Victoria’s affordable housing crisis puts the bullseye on public land in Fernwood.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE OF MY HOME is one of my favourite city neighbourhoods: Fernwood. I love its diversity, its heritage homes, it’s artsy, alternative vibe and lack of pretentiousness.
These days its experiencing a lot of community angst over a proposed housing development on lands owned mostly by School District 61 to the west of Vic High. Called the Caledonia, it will offer 154 units of desperately needed affordable non-market housing. The Fernwoodians I know say they have no issue with the “affordable” aspect. Instead they are concerned with its size, the impacts on the neighbourhood’s traffic, the precedent it will set for further development, and the loss of School District-owned land.
The developer—in this case the CRD’s Capital Region Housing Corporation (CRHC)—has submitted its development application to City Hall, and is requesting rezoning and Official Community Plan (OCP) amendments, with the hope of a fall 2020 construction start. In total there are five separate buildings, including three-storey townhouse rows, and four- and five-storey apartment buildings, with 109 parking stalls underneath.
Artist's rendering of one part of the Caledonia redevelopment proposal
The first the community heard about the new Caledonia project was last November when an agreement was announced among the City, CRHC, BC Housing and School District 61 (SD61) to create the large housing complex. This “Letter of Intent” was both an agreement to work out a “land swap” among the players and a vision for the 154-unit housing complex. The land swap would “assemble” a 9,000 square-foot rectangular lot, owned by SD61, but leased for 60 years to CRHC which would build the housing. The City of Victoria would end up owning the Compost Education Centre, Spring Ridge Community Gardens and Haegert Park, all important community spaces currently owned by the School District. It was a big deal.
Ownership before (left) and after the land swap. The project would go on the SD 61 land (blue swath, right).
After some feedback from the community, CRHC made changes to its plan, and last summer held an open house for the community. Christine Culham, a senior manager with CRHC, told me, “I do think we’ve been really thoughtful in the way we listened to the community around their concerns.” She mentioned that building heights have been reduced (though there’s still one at five storeys)—and topmost floors of the two higher ones “stepped back” to appear less massive. Neighbourhood traffic concerns led to changes in the configuration of entrances. A building of 1,500 square feet was added to provide community space.
Long-time Fernwood resident and Fernwood Community Association board member Dorothy Field emailed me in August, saying, “the proponents, CRHC are treating it as a totally done deal. The Fernwood community is not very happy, so the designers have tweaked the plan a bit with ‘green’ addenda but nothing substantive has changed.” She noted that Fernwoodians are supportive of a new development which provides low-income housing, but “we are distressed at the size, density, and height of this proposal. When asked if the number of apartments could be reduced, CRHC said, ‘No, that’s the arithmetic.’”
Culham explained to me that while they try hard to keep everyone happy, the number-one priority of the City of Victoria and the CRD is affordable housing, so that weighs heavily in the balancing of objectives. Building costs have increased 36 percent, she notes, “so it’s difficult to make a property affordable without any government grant or intervention. Right now both the provincial and federal governments are coming to the table with funding…that hasn’t happened in 20 years, so we’re looking to take advantage of those grants; you never know when they’re going to go away.” The Caledonia project has already been approved for provincial funding, partly because of its high number of units.
Given the cost of land and construction, the only way to have affordability in the City of Victoria is to create density, Culham continued. “How do we get the best use out of land? Just like the fire hall, building up is the only way we’re going to be able to get that.” In the case of the Caledonia, she says, “I am mindful and I am empathetic to the challenge around change, but I do think that the benefits outweigh the change that is occurring.”
Culham, who lived in Fernwood in the past and appreciates its special character, feels the Caledonia’s proximity to Cook Street and its amenities mean its “walkability score is off the charts.”
A passionate advocate for affordable housing, she sees the provision of it in the City of Victoria as a matter of fairness and equity. With 61 percent of those living in the City of Victoria being renters—with a median household income of $44,600—the average rent they can afford is $1100 per month. But the average rent for listed vacancies in the City is now close to $1500 per month. So in her analysis, with Caledonia rents averaging $1000, she is building housing for the majority of the population. “Those are the people we don’t hear from, even though we have 1,500 waiting for homes on the BC Housing Registry,” she said.
I MET WITH FERNWOOD RESIDENTS Dorothy Field and Trish Richards for a look at the site of the proposed housing on a sunny fall day. They first pointed out to me the CRHC housing already occupying some of the SD61 land. Built in 1992, there are 18 units for families in the attached townhouse structure (also called Caledonia). Only 27 years old, it will be torn down, not just to make room for the new development but, according to Culham, because “it’s a leaky condo.” In 2012, the CRHC was given a remediation estimate of $130,000 per unit.
The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation defines leaky condos as a “catastrophic failure” of building envelopes, which lets water into the building frame and leads to rot, rust, decay and mould. It has been attributed in part to a building boom in the 1980s and early ’90s, which led to a high demand for workers and materials, and in turn to lower-quality construction and materials. It’s not a stretch to think something like it could happen again, given the current construction boom.
Culham told me residents of the old Caledonia will have first right of refusal once the new buildings are complete. Meanwhile, they have been offered alternative units in other CRHC buildings.
One current resident, who came by to talk to us as we wandered around, said seven families had already moved out, which seemed premature given nothing had been approved—including the land swap and the rezoning from a combination of “Traditional Residential” and “Parks” to “Urban Residential.”
The resident said that due to her special needs, she was having to look at housing out in the Royal Oak area.
As we chatted in the sunshine, David Maxwell came by on his bike. He is the chair of Fernwood Community Association’s Land Use Committee. He noted that CRHC has known for years about the problems their tenants have been living with and dragged their feet on remediation of the 18 units. “Why should we have faith CRHC will be able to manage 154 units properly?” he asked.
Maxwell and Richards agreed that the first order of business was to let the School Board know they should not be giving up any more school land. Besides the land under the existing Caledonia, much of the lot is “rubble fields” resulting from the demolition of the Fairey Tech school buildings in 2011 (the tech programs moved to a new facility). It was understood by the neighbourhood that this area would provide, once remediated, more green and activity space for the school and community. Eight years later that still hadn’t happened.
PERHAPS I SHOULD REMIND READERS that Vic High’s renewal was the subject of a lengthy process of public consultation involving three options for upgrading and necessary seismic work. The community made it clear they preferred the Full Monty, involving seismic and other improvements, as well as creating room for 200 more students and a Neighbourhood Learning Centre. In June 2018, the School Board unanimously supported it. The price tag was $79.7 million.
No one was warned, however, “If you choose this option, we’ll have to build housing on school lands.” Yet when the new Caledonia project was first announced last November, and through subsequent consultations, raising needed funds to fix Vic High was part of the rationale.
At the end of June 2019, however, the Province came though with $77.1 million in funding for the high school upgrades—leaving SD61 with only $2.6 million to raise. People are now questioning whether the School Board should be entering into long-term leases on Vic High lands when such a small amount could likely be raised by any number of less-invasive means.
Chief among those people are Fernwood residents Scott Fox and Corey Kowal. Throughout the fall they’ve been making the rounds of School Board and committee meetings with well-polished power point presentations.
The father of two girls who currently attend George Jay Elementary and will likely attend Vic High, Fox’s background as a business analyst is apparent in his presentations. Kowal, like Fox, lives with her family near Vic High. She has a background in strategic planning and operations management with the BC government.
Using aerial shots of different local high school grounds, Kowal argued at one SD61 committee meeting that Vic High, after the proposed removal of land for housing, would have less space per child than most other high schools in the district. School green space, research has shown, correlates with improved mental health, safety and school pride, she said, noting, “Once the land is gone, it’s gone.” With an inner-city school like Vic High, where many students don’t have their own back yards, it’s especially important to have green and activity space available.
Ministry of Education regulations call for each school in the province to provide a minimum of five hectares of land per 1,000 students. Fox worked out the space left for educational purposes after the land swap to be 4.69 hectares per 1,000 students.
Culham disputes those numbers; in CHRC’s analysis, there would still be 5.05 hectares per 1,000 students after the land swap.
Either way, of course, it’s very close to the minimum requirement.
At an October presentation to the School Board, Fox gave another power point, this one suggesting a lack of due diligence around the land swap. He said that there had been no land appraisals performed by qualified independent appraisers; that no cost benefit analysis had been performed regarding the land swap; and that there had been no internal controls to prevent bias and collusion, as is recommended by the BC Auditor for any real estate asset sale.
Fox and Kowal, along with others, have formed the Vic High Neighbourhood Action Group, with a website (www.itsnotsurplus.com) and will host information sessions on November 5 & 6, both 7:30-9 pm at 1923 Fernwood Road.
SD61 is holding an open house on the issue on November 12, 6-8 pm at Vic High’s Roper Gym. It is expected the board will vote on the land swap shortly thereafter.
THERE ARE NO LESS THAN FOUR levels of government aligned behind the Caledonia project: SD61, CRHC of the CRD, BC Housing, and the City of Victoria. The development package submitted to the City by CRHC includes a 33-page book full of persuasive details about the need for affordable housing, the appropriateness of the site (a “walker’s paradise”), and the project’s many admirable features including energy efficiency, urban agriculture, rain gardens, tot play areas, and a new city “greenway.”
In late October, David Maxwell, chair of FCA’s Land Use Committee, was alarmed to learn from a City of Victoria planner that, despite the School Board not having decided yet to go ahead with the land swap, the development application had already moved through all the necessary departments—regarding roads, utilities, sewer, etc—with recommended changes sent to the CRHC. Though the planner assured him “this is the way it’s done all the time,” in Maxwell’s mind, it seemed premature and wasteful. “This is public property, funded by the taxpayers, as are all the City and CRHC staff involved…[They] are wasting all that money before knowing whether it can go ahead.” Echoing others, he says, “It starts to look more and more like a done deal, like we’re all just going through the motions, just playing this huge game.” (It doesn’t help that Mayor Helps and School Board Chair Jordan Watters have made positive comments about the development.)
The Fernwood Land Use Committee will soon give the City a formal response on the Caledonia application indicating its lack of support due to the needed OCP and zoning changes, said Maxwell; “We don’t have any five-storey buildings near there.” He believes if such height and density are allowed there, it will set a precedent for the whole area west of the site, over to Cook Street.
Fernwood community members know that affordable housing is needed, but have noticed the City hasn’t done much to generate such housing in all the other developments council has approved. As Field pointed out to me, “We also have four large developments approved or almost approved that will add to pressure on existing public infrastructure: Wellburn’s, St Andrews, the former co-housing site [Fernwood Commons at Chambers and North Park], a large new tower at Chambers and Johnson…the City has not negotiated affordable suites in any of these new buildings.” (Going forward, the City’s new inclusionary zoning policy will require 20 percent of all units in larger developments to be affordable.)
The task of adding affordable housing, especially in core neighbourhoods, gets more difficult by the minute. Victoria continues to attract those who have wealth—to retire here, to have second homes here, to invest here, causing land values to increase. As Culham pointed out, this makes it difficult to provide enough housing for citizens of modest means—those who work in our nursing homes, shops, offices and cafes. It’s little wonder that once-sancrosanct school lands, churches, and heritage buildings are now being eyed by developers, including those building affordable housing.
Perhaps it’s time for neighbourhoods to be more proactive, implementing a bottom-up approach wherein they themselves come up with neighbourhood-supported ideas for increased affordable housing.
Websites of all the organizations mentioned above offer more information. Access Caledonia’s development application here.
Leslie Campbell is the founding editor of Focus.