On Affordable Housing, Bike Lanes, and Building a Liveable City

I’ve been receiving questions lately with regard to both bike lanes and affordable housing. They go something like this: “Why are you spending so much money on bike lanes and nothing on affordable housing?” And, “Why don’t you use your role as mayor to do something real about affordable housing instead of just asking people to open up their homes?”

The simple answers are, “We aren’t.” And, “I am.” Both of these need some explaining.

By the end of 2018, Victoria will have a 5.6km network of All Ages and Abilities bike lanes in the downtown. This will cost approximately $9 million. By 2022, 75% of Victorians will live within 400m of a complete All Ages and Abilities network. The cost of the complete network has not yet been determined as the design of many components still needs to be undertaken through work with the community. This network, which takes a “complete streets” approach, improves conditions for all road users.

The active transportation network that we’re building, including bike lanes, is funded by gas taxes. These are monies collected at the gas pump and distributed back to local governments. There are restrictions as to what gas tax funds can be used for. They must be used for projects that have a sustainability impact; they cannot be used for affordable housing.

Yet bikes lanes, do contribute to affordability for Victorians. How? According to the Canadian Automobile Association, the cost of car ownership for a compact car is approximately $9500 per year. On average, Canadians spend more per year on owning and operating a car than they do on groceries.

We’re building a city where, in the not so distant future, car ownership might not be a necessity for many people. Victoria’s All Ages and Abilities network, when complete, will connect 75% of Victorians from their homes safely to the rest of the city. That means Victorians who now have to use cars will have approximately $9500 more in their pockets every year. That’s $800 more per month that can be spent on rent, groceries, piano lessons etc. Bike lanes contribute to making life more affordable for Victorians and making the city more liveable too.

As for affordable housing, and how much we’re spending in both time and money, it’s a lot more than on bike lanes. For those who don’t know about all the work doing as city and region on this issue, we’re using every tool in our municipal and regional tool boxes to get affordable housing built.

Right after the last election, Council struck a Mayor’s Task Force on Affordable Housing. The task force was made up of non-profit and for-profit housing developers, housing advocates and others. In five short meetings the Task Force developed detailed and concrete recommendations. After receiving public input, Council quickly adopted these and staff created Victoria’s 2016-2025 Municipal Housing Strategy.

Since adopting the Housing Strategy Council has removed restrictions on garden suites, making it possible for anyone living in a single family dwelling to build a small rental unit in their backyard. It used to cost $4000 and take 12 months for permission. Now it costs $200 and takes four weeks.

We’ve also made it easier for homeowners to build secondary suites by removing restrictions in zoning that limited the amount of exterior changes that could be made to a building containing a secondary suite. These zoning changes increase the number of properties eligible for secondary suites while still maintaining livability, safety and affordability.

We’re fast tracking all new multi-unit residential buildings. And we’re in the process of revamping the City’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund to incentivize the building of larger units, to prioritize women, children and First Nations, and to allow the Trust Fund to be used for affordable home ownership projects.

And all that is just in the city! In the early fall of 2015, myself and two of my council colleagues at the City of Victoria took the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness’s research and turned it into a funding strategy. We proposed – quite boldly and with much initial consternation from the media and some of our colleagues – that the CRD borrow up the $30 million to build new supportive and affordable housing in our region subject to the Provincial government matching with $30 million and Island Health covering the costs of health supports as needed.

We were thrilled in May 2016 when the Province showed strong leadership and matched the Region’s $30 million contribution. The $60 million Regional Housing First Program will build 880 units of affordable housing over the next five years, including 268 units that rent at $375 per month. And, I was recently in Ottawa advocating to the federal government to contribute their $30 million share; with federal funding we will build close to 1400 new units of affordable, and where needed, supportive housing.

Finally, we are ensuring that the monies are well spent and directed to where the need is. A refreshed Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, which I co-chair, is responsible for developing a Community Plan which will guide both new capital spending and system improvements to the existing housing ecosystem. This plan has been developed with a wide range of community members including people with lived experiences of homelessness.

Affordable housing, bike lanes, high-quality transit and compact, walkable land-uses are all key to building a healthy, prosperous and sustainable city. To do so we can’t make “either or” choices, we must take a systems-based and ecosystem-based approach.

 

Victoria Commences its Witness Reconciliation Program

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On January 1, 2017 at the City of Victoria’s annual New Year’s Day Levee, and in the presence of local First Nations, City Council proclaimed 2017 a Year of Reconciliation. Since that time, Council has been in conversation with the Chiefs of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations on how best to approach the work of Reconciliation.

Together, the City and the Esquimalt and Songhees Nations have created a program reflecting Indigenous family witness ceremonies. The City’s Witness Reconciliation Program brings together Indigenous Witnesses from both the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations’ Councils and a City Family. The Program is meant to be a fluid process — one that is flexible, adaptable and evolves to foster a long-term relationship between the City and its Indigenous partners.

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“We look forward to working together with the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations on a new path of Reconciliation,” said Mayor Lisa Helps. “As we have learned from Esquimalt and Songhees Chiefs, Reconciliation begins with listening and deepening understanding, and is a living process of collaboration, imagination and action. Recognizing the depth of our work together, and the need to respect Indigenous traditions in doing that work, we understand that 2017 is the first of our years of Reconciliation.”

The Witness Reconciliation Program will focus on building and nurturing the relationships needed to facilitate trust and demonstrate the City’s ongoing commitment to doing the work for as long as it needs to be done.

“Reconciliation is a journey honouring the truth and reconciling the future. It is about respect, both self-respect for Aboriginal people and mutual respect among all Canadians. Reconciliation must become a way of life,” said Songhees Nation Chief Ron Sam. “Songhees Nation welcomes the opportunity to work with the City through the time needed to nurture our current and future relationship, to take action, together, in the spirit of Reconciliation, and with respect for our traditional ways.”

Esquimalt Nation Chief Andy Thomas acknowledged the City’s commitment to an ongoing course of truth-telling, reconciliation and action, and the City’s willingness to embrace a different way of working together. “Esquimalt Nation expresses their openness to continue working with the City on a meaningful reconciliation process,” said Chief Andy Thomas.

The Indigenous Witnesses will be the Chief and Councillors of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations, who have been chosen by their people as leaders. The Witnesses will provide guidance and oversight for the Program, coming together two to three times a year in a traditional Witness Ceremony to hear, reflect, comment and advise, witnessing and guiding how the Program moves forward.

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The City Family will meet regularly to collaboratively generate ideas that lead to a program of actions. This program will be presented to the Witnesses through a Witness Ceremony. The City Family will initially be comprised of Songhees representative Brianna Dick, Esquimalt representative Katie Hooper, noted artist Carey Newman, Camosun College Indigenous Studies Chair Janice Simcoe, Mayor Lisa Helps, Councillor Charlayne Thornton-Joe and Councillor Marianne Alto. Staff support will vary as needed, starting initially with Director of Parks, Recreation and Facilities Thomas Soulliere and Manager of Executive Operations Colleen Mycroft.

After the advice of Witnesses is heard at each Witness Ceremony, the City Family will facilitate actions to realize the ideas endorsed by the Witnesses. Subsequent Witness Ceremonies will provide an opportunity for reflection and to look forward to future actions.

“As a corporation, we have not done this kind of work before,” said City of Victoria Councillor Marianne Alto. “The work is new to us and so will be the way we do the work.”

The first Witness Ceremony took place this morning at the Royal BC Museum, timed with the start of the Aboriginal Cultural Festival that runs until Sunday.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC’s) Calls to Action, findings and materials will provide context and a framework for the City of Victoria’s Witness Reconciliation Program, its participants and its work. The Program will consider how the City might respond to the five recommendations highlighted by the TRC for municipalities, and will also work to realize, on a local scale, the TRC’s mandate to tell Canadians what happened in the Indian Residential Schools, create a permanent record of what happened in the Indian Residential Schools, and foster healing and reconciliation.

Photo credit: Heather Follis

Help us develop one possible solution to the rental crisis

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In Victoria in the 1940s during WWII, Times Colonist headlines urged Victorians to open their homes and “Billet Homeless War Workers.” Victorians responded to the crisis and opened their homes to strangers recently relocated to Victoria to help the local war effort. They didn’t call it the “sharing economy”, they didn’t charge anything, they just opened up their spare bedrooms and invited strangers in.

Now we have a different crisis on our doorstep. For thirty years (1982-2012) there were no new purpose built rental buildings built in Victoria. And, in the last five years, nearly 6000 people have moved into the city. We’re facing a rental crisis. What if Victorians responded in the same way to this crisis? What if there was a way to connect people living in vehicles, in motel rooms, on couches, with seniors living in large houses all alone, with retirees with an extra bedroom, or even with families with large houses and extra rooms. Unthinkable? Victorians stepped up to help out their neighbours in the past.

Interested in exploring the idea further? I’m working with a group of citizens and businesses to develop one possible solution. We need three people currently living in vehicles, on couches, in woodsheds (yes I have heard that this is true in more than one case) AND three people who might be willing to open their homes.

We’d like these six people to join us for a short focus group session. There is no commitment required other than sharing ideas. We want to build a solution for the people who will use it – for those looking for a place to stay until the rental crisis subsides and for those wiling to billet someone.

Please email mayor@victoria.ca if you’d like to help us out. And please share this post! To read more on the current rental crisis and its causes please head here.

Who is paying for those bike lanes anyway?

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The Pandora two-way separated bike lane opened on time and on budget on May 1st. It’s been open for a month now and the use has been staggering. Preliminary data reveal that we’re seeing well over 1000 people per day using the infrastructure. This is a marked increase from usage on Pandora before the lanes opened.

In addition to data driven declarations of success even in these early days, anecdote and observation tell a deeper story. Before the installation of the Pandora bike lane, I can’t say I’d ever seen someone under the age of ten riding their own bike downtown. Now I’m seeing young kids, on their own two wheels, trailing closely behind their parents. And not only on sunny weekend days but also during the morning and afternoon commutes.

The new bike lane is making older kids and their parents feel safer too. I got this email from a Vic High parent last week, “Good morning Lisa. We attended my daughters last dance performance at Victoria High. After we left for home in our car, she left on her bike.  She got home shortly after us. We said, ‘That was quick how did you do that?’ She said, ‘I took the protected bike lanes; Lisa gave us a map.’ Thank you. Knowing my daughter is safe means a lot to us.”

These kids and teenagers are the people we built the bike lanes for. They’ll grow up knowing how to move through the city by bicycle and they’ll be able to do it safely. Biking will be normal for them not some “alternate” mode of transportation.

In addition to smiles and emails of thanks from parents, we’ve also received emails saying that cyclists should be paying their fair share for this new infrastructure. And that the Pandora bike lane was a waste of their property tax dollars.

In fact, it’s the opposite. People who ride bikes more than they drive cars subsidize infrastructure for cars. Everyone pays property taxes (those who rent pay them through their rent) and its property taxes that pay for roads. It’s enormously expensive to build and maintain roads for vehicles. Vehicles are much harder on roads than bikes or pedestrians. Vehicles lead to potholes and the need for pavement repair. Vehicles mean that when we build new infrastructure like the Johnson Street Bridge we need to build additional new wide, expensive lanes for cars. Those who bike, take transit, or walk more than they drive are subsidizing car infrastructure.

Second, the Pandora bike lanes were not paid for with property taxes but rather with gas taxes. Gas taxes are collected when people pump gas into their cars. Many people who ride bikes also drive cars from time to time so they are helping to pay for this infrastructure too.

Want to learn more about the economics of cycling? Watch the webcast of Portland’s Elly Blue, author of Bikenomics: How Bicycling Can Save the Economy giving a Lunch Time Lecture at City Hall.

City takes giant step to encourage more rental housing

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Last night, City Council voted to allow garden suites outright in single-family zones across the City. With 6,744 single family dwellings in the City this move has the potential to substantially increase the city’s rental stock in a very tight market. Until now, garden suite applications have been evaluated by Council on a case-by-case basis through the rezoning process. This change will make it significantly easier and less costly for homeowners to build new garden suites.

I’m thrilled to see Council take this significant step to implement the work done by the Mayor’s Task Force on Housing Affordability. While we won’t see the potential fulfilled overnight, with this change we are significantly reducing the red tape involved in building a small backyard rental home.

Before the changes Council made last night, it cost homeowners around $4000 in fees and took about six to eight months to go through the process. With the changes it now costs $200 and takes three to four weeks. For those interested in building a garden suite, you can find the guidelines here. These small rental homes cannot be used for short term vacation rentals; they are meant to house Victorians.

Prior to adopting these changes, we consulted with a wide range of stakeholders and the public. In order to address privacy concerns, we added a section to the guidelines to optimize privacy between neighbours, including recommendations for windows facing away from neighbouring properties and no rooftop outdoor space allowed.

This change is part of the City’s ambitious Victoria Housing Strategy 2016 – 2025, which is the City’s plan for improving housing affordability over the next decade by:

  • Increasing the supply of housing for low to moderate income households
  • Encouraging diversity of housing types, tenures, and prices across the city and within neighbourhoods
  • Building awareness and partnerships for affordable housing through communication, education and advocacy

This significant change won’t solve the housing crisis. As Eric Swanson, Executive Director of Generation Squeeze said last night, speaking in support of the changes, “the housing crisis requires a ‘yes and’ approach.” The move to allow small rental homes in backyards is a big yes. To read more about what’s up next in the City’s plans head to the Victoria Housing Strategy 2016 – 2025.

 

Housing Challenges? Housing Solutions.

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Everyone is aware of the low rental vacancy rate in Victoria right now. We’ve heard about the challenges this is creating for working people, people living on low incomes, seniors on fixed incomes and others. Many people are experiencing this first hand. This housing crunch is also creating a challenge for the business community – affordable workforce housing was a key concern I heard at a recent breakfast of local CEOs.

Yet there’s little understanding of why we’re in this situation. And there’s little understanding of the solutions we’re working on at City Hall and at the CRD; we know that housing is key to a healthy, prosperous and sustainable city.

Let’s look at the data. Between 2011 and 2016, 5775 new people moved to the City of Victoria. In that time only 2802 new housing units were built. In Victoria, the average number of persons per household is 1.8 (compared to a national average of 2.1 persons). This means that between 2011 and 2016, the population of the City grew faster than the number of housing units needed.

The City’s Director of Planning estimates that we probably built about 800-900 fewer units than we needed. Since the population still went up, those 800-900 additional housing units were found somewhere else in the City’s existing housing stock. The difference between Victoria’s vacancy rate in 2013 of 2.4% and today’s 0.5% is about 800 units.

The good news is that there are over 1000 units of housing under construction in Victoria right now, and there are more rental units being built than condos.

The even better news is that we’re taking the housing challenge seriously as a City and a region. The City has begun to implement its 2016-2025 Municipal Housing Strategy. We’ve started by increasing the amount of Housing Trust Fund subsidy to larger rental units, fast-tracking all rental buildings, and working to make it easier for people to build garden suites and secondary suites. And this is just the beginning. The plan can be viewed here.

Even less celebrated (maybe because it is last year’s news?) is the historic $60 million Regional Housing First Program. This will see at least 880 new rental units built in the region over the next five years. The rents will range from $375 per month to 85% of market. The first two buildings have already been approved for funding, including 50 units to be rented at $375 per month.

With all this work underway and all the units currently under construction, we’ll start to see some relief over the next couple of years. In the meantime, and as a community, we need to do two things. First, we need to come together and to support those who are struggling. Second, we need support development projects that add new housing stock in line with the vision in the Official Community Plan where we see traditional neighbourhoods preserved and more density along major roads and in village centres.

This piece was originally published in the Victoria News here.

Megaphone – Change that works, one newspaper at a time

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Last week I had the pleasure of standing with Megaphone vendors during their annual “Big Sell” event in downtown Victoria. I joined the vendors on Douglas Street and saw first hand how hard they work and how vulnerable you have to make yourself in a business like street vending.

“Can we interest you in a Megaphone by donation?” I’d call out. Most people would just simply keep walking, sometimes without even acknowledging that we’d addressed them.  I wonder how it feels to experience this day in day out?  It felt so good when someone would stop and buy a paper and offer a kind word and a smile. Participating in the Big Sell event gave me a deep appreciation of the courage and tenacity of Megaphone vendors.

Megaphone is a magazine sold on the streets of Vancouver and Victoria by homeless and low-income people. Vendors buy the magazine for 75 cents and sell it for $2, keeping the profit and earning a sense of pride and dignity.  To start a business as a Megaphone vendor, low-income and homeless individuals need to complete a sales training session and are then provided with 10 complimentary magazines and the necessary gear to get started. Megaphone staff provide any necessary support to ensure vendors run a successful business.

Vendor Week

The Big Sell event was part of the International Network of Street Papers Vendor Week celebration. It’s an is an annual celebration of the 10,000 street paper vendors around the world. Each one of these men and women – in 35 countries – is using their local street paper as a way to work themselves out of poverty.

During the first week in February, the international program of events, activities and social media action pays tribute to their hard work, as well as challenging perceptions of poverty and homelessness.

You can find out where Megaphone vendors sell in Victoria by using the mobile vendor finder app Please support them!

 

Affordable Home Ownership Key Priority

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I’ve received emails recently asking for Victoria City Council to implement a 15% foreign buyers tax. Council cannot do this. What seems to be missing from public understanding is that the foreign buyers tax was implemented by the Provincial government for all of Metro Vancouver. And that it’s Provincial legislation. The City cannot enact the tax.

Council could lobby for the tax to be implemented here, but where exactly is here? The Finance Minister created the tax for Metro Vancouver not the City of Vancouver. If the Province implemented a foreign buyers tax here it would be for the entire Capital Regional District.

That fact changes the nature of the City’s lobbying efforts. At a recent meeting, Council postponed until April a motion to ask local governments from across the region, and the CRD itself, to request the Province to introduce legislation mirroring that passed for Metro Vancouver in the summer – a 15% foreign buyers tax and vacancy taxation authority.

If we have any hope of a foreign buyers tax in the Capital Regional District, the request has to come from the CRD Board.  And, in order for CRD directors to consider such a request they’ll likely need a bit more data. By April, we’ll have eight months of data since the tax was implemented in Metro Vancouver.

If implementing a foreign buyers tax is beyond municipal and regional authority, what can we do to address affordable home ownership?

The City of Victoria recently held a workshop on affordable home ownership programs from Calgary, Canmore, and BC Housing. The Canmore Community Housing Corporation delivers one to four bedroom townhomes and condos from between $145,000 and $400,000. That is affordable home ownership. Calgary has a similar program, as does Toronto. And BC Housing provides low-cost financing to developers to help with affordability. The workshop was packed by both for profit and non-profit housing developers wanting to be part of the solution.

The good news is that when faced with a crisis, the regional government can respond swiftly. Last year, the CRD acted quickly to set up the $60 million Regional Housing First Program to build affordable workforce rental housing and supportive housing for those who are chronically homeless.

We must now act quickly as a region on affordable home ownership. We need to look at what’s working elsewhere and design a made-in-the-CRD solution to address local market conditions. The affordable home ownership solution we implement must not further burden already burdened taxpayers.

And then we need to implement quickly. What’s at stake if we don’t make affordable home ownership a top priority? The wellbeing of our citizens and the economic prosperity this region is currently experiencing. In order to keep the economy strong, working people and their families must be able to afford to live here.

Originally published in the Victoria News.

 

We stand together in love, against Islamophobia

imamspeaking1Thousands gathered today on the steps of Victoria City Hall and into the street to come together in solidarity with Victoria’s Muslim community after the horrific events in Quebec City on Sunday evening.

Ismail Mohamed Nur, the imam for Victoria’s Masjid Al-Iman mosque spoke courageously about the rise of Islamophobia around the world and in Canada. He said, “We live in a time when people try so very hard to divide us, but it only brings us closer and makes us stronger.” CHEK News covers his moving remarks.

To our Muslim friends, neighbours, sisters and brothers: We love you. We support you. We stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder with you. You belong here. We are your community. And now, more than ever, it is important to stand here together, to say this and affirm this publicly, loudly and clearly.

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In these uncertain times with the volatility that is happening in the United States, in Canada and around the world and with the rise of Islamophobia which Imam Ishmail spoke so courageously about today, we all have a big responsibility. Yes we can protest. And that is important. But we can and must also take a lesson from those at Standing Rock North Dakota who have declared that they are not protestors, they are protectors.

We have a responsibility, each of us, to protect our democracy, to protect our community and the values of difference, diversity and inclusiveness that define us.

But most of all, in these uncertain times, the most important thing we can do, the greatest responsibility we have is to treat each other with kindness and love each other well even when, and especially when it feels hard.

For those of you who asked at today’s gathering, “What’s next?” Here’s one workshop,
Anti-Racism & Anti-Hate Initiatives – Supporting the Integration of Refugees in Our Communities coming up that is now open for registration. There will be more opportunities to get involved, take action, and move from standing on the steps at City Hall to continued solidarity and connection building. Stay tuned here and on my Facebook page and I’ll share information as it is shared with me.

Thank you Victoria.

Local News Coverage of Today’s Gathering
I have proof my community loves me, says Muslim solidarity rally participant
– CBC.ca
Victoria sends Muslims message of hope with vigil at city hall – Times Colonist
Victoria holds public vigil in honour of Quebec mosque victims – CTV News
Thousands at Victoria vigil after mosque shooting – Globalnews.ca
Thousands show support for Victoria’s Muslim community – CHEK News

 

Where to Park in our Downtown

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From the Downtown Victoria Business Association

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Last week, the complexities of transportation editorial launched what the DVBA is currently partnered and working on. The initial 28 action items have now grown to 31 and we are working diligently to bring some or all of the ideas to fruition.

Part one was to produce an interactive map of every possible parking lot/structure and on-street parking space in the Downtown core that we will continue to update. Some of these facilities are privately owned and some are city owned. We have broken them up by parking type and added whether they are monthly, hourly, or weekly.

When you use our map you can click on the pins to get full details, including the number of spots, location and who manages the lot. We have also included how much it costs to park in each facility as well as the hours of operation where applicable and whether there is a waitlist or not for monthly parking. When you click the on-street parking lines, the map will zoom you into the streets themselves so you can conveniently see where the best parking areas are for your daily needs. This map is available in both a digital and pdf version on our website that you can print and carry with you as well.

The digital link will live on our website, so you can access it at any time – with the legend outlining the different kinds of parking on the parking home page.  Most people are unaware there are 16 parkades, nine customer parking lots, more than 40 surface parking lots, and over 1,000 on-street parking spaces in or within a short walk of Downtown Victoria.

Most people are also unaware of the fact Modo Co-operative is in three of our downtown parkades for use when you sign up with their program.

We are continuing to work behind the scenes to bring more private lots online as they become available and continuing talks with developers for public parking within their new buildings.

It is this kind of incremental change and information sharing that keeps the public up to date on where to go and how to get there.

We know how valuable your time is and we want to make it as easy as possible to continue to come downtown to work, shop and play. Our vibrant downtown economy is continuing to grow and we are here to support the businesses throughout the changes.

Parking is only ONE piece of our complex transportation system, but if we can make it one step easier to locate for consumers, shop owners, commuters and residents than it is one step forward in a positive and productive way.

Where to park in Downtown Victoria:
http://downtownvictoria.ca/play-downtown/parking-downtown-victoria

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Media Contact

Kerri Milton
Executive Director
Downtown Victoria Business Association
250-386-2239
kerri@downtownvictoria.ca