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‘It may never happen’: Vote reversal could turf Victoria’s ‘missing middle’ initiative

Council votes to refer initiative back to public engagement

City Hall
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

‘It may never happen’: Vote reversal could turf Victoria’s ‘missing middle’ initiative

Council votes to refer initiative back to public engagement

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps photographed in 2021. Photo: Jimmy Thomson
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps photographed in 2021. Photo: Jimmy Thomson
City Hall
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

‘It may never happen’: Vote reversal could turf Victoria’s ‘missing middle’ initiative

Council votes to refer initiative back to public engagement

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‘It may never happen’: Vote reversal could turf Victoria’s ‘missing middle’ initiative
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps photographed in 2021. Photo: Jimmy Thomson

This, in all likelihood, is how Victoria’s “missing middle” housing initiative ends: not with a bang, but with a motion for referral.

Thursday afternoon, councillors voted 5-4 in favour of referring the proposal—which, if approved, would flip the script on density in Victoria—back to staff for further public engagement, before a report would return to the Committee of the Whole in July.

The decision, though not technically a death knell for the initiative, which is intended to create room for more diverse housing options within Victoria amid its ongoing housing crisis, all but guarantees its delay until at least after the fall municipal election—after which time a new council might opt to ditch the proposal entirely, housing advocates worry.

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Designed to rezone single-family lots across Victoria to permit a bevy of housing types, from townhouses to multiplexes, in an effort to increase density and add space to Victoria’s housing market, the “missing middle” initiative has been a project touted by Mayor Lisa Helps as “key to the city’s future.” Like similar initiatives in Vancouver, Portland, and Minneapolis that grant certain residential developments the ability to go ahead without needing a sign-off from city council, it would also be a kickstarter to a process that provincial Housing Minister David Eby has said municipalities aren’t doing fast enough: approving more housing.

Sixty-eight per cent of the city is currently zoned for single-family housing—a type of housing that makes up just a quarter of all households, is priced on average over $1 million, and excludes racial minorities—and the initiative would allow for blanket rezoning.

“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,” Pam Madoff, a former city councillor and heritage advocate, told Capital Daily last May.

Controversy on council

Though well received by the public in consultations so far, the “missing middle” initiative has proven more contentious among Victoria’s city council—where concerns have varied from the potential spin-off effects on property values, to affordable housing provisions, to whether the public has had enough opportunity for input. Already in May, council postponed a debate of the initiative after breaking into disagreement and postponing, then un-postponing, then re-postponing the discussion.

“This is a 2,000-page agenda on arguably the meatiest land-use matters we've considered this term,” Coun. Ben Isitt said then, “and so I think giving our public another week to digest the materials and communicate their views to us is reasonable.”

On Thursday, the initiative lost steam after Isitt brought forward the motion for referral, again citing a desire for more consultation—despite the fact that in earlier consultations with 800 respondents, a vast majority said they would support changes like avoiding public hearings for houseplexes, townhomes, and heritage conservation infill.

Coun. Sharmarke Dubow seconded the motion.

“There’s no question that ‘missing middle’ housing is needed,” he said. “The question is, does it serve the need for a housing crisis? Does it respond to affordability? Does it address the displacement that tenants face? My conclusion is ‘No.’”

Isitt wondered why the proposal couldn’t incorporate stronger provisions to require affordable housing as part of any new multiplex development, suggesting that if developers were going to build a 6-plex project, council could mandate three of those units be designated as affordable; however, Malcolm MacLean, a community planner with the City of Victoria, said it wasn’t realistic.

“Based on our analysis, the expected outcome of that requirement would be zero affordable units built, and no family units built even at the market price, because it would eliminate entirely the financial rationale for undertaking those construction projects,” he said.

As debate continued, Helps grew visibly frustrated by her colleagues’ objections to the proposal, particularly after councillor and mayoral candidate Stephen Andrew said the potential date of an open house, if the project were approved for a public hearing, would influence his vote.

“If you have some ideas that would be better, throw them out,” she said, to which Isitt interjected, suggesting she was “on a fishing trip to try to pull [Andrew] away” from voting in favour of the referral motion.

Andrew wanted assurances that any open house would be held far enough in advance of a public hearing to give time for residents to “digest” what they had learned and follow up with their councillors, adding he felt that one week in between the meetings, as city staffers had been planning, was “cutting it too tight.”

“We could hold it two weeks in advance; we could hold it three weeks in advance,” Bill Eisenhauer, the city’s head of engagement, replied.

Ultimately, Andrew sided with Isitt and Dubow, who, along with Couns. Charlayne Thornton-Joe and Geoff Young, swung the narrow vote for a referral.

“We can sit and do nothing,” Helps told council. “We’ve been doing nothing about this since we adopted the OCP in 2012… and the result of doing nothing is massively escalating costs of housing in our city and in our region.”

The fallout

Though the approved referral calls for the matter to return to the Committee of the Whole in July, Helps worries “it may never happen,” adding she’s heard from staff it would be “virtually impossible” for a report to be ready by July, and that opportunities for discussion are slim in August due to the summer recess.

“That means a report back in September, which means this probably won't get the public hearing in this term of council… and there’s just a lot of uncertainty with that,” she told Capital Daily.

The reaction on Twitter was swift and defeatist, with housing advocacy group Homes For Living YYJ tweeting that the “missing middle policy has just been killed… single family zoning has been upheld.”

Rob Gillezeau, an economics professor at the University of Victoria, called the referral vote “an awful decision,” and “a reminder that NIMBY policies are regularly supported by politicians across the political spectrum.”

“We’ve basically got the ideological tail ends of council blocking the most important housing reform in my time in Victoria,” he tweeted. “The shift by Stephen Andrew is particularly important given that he is a serious competitor for the mayor’s seat.”

For his part, Andrew has been disputing the notion that his vote turfs the initiative. 

“We voted to have another open house & consult community,” he wrote on Twitter. “Staff will bring back findings & I expect we then move to public hearing.” 

Andrew defended his vote in a back and forth quote-tweet conversation with a member of a tenant action group, adding he wants affordability to be a component in the decision. 

“To clarify there is no affordable housing component in the missing middle initiative. Also accessibility is nowhere near satisfactory,” he said in response to another tweet. 

Helps calls the decision “disappointing.”

“If we refer this back and get staff to do more engagement, it’s just going to be a repeat performance of the hard work that staff and the public have been doing on this for two years,” she told council. “We can’t learn by just thinking and studying; we have to learn by doing.”

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