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Victoria adopts its missing middle housing initiative in bid to retain residents

Aims to boost supply of multi-unit homes falling between single-family homes and apartments
The City of Victoria has adopted its missing middle housing initiative, which aims to boost the supply of multi-unit homes falling between single-family homes and apartments. (Courtesy of City of Victoria)

Victoria will now allow smaller multi-unit homes in most of the city where zoning has excluded anything but single-family homes for more than 40 years.

The city’s missing middle housing proposal was adopted at Thursday’s (Jan. 26) council meeting. The initiative’s main goal is to boost the supply of family-suitable, ground-oriented homes that fall between single-family dwellings and larger apartments.

Victoria’s approved proposal amends zoning on lots that currently only allow single-family homes to also permit corner townhomes, houseplexes and some infill housing on heritage-worthy properties to be built. The city has called the initiative one tool in its 40-part housing strategy.

The proposal has specific character and design guidelines – aiming to make projects fit neighbourhoods, promote livability and ensure accessibility – that builders must follow in order to be eligible.

More than two and half years of public consultation went into drafting the policy, which was heavily debated for months by the previous council. That culminated in a 12-hour public hearing that had to be split into two dates in order to accommodate every person who wanted to offer their input.

That lengthy hearing saw a range of opinions with many locals split between those worried the policy would lead to drastic changes in their neighbourhoods and others who said it would be a gentle approach to creating housing that would help families stay in Victoria’s precarious market.

The policy will have an 18-month review that will include a new independent financial analysis and will consider adding more affordability requirements. Council will also receive a brief update after six months. With those updates coming, several councillors on Thursday said the city will keep an eye on how the policy is working and can make tweaks at any time.

Council approved an amendment to lower the allowable height of flat and peak-roofed missing middle projects, respectively, to eight and nine metres, which aimed to keep buildings to 2.5 storeys.

The proposal could’ve gone to a final vote in mid-2022, but the last council delayed a public hearing, added additional public information sessions on the proposal and ultimately passed the final say to the current council. Some councillors opposed felt the public process had been flawed while some in support said they were elected to vote on issues like this.

Couns. Marg Gardiner, Chris Coleman and Stephen Hammond voted against the initiative.

“Missing middle” measures have been popping up all over North America as communities face land-use and housing challenges after suburban sprawl outside city centres characterized 20th-century growth. Vancouver and Toronto are among the Canadian cities looking into similar changes for their low-density neighbourhoods.

What the city has said:

Victoria has said the initiative is key to ensuring families have a place in the city as the last three decades have seen a net drop in school children and adults aged 30 to 50. However, the city also says the ground-oriented homes could help seniors age in place as it expects the older demographic to double over the next 20 years.

“What’s proposed through the missing middle housing initiative is not a silver bullet for the affordability crisis, but by addressing a critical gap in housing choice and availability, it does play an important role in helping our overall housing system and our local economy function well,” said Malcolm MacLean, a community planner with the city.

The city’s recent housing review found missing middle homes are one of the main areas where it’s falling short. Those housing types made up four per cent of all the housing units approved in the last decade and accounted for two per cent last year. The city issued 34 missing middle building permits in 2021, well short of the 150 target.

What councillors said:

Coun. Gardiner tried unsuccessfully to defer the vote again as she said there wasn’t enough consultation and the public should have a chance to challenge the proposal’s process. She said there’s a housing crisis but the initiative is a flawed concept that doesn’t meet the specific needs of individual neighbourhoods.

Coun. Jeremy Caradonna said he believes a majority of residents support ending exclusionary zoning and enabling gentle density with the policy reduces the need for more towers. He added the lack of housing supply is leading to the city losing its labour pool – from servers to teachers to health-care workers.

Coun. Hammond was disappointed, saying he was bamboozled by only seeing councillor amendments at the Thursday meeting. He claimed the proposal would lead to lifted land values, tenant evictions and mature trees being cut down.

Coun. Susan Kim said the policy became a political football as the miscommunication led to some residents thinking it was a be-all-end-all housing plan.

“While I’m at a point in my life where I might not be able to afford missing middle-the housing along the housing continuum, I’m really grateful and thankful that maybe someone else can,” she said.

Coun. Matt Dell said the policy was key to a sustainable city where residents would have amenities nearby.

“I hope that when my kids are older in 20, 30, 50 years they’ll look back at this as a fantastic direction change for the future of our city,” Dell said.

Coun. Coleman said he heard widespread calls for greater density but “one of the flaws here is that we haven’t added in the affordability lens to this, clearly this will create some more units.”

“It’s a difficult spot to be in but for me, the way forward is to vote for more houseplex and townhomes and hope that somehow we can come close to catching up on our targets,” said Coun. Krista Loughton.

Coun. Dave Thompson said businesses and working families are struggling with the city’s housing situation.

“The housing shortage is at crisis levels, we need the full spectrum of housing, we need to stop people from being forced out of the city.”

READ: Innovative zero-parking houseplex moves ahead in possible first for Victoria Follow us on Instagram. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Jake Romphf

About the Author: Jake Romphf

In early 2021, I made the move from the Great Lakes to Greater Victoria with the aim of experiencing more of the country I report on.
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