The August 4 vote on Missing Middle housing could transform the City, for better or worse.
THIS THURSDAY, AUGUST 4, Victoria’s City Council will hold the public hearing and final vote on its Missing Middle housing initiative, which would permit mid-block houseplexes and corner-lot townhouses in all parts of the City currently zoned for single-family homes. The initiative is hugely complex, comprising thousands of pages of reports, design guidelines and bylaws, some rewritten at the last minute. But since the initiative has the potential to transform the City’s residential neighbourhoods—and the building you live in, or the one next door—you owe it to yourself to get caught up on the issues at stake.
The Rhodo development on Fairfield Road—where a new three-bedroom townhouse goes for $1.2 million—may provide a preview of what’s coming with Victoria’s Missing Middle initiative
FAMILIES: Cities across North America are pondering Missing Middle strategies to help solve the housing crisis—in June, San Francisco allowed fourplexes mid-block and six units on corners—but Victoria is especially touting Missing Middle as a way to keep young families in the City. MP Laurel Collins and MLA Grace Lore have urged approval of the plan, in part because it requires 30 percent of every Missing Middle project to consist of three-bedroom units, and the City’s latest Housing Strategy report notes that while Victoria is exceeding its goal to have 6,000 new homes built by 2025, it is falling behind in creating family-friendly units of two bedrooms or more. The City wants to hear from young families at the public hearing: free childminding will be provided.
DENSITY: Under the City’s plan, six-unit houseplexes totalling up to 5,600 square feet and 10.5 metres (three storeys) tall will be possible, containing 75 percent more square-footage and three metres taller than what’s currently permitted for single-family homes. If you live in a bungalow next door, say hello to your new neighbours and goodbye to the sun.
TRAFFIC: To encourage the use of bicycles and transit, the City’s plan requires Missing Middle projects to have 0.77 parking stalls per unit, with at least one stall for disabled residents; a developer can reduce that amount of onsite parking, however, by providing a property’s residents with transit passes or access to a car-share service. (Since anyone paying $1 million for a new townhouse will likely own a car, the City is also considering a pay-permit system to limit parking on residential streets.) “There will be a little more traffic,” admits Phil MacKellar of Homes For Living, a Capital-region group encouraging Missing Middle. “But less traffic, less parking filling up the street, and a desire for smaller buildings, those are all luxuries. A 30-year-old’s desire to have a place to live, that’s a primary need.”
TREES: The plan has reduced parking to allow more greenery around Missing Middle projects, and the City already has a bylaw protecting large trees. But that bylaw doesn’t protect trees on allowable building footprints, one Rockland resident has noted, and since the plan is designed to spur new construction, it will encourage developers to build to the maximum allowable (40 percent), and thousands of mature trees currently on residential properties could get chopped. On the other hand, Missing Middle advocates say, many more trees will get clearcut if the only sites for new family housing are in Langford and Sooke.
HERITAGE: Missing Middle could also accelerate the destruction of Victoria’s diminishing number of old character homes. The City has included a “heritage conserving infill” option in its plan, permitting owners of older homes to build extra housing on their properties if they agree to heritage designation on the main house. But as former councillor Pam Madoff points out, “When you look at what would be allowed versus the size of most lots, because most of these are in the inner city, you can’t do much more than maybe a garden suite.” That won’t create enough income to justify renovating an old house, so some owners will tear it down and build new.
TENANTS: Although more than 60 percent of the City’s residential land is technically zoned for single-family houses, many people live in those areas in garden flats, accessory homes, duplexes, and collectively in older houses or in houses carved into suites. Missing Middle could flatten these often-affordable rental homes, causing “displacement”—that is, putting their tenants out on the street. In July the City rewrote its Tenants Assistance Policy so Missing Middle developers can save thousands in City fees if they create a plan to help tenants evicted by a project—by giving them a paltry one month’s rent and moving expenses. “Why should tenants pay the huge price of losing their homes for people who can afford to buy new homes?” asks Leslie Robinson, a member of the City’s Renters Advisory Committee. “I’m not opposed to Missing Middle, I’m opposed to Missing Middle without tenant protection.”
AFFORDABILITY: The City’s financial analysis calculated that new houseplex units could sell for $653,000 to $1.3 million, and townhouses from $674,000 to $1.7 million. While those prices don’t meet official definitions of affordability (30 percent of median income), they are more affordable than the average $1.2-million Victoria house. That’s good for well-paid professionals seeking alternatives to condo towers—and potentially great for homeowners selling their land to a Missing Middle developer. But it does nothing for regular working folks unless new wealth from increased land prices is captured and turned into affordable housing, says the BC General Employees Union, which has criticized Victoria’s plan. Some jurisdictions have baked plenty of affordability into their Missing Middle policies: Portland allows fourplexes, but developers can build sixplexes if half the units are affordable to families making less than 60 percent of local median income. Victoria gives developers the option of providing one 10 percent-below-market ownership unit, an affordable rental unit, or, for houseplexes, simply paying $10 per square foot into a fund. The latter would generate $11,000 to $31,000 a project, which won’t buy much affordable housing, unless a lot of luxury houseplexes get built.
INVESTORS: Missing Middle advocates argue that increased housing supply, even of expensive new homes, will free up cheaper units. (Such “filtering” can happen. Erin Willis, a young mom renting in an affordable co-op in View Royal, told me she’s monitoring Victoria’s plans because her partner recently got a well-paying tech job and they’d like to move to houseplex in a walkable neighbourhood. “We’re at the point where we feel we should eventually move, and pass this [unit] on to another family.”) But that kind of movement won’t occur so easily, and the City won’t be much improved, if such new housing gets bought up by predatory landlords or absentee investors who rent to idiots or who routinely ignore their houseplex strata council. “The City can’t control interest rates, it can’t control how banks lend money, or the down-payment requirements on investors purchasing a secondary suite, those are other levels of government,” replies Homes For Living’s MacKellar. As for bad landlords, he says, “the best way to clamp down on [them] is to build so much housing that a landlord has to think twice about being abusive, or lose their tenants. As long as the vacancy rental rate is one or two percent, the odds of abuse are high.”
GOVERNANCE: Currently, building a multi-family houseplex or townhouse project in a single-family neighbourhood requires a rezoning, a public hearing, and final Council approval. Missing Middle will do away with all that, delegating final approval to City planners, who will determine whether or not a project satisfies the policy’s elaborate design guidelines. In theory this will save builders time and money, giving them greater certainty a project won’t be derailed at the last minute by angry neighbours pressuring Council to vote against it. But it also creates millions of square feet of new density across the City, while surrendering the control our elected officials currently have through rezoning to demand greater affordability or tenant protections. Current homeowners will get no notice of what’s being built beside them, aside from what’s posted on the City’s development tracker, and if they don’t like it, they will have no avenue of appeal aside from going to court.
Despite all these concerns, Missing Middle may just turn out to be a slowly evolving experiment. (Minneapolis instituted its own scheme in 2019, and a year later it had produced only three new triplexes.) Land and new construction is already so expensive that the City’s financial analysis says the viability of Missing Middle projects will be “marginal,” producing a return on investment of 14 percent at best, below the 18 percent needed for bank financing. (The analysis also says the financial performance and likely rate of development will be “strongest in the neighbourhoods with higher residential values, such as James Bay, Fairfield, Gonzales and other nearby areas”—not uncoincidentally the neighbourhoods also showing the strongest resistance to the initiative.) Consequently, the City expects the pace of construction to be “modest”—“I think the complexity [of the policy] will scare some builders and developers off,” local developer Julian West told CBC Radio in May—and, even if it passes, the Council we elect this October will revisit Missing Middle in two years’ time. The Urban Development Institute has already called for the policy to be relaxed, which should make citizens question Council candidates: “If elected, will you let Missing Middle to go to four storeys?”
“We’re in the middle of the biggest housing crisis that our residents have ever faced,” Mayor Lisa Helps lectured councillors in May. “And it’s a crisis because we at this table, and those who came before us, have never overhauled the City’s residential zoning process to catch up to the current reality.” She insisted Missing Middle be sent to a public hearing, “so everyone can hear each other’s stories,” as soon as possible: “We need to listen, and we need to see what comes forward. And although I really don’t want this to see this initiative fail at all, if it has to fail, I think it should fail at a public hearing…rather than on the committee floor.”
After a series of 5-4 votes—with councillor Stephen Andrew voting to postpone, and then recanting—that hearing is now upon us. What gets said and what happens there could transform the City, for better or worse, so add your voice. As the saying goes, in a democracy, decisions get made by those who show up.
The public hearing begins at 6:30 p.m. at City Hall. Citizens can attend in person, address Council over the phone, or submit written comments; for more details see https://www.victoria.ca/EN/main/news-events/public-notices/public-hearings.html
Ross Crockford lives in a strata triplex on land that is zoned “single-family”.