ON THE MORNING of Monday, July 4, Victoria councillor Stephen Andrew tweeted that he’d posted a survey on his mayoralty campaign webpage, asking followers what they thought of the City’s Missing Middle housing initiative, which would permit multi-unit, three-storey condos in every area currently zoned for detached single-family houses. By early afternoon, the survey link was pinballing around the internet.
“Stephen Andrew is asking for feedback on the Missing Middle Initiative,” d_jackrabbit posted on Reddit’s r/VictoriaBC forum. “Pretty important as he is likely the deciding vote on if this passes or not on August 4. If you want townhouses and plexes legalized in our city please fill out the survey and let him know!” Ken Roueche, a critic of the initiative, bcc’d the link to 75 friends and neighbours, asking them to “Please consider responding to this poll.” On the Discord forum run by the 300-strong pro-development group Homes For Living, dgrypma posted the link and wrote, “Stephen Andrew is asking for feedback on missing middle—you know the drill”.
One might dismiss this as nerdy chat in obscure corners of the internet, but the stakes are real, and huge. Missing Middle has the potential to provide thousands of units of new housing, create new real-estate product worth hundreds of millions of dollars, and transform Victoria’s lawn-and-garden neighbourhoods into walk-up residential districts like those of Montreal, or Copenhagen.
First introduced in November 2019, the City’s Missing Middle initiative gradually evolved through workshops and online surveys, until the complete details were finally presented this past May. It immediately divided Council, and advanced only via a series of 5-4 votes—with Andrew voting on May 26 to have the plan rewritten after more public input, then voting on June 9 to reconsider that motion—to where we are today. City staff will hold “information sessions” on the Missing Middle plan this Tuesday, July 12: you can register for the noon virtual session at https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/missing-middle-housing-pre-public-hearing-information-session-tickets-372379445947, or attend in-person at City Hall between 3 and 7:30 p.m. Then its bylaws will go to a public hearing and final Council vote, likely on August 4.
“So many different comments have come to me through emails, phone calls, people stopping me on the street, that I wanted to clarify what the points of those individuals were, and this is helpful,” Andrew says of the survey, which collected nearly 500 responses in its first two days. “Also, there are questions that the City hasn’t asked, such as: Have we sufficiently educated, engaged, and consulted you? A lot of people say to me, ‘I didn’t hear about this,’ or ‘This is the first I’ve heard about it,’ which I find stunning, but OK. So I wanted to get a real feeling for what’s going on.”
If the Missing Middle plan was so named to put residents to sleep, it succeeded. Over the course of two years, only about 480 people participated in the 28 workshops, focus groups, “ask a planner” sessions, community-association meetings and advisory-panel discussions where the City described the plan. (The only real pushback seems to have come from the City’s Hertiage Advisory Panel: “These are laudable goals, but one could see wholesale demolition in existing neighbourhoods,” said one member at a December 2020 meeting.) Instead, and partly because of COVID, the City got most of its feedback through online surveys.
The first survey, open for four weeks in the autumn of 2020 and conducted through the City’s Have Your Say platform (engage.victoria.ca), asked vague questions about housing priorities: of 191 respondents, 142 identified “create more housing choice so families and other households can stay in Victoria as their housing needs evolve” as a priority, while only 36 identified “maintain incentives for heritage conservation and re-use of existing character homes.”
Only 191 people took the City’s first Missing Middle survey in late 2020, but results gave City planning staff the green light to proceed.
Based partly on that result, Council voted 5-4 in July of 2021 to continue with the initiative. A second survey, open for six weeks that autumn, specifically asked which missing-middle housing types (houseplexes up to six units, corner townhouses, heritage-property infill) should be approved by City staff alone, without the time and cost burdens of public hearings and Council approval: of 810 respondents, only eight percent said “none.” (That option was last, with no graphic beside it.) City staff concluded this showed “strong support” for all the housing types, and the general plan.
A key question in the City’s second online survey sought approval for Missing Middle housing types. Only eight percent of respondents voted for “None,” at the bottom of the page.
But as it’s now becoming apparent, the trouble with such limited engagement is it gives little indication of what the general public knows or thinks about a subject. “Real surveys have random samples of populations, and a range of questions which should be neutral, to create a projectable sample. They have to look like the whole population. That is clearly what is not going on here,” says Ian McKinnon, a former president of Decima Research who’s also served in central agencies of federal and BC governments.
Instead, consultations that are open to anyone frequently get dominated by small groups that feel passionately about an issue. “My concern is often: How are people informed about it, and who responds?” McKinnon asks. “With almost all public consultations, those who are strongly motivated often use their networks to encourage participation by people who they know to have the same viewpoint as themselves.”
Online consultations can also get skewed by people giving multiple responses, McKinnon notes, or chiming in from other jurisdictions. (It happens: one eagle-eyed member of the Downtown Residents’ Association noted that during the runup to Council’s approval of the controversial Telus Ocean, 81 of 140 letters of support came from people associated with the project, including Telus employees from other parts of Canada.) On Homes For Living’s forum, members and developers regularly urge each other to respond positively to surveys, consultations and hearings on projects across Greater Victoria, with little concern whether they live in the municipality or not. Is that appropriate? “I never know myself,” Phil MacKellar, an HFL spokeperson tells me; he lives in Fernwood, but recently filled out a survey to support infill housing in Oak Bay. “Because Victoria’s never amalgamated, it feels like I’m part of multiple cities. A lot of people who live in Saanich but work in Victoria, or vice-versa, feel the same way.”
Andrew says some respondents have tried to skew his survey by using false names and email addresses, but they will be “filtered out” by administrators. The City’s Have Your Say platform only requires participants to provide an email address and a postal code; I was able to register different addresses and take the same survey several times. Given Missing Middle’s huge stakes, I asked the City if it was worried about its surveys being gamed. The City replied in a statement that it uses “industry standard engagement tools for local government,” and that “all online engagement is based on good faith.” (Although some platforms, such as Vancouver-based PlaceSpeak, go farther to prevent fraud by verifying every respondent’s physical address.) “Public engagement during policy development is important,” the City concluded, “but the real test of public position on the final bylaw is a public hearing.”
Before anyone makes Trumpist allegations of foreign vote-rigging, however, they should read the comments on pages 171-231 of the City’s massive engagement report. Some 54 percent of the respondents to the City’s surveys identified as between 25 and 44 years old (that demographic comprises 32 percent of the City’s population), and the submitted comments match the survey’s numbers, showing that a majority want more housing options immediately, more public transit and cycling facilities, and don’t much care about preserving Victoria’s heritage. “Get this done, yesterday,” one wrote. “Every day of inaction, this housing crisis worsens.”
Andrew’s survey closes on July 13 at midnight, and he says the results will be published immediately afterwards—just before Council’s first reading of the Missing Middle bylaws on July 14. But he insists that the survey results won’t sway his final vote. “I have tried to be right down the middle of the lane on this, to not, in any way, respond affirmatively or in opposition to what’s going on with the Missing Middle. I’ve tried to get as much information, become as educated as I can, listen to what people have to say, so I can enter it, like any public hearing, with an open and disabused mind. I try to do that, I really do.”
Ross Crockford will try to explore all the implications of the City’s Missing Middle plan in his next article for FOCUS.