Housing

In ageing Oak Bay, renters still live in a grey area

But behind the "tweed curtain", attitudes are starting to change toward renters, who just a decade ago were perceived as a threat to the staid municipality

By Omar Washington
January 27, 2021
Housing

In ageing Oak Bay, renters still live in a grey area

But behind the "tweed curtain", attitudes are starting to change toward renters, who just a decade ago were perceived as a threat to the staid municipality

By Omar Washington
Jan 27, 2021
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Housing

In ageing Oak Bay, renters still live in a grey area

But behind the "tweed curtain", attitudes are starting to change toward renters, who just a decade ago were perceived as a threat to the staid municipality

By Omar Washington
January 27, 2021
In ageing Oak Bay, renters still live in a grey area
Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Rental units in family homes have long been officially unallowed, and unregulated, in the tree-lined blocks of Oak Bay. That hasn’t prevented their existence: hundreds of suites are rented in a legal gray area throughout the small community. In a byzantine, decade-long process, Oak Bay council has been working to bring these secondary suites out of the shadows and under regulation. 

Oak Bay, built on the sacred burial grounds of the Songhees Nation, now has some of the most expensive real estate on Vancouver Island. And for now, the majority of people allowed to live there on legitimate terms are wealthy homeowners. 

Oak Bay Coun. Tara Ney says the lack of regulation “leaves both renters and homeowners in the shadow of the law,” without a clear set of rules to abide by on both ends of a rental contract. 

Emily Lowan, director of campaigns and community relations for the University of Victoria Student Society (UVSS), says the lack of legal secondary suites has a similar impact on students as Oak Bay’s occupancy limit bylaw, which sets a maximum of three unrelated individuals living in a household. She calls the occupancy limit “classist,” and argues it “forces students to withdraw from the community, making people less likely to speak with neighbours.”  

Oak Bay is the last municipality in the region holding out on legalizing secondary suites, which many hope would increase affordable housing stock in the community, once allowed. Sidney regulated secondary suites in 1998, with Esquimalt and Saanich both taking the leap in 2011. 

Mayor Kevin Murdoch admits his municipality has stagnated. 

“I think as a community Oak Bay has a real sense of stewardship,” he said. “That sense of stewardship carries over to a reluctance and cautiousness towards change. You know, the reality is that if you look at our population over the last 50 years, Oak Bay has stayed pretty static and that’s not healthy.”

The community behind the “tweed curtain” has indeed been reticent to accept change. The reluctance to allow and regulate secondary suites betrays an inclination by some in the community to keep Oak Bay exclusive. A survey, conducted by Oak Bay’s secondary suites review committee in 2010, put Oak Bay’s deliberate homogeneity in delicate terms: “The diversity created by allowing secondary suites was seen by some Oak Bay residents as adversely affecting quality of life,” the report summarizes. 

That attitude is rapidly changing. In a 2014 survey included in Oak Bay’s official community plan, 78% of those polled in the community favour allowing secondary suites. With Oak Bay seemingly united on the issue, the question now determining the glacial pace of the process isn’t only if, but also how, the rental units will be allowed.

The pace of change since the new millennium has had significant demographic implications—for everyone outside of Oak Bay. According to a long-awaited secondary suites study (or draft strategy), tabled on Jan. 11 at Oak Bay council, in the 15 years between 2001 and 2016 Oak Bay’s population grew only 1.7%, compared to 17.7% in the Capital Regional District (CRD) as a whole. And it is an aging population, with the median age in Oak Bay rising from 49.9 in 2006 to 53.6 in 2016, a full decade older than neighbouring Victoria or Saanich.

Many surveyed in the secondary suites study feel Oak Bay isn’t doing its share to absorb people moving into the region and feel strongly about changing that trend. Coun. Ney acknowledged as much, adding that Oak Bay residents are starting to understand the pressure on the region. “Since the survey in 2014, we’ve had this really severe affordable housing crisis emerge,” she said. “My sense is that with the development of the crisis, if we did a survey now, there's not going to be fewer people in favor of allowing secondary suites. It would probably be close to 90%.”

The seeds of the housing crisis sprouted years ago. Housing stock in Oak Bay has actually declined almost 2% between 2006 and 2016, for a total of 8,122 private dwellings, two-thirds of which are single-detached houses. The secondary suites study estimates that throughout those detached houses are 500-750 illegal and unregulated secondary suites.

A small number of suites have been “grandfathered in” by agreements between the municipality and homeowners. “We have very few legal secondary suites,” said Deborah Jensen, Oak Bay’s manager of building and planning. “Some have been recognized through land use applications such as heritage revitalization agreements that have been approved through council,” she continued.

Both Jensen and Ney point out that some of these legal suites have been allowed since the 1940s, just after the Second World War. Ney explained that whether legal or illegal, “The issue in Oak Bay is a resistance to regulate them.”

The number of illegal suites in Oak Bay increased with higher demand as the vacancy rate in the CRD decreased over the years. A healthy vacancy rate is 3% to 5%, allowing people who need homes to find them without too many rentals sitting empty. According to Oak Bay’s housing needs report issued in February 2020, availability of primary rentals (studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments) was just 0.2%, even more dire than the vacancy rate in Victoria, at 1%.

With so little supply, and demand so high, the housing needs report indicates that rent in primary rentals is out of reach for those with a median income less than $46,630. Those who make that amount can only afford a studio apartment in Oak Bay—which costs around $1,070 per month. Only individuals or families with a median income of $70,332 are able to afford all 3 types of primary rentals in the district.

The housing and homelessness crisis is now one of the defining issues of local and BC politics, and serves to amplify Oak Bay’s glaring problem of meeting the demand for affordable housing. Murdoch explained that Oak Bay council is working towards completing a broad affordable housing strategy as outlined in the official community plan, which includes secondary suites, apartment buildings, duplexes, triplexes, and laneway houses—so-called “infill” housing. 

Many of the apartment buildings in Oak Bay, built in the 1960s, are aging. Murdoch says the council is looking at how the existing affordable housing in these buildings is going to be replaced.

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Redevelopment, though, is a slow-moving process, and increasing the stock of secondary suites is something that can have an impact much sooner. The housing needs report estimates that just 289 studio or one-bedroom units are needed to meet demand driven by projected regional population growth between 2019 and 2024. 

Murdoch said the council has committed to approving regulation for secondary suites, as part of a complete housing framework, by the end of the year. (He added that some of the work may drag into 2022.) Ney explained that one thing slowing the regulation of secondary suites is that some on the council feel strongly that secondary suite policy be part of the overall housing framework, and not expedited separately. 

What’s currently being weighed is how strongly to regulate secondary suites. Too much regulation may lead to suite owners refusing to come forward to register already-existing units or disincentivize building new ones; too little regulation, meanwhile, has health and safety implications, especially fire safety concerns such as egress, smoke detectors, and adequate fire separation between primary and secondary suites in Oak Bay’s character homes. The secondary suites study cautions that a heavy enforcement plan may actually have a negative impact on housing availability and drive tenants out of their homes as property owners pull their suites off the market, rather than complying with onerous regulations and building codes.

Oak Bay has spent a lot of time and money surveying residents regarding the merits of allowing and regulating secondary suites. In both the 2010 secondary suites review committee report, and the new secondary suites study, the conversation has centered around the pros and cons of allowing secondary suites. Those against cite safety concerns; increased noise, traffic, and parking congestion; increased diversity and population density changing the character of the neighbourhood; and an added burden on Oak Bay’s aging water and sewage systems. 

Those in favour of secondary suites—now a significant majority in Oak Bay—say the rental units will increase availability of affordable housing (without changing the character of existing housing stock), encourage inclusion for people with disabilities, increase diversity, allow seniors to age in place, and allow for “mortgage helpers” that can attract younger families as homeowners. Many respondents in the 2010 report supported allowing the suites simply because it would allow Oak Bay to start doing its share to solve the housing crisis—which has worsened over the intervening years. 

The secondary suites study documents that people in the community are for the suites but feel strongly that their regulation has to be implemented in specific ways. Many survey participants in the secondary suites study feel strongly that owner occupancy should be required for homeowners renting out secondary suites. Others fret about parking availability and want to mandate off-street parking.

Murdoch’s view is that for a long time the either/or nature of the debate was slowing down the process. He said it was looked at “as a binary question that pit people who want them against those that don’t.” Those days, he says, are in the past: “This council is just at a point of ‘Let’s just do it.’”

Lowan, who spent time last fall lobbying Oak Bay council members to support allowing secondary suites on behalf of the UVSS, isn’t as confident in the council’s unanimity as Murdoch. “Council is split in some ways,” she said. “It's clear some of the councillors are representing the views of their constituents that oppose secondary suites.” 

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