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, 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)

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.

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