Affordable housing—for low- and moderate-income people working Downtown—should be a City of Victoria priority.
VICTORIA'S CURRENT HOUSING SCENE is now recognized in official circles as in “severe crisis”—both in terms of affordability and availability. The Capital Region Analysis & Data Book shows 50 percent of households can only afford 13.7 percent of the region’s homes.
The City of Victoria has responded to the crisis in numerous ways. It has removed the necessity of rezoning for garden suites. It has given preliminary approval to a moratorium on granting demolition permits for rental housing, as developers salivate over replacing those three-story 1970s-era apartment blocks that form the bulk of the City’s affordable housing. It is considering special taxes on vacant and derelict properties. It is fast-tracking applications for rental developments and encouraging developers to include some non- market “affordable” units in their buildings.
And, upon learning that at least 300 Downtown housing units had been diverted from their intended purpose of housing to money-making tourist accommodation, it started debating ways to restrict that practice— those developments, after all, got building permits on the basis of supplying housing, not hotels.
These are all necessary, but wholly insufficient steps to turning the tide on the affordable housing crisis.
But promises of help are coming from both the feds and the NDP-led, Green Party-supported provincial government. The NDP promised to build 114,000 affordable rental, non-profit and co-op housing units over 10 years, and to provide social housing to middle-class workers who have been priced out of BC cities. The Greens were willing to spend $750 million per year building and renovating social housing, to construct about 4000 affordable housing units per year. And the feds’ new $180-billion infrastructure funds are geared, in part, to affordable housing projects (some of it in the form of federal land to build on).
It’s timely and crucial for local communities to make concrete plans for projects in the region that will attract federal and provincial funding. It’s clear that the private sphere will not, and likely cannot, build the homes that are truly needed.
Centennial Square Parkade. A seismically-vulnerable and low-value use of Downtown space?
ONE POPULATION THAT IS ESPECIALLY ill-served by the housing market is Downtown workers of modest income—the folks who cook and serve us in cafés and restaurants, who clean hotel rooms, who are the helpful receptionists in offices we visit, and who help us find the perfect shirt or gift in Downtown’s stores. There are over 24,000 people working Downtown, about half of them in the hospitality (4183), restaurant (3834), and retail (3225) sectors (2013 figures).
Despite the building boom throughout the city, but especially in or near Downtown (see the slide show at www.focusonvictoria.ca), none of the newer and under-construction buildings, with one notable exception, offer “affordable” rents for those making the low-to-modest living that many thousands of Downtown workers earn.
Downtown employers are paying competitive wages, but tell me they have trouble finding and keeping good employees simply because of the difficulty and expense of parking and travel from their far-flung homes—in Shawnigan or Langford or Sooke. Transit and cycling are both often highly inconvenient for someone who is forced to work two jobs, as many do. But owning a car—and parking it Downtown—is prohibitively expensive for these workers. (My 1-hour-40-minute visit to the dentist the other day resulted in a $7 parkade charge. Double ouch!)
A minimum-wage job currently pays $10.85/hour. If the BC NDP government keeps its promise around minimum wage, this will rise incrementally to $15 per hour by 2021. Many Downtown employers already pay above minimum wage, so let’s take the example of a worker currently making $15/hour. At 40 hours/week, he or she makes about $2500/month before taxes and deductions. That means their affordable rent would be $750/month. (The accepted definition of “affordable housing” is housing that costs no more than 30 percent of household income before tax.)
What can one find now in that $750/month range?
When I looked at online ads for apartments in or close to Downtown, I did find one “$750 Downtown loft apartment.” On further inspection, however, it turned out to be a 10-foot-square room within a loft apartment. And when I stumbled on a fully-furnished “large one-bedroom” in Esquimalt for $650, and emailed to ask if it was just the bedroom (I thought I was getting wise to the scene), I was soon contacted by Used Victoria to let me know it might well be a scam. It was: I was sent photos of the lovely interior, saying I should drive by 1194 Esquimalt but wouldn’t be able to see inside since they were out of town. Verbatim: “If you are interested. I want you to remember that I’m in (Portland, Oregon.). and the keys and documents are here with me, so you will not be able to see inside the apartment, you can only view from the outside. I will send the keys and documents to you via FedEx and you will receive it within 48hrs…” Of course, with the application, I was to send $950. Besides the too-good-to-be-true price, the brackets every time they mentioned “Portland, Oregon” gave it away.
But I digress.
There were actually quite a few of the second-bedroom-for-rent type ads. In Esquimalt that might cost you $600; closer to Downtown (e.g. on Pembroke) it’s more likely to cost $750. (And these were not “short-term vacation rentals”—those are about twice as much.)
There are a lot of folks advertising themselves as great tenants in the “apartments for rent” section—everything from “professional couples” willing to pay $1400 to $2400/month, to a “sober nerdy vegan” who can afford $475-$625/month. Craigslist has a whole department devoted to “rooms & shares.”
If you really want your own, albeit tiny, apartment Downtown, expect to pay a lot more. For example, a 452-square-foot studio (with a 50-square-foot balcony) at Hudson Walk One on Caledonia is asking $1510 per month—certainly not affordable for the Downtown worker making $15/hour, or even $20/hour. That price tag is also about 50 percent more than rents at Hudson Walk One were when it launched a year ago.
The Janion has an even smaller pad—350 square feet—for $1280. Again, unaffordable for a full-time worker at $15/hour. In fact, at the 30 percent definition of affordable, one would have to make $4300/month—about $26/hour—to rent 350 square feet. If you are determined to have your own space for just shy of $800 then you might find one at the Dominion Rocket—but it might be only 179 square feet.
While the City sometimes demands developers include some non-market units in new buildings, they are usually only just a small handful per complex.
The Greater Victoria Rental Development Society’s Azzurro project across Blanshard from the arena
One non-profit thankfully stepped up recently to help more workers of modest means. The Greater Victoria Rental Development Society, paired with Realhomes Development Corp to develop the 7-storey, 65-unit Azzurro right across Blanshard from the arena. Forty-three of its units are non-market: $925 for a one-bedroom and $860 for a studio. Despite the low rents, Alanna Holroyd, the executive director of GVRDS, says she can make it work financially. It helps that she was able to do much of the work herself, and that the $5 million in development costs were waived. She has assembled a great team, including locally-based builders Knappett Projects. She also credits BC Housing financing—100 percent financing [of 14.8 million] through construction at 1.6 percent, interest only—as making housing lower- income people a feasible business model. Holroyd notes, “The lower two levels of commercial also played a significant role in getting financing from BC Housing. After the sale of the commercial spaces, a further $2.5 million will be raised.” While grants of $495,000 from the CRD and $544,000 from the City helped make Azzurro happen, Holroyd believes she can do such developments without any grants in the future.
If we want a liveable, vibrant Downtown, we need more such creative, bold moves. By supplying affordable housing in the core for the the core’s workforce, they will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions—and help make the heart of our city more truly liveable.
AMONG THE RECOMMENDATIONS of the City of Victoria’s Housing Affordability Task Force last year was one urging the contribution of City-owned land at no cost or at reduced market value for the development of affordable housing projects. The Task Force report noted that “Under current law, the City can donate land or enter into long-term lease agreements with organizations that commit to providing affordable housing. The City can also enter into land swaps with other public institutions or the private sector and use those properties for affordable housing purposes.”
The most visible form of City-owned property Downtown, besides City Hall, are parkades. Could we develop a plan to transform one or more of them into affordable rental apartments—a Downtown workers’ paradise?
The City of Victoria owns five parkades. We can rule out the one below the Central Library, so that leaves four, all above ground. Most were built in the 1960s when seismic standards were much lower. From past research via FOIs, we know that City-owned parkades have not been seismically evaluated. It’s highly likely that once they are assessed for seismic vulnerability, they’ll have to be replaced, otherwise the City would be faced with a huge liability issue if an earthquake did strike.
In that case, do we simply put up replacement parkades? That seems crazy in light of land values, needs for housing, and climate change.
Why not consider replacing them with affordable homes for Downtown’s service workers? Start with the one which has the fewest parking spaces—it just so happens that’s the one adjacent to Centennial Square. You could retain some or all of its 188 spaces by putting them underground. They can be designed with smaller parking spaces to match the smaller cars we’ll be driving, as well as outfitted to provide charging for the electric vehicles we’re expected to drive. The main floor would have space for retailers paying market-based rents. Above, build a high-rise of varying-sized suites, all rented on an affordable basis to those who are eligible: people who work at jobs Downtown and have incomes in the target range suggested by the City’s Housing Affordability Task Force: $18,000-$57,000/year.
Oh, but what about losing precious parking spaces, you ask? It’s surprising how many parking spots might be available underground. Under the Central Library, for instance, there are 544 parking spots. (It’s worth noting that there are also 11 privately-owned parkades and 40 parking lots Downtown.) There might even be a net gain in parking spaces if Downtown workers no longer need to drive a car to work.
This means there’s an important added benefit: a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. (In BC, transportation accounts for 37 percent of our total annual emissions.)
Another possible objection: That particular parkade, and the attached one-storey part of the building on Douglas, were designed in 1963 by renowned architect John Di Castri. It’s a heritage building. Yet that same pedigree belongs to the Crystal Pool, which Victoria council seems determined to replace (see story, page 22). In the case of the Centennial Square parkade, the seismic issue alone will mean its eventual demise. Let’s make sure what we build there is beautifully designed (perhaps incorporating or echoing Di Castri’s work), durable, and aimed at a higher purpose like affordable housing. Think how such a transformation would enliven Victoria’s central plaza, especially if families with children are housed there.
The Centennial Square side of the John Di Castri-designed parkade
But why stop at one parkade? There are three other above-ground City-owned parkades, each seismically questionable: at Bastion Square, View Street, and Johnson Street. The City should be planning now for how to deal with them over the next decade, in ways that will best align with our future needs—around housing, transportation, and climate change.
Most likely, the City would and should involve one of the local non-profits involved in building low-income housing—the Greater Victoria Rental Development Society and the Greater Victoria Housing Society, for instance, have each built quality apartment buildings throughout the city in which units rent at non-market rates. Those in the social-housing industry can figure out the details, including eligibility criteria and precise rental rates, but all of the apartments should be geared to Downtown workers of modest means. The buildings will ideally house 300 or more residents per building.
Our theoretical full-time worker, with a $2500/month income, could get a decent studio or small one-bedroom for $750. A couple, perhaps with a child, working Downtown with a monthly income of close to $5000, could get a larger suite for up to $1500. Incomes would be reviewed annually and rents reassessed. Sure there’s nitty-gritty details like “what happens if a person leaves their Downtown employ for a job somewhere else?” But surely we can dream up some fair-minded policies to deal with such situations. Perhaps they are given six month’s notice.
I like this parkade-to-housing concept simply for the compassion it shows to those who enliven Downtown through their work, not to mention how it places value on homes over cars. But other benefits would also flow. Besides the already-mentioned reduction of green house gas emissions, it would help local businesses retain employees, a crucial ingredient of stability and success. And that would help the City’s economy, as those businesses would be far less likely to pull up stakes for the suburbs. It might even cool the housing market a tad, a good thing, as one glance at real estate ads will attest.
Since the City owns the land, that cuts out a huge cost of development. According to GVRDS’s Holroyd, “if the site has a Certificate of Compliance [from the Ministry of Environment[, it could be worth $250 per square foot and up depending on what density is allowed after rezoning.” But, she warns, “the variables are massive.” Regardless, “it could easily be half the cost of construction…without a development fee of course.” Holroyd agreed that having land donated makes a lot more things possible.
So the City supplies the land, perhaps waiving some fees, and other levels of government provide funding, and non-profits take care of the rest.
Unless we are willing to have our governments step up and provide non-market housing, we’ll face a city bleached of its diversity and vitality, and we’ll witness more lives, especially young ones, stunted by unbearable costs.
Remember Portland, once held up as a shining example of how to deal with homelessness? It now has 4000 homeless, including many families living in shelters, and is currently working on a pilot program to supply government-constructed “pods” of 200 square feet, placed in the backyards of willing homeowners. And they are not cheap; the pods cost about $75,000 each (but here too the land is free). Victoria has the opportunity to avoid such drastic measures by moving more aggressively to actually initiate development and put up the land.
If this community is willing to tear down a di Castri-designed swimming pool and spend $70 million to replace it (even though it could be fixed for far less), I think we have a moral obligation to affordably house the people who work to make the Downtown experience so fine.
Leslie Campbell invites other dreamers to send us your ideas on how to create a liveable, green, compassionate city.
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