed. What struck us was the contrast between the Welcoming City Town Hall and others Council has held in the past, where people with race or class privilege attending take for granted that the forum is there for them and sometimes rudely or harshly address council.

The prevalence of racism in Victoria, and the generosity we experienced throughout the Welcoming City process, make me resolute in my commitment to implement the Welcoming City Action Plan and to make Victoria more inclusive, less racist and to achieve Victoria’s Welcoming City vision: a city where newcomers are warmly welcomed and well supported. I anticipate that when the Strategy and Action plan come to Council on Thursday, Council will share this commitment.

Victoria’s Welcoming City work was identified as a priority in Council’s 2019-2022 Strategic Plan and was also key action in Victoria 3.0 Recovery, Reinvention, Resilience 2020-2041, the City’s economic action plan. Diversity, inclusion and belonging are key to creating a strong economy for the future.

To develop our Welcoming City approach, we built on the work done by the non-profit Welcoming America, which developed the “Welcoming Standard” in 2009. Since that time, several countries including Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and the United Kingdom joined as members of Welcoming International. The Government of Canada, through the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship joined the network in 2020. The City of Victoria is the first city in Canada to develop a Welcoming City Strategy. The Welcoming Standard is organized according to the following seven categories:

  1. Government Leadership – In welcoming places, local governments implement
    systems, programs, and comprehensive equity, diversity, and anti-racism policies
    that strengthen community efforts and embed inclusion within government
    agencies.
  2. Civic Engagement – Welcoming communities actively ensure that residents,
    including newcomers, fully participate in civic life by increasing access to
    leadership and democratic spaces.
  3. Equitable Access – Welcoming places work to ensure community services and
    opportunities are available to all residents, including newcomers.
  4. Education – Welcoming communities strive for an educational system that
    ensures all students have the support they need to succeed in school and the
    education they need to succeed in the workforce.
  5. Connected Communities – Welcoming communities build connections between
    newcomers and long-term residents by strengthening relationships and
    communicating shared values.
  6. Economic Development – Welcoming communities harness the full potential of
    all residents. Newcomers have the skills and assets to thrive, and economic
    development systems are prepared to leverage new and existing talent.
  7. Safe Communities – Welcoming communities foster trust and build relationships
    between residents, including newcomers, and local law enforcement and safety
    agencies.

Welcoming Standards are community specific roadmaps that provide a guide with community-determined benchmarks to develop stronger, more inclusive communities and bridge the gaps between newcomers and long-time residents. A ‘newcomer’ is defined as a recent immigrant (up to five years in Victoria), refugees, international students, temporary foreign workers, and recent immigrant Canadians relocating to the city. Welcoming cities recognize that communities are healthier, happier, and more productive when newcomers are welcomed and can participate fully in society and the local economy.

Please read the Strategy and Action Plan and share them with others. The work of making Victoria welcoming is work for all of us. And, those of us with race, class and other privilege have a key role to play and key actions to take in making Victoria an inclusive, anti-racist city for everyone and for the future.

Can you invite a newcomer for tea? Can you advocate for anti-racist training in your workplace? Can you ensure your kid’s classroom is welcoming and inclusive of everyone? How can you create time, space and opportunity with and for those who are often marginalized and privilege and centre their voices and experiences? How can you get out of the way when necessary?

To learn more about the process of developing the Welcoming City Strategy and to meet some members of the Welcoming City Task Force, join online this Wednesday October 20th from 5:00-6:30pm for a virtual panel discussion as part of CUIxVictoria – Vital Conversations for Our Shared Future. You can register for the Welcoming City session here.

Late September Strawberries, and the Work of Reconciliation

I wrote this poem while picking strawberries, a few days before the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation – marked in Victoria since 2017 as Orange Shirt Day – to honour and support residential school survivors, intergenerational survivors, and the families of those who didn’t come home.

Late September Strawberries

maybe it’s climate change
or that we got the soil right
this year, pungent fertilizer applied
at the right intervals
and a commitment to every-two-day-
early-morning watering
no matter the conditions of my life
or that 15 minutes more sleep
would be welcome

maybe it’s the pollinators
the hedgerow at Robyn’s farm
inspiring us to create our own this year
welcome habitat for the bees,
that feed us

we aren’t very good gardeners
by that I mean we don’t
have all the time in the world
to study the soil, the path the sun makes,
reliably, across the yard each day
what should go where and, why
in some beds, things just don’t grow

well

we are good gardeners
earnest on Saturday afternoons
as life allows
planting vegetables
tending tomatoes
and the joy
of that backyard connection

late September strawberries
shorter-day-soak-in sunshine
as we prepare the garden
and ourselves
for what’s next

Songhees knowledge keeper Florence Dick says
that the City can’t have
the name of their Grand Chief
for our street sign
because even though he signed the Douglas Treaty
in 1850 and is long dead
he is also still alive
moves through this land through his descendants
he cannot be pinned down
as a name on a street sign

these strawberries
this land
ours and not ours

what’s next is winter
and the work of decolonization
the learning and unlearning
the shared pain
the deep understanding
that what was done
cannot be undone

those children who never came home
those children who survived

short days and long nights
to tend to the work
the lək̓ʷəŋən are winter ceremony people

I also must do my work
so that as another spring comes
and strawberries bloom
on land that is not ours
I know my role on this healing path
and walk, heart and hand,
with the people
of this land