Cool’s Aid Crosstown Project at 3020 Douglas Street and 584 Burnside Road. You can head to their website to learn more about this exciting development. Photo from Cool Aid website.

For the past few years, Council has been hearing from many residents about the impact of the housing affordability crisis in Victoria. Seniors who live on fixed incomes have a hard time affording housing; students who pay high tuition costs and then high student loan payments are in a similar boat. And many women-led single-parent families and people working in low-income jobs can’t afford to pay current market rents in this city. All of these groups are vulnerable if they lose their current housing.

Last June, in response to the evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic was deepening an already dire housing crisis, Council directed staff to report back with ideas to expedite affordable housing. We already fast track affordable housing projects and move them to the front of the line, but it still takes too long.

Let’s take Cool Aid’s Crosstown Project, pictured above, as an example. This is how it is described on their website:

“The project combines affordable rental units for working families, seniors and singles with a mix of incomes – a range of rental housing supply our city desperately needs – with other uses, including daycare services, office space, and retail space (including a café). The development is close to shopping, transit and other services, and is just a couple of kilometres from the downtown core, making it an ideal location for singles and families.”

This is exactly what the City’s Official Community Plan wants for this site. And it’s what the community desperately needs. So why does it currently take well over two years to get such a project to construction?

Here’s some background: Victoria’s Official Community Plan (OCP) lays out the land use plan for the city, to accommodate the anticipated population growth between 2012 (when the plan was adopted) out to 2041. The OCP was developed through a two-and-a-half year public consultation process. Over 6000 people gave their input to shape the vision for the city’s future and the land use plan that will help bring this vision to life.

Yet even with this overarching document, most land use changes (development proposals) still need to go through a public consultation and rezoning process – even if they fit with the OCP guidelines. This week, City staff are putting forward a bold proposal to change this when it comes to affordable housing.

The proposed changes will create certainty so that if non-profit housing providers or the Capital Regional Housing Corporation (CRHC) buy a piece of property and plan to use it in the way the OCP envisions, they will be able to do so without going through a political process. This will make it easier for non-profit housing developers and the CRHC to secure funding for projects from the provincial and federal governments, which like to fund less risky projects. The proposed changes will also shave significant time off the approvals process, bringing affordable housing to completion more quickly. This is important given the substantially increasing construction costs.

Specifically, what staff are proposing is that Council:

  • Delegate the authority to the Director of Sustainable Planning and Community Development to issue all Development Permits, with or without variances, offering affordable non-market housing secured by legal agreement.
  • Allow the maximum density contemplated in the Official Community Plan to be the maximum density permitted for a specific site, where an affordable non-market housing development is proposed and affordable dwelling units are secured with a legal agreement.

This amounts to waving a regulatory magic wand to make affordable housing possible on any site in the city, as long as the proposal fits with the OCP and the design guidelines for the neighbourhood. This means that there would be no public or political process for affordable housing developments.

I know there are some people who may be unhappy with this approach, as it cuts out public consultation on a site by site basis. We got significant public input on land use during the development of the OCP. And from a housing affordability point of view, we got lots of input through the development of the Victoria Housing Strategy, the Housing Summit, and the thousands of emails Council has received over the years from working people who can’t afford to live in our city, asking us to take bold action.

The housing affordability crisis is also regional. The Capital Regional District Housing Affordability Strategy identifies that over the next 17 years as a region , we need at a minimum 17,107 units for people from very low to moderate incomes. The regulatory change that Victoria city staff are proposing is just as possible for all other local governments in the region. My hope is that our colleagues across the CRD will also embrace this approach, making our whole region affordable for a range of people and families at every phase and stage of life.

And finally, while this is a good step for the City to take with respect to affordable housing, as I noted in my “Three Big Ideas” blog post, we need the Province to step in with big, bold action too. If we want to comprehensively address the housing crisis – including the lack of missing middle housing for families – we need a change to provincial legislation so that any project that fits within a community’s OCP and respective design guidelines does not require a political process. As part of this, the Province needs to ensure that local governments are still able to receive public amenities in exchange for extra density, and secure statutory rights of way for widening sidewalks or adding bike lanes. Right now these are only possible to secure through a rezoning process.

To read the staff report, “Options to Support Rapid Deployment of Affordable Housing through Regulatory and Process Changes,” head here (item G2). To read the Times Colonist coverage from Saturday head here.

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