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How Victoria could flip the script on density
Less than a minute after I meet Julian West in front of Discovery Coffee on Oak Bay Avenue in late April, he’s showing me the inside of his electric cargo bike: the child bench where his kids sit, the ample room for groceries. “You could fill it with bricks and bike up a hill, and you wouldn’t feel a thing,” he says, beaming.
West, if it isn’t clear, doesn’t drive a car. He bikes—happily. And he sees a future for Victoria where that’s the norm, not the exception: where people use transit and a car-share when they need to go far; where they live 15 minutes from everything they need; where kids safely bike in sloppy circles on the road in front of the fourplexes and townhomes that will stand alongside single-family homes.
For now, it’s a distant reality. We walk north past row upon row of single-family homes priced well over a million dollars—and which have surged in value by hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past few years alone—to Redfern Park, a quiet strip of land between other single-family homes. West and Ryan Jabs, his partner in a small development business, envision neighbourhoods like this one slowly redeveloping in the coming decades to incorporate a variety of housing styles, from low-rise apartments to houses with multiple units to townhomes.
But right now they’re struggling to build a single project.
Canadian cities lag behind other G7 nations when it comes to providing housing, falling short by nearly two million homes, according to a Scotiabank report released in May. “Very often within city limits, measures to increase density pit current owners versus prospective residents,” the report reads.
Developers in cities like Victoria, as a result, are pushed to go as big as possible to make an intensive rezoning process worth the time, so neighbourhoods get proposals that are bigger than they’re comfortable with. In Burnaby, this manifests as skyscrapers looming over single-family homes, but it’s happening in Victoria too: just a few blocks away, on a street with the same namesake as Redfern Park, homeowners are fighting a proposal they say is too big, would be too destructive to the local trees, and would add too much traffic. The developer claims it’s the smallest he can go while still turning a profit—and despite it consisting solely of townhouses, the units would not even approach affordability for median-wage earners in Victoria.
One of the major obstacles to building the housing that could help alleviate the pressure is baked into the map of Victoria.
“Cities are zoned for single families,” laments Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps. The vast majority of the land in Victoria is set aside specifically for its most space-demanding use, not for the denser urban aspirations of priced-out millennial renters like myself. Housing prices have risen so high, so quickly, that my generation has been locked out, possibly forever, of the wealth generation and stability of homeownership.
But a radical plan is making its way through city hall that could flip the table entirely: rezone everything.
“When I look back historically, I can’t think of another initiative that has the potential to have such a significant impact on the city as this would,” says Pam Madoff, a former city councillor and heritage advocate.
This is different and more ambitious than the plan to speed up the rezoning process for some affordable housing, which goes before council this week, and it’s not just happening in Victoria. Other municipalities in the Capital Regional District, including Saanich, are looking at similar broad-based strategies, while Sidney already dipped its toes into pre-zoning to meet housing needs in 2011 and is looking to do more in its upcoming plan. Beyond Vancouver Island, it’s being tried to greater and lesser extents in different cities across North America.
Depending on who’s talking it’s called blanket rezoning, city-initiated rezoning, upzoning, or pre-zoning. Regardless of the jargon, it always amounts to the idea that large areas—or whole cities—could be designated as places where more units can be built by default, encouraging cities to densify. A residential lot that contains a detached house in this model might go straight to a fourplex without ever going before city council.
For some, that would mean the start of a shiny new era for Victoria urban life, civic engagement, and affordability, while for others, it would be seen as a dangerous experiment in urban renewal with little regard for the needs of neighbourhoods.
At stake is the livability of neighbourhoods and cities: Canadian cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and Victoria have long left behind most metrics of affordability, forcing out young families, the lower-income earners city life depends on, and the creatives who add vibrancy to the landscape. The single-family home, effectively a birthright for previous generations of Canadians, is now a distant dream, while even condos and townhomes are out of reach for many.
Affordability isn’t the only problem to be tackled, either. Longer and longer commutes—as more people who work in the city are squeezed out into the suburbs—are a significant contributor to climate change. Families spend less time together when the maps of their days find them at opposite ends of creeping metropolises. Land speculation is accelerating economic inequality.
Everywhere you look, the rules we put on land are raising fundamental questions about who has the right to live on it, what the limits should be on growth, and who needs to adapt to whose idea of a livable city—and the idea of changing those rules hasn’t even been raised in public yet.
The neighbourhood where we’re sipping our coffees is South Jubilee, a wedge-shaped area between Oak Bay Avenue to the south and Foul Bay Road to the east, and cut off from Jubilee on the northern side by Fort Street.
The wedge is a tiny microcosm of Victoria. By far the most density is on the western edge, clustered around a few shops and services. Heading east through the neighbourhood, commercial buildings give way to low-rise apartment buildings, which peter out after four narrow blocks into duplexes, and by the next street, it’s essentially single-family homes all the way to Oak Bay. Those houses are flanked on the busy outer streets by apartments, condos, and shops.
To greater and lesser extents, this is how Victoria looks everywhere outside the downtown core and James Bay, with thin margins of density on busy streets encrusting leafy single-family-home neighbourhoods on quieter roads. That’s not an accident—it’s not legal to build those higher density structures on just any street. Bigger buildings mean more people, more traffic, more noise, and more strain on services and infrastructure, so they’ve been pushed out to the fringes.
That’s where zoning comes in. Zoning is effectively a way of predetermining what is allowed and not allowed to be built. More than two-thirds of the City of Victoria’s land area is zoned R1-B, for single-family homes—one structure. Allowances have recently been made for garden suites or carriage homes—small extra spaces to rent out. About two dozen of those are built each year, but the focus remains on that single building with no divisions inside.
Many, if not most, of the houses on these quiet South Jubilee streets were built in the early 20th century, when Victoria’s population was a third of what it is today. Families, on the other hand, were twice as big: according to Statistics Canada, the average Canadian household had about five people when South Jubilee was divided into parcels of land upon which they could build their homes.
The house next door to where I live, near Redfern Park, was built around that time. It was valued at $280,000 ten years ago, but in the intervening years, it was gutted and replaced with a lovely new single-family home—no rezoning required, only building permits. It sold in March for $2.2 million.
A neighbourhood built for big families is in the middle of a city that’s completely out of space.
“If you want to build a single-family home—which is the least affordable option, the least efficient type of build, adds the least taxation and public amenities, and perpetuates our dependency on cars—that’s the easiest, fastest, least risky thing for you to do,” West says.
But to turn one into a duplex or a triplex? That means rezoning the land, a laborious process. A checklist of steps that need to be taken is three pages long. Each step—like organizing a community meeting based on detailed drawings, site plans, and landscape plans—could take weeks. And that’s just the process of getting the idea to city council for a public hearing. At that point, the proposal could still get turned down.
“There’s good reason so few people do it.”
That process is not intended simply to be an expensive inconvenience for developers, though. It’s also where neighbours get a say in what happens next door, a right that’s been taken for granted over the years by homeowners who like their neighbourhoods just the way they are.
“We choose our community based on our identity,” says VIU adjunct professor Mark Holland, a former planner who has written entire zoning bylaws and currently works as a development consultant. “I understand why we’re a bit reticent to have big changes in our neighbourhoods.”
Pre-zoning, which is currently being analyzed by planners at city hall, would qualify as a “big change”—not all at once, but over time. By telling landowners and developers that they can build up to a certain density without rezoning, the city would be opening the tap to new development immediately on paper, but in reality there would likely be a lag: Holland estimates that about 3% of houses in a city change hands each year. If that stayed true or even mostly true following any change to zoning, then neighbours likely wouldn’t see much happening before their eyes, but the long-term effects could be enormous.
Every crisis begets its own new vernacular. The COVID-19 pandemic taught us “social distancing,” “reproduction rate,” and “droplets.” The overdose crisis has taught us “safe supply” and “harm reduction.”
A new word for many of us affected by the housing crisis is “missing middle.” It’s not perfectly defined but refers to housing between big apartment buildings and single-family homes—think duplexes, triplexes, row housing, townhouses, and other kinds of structures that have multiple units inside them but don’t necessarily look like what we think of when we think of multi-unit housing.
In most large cities older than 100 years—Paris, Berlin, Montreal, New York—it’s the housing that dominates the core: forms of “gentle density” that can blend in with the streetscape while providing exponentially more housing in the same footprint than a single-family home.
“People want to live in the neighbourhoods here; they want to live on quiet, leafy streets,” says Karen Hoese, director of planning with the City of Victoria who is guiding the pre-zoning proposal through city hall. “Missing middle provides that. It’s a form of housing that fits with the current neighbourhoods.”
Avoiding unduly disturbing the existing look of its beautiful neighbourhoods was a priority for Portland, Ore., when, in recent years, the city began asking how it could simultaneously accommodate more people in the same amount of space. At the time, Portland was in the middle of a speculative real-estate boom, with wealthy tech workers pouring in from San Francisco and Seattle, cash in hand and eager to buy.
In Portland, as elsewhere, that housing crisis was contributing to a spike in homelessness, and the city declared a housing and homelessness emergency in 2015. (The same problem exists in BC. “The biggest cause of homelessness in our province is a shortage of affordable housing,” Housing Minister David Eby told me.)
The city was also grappling with other implications of that rapid change. Everyone wanted to live in Portland for its hip, edgy inner city full of artists and musicians—but those new arrivals were displacing the homes and people that had attracted them. “When someone demolishes a house they build a McMansion,” says Sandra Wood, a planner in Portland. With limits on sprawl, the city needed to build housing that could accommodate the newcomers without gutting what made the city special.
“Success looks like more units in these inner neighbourhoods,” Wood explains. Working backward from that metric, the city decided on an innovative approach to adding density: to allow up to four units on almost any single-family lot, similar to what Vancouver and Minneapolis have done. In Vancouver, that had no immediate effect on housing prices, which have continued their meteoric rise, just with incrementally more density.
Even Victoria has tried something that looks like pre-zoning before, when it rezoned parking lots downtown to allow them to be built into towers.
“What that did, effectively, was make a bunch of parking lot owners millionaires,” Downtown Residents Association board member Ian Sutherland says. Nothing was built at the time, but when it was, the value of all that density was simply translated into a higher land cost, which was passed on to the buyers of the new homes that had taken the place of the parking lots.
Behind that effect is an essential question: is there any limit to demand in a place like Victoria, with its ideal climate and enviable location? If we build more houses, will there just be even more people to fill them?
“It’s ludicrous to think we would even try to meet that demand, and we’d probably end up creating a city nobody would want to live in,” James Bay Neighbourhood Association president Marg Gardiner says. The city’s responsibility, she argues, is not to meet the demand for housing that anyone, from anywhere, might bring here.
Holland dismisses the idea of endless demand. “The choice of where one lives is not just the choice of a house,” he says. “That’s why we have communities all across Canada, including places that are quite inhospitable.”
Families, communities, inertia, history, and, in particular, jobs act as anchors, keeping people from moving about solely based on desirability of a place. Remote work may be lifting some of the restrictions for workers, but it’s still a limited number of people who have no other factors to consider. Holland points to a survey he saw in which 45% of Saskatoon residents said they would like to relocate to Vancouver Island: the fact that Victoria isn’t swarming with Saskatchewanians suggests there’s more to where we decide to live than where we’d hypothetically like to live.
There are other ways density, supply, and prices could affect one another, though. UBC urban design professor Patrick Condon spent decades advocating for adding supply to the housing market in order to address affordability. But now he’s changed course: he believes no matter how much supply is added—how much density is allowed—the real underlying problem will persist as long as there are no permanent requirements for affordability.
As cities grow, Condon argues, the labour and productivity of their inhabitants raise the value of the land itself, eventually flowing to the owners of the land. “As a city gets more and more successful, the beneficiaries are the land speculators,” he says, arguing that’s what is taking place in cities like Vancouver.
No amount of additional supply, he suggests, will be able to make a meaningful impact on the cost of housing if permanent requirements aren’t also set out for affordability from the start.
Portland tried to address that problem by baking in requirements for affordability: if at least half of the units are affordable—with “affordable” defined as 60% of the area’s median income—builders could create an extra two units and be allowed extra space to do so. New single-family homes, meanwhile, are capped in size, mitigating the McMansions.
It’s possible the benefits of Portland’s approach won’t last, however, since it could put upward pressure on prices and the units aren’t required to remain affordable forever, Condon writes in his new book, Sick City.
Condon now prefers the approach taken in Cambridge, Mass., where an even more ambitious plan is underway to rezone the whole city for affordable housing—without touching the existing zoning. Builders creating housing rented at rates permanently tied to local wages are allowed to build at a higher density. “It prevents the inflation of land prices as you increase density,” Condon says.
Likewise, I asked Holland what the effect of pre-zoning would be on affordability in Victoria.
“Absolutely nothing,” he said, “if they don’t do enough of it.”
Holland argues from a different perspective than Condon—he is firmly in the camp that supply is in fact the answer—but, in terms of scale, they have a similar idea: pre-zoning only a small area will probably just boost the price of that land. Holland, for his part, says pre-zoning on a city-wide scale would mean the competition for land to redevelop would be diluted across the city, meaning no particular area would suddenly explode in price.
“There really shouldn’t be land value impacts,” Hoese says, since, she says, the price of land is largely determined by what has been laid out for that area in the official community plan.
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In other places that have pre-zoned, however, the land values have risen—though it’s difficult to parse out that effect from the countless other factors that influence land prices. But it’s likely pre-zoning would raise the cost of property taxes, which are levied based on the most intensive use of the land, not on what’s currently there. If land could have a fourplex on it, a single-family home would be taxed as though it had a fourplex.
The City of Victoria has not yet landed on its own version of what Portland, Vancouver, Minneapolis, Cambridge, Edmonton, and others have done, but it’s looking at those examples and how they’ve succeeded and fallen short. Hoese hinted that her proposal will likely be on a very large scale—likely addressing Holland’s concerns over too little supply.
Aside from whatever the city rolls out as far as a plan for pre-zoning, it’s also working on other measures for small-scale affordable housing projects, localized density in its “villages and corridors,” and missing middle housing.
But the small localized changes may not be enough.
“Tinkering around the edges—if we do that, we’re going to be in a catastrophic position in cities in British Columbia over the next 10 years,” Lisa Helps says, calling for the province to change the Local Government Act to require that only rezoning applications that exceed what’s in the official community plan would need to come before council.
Extrapolating from the city’s trends in recent years, to do nothing would invite abject failure on affordability and climate targets, and would consign the city to increasingly becoming a hollowed-out shell, where even the wealthy retirees who can afford to live here can’t find anyone to make a coffee or teach their grandkids. The rest of us would be welcome to settle farther afield, bulldozing more and more new land at ever-increasing distances from work, school, friends, and family.
“If we think it’s OK to have a city that only caters to people that can afford single-family homes, then it’s not catastrophic,” Hoese says.
Otherwise, the city needs a new approach, and soon.
Assume for a moment that rezoning would work the way planners are hoping it will: it densifies, slowly and gently, parts of the city that are currently full of unaffordable homes that meet only a very particular standard of livability; it lowers prices over time; it stops the outward growth of cities toward the margins, blasting countryside away to make room for more of the same.
What would that city look like? What would it feel like?
The target isn’t just density for its own sake, or even affordability. Planners want to create conditions that will lead to a city that is pleasant and safe to move through. The popular idea of a 15-minute city—where 15 minutes’ travel by foot, bike, or public transit gets you whatever you need—is also one that de-emphasizes cars in order to avoid the tremendous strain they put on space.
As neighbourhoods densify, economies of scale start to open up that don’t work in areas with fewer people: transit routes can become more frequent, and, therefore, more popular, starting a positive feedback loop. Stores get more customers. Bike lanes become as well used as the streets they run alongside.
That’s where West’s electric bike comes back into the picture. Bikes, and e-bikes in particular, are seen as a compromise between mobility and space, where people can access everything they need without also needing 150 square feet of additional space, each, around the clock, for no reason other than to store a personal vehicle that mostly sits unused. And wherever a car goes, it needs that space all over again, meaning parking spots also sit unused for much of the day.
Building those parking spaces adds a huge cost to new housing, particularly when the parking needs to go under a building to save room.
“If people don’t have to own a car, that cuts a giant expense out of their lives,” Helps says.
Seen this way, the growing network of bike lanes starts to become, surprisingly, part of the affordable housing picture as well. It’s also a way of mitigating one of the fears neighbours have when it comes to new housing: where will all their cars go?
Matt Dell lives just around the corner from Redfern Park in the same detached-house-dominated neighbourhood, and, like many people he represents as the president of the South Jubilee Neighbourhood Association, Dell knows the city needs to densify—that the emphasis on single-family homes is “a key roadblock in our housing affordability issues”—but he also worries about what that change would represent in terms of its knock-on effects.
“I don’t want Oak Bay Avenue to become like Hillside; I don’t think anybody does,” Dell says.
Like many people, Dell doesn’t want to live in a neighbourhood full of condos, either; he wants his kids to have the run of the place, to know their neighbours, to be able to, in Gardiner’s words, “put a spade in the ground and see what a worm looks like.”
Those are the things we’ve come to believe a single-family home provides that are harder to replicate in a sixplex, or a neighbourhood full of them. And it’s undeniably true that part of what makes a neighbourhood special are its flaws—its strange blind alley, its decaying fences, and mysterious blank spots—and that new housing has a tendency to look and feel sterile, corporate, shiny, and uninviting.
“What we haven’t gotten is a real examination of what kind of mix we want in this city,” Gardiner says.
That mix, however, has favoured the single-family home for generations, and West argues the community that builds up in a denser place is every bit as strong as, or even stronger than, that of a single-family home neighbourhood. West says in his own driveway, since he has no car, he’s set up a patio where he can sit out front and meet his neighbours as they go about their days.
The insistence on protecting the detached house has had serious impacts on the economic and environmental sustainability of most Canadian cities. What we’re seeing now, many argue, is just the inevitable conclusion of that decision to focus on one kind of housing over all others.
“There’s really no logical argument to say, ‘You know what, let’s not put in townhouses. Let’s not put in houseplexes. Let’s not increase density. We’re just going to put in $2-million single-family homes; that’s the way to address our affordability challenge,’” West says.
The first thing Holland brings up when I ask him about pre-zoning isn’t affordability, sustainability, density, or livability. It’s democracy.
Every few years, municipalities and neighbourhoods develop plans that ostensibly govern how they’ll grow and change over the coming years to meet their expected needs.
“A lot of effort and investment is made by the community in these plans,” he says. But then, over the years the plans are in effect, they’re largely ignored on a case-by-case basis. “Developers are in there asking to change the zoning… even if it’s completely contrary to what the community envisioned to be there.”
The effect of that happening again and again before the eyes of the people who gave their time and effort to take part in developing a community plan is that they stop believing any of it matters, or that their voices were really heard. Holland argues that pre-zoning is a solution to that problem, making the official community plan an actual guide for what can go where.
“When we don’t pre-zone, what we actually do is create significant cynicism within society.”
But community plans are just one part of the democratic process. The moment of rezoning a piece of land is currently a moment at which city planners, councillors, neighbours, and developers all come to the table and have to negotiate around what that new building would mean for the area.
It’s also an opportunity for the city to capture some fraction of the value of the gift they’re about to bestow on a developer in the form of a raised land price. They can ask for contributions for sidewalk-building, or a new playground, or a replacement pipe; or they can ask for a right-of-way for a bike lane or a wider road.
“We’ve come to rely very much on rezoning land to achieve the objectives we have in the city,” Hoese explains.
Without the rezoning process—if Victoria were pre-zoned—that opportunity might have to be created some other way.
As the possibility of pre-zoning looms, and along with it all the myriad changes it could bring, community groups are thus far feeling left out of the discussion. And they feel like it’s just the first of many discussions they won’t have a part in.
“My concern was when it becomes an entitlement, there’s no requirement to even talk to your neighbour,” Madoff says. “If you’re trying to build community and have some kind of neighbourliness, how do you maintain that if things are being done that don’t require public input or encourage it in some way?”
Madoff dislikes the term “NIMBY” when referring to neighbours’ concerns over change, preferring a term which, she jokes, didn’t take off because it sounds like a donut: TIMBY, for “This In My Backyard.”
Behind that acronym, however, is an assumption that existing residents are owed the right to determine what specific development happens nearby, one by one at city council, rather than in general during the community planning process. Not everyone subscribes to that idea because, especially where new housing is concerned, it’s effectively favouring the rights of homeowners over renters, new arrivals, or prospective homeowners. Any city needs a variety of people.
“You need people to work in the stores. You need grandparents. You need people who are poor. You need people who are rich,” Holland says. “We need the young and we need the old.”
Wood credits the success of Portland’s zoning ordinance to a well-organized “YIMBY” coalition that came together around shared concerns over affordability and equity, but she also says what really made a difference was empathy between homeowner boomers and the less fortunate generations that came after them.
Referring to millennials in particular, Holland is flabbergasted at the passivity toward the housing crisis and the acceptance of the assumptions of previous generations.
“You guys need to be rioting in the streets over this,” he says.
And for me, a millennial, he’s not far off. The rage at being left out, possibly forever, of the housing market purely as an accident of history boils over whenever real estate comes up in conversation—which, for young people, is constantly. Letting aside the right to housing, which is being trampled on far more for others than for myself, the privilege of being able to save diligently and eventually buy a house is one of the many economic rugs that’s been pulled out from under my generation.
Looking at the modest, well-maintained detached homes that surround Redfern Park, I no longer see an aspirational future home for myself; I see a missed opportunity that might be lost forever to people like me. Rioting in the streets, for us, may not take the form of bricks and tear gas—but it may well look like bike lanes and triplexes. Meanwhile, for the generation that has made more on the value of their homes this decade than we’ve earned in our entire adult lives, it might be time to start thinking of ways to make some space.