The City of Victoria is poised to make Canada’s most significant change to local housing policy.
The capital of British Columbia, home to 92,000, is a quiet seaside city, dominated by the business of the provincial government. But like almost everywhere in Canada, housing prices have gone ballistic. In July, the benchmark single-family home in Victoria cost $1.43-million; even with the market easing that’s up 19 per cent from a year earlier. The benchmark condo jumped 27 per cent to $639,600. Rent for a two-bedroom surged 35 per cent to $2,836 a month.
And as in other Canadian cities, a major factor is a lack of housing supply. Also as in other Canadian cities, that lack of housing is no accident, but a deliberate policy. In Victoria, two-thirds of residential land is restricted to detached houses and duplexes. Denser housing options are not welcome.
Mayor Lisa Helps has pushed for change. In late 2019, Victoria started work on what it called the Missing Middle Housing Initiative. The plan would allow, without costly and lengthy rezoning, up to six units in a small multiplex where only a detached house or duplex is currently permitted. On neighbourhood street corners, townhouses of up to 12 units would be allowed.
Debate on the plan continues at a city council public hearing on Thursday. It has sparked the usual fervour on both sides. Those against argue it will be the ruin of existing neighbourhoods – the ones where, increasingly, only the wealthy can afford to buy. Those in favour argue that change is necessary, and overdue. We side with the latter.
And the proposed change is modest. This is not about bulldozing old neighbourhoods and replacing them with blocks of towers. Victoria’s ground-oriented missing middle designs can blend into older neighbourhoods. The new rules are also crafted with families in mind; a new sixplex, for example, will require at least two three-bedroom homes. It is not revolution. It’s evolution.
Victoria is not alone in considering new zoning, but among Canadian cities it is the leader of the pack. Edmonton is working on a similar broad upzoning. And research suggests that slightly more liberal rules, citywide, is the approach that makes the most sense. It’s far better than squeezing ever-taller towers on a few bits of land while continuing to forbid new housing almost everywhere else.
Vancouver and Toronto are also inching toward change. Toronto Mayor John Tory launched his re-election campaign last week with missing middle as his first platform plank. That’s welcome – but he’s been mayor for eight years.
Missing middle is a bit of a nebulous term. In Victoria, it is limited in scale to sixplexes and some townhouses at building heights of about 10 metres – compared with 7.6 metres for houses. In bigger cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, missing middle must also include small apartment buildings of four to six storeys.
Cities need to grow up and not out. Along with delivering more housing to areas that are so expensive precisely because people want to live there, it will help revitalize older neighbourhoods. Victoria says that over the past three decades, there has been a net loss of school-age children and adults between ages 30 and 50. Costs plus zoning have pushed families away. The population of the Greater Toronto Area has more than doubled since 1970 – yet within the City of Toronto, more than half of neighbourhoods saw population declines.
There are several factors driving all of this. The first is that municipal zoning has long mandated neighbourhoods of single-family houses and almost nothing else. It’s not what our fast-growing cities need. According to a recently released report from Statistics Canada, this country’s population grew at almost double the rate of the G7 from 2016 to 2021. Buoyed by planned increases in immigration, the rate of annual rate of population increase could rise to 1.3 per cent, up from a previous estimate of 1 per cent. By 2043, Canada could have 14 million new residents.
Furthermore, Canadian cities have a long history of underestimating growth. Victoria’s current and future housing needs are already 20 per cent higher than estimated in its 2012 official plan.
Canada needs a lot more housing. A zoning rethink is necessary, and Victoria is in the vanguard. Its city council should take the long-debated and carefully considered proposals on the table and make them a reality.
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