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More than Missing Middle needed to address housing affordability in Victoria

But that’s not a reason not to proceed with the policy, which one expert says will ‘make things less bad in the long run’

By Shannon Waters
August 13, 2022
City Hall
Explainer
Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

More than Missing Middle needed to address housing affordability in Victoria

But that’s not a reason not to proceed with the policy, which one expert says will ‘make things less bad in the long run’

By Shannon Waters
Aug 13, 2022
A townhouse for sale on Princess Avenue. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
A townhouse for sale on Princess Avenue. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily
City Hall
Explainer
Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.

More than Missing Middle needed to address housing affordability in Victoria

But that’s not a reason not to proceed with the policy, which one expert says will ‘make things less bad in the long run’

By Shannon Waters
August 13, 2022
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More than Missing Middle needed to address housing affordability in Victoria
A townhouse for sale on Princess Avenue. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

Victoria residents are divided on the city’s proposed Missing Middle Housing Initiative (MMHI) with many making their opinions heard during last week’s lengthy initial hearing.

Sue Hiscocks, who has lived in the city for 18 years, waited more than two hours for a chance to express her opposition but left before her turn was granted.

Hiscocks told Capital Daily she does not believe the city has done adequate consultation on the policy and says without efforts to curb real estate speculation and investment, new developments could be bought up by investors rather than providing homes for residents. She would not have been alone in expressing those views, which were a common refrain among opponents and even some supporters at the hearing.

“I was going to say at the microphone … ‘Mayor, Victoria is full,’” Hiscocks said.

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She would like to see the city find a way to ensure new homes are used by people who live and work in Victoria rather than as investments.

“Banking on housing as a main source of income, that’s not right,” Hiscocks said.

During last Thursday’s meeting, Hiscocks said she saw “broken hearts” as well as “a sense of entitlement” with some established residents expressing little empathy for the experiences of others. 

Luna, who asked that her last name not be used due to safety concerns, also attended the hearing and was among those who spoke in favour of the initiative. Following her presentation to council, Luna said she was accosted by a woman who made derogatory comments about renters.

“People have a lot of emotion and that's fine, but it's not fine to be disrespectful and confrontational to random people,” she said.

Part of what motivated Luna—a renter and part-time student working in health care—to attend was her experience at hearings on other housing development proposals, which she said tend to be dominated by opponents.

“Even though they say they care about affordable housing, they don't go unless they're mad about it,” she said.

What Luna and Hiscocks—and many others who spoke in favour of and against Missing Middle—are overlooking, however, is that the policy is not about affordability.

Missing affordability

The issue of housing affordability—what it means and what policies are needed to address it—was a recurrent theme at the contentious Aug. 4 hearing. While some supporters cited a lack of affordable housing as a reason to implement MMHI, some opponents said the precise opposite: that the homes likely to be built under the policy will not be affordable for locals. 

Tom Davidoff, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, has little patience for arguments against building housing due to affordability concerns.

“The argument that homes aren't affordable therefore we shouldn't build homes is a terrible argument at the level of logic, because it smacks of ‘The beatings will continue until morale improves,’” he told Capital Daily. “It's hard to see that as a recipe for improvement in affordability. In fact, it's a recipe for disaster in terms of affordability.”

He says the conversation is being had on the wrong terms—but that affordability could be one outcome of policies like Missing Middle.

“The fact that [Missing Middle] won't make Victoria affordable isn't a reason not to do it,” he added. “It will make things less bad in the long run.”

City of Victoria documents underline that tackling affordability is not the focus of MMHI, which mainly aims to “make it easier to build alternatives to single family homes” in a bid to “help address the lack of availability of suitable family homes.”

When considering the affordability of Missing Middle housing, single-family homes are the most relevant point of comparison, according to Davidoff.

“It lets people live in the neighbourhood because it provides a form of housing that many of them can afford,” he said. “A townhome is a lot cheaper than a detached single-family home because you're sharing the land and for rental purposes, the rents on these things are certainly within the means of some working people … the income that can afford them is less than the income that can afford a single family home.”

City staff emphasized at the Aug. 4 hearing that MMHI is not a “silver bullet for the affordability crisis” and is intended to work in tandem with other policies to increase local housing supply and diversity, some of which focus on affordability.

“It can work in conjunction with the rapid deployment of affordable housing,” Luna said of the legislation the city passed in April, which is intended to give affordable housing projects a leg up.

The new affordable housing law would allow housing proposals backed by non-profit, government or co-op housing organizations to bypass rezoning or public hearing requirements as long as they are ­consistent with the city’s official community plan and design guidelines.

How much densification?

If Victoria is serious about addressing affordability in broad and dramatic ways, middling densification policies like MMHI are not the way to go, according to Davidoff.

“There's a risk that they're not doing enough density,” he said. “I think grand slam density one neighbourhood at a time may be a more natural way to proceed.” 

Dramatic densification can greatly increase housing supply quickly and allow for needed infrastructure upgrades at the same time, Davidoff said, but runs the risk of pushing up land prices as property owners sell single-family home lots to developers planning to build towers full of homes. The fear of Victoria becoming like Vancouver, or specifically Yaletown, is frequently cited by opponents of Missing Middle.

While adding “a little bit of extra density” to mostly single-family neighbourhoods in certain parts of the city will have “not even close” to the same impact on affordability that a “grand slam density” plan could have, it’s more likely to be acceptable to community members concerned about preserving greenspace and neighbourhood character.

For Davidoff, an incidental benefit of MMHI would be “killing any idea of single-family zoning” across much of the city. Zoning that only allows for single-family homes is “regressive, hurts lower-income people” and is “economically inefficient,” he said.

“It's just totally irrational to have that kind of density when people are paying the prices they are,” he said. “[With MMHI] you have an opportunity to do something that is both good for the environment and good in terms of redistributing resources towards people with less who can't afford fancy homes … to argue against densification of single-family neighbourhoods, there's nothing valid really there.”

Hiscocks does not want to see single family homes disappear from Victoria neighbourhoods and said her aversion to the idea comes from her experience living in Vancouver in the 1970s. At that time, Vancouver was “a livable, pretty hip kind of place,” Hiscocks said, but now there are “high rises downtown and the lights don't go on at night because they're empty.”

“I don't think you need more density from what I've seen downtown, and, I don't think, any more density here,” she said of the James Bay neighbourhood.

The public hearing went over its allotted time on Aug. 4, so a follow-up hearing is scheduled for Sept. 1. Council is expected to make a decision once everyone interested has had a chance to speak.

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Article Author's Profile Picture
Shannon Waters
Municipal affairs reporter

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