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

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

This piece was originally printed in the Times Colonist.

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

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

With its missing middle housing initiative, the City is trying to address an out-of-date planning and zoning process that currently makes it easy to build homes that few people can afford.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing Middle Moving Forward

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

Not enough or flawed consultation

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

Housing Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

A final few wrap up thoughts:

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

One final example about how this all fits together.

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

[PAUSE]

Now I will turn to the seconder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Inclusive Cities

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

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

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

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

Here’s how:

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

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

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

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

Climate Friendly Cities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The differences are:

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

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

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

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

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

Missing Middle Housing and Neighbourhood Character

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

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

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

House Conversion Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing Middle Design Guidelines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victoria Housing Strategy: Focus On Renters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tenant Protections and Missing Middle Housing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upzoning and Affordability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, 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.

Council Summer Wrap Up – Housing, Bike Lanes, Sports Fields, and More

New skate parks and bike park too at Topaz. More below!

Thursday was our last Council meeting before a summer recess, and it was a long one! It was probably one of the most exciting days in my almost-decade at the Council table in terms of big moves that lay the ground work for the future. Here’s a synopsis of the key decisions and, where applicable, information about how to get involved in the next steps. Each of these could be its own full blog post, so I’ll just touch on the highlights and provide a link to the Council report for those of you who’d like to read more.

Missing Middle Housing Moves to Broad Public Engagement

I previewed Missing Middle housing in a blog post a few weeks ago, “Housing Supply in Victoria Tipping in the Wrong Direction.” Missing Middle housing is ground-oriented housing (front doors that open out onto the street) that fills a gap between single family homes and condos. Staff recommended to Council that we move ahead with the next steps in rezoning the single family lands in the city – about 45% of the city’s land base – to make room for townhouses and houseplexes.

Staff’s recommendations balances the need for new housing in what are currently single family neighbourhoods, with the preservation of the character of these neighbourhoods that so many of us love. Staff provided draft design guidelines for townhouses and houseplexes that people building these homes will need to follow. Staff also worked hard to balance the preservation and enhancement of green space and the urban forest, with space for parking.

Council endorsed staff’s approach and voted to move forward with the next step, which is wide consultation with the public this fall, before Council gives consideration to zoning bylaws that would increase the density throughout a large portion of the city’s land base. These proposed changes will make it easier for small-scale developers and also for neighbours to come together to pool their properties in land trusts or co-ops.

To read the detailed staff report, the preliminary engagement summary, and to view the proposed design guidelines, head here to item F1. To follow along with next steps on Missing Middle housing and to participate in the consultation this fall, head here and register.

Village and Corridor Planning – Joyful Public Spaces and More Housing Choices

Since the fall of 2019, staff have been working with the communities of Fernwood, North Park, and Hillside Quadra to develop 20-year visions for their neighbourhoods, and to create more housing choices for more people. The engagement to date has produced some pretty inspiring results! Much of the early engagement was done online because of COVID-19. What we found is that while there is still a need for more face-to-face engagement – which will happen this fall – we reached a much wider and more representative group of people by providing online engagement opportunities.

The people who participated shared their visions and aspirations for their neighbourhoods. This includes some pretty awesome ideas for public spaces and placemaking, more inclusive and affordable housing choices, more sustainable mobility options, improvements to parks and green spaces, and more. For those of you who live in Fernwood, North Park or Hillside Quadra, haven’t yet been involved and want to learn more, please take the time to head here, to item E1 and see the ideas that your neighbours have put forward for the future of your neighbourhoods. To those who contributed time, energy and ideas, thank you!

One of the big changes proposed for all three neighbourhoods – and pictured in the map above – is to rezone portions of neighbourhoods along and off corridors, and near village centres to create more diverse housing choices and to incentivize rental and affordable housing through bonus density. For example, if someone builds rental or affordable housing, they will be allowed more density than if they were to build condos. To learn more, please read the staff report which is the first item under E1 here.

If you haven’t had a chance to participate yet, not to worry. With Council’s vote on Thursday to move forward on the next steps, staff will be taking all of the preliminary input and turning it into draft neighbourhood plans for each neighbourhood. These draft plans will form the basis of the next phase of engagement, to take place this fall, where the plans and the ideas generated to date can be assessed, revised and added to. It’s a really exciting opportunity to help shape the future of our city and your neighbourhood. If you’d like to learn more and participate this fall, head here and register.

New Turf Fields and New Bike and Skate Parks at Topaz

In 2018, Council approved the Topaz Park Improvement Plan. Since then, staff have been working with the community to prepare and design the first two big projects – skate and bike parks that will accommodate all skill levels – from beginner to advanced, and two new artificial turf fields to replace the existing ones which are at end of life. As part of both of these projects, accessibility improvements will be made including the addition of accessible parking, accessible access to the sports field, accessible spectator seating, an accessible washroom including an adult change table, and accessible pathways in and around the bike and skate parks.

With Council’s decision on Thursday, staff and the consulting teams can begin the detailed design and then construction. The budgets for these projects ($4.3 million for the turf fields and $3.8 million for the bike and skate parks) have already been approved as part of the 2021 budget. Construction will begin later this year. The bike and skate parks will be open by June 2022 and the new fields by early fall 2022.

It’s exciting to be able to make these investments in sports and recreation. Both projects are much anticipated by a wide range of community members. With skateboarding just having debuted at the Olympics, we expect the new skate park will be well-used by young Victorians who have big aspirations. And, both the bike and skate parks as well as the turf fields contribute to the physical and mental health and well being of our community.

Head here to item F3 to read the reports and see the plans and the engagement summary.

Final Corridors of 32km Bike Network – Approved Unanimously

This is the current status of the build out of the 32km All Ages and Abilities bike network. For more detailed maps and corridor treatments head here.

Since 2016, the City has been building an All Ages and Abilities bike network to make it safe and easy for people who are hesitant to cycle because they don’t feel safe doing so alongside high volumes of fast-moving cars. Recent research undertaken for Victoria found that 85% of people surveyed would consider biking if they had safe routes to do so.

On Thursday, after two rounds of public engagement on James Bay routes, Council approved the construction of safe cycling routes along Government Street, Superior Street and Montreal Street, with a short connector as well from Government along Michigan Street into the AAA facility through Beacon Hill Park. The design of each corridor was given thoughtful consideration by members of the public and staff, and each route was designed taking a ‘complete streets’ approach.

A complete streets approach means improvements for pedestrians, retention of as much on street parking as possible, accommodation of transit buses, etc. It also means that safety considerations and the kind of bike facility that we build depends on the condition of the streets. For example, at the beginning of the Government Street corridor at Humboldt, there are high car traffic volumes as it’s a busy downtown street, so there will be protected bike lanes on either side of the road. By the time Government Street connects with the waterfront pathway at Dallas Road, the proposed treatment is a shared neighbourhood bikeway because traffic volumes on that stretch of Government are less than 1000 cars per day.

Council also approved expedited engagement for protected bikelanes on Gorge Road between Government Street and the Saanich border at Harriet Street. Gorge Road has had a great deal of discussion as a bike route over the years both in the initial network planning in 2016 and through the development of the Burnside Gorge Neighbourhood Plan in 2017. The Gorge Road bike lanes will help to better allocate existing road space, create a more human-scale feeling, include improvements for pedestrians, and will help to knit the Burnside Gorge neighbourhood – which is bisected by many busy roads – together.

The Gorge Road bike corridor is being coordinated with the District of Saanich, which is also building protected bike lanes from Admirals Road to the Victoria border. And, the Gorge Road route is being built in 2022 in anticipation of sewer repairs planned for 2023 which will mean the closure of the Galloping Goose trail for a period of the year. We are building the Gorge Road AAA facility in 2022 so that riders of all ages and abilities will have a safe detour route during the period of the Goose closure.

The final leg of the priority AAA network – Pandora from Cook to Begbie – will be designed in 2022 and built in the first quarter of 2023.

All the AAA projects to date have come in on time and on budget. And best of all, we’re seeing more people than ever before using the network. We learned at the Council meeting Thursday that on some days, the two-way bike lanes on Wharf Street along the harbour are as busy as the Galloping Goose Trail!

Head here to item F1 to read the staff report, see the proposed corridor designs and the engagement summary.

Northern Junk Buildings – Heritage Preservation and Building for the Future

Pictured here are renderings of the ‘Northern Junk’ buildings, two warehouses dating back to the 1860s. The proposed project that Council approved on Thursday evening was 11 years in the making. This was a very controversial project. Victoria has a world-class heritage preservation program and because of it, a large portion of our downtown is intact and well-preserved for the future.

Many of the people who were involved in the creation and stewardship of the City’s award-winning heritage program, were strongly opposed to this proposal, noting that it doesn’t respect the heritage guidelines for Old Town. A key point that they made is that the five-story addition on top of the old warehouses was not subservient to the heritage buildings.

I agree with this assessment. But my vote in favour of the project had wider considerations than only heritage preservation. I do think – from a heritage point of view – that this development has many merits. Many of the character defining features of the buildings will be restored and preserved, including a few of the internal elements. They will be brought back to life and able to be viewed and enjoyed from the street, Reeson Park and the water.

In addition, the redevelopment of this site which has sat vacant for 43 years – almost my whole life – will begin to knit that portion of the harbour front back together and breathe new life into it. The City has recently made improvements to Reeson Park, including installation of a portion of the waterfront walkway. The Northern Junk redevelopment will continue the harbour pathway from Reeson Park and along the waterfront of the old buildings.

On the north side of the buildings is a derelict piece of City-owned land currently serving as a small parking lot. With the certainty of the development going ahead, and with direction from Council, staff could begin work on converting that parking lot into another small waterfront park and continuing the harbour pathway across the City’s property there, linking the public realm of the south and north sides of the Johnson Street Bridge together.

In addition, the proposed development will add 47 rental units to the city. Some of the people who spoke against the development noted that these units won’t be affordable. That’s true. But with a rental vacancy rate hovering around 1% and with a massive labour shortage – in part due to lack of housing, even for people who earn really good wages – I’m very hard pressed to vote against housing.

You can head here to watch Council’s debate and deliberation on Thursday evening (debate starts at 1:32:04) which resulted in a 5-4 vote in favour the project.

“The Beginning of the End of Homelessness in the CRD”

During the pandemic, homelessness was a key issue that we had to work through as a community. On March 17 2020, there were approximately 25-35 people sheltering outside. By the end of April 2020, that number grew to over 400 people. Working hard together, the City, BC Housing, Island Health, the Province, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness and so many amazing housing providers, outreach workers, peer support workers and others, helped over 600 people move inside from parks.

To learn from this process about what went well, what didn’t, and what should come next, the City applied for federal funding through the Reaching Home program to undertake an assessment. The report Council received and approved on Thursday is game-changing for addressing homelessness in the City and the region, that is, if everyone involved – from the City to the Province to the homeless serving system as a whole – implements the 28 recommendations.

The power of the report and the recommendations is that they foreground the stories and experiences of people who have experienced homelessness, most of whom moved from the parks indoors during the study period. Their experiences and stories reveal all the gaps in the system that need to be fixed, and point to a need for stronger coordination. They also reveal a keen willingness from, and need for, people experiencing homelessness to have a say in and control over their own journey from homelessness to home.

The goal that we have collectively set now – coming out of the successes and challenges of the pandemic – is to achieve what’s called “functional zero homelessness.” Functional zero is a concrete and measurable approach to ending homelessness; it means that there are enough, or even more homeless-serving services and resources than needed to meet the needs of individuals who are experiencing homelessness.

The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness has already developed a work plan to implement the recommendations. We want to keep up the momentum gained during the pandemic. And we want to work to ensure that everyone in the region has a safe, secure, affordable place to call home, with the help, support and the community they need.

For those interested, I strongly recommend reading the full report. Head here, to item D2.

Housing Supply in Victoria is Tipping in the Wrong Direction, and How Giving Away Council’s Power Can Help

These 22 town homes by Aryze, in Fairfield are currently under construction. They took close to three years to get through the approvals process and a total of five and half years from when the land was purchased to when the families will move in.

As she sanitized the knob of my office door, one of the City’s newest employees, who keeps our offices COVID clean said to me when we met recently, “Nice to meet you; thanks for building the city for the future.”

I was so struck by this because this is exactly what we’ve been doing for the last six and a half years. From the bike network, to the Climate Leadership Plan, to Zero Waste Victoria, to the Accessibility Framework, to Victoria 3.0, to the Witness Reconciliation Program and the Reconciliation Dialogues, and more. We’ve moved Victoria from 20th-century approaches to city building and oriented our city towards the 22nd century.

The one exception is housing and land use. There we’re still very much stuck in the 20th century. And we are very close to a tipping point, in the wrong direction. Unless the City and the Province make some bold moves soon, we will be responsible for creating a low-affordability future where the next generations of families and working people will be priced out of the city. We’ll lose artists, creatives, daycare workers, young professionals. We’ll lose our arts and culture scene. All of Victoria’s cherished strengths will be steadily eroded and undermined.

Whether you’re for or against townhouses being allowed in every neighbourhood, or for or against taller buildings downtown and in Harris Green, I imagine no one would willingly work create to this kind of future. So what can we do?

Single Family Dwellings: So few can afford them, so why are they so easy to build?
Currently, the City’s land use policies and procedures make it easier to build a single family home than any other type of dwelling, even though this is the most expensive form of housing that few people can afford.

Want to knock down a single family home and build a bigger one? No problem. This only needs staff – not Council – approval. And it doesn’t take too long to get the permits needed. Want to build a triplex, or houseplex or townhouses – what’s known as “missing middle housing” – on lots that are currently zoned for single family homes?

  1. Start by holding a Community Association Land Use Committee (CALUC) meeting.
  2. Incorporate the feedback you receive at the CALUC meeting into your plans.
  3. Submit your rezoning application and development permit application to the City.
  4. Staff will then review your application, including an interdepartmental review that usually involves both the Parks and Engineering departments.
  5. Then your application will be sent to a Committee of the Whole meeting for review by Council. If you’re lucky, Council accepts the staff recommendation to move the project forward. But Council always has the prerogative to refer the application back to staff to work with the applicant to make changes. If this happens, go back to step 3; if there are substantive changes, go back to step 1 for another CALUC meeting.
  6. If you get past Committee of the Whole, two weeks later the application is voted on at Council. It could get turned back or turned down here.
  7. If it passes at Council, months are usually needed to prepare all the legal agreements required before proceeding to a public hearing.
  8. Once all the legal agreements are prepared, one more trip to Council before heading to public hearing; that’s at a Council meeting where first and second reading of the bylaws are considered. Council could turn down or turn back the proposal at this point too.
  9. After first and second reading of the bylaws, a public hearing date is scheduled and advertised to the public in the newspaper, as is required by provincial legislation.
  10. At the public hearing, the public gets to share their thoughts and concerns about the project. And then, that night, Council makes a decision.

    This whole process can take often take a year, or more.

Unless there are efforts by the developer to rally support for the proposed new housing – which is often seen as suspect by Council and some members of the public – public hearings are usually mostly attended by people who live in single family dwellings nearby the proposed duplex, houseplex or townhouse who are opposed to the new housing. As the Canada-BC Expert Panel on the Future of Housing Supply and Affordability put it in their recently released report, “Rezoning can be difficult and amplifies the voices of a few rather than the needs of the community at large.”

Figure 10, Opening Doors: Unlocking housing supply for affordability, Expert Panel Report. Mean MLS price by dwelling type – annualized growth rate 2000-2020.

So we’re making it easiest to build the most expensive form of housing, and we’re pricing people out of our city.

Later this month, City staff will be bringing a report on missing middle housing to Council. They will recommend changes that make it much easier to build the kind of housing that people in Victoria need and can afford. I hope staff recommend taking away Council’s ability to vet these proposals, and delegating the entire process to staff. In short, I hope we start to treat duplexes, houseplexes and town houses just as we currently treat single family homes. I can’t think of a logical reason why we wouldn’t at least try this given that so few working people can afford a million dollar home.

Beyond Single Family Homes: What about housing supply in Victoria more generally?
While the Canada-BC Expert Panel was hard at work, so too were City staff. The recently released, “Victoria’s Housing Future,” report looks at current and future housing needs in our city. When staff presented their report to Council and the public a few weeks ago, one of the City’s housing staff and report authors reminded us that, “We’re planning for people, not just to accommodate growth.”

There is a narrative out there in the public that goes something like: “There’s so much construction and building already changing our city. Why should we welcome more people to Victoria and change our city so much that we don’t recognize it, just to accommodate people who don’t live here yet?”

Starkly, what “Victoria’s Housing Future” reveals is that as of 2016 (the most recent census data and five years out of date), we are between 4500 and 6300 homes short for the people who are already living here. Where are all these people now?

This estimated housing gap of between 4500 and 6300 homes for existing residents is based on these factors. It’s likely a conservative estimate of how much catching up is needed. According to “Victoria’s Housing Future”, “Even if 7000 units were added to the market today, we’d likely still feel some of the same pressures we’re already facing.”

To help out our residents who are already living here in overcrowded, or unaffordable housing, and to help employers who can’t keep workers because they can’t afford to live here, Council should not be allowed to turn down any proposal for new homes that fits within the City’s Official Community Plan (OCP), until we close the 7000 unit gap.

Here’s what the OCP says about Land Management and Development:

“Victoria’s Housing Future” also reveals that even if the OCP is built out to meet the housing need anticipated by 2041, we will still be 20-30% under the number of homes projected to be needed. What this means is that we need to revise the OCP to create more “urban residential” land and less “traditional residential.”

OCP Map 2 from Chapter 6 Land Management and Development.

Traditional residential means:

  • Ground-oriented buildings up to two storeys
  • Ground-oriented buildings up to two and one-half storeys may be considered for certain infill housing types
  • Multi-unit buildings up to three storeys, including attached residential and apartments on arterial and secondary arterial roads
  • Houses with front and rear yards oriented to face the street
  • Variable landscaping and street tree planting
  • Small apartments and local retail stores along arterial and secondary arterial roads and at intersections
  • On-street parking and individual driveways

Urban residential means:

  • Attached and detached buildings up to three storeys
  • Low-rise and mid-rise multi-unit buildings up to approximately six storeys
  • Primary doorways facing the street
  • Front yard landscaping, boulevard and street tree planting
  • On-street parking and collective driveway access to rear yard or underground parking

Shifting more of the city’s limited land base from traditional residential to urban residential doesn’t mean drastically changing the character of our neighbourhoods. It means doing more with our limited land base. And, it means doing this in order to meet not only our housing targets but also our climate goals. If we don’t make more room for housing in the city, what will happen is what is happening – more forests will be destroyed to build housing in the suburbs.

What can we do to make sure there is enough room in Victoria for artists, innovators, families, seniors, the next seven generations?
The Canada-BC Expert Panel on the Future of Housing Supply makes some good recommendations that the Province should implement immediately. Low hanging fruit includes mandating no public hearings for any buildings that fit within a City’s OCP. The panel also recommends that cities update zoning to match their OCPs and delegate development permits to staff. This means that there will be no political decisions and no public input for new housing on a development by development basis, as long as proposed new homes fit with what the OCP envisions.

While it may feel to some that these changes will cut the public out of the process, what they’re meant to do is a open up a more robust and vision-oriented public dialogue that happens as OCPs and design guidelines are developed and as City-initiated rezonings come forward. This kind of big-picture dialogue isn’t happening through the current public hearing process which pits existing neighbours against future neighbours against Council against developers.

Instead, we could ask questions that require us all to think bigger than whether we are for or against a certain proposal, questions like:

  • How might we enhance Victoria’s character and the neighbourhoods we all love at the same time as making room for current and future residents to have the housing they need at every phase and stage of their lives?
  • How might we protect existing older rental buildings and the affordability that comes with them, at the same time as making the most of the limited land base we have in the city?
  • How might we ensure that as our city grows and has more tall buildings as envisioned in the OCP, we also create more public spaces, green spaces, and enhance biodiversity?

It’s in answering these questions together that we’re going to build a more inclusive, resilient city, a city for everyone, and for the future.

‘Functional Zero’ – Ending Chronic Homelessness in Victoria

These buildings are samples of the types of homes under construction that will provide transitional and permanent housing for those currently experiencing homelessness or living in supportive housing, freeing up space for people experiencing homelessness to move in. There are thousands of units under construction in our region, including at least 500 with rents of $375 per month.

As I write this, there are approximately four structures remaining in City Parks 24/7, down from over 260 last fall. This is the lowest number of people living in City parks that we’ve seen in many years. And while this doesn’t account for everyone living outside, we are also seeing the lowest number of people sheltering outdoors over night than we’ve seen in years. It’s a real shame that it’s taken us a pandemic to secure the housing and health supports we have this past year. But the efforts are working. And we can’t let up now.

We can end chronic homelessness in Victoria. It’s going to take the same focused effort that so many have put in over the past year. If close to 600 people can move inside in one year, in the middle of a global health pandemic when everyone is already stretched and stressed, surely we can focus on the people remaining outside and set our sights as a community on what’s known as “functional zero”.

According to a working paper produced by the Homeless Hub, “Functional Zero is achieved when there are enough services, housing and shelter beds for everyone who needs it. In this approach, emergency shelters are meant to be temporary and the goal is permanent housing. While the focus on supports is to prevent homelessness to begin with, this may not always be possible and in such cases, a system that is responsive and acts quickly is essential. A key aim of homeless-serving systems is to provide immediate access to shelter and crisis services, without barriers to entry, while permanent stable housing and appropriate supports are being secured.”

When we achieve functional zero, we will have brought and end to the humanitarian crisis of people sheltering in parks and public spaces when they lose their homes.

Achieving “functional zero” requires the creation of what’s know as a “By-Name List” or BNL. The Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness defines a BNL as “a real-time, person-specific list of all people known to be experiencing homelessness in your community. It includes a robust set of data points that support Coordinated Access and prioritization at a household level and an understanding of homelessness inflow and outflow at a systems level.” The development of a BNL is underway in our region as a key 2021-2022 action item in the Community’s 2019-2024 Plan to end chronic homelessness.

We’re closer than we ever have been before to ending homelessness in Victoria.

We have been operating for many years – and in particular during the pandemic – within a reality where homelessness in Victoria has become normalized. In recognition of this reality, we have accepted the need for people to shelter in City parks even as we worked toward permanent solutions to homelessness. But we haven’t been able to collectively envision a city without homelessness. This has to change. We need to re-envision. This past year has shown us what is possible.

We need to keep going to build a robust housing and transitional shelter ecosystem.

We need to continue to work with the Province on complex care housing – for the people who currently don’t fit into any of the existing housing options because of their complex needs. We need to ensure that those currently left behind get the kinds of supports and care they need in order to be successful in housing, and to not be evicted back to the streets and parks. The BC Urban Mayors’ Caucus is taking an active role with the provincial Ministries of Housing and Mental Health and Addictions to develop a framework for complex care housing and options for investment in complex care housing services or sites in the near term.

And we need to continue to support initiatives like the Regional Rent Bank and the Community Centre Housing Outreach Coordinator program, to prevent people from falling into homelessness.

Think reaching functional zero is impossible? It’s not. Medicine Hat Alberta reached that target in 2019 after ten years of effort. This blog post details how they got there. We’re following the same steps they took. We’re coordinating assessment and access. We’re working with people with lived experiences of homelessness. We’re prioritizing Indigenous people and working to support the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness in providing culturally supportive housing and a dual model of care, blending both Indigenous and Western medicines.

Everybody is already mobilized in our community and working towards the goal of functional zero. And the federal government and the provincial government are mobilized too. In the almost-decade that I’ve been at the Council table, there has never been so much money pouring into housing and health supports.

The current Community Plan to End Homelessness says we will hit functional zero in 2024. That’s way too far away. COVID-19 has taught us that we can move quickly in a crisis. COVID-19 also revealed the chasms in the health and housing ecosystem in the province, leaving those already vulnerable even more so when the pandemic hit. At the same time, it’s been an unprecedented period of investment in housing and health supports. It has also been a time of lasting relationship building and deep collaboration among the City, BC Housing, Island Health, the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness, the CRD, housing and social service providers, peers and people with lived experience of homelessness, and many others.

Nearing the end of the pandemic, and with the hard work of everyone involved, we are closer to ending chronic homelessness in Victoria than we’ve ever been before. We have fewer people living outside than we’ve seen in years. This is a moment to keep focused on the goal of achieving functional zero. This means that when people lose their homes, there is a robust social system – and a community – in place to catch them.

City Staff Propose Bold Approach to Expediting Affordable Housing

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.