Last Thursday, at a public hearing for a proposed new condo building on Rockland Ave near Cook Street, a neighbour spoke to Council in favour of the new housing. He listed all the types of housing in the area: he lives in a townhouse; this new condo building is proposed on the lot next door; Council recently approved a five story rental building nearby on Cook Street; and just this past week the Province announced a new supportive housing building nearby on Meares Street. The neighbour said he supports all of these housing types in his neighbourhood because a diversity of housing is key to good “community making.”

Council voted in favour of the proposal. And, earlier in the evening, Council also supported 34 new townhouses in the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood on Washington Street. The townhouses are two, three and four bedroom and are designed to provide homes for families. The past week also saw the Province announce close to 300 new supportive housing units in the region, including 192 in the City of Victoria.

It was a good week for housing in the city – from much-needed missing middle housing like townhouses, to small condos that enable young people to enter the housing market, to housing for people exiting homelessness. But is it enough? And what about the process?

New provincial legislation adopted in 2018 requires that each local government undertake a “Housing Needs Survey” every five years to identify gaps in the housing ecosystem. Victoria’s assessment completed in late 2020 reveals a stark housing shortage and great housing need.

In 2019, the average price for a single family home was $939,066. For a townhouse, $686,849. And for a condo, $501,352. Based on these prices, the average single-detached home and townhouse is unaffordable to any household in Victoria earning the median income. Only condos are affordable for couples with children and other families earning the median income. A household requires an annual income of approximately $105,000 for a condo to be affordable (e.g. spending less than 30% of before-tax household income), and $145,000 annual income for a townhouse.

The median rent in 2019 was $1,150, which would require an annual income of approximately $50,520 to be affordable. Renter households relying on a single income are 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. Being in core housing need means that people are living in housing that is inadequate, unsuitable, and/or currently unaffordable, and that they are unable to afford the median rent of alternative local housing.

The number of units the City’s needs assessment said were needed to meet demand between 2016 and 2020 was 2116. The actual number of building permits issued between 2015 and 2019 was 4516. Ninety-four point six per cent of these were for apartments and condos, 2.9% single family dwellings, 1.5% townhouses and 0.9% duplexes.

So … we doubled the number of units that were projected to be needed, yet here we are in 2021 with a rental vacancy rate hovering around 2 per cent, the cost of rent still increasing, house prices continuing to rise, and three bedroom units – from rentals, to condos to townhouses – suitable for families, almost impossible to come by.

We have a housing supply problem. If we don’t radically increase housing supply in the city in the near term, the results are going to be catastrophic. Some of the people at the public hearing Thursday who spoke in favour of the Washington Street townhouses said they wanted to stay in Victoria, not move out to Langford, but would never be able to afford a single family home here.

When people flee cities for suburban sprawl, the negative side effects include more time stuck in traffic and less time with family, a decrease in overall health outcomes, higher transportation costs, an increase in transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, and biodiversity loss, as forests are cleared for new housing.

And, we also have a process problem. I’ve sat at the Council table for close to ten years and have become increasingly frustrated with how much time it takes to get a development through the process, and by the length of public hearings. The 20-unit Rhodo townhouse project on Fairfield Road took two and a half years to get approved and then a lawsuit to follow challenging the process. Thursday night, we sat in over four hours of public hearings to approve a mere 56 new homes. Our meeting ended at 1:11am. A few weeks ago, it took a three hour public hearing to approve one new small lot home. This is unnecessary process when we have a massive housing shortage on our hands.

Here are three big ideas to avoid catastrophe and make sure that there are enough homes in Victoria for people who want to live and work in Victoria.

  1. Amend the City’s Official Community Plan and rezone the whole city so that any currently-zoned-single-family lot can have up to four units as of right (without a rezoning) and six units as of right if two are below market in perpetuity. The fourplexes and sixplexes would need to adhere to design guidelines that fit with existing neighbourhood contexts. Kelowna has done something similar on a pilot basis through their Infill Challenge and RU7 Zoning.
  2. Get rid of parking minimums so that there are no parking requirements tied to the building of homes. As it stands right now, most city planning polices in North America require a certain number of parking spots to accompany most new residential buildings. Requiring parking adds expense to projects, locks in an unsustainable mode of transportation as the norm, and mandates the use of valuable city land for the storage of cars rather than for the housing of people. Last summer, Edmonton became the first major city in Canada to do this. Victoria should follow.
  3. Change provincial legislation so that any project that fits within a community’s Official Community Plan and respective design guidelines does not require a public hearing. What this means is that there will be an opportunity for public input on Official Community Plan amendments but not on anything that fits within the Official Community Plan. At the same time the Province should create a mechanism to ensure that local governments are still able to receive public amenities in exchange for extra density. I hope that our bright, exceedingly competent, and keen Minister of Municipal Affairs and Minister of Housing will put their heads together and work with local governments to make this necessary legislative change as soon as possible.

These three ideas taken together will drastically increase the supply of housing in our city, help to make housing more affordable by increasing supply (although supply alone will not solve the affordability crisis for those living in poverty), and help to avoid the high costs of suburban sprawl. Implementing these ideas will also lead to better community making as the young man who spoke at the public hearing so eloquently put it.

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