January 5, 2020
To satisfy the Millennials’ need for housing, Victoria’s mayor aims to permit fourplexes “as of right” on single-family lots.
DOWNTOWN HAD SEEN MANY BIG PROJECTS over the past decade, but nothing like this. On December 3, Starlight Developments revealed its plans for a block and a half of Harris Green — replacing the existing Market on Yates, London Drugs and other businesses with 100,000 square feet of new retail space, topped by five towers up to 25 storeys tall and containing some 1,500 rental apartments.
The unveiling took place at a land-use meeting run by the Downtown Residents’ Association, and the members had questions. What will happen to the businesses there now? Starlight said it would phase the construction so they could move to other parts of the development with minimal disruption. Who will police the proposed half-acre of green space? Starlight said it would create a “governance model” with the City of Victoria. With all the parking underground and entrances only on View Street, how will it handle the traffic? Starlight said it would conduct traffic-demand studies and adjust its plans accordingly.
Starlight Developments proposes to build 1,500 rental units in Harris Green
The audience sounded generally favourable toward the project, if exhausted by the prospect of more blasting and beeping trucks, and their questions sounded reasonable to my aging ears. But then I went home, and on the Vibrant Victoria internet forum, I encountered a very different impression of the evening.
“The room was 90 percent senior citizens who blathered on and on about how there is too much construction in Victoria and new towers block their views from the condo they bought last year,” fumed a forum poster nicknamed “victorian.” As far as they were concerned, the meeting was “mostly just boomer complaints about how terrible it is that Victoria is not in the 1960s anymore.”
I posted my own account of the event, and asked victorian to meet to discuss our differences of perception, but they declined. The “boomers” simply didn’t care about “a failing housing market, lack of rental homes, or [having] a vibrant and economically successful city,” victorian replied. “Unfortunately, the size of the post-war generation and the long lives they are expected to live will continue to hold our city, province, and country hostage for quite some time into the future, and it’s time for those of us who have more future ahead of us than behind us to fight back.”
ONE MIGHT DISMISS SUCH AGEIST HOSTILITY as the gripe of a solitary crank, but similar frustrations are being voiced worldwide. As the Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders noted recently, one common trait of the young protesters who rattled Hong Kong, Beirut, Santiago, Moscow, and other cities in 2019 is that they do not feel in any way represented by the older leaders who run their countries.
“Their anger represents a positive force of change — and a register of this decade’s failure to fully deliver the fruits of 30 years of worldwide human improvement to the next generation,” Saunders wrote. “Most of these protesters do not enjoy the lives and livelihoods that they and their parents had expected to be available for them. Many want something completely new — a new political system, a new way of managing the economy, a new ecological commitment.”
Canada has largely avoided such conflict because we continue to enjoy a buoyant economy, and elect youngish politicians who claim to be listening. But a generation gap is opening up here too. The Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 and comprising some eight million Canadians, retain the lion’s share of economic wealth and political influence, while making increasing demands on government pension plans and health care. Millennials, mainly Boomers’ children born between 1981 and 1996 and numbering around 7.4 million, on the other hand, increasingly argue that they’re facing stagnant wages, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, and massive personal debt due to the high costs of education and housing. (Justin Trudeau, born in 1971, falls squarely in Generation X.)
“The movement we are part of is about intergenerational solidarity, which means people of all ages looking out for each other — and our particular focus in that is fighting for young people, and giving young people a chance,” says Eric Swanson, the Victoria-based executive director of Generation Squeeze, an advocacy nonprofit with more than 35,000 supporters across Canada. “We have a lot of people coming to us as they hit that crunch, where all these things start happening at once, and people are forced to make tough decisions, forced to leave the community they love and prefer to live in, forced to delay starting a family or perhaps not having one at all, forced to take on multiple jobs or precarious work, and through all of that living with increasing anxiety, from personal debt that you have to take on now to buy a home, anxiety around your or your children’s future when it comes to climate change,” says Swanson, who’s 36, and has a one-year-old daughter. “That’s why we need governments at all levels to start responding more urgently, and in a more coordinated fashion.”
Gen Squeeze executive director Eric Swanson
Gen Squeeze was founded in 2014 by Paul Kershaw, a professor at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health who often publishes research showing how Millennials have been getting the short end of public finance. In one paper, Kershaw calculated that Canadian governments spend up to $40,000 per person age 65-plus, but only $11,000 per person under 45; in another, Kershaw estimated that young Canadians pay 20 to 62 percent more in taxes to support retirees than they did four decades ago, even though many seniors are wealthier than at any time in national history. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the executive vice-president of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons once accused Gen Squeeze of “trying to start an inter-generational war.”) Increasingly though, Gen Squeeze’s research and advocacy has been focused upon dampening the crippling price of housing in Canadian cities, Victoria included.
To that end, Swanson says Gen Squeeze has been working to “dial down harmful demand” on urban housing. It lobbied Vancouver and Victoria to restrict short-term rentals, and helped persuade the B.C. government to pass the Speculation and Vacancy Tax — and apply it to the entire capital region, much to the frustration of Langford mayor Stew Young. (“We are seeing provincial data revealing global capital coming here [to buy housing] too, not just in metro Vancouver,” Swanson says.)
The Gen Squeeze message
More controversially, Gen Squeeze has also encouraged municipalities to “dial up” the supply of housing, by supporting large housing developments opposed by neighbourhoods — leading to accusations that Gen Squeeze is just a stooge of wealthy corporations. (Along with VanCity Credit Union and the Vancouver Foundation, Gen Squeeze’s funders include the developer Wesgroup and the rental owners’ association LandlordBC.)
“We need to build a lot of homes,” Swanson replies. Although publicly-funded housing and co-ops are part of the solution, he says, private developments also increase supply. But will many private units actually be affordable? In the spring of 2018, Swanson urged Victoria’s council to approve a project at 1201 Fort; now it’s being sold as Bellewood Park, with condos priced from $665,000 to $1.9 million.
“We need to build more housing Downtown, near urban cores, employment centres, and amenities, and be comfortable with the fact that it’s going to take some time for that housing to become affordable, as the unit ages,” Swanson says. “Simultaneously, we need to recognize that a lot of the problem in the end price is the underlying land value.”
To drop those values and spur housing, Gen Squeeze advocates increasing taxes on unimproved and underused land, and decreasing income taxes — an idea first proposed by the 19th-century economist Henry George, and which it’s currently researching for the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Gen Squeeze has also called for a luxury tax on residences worth over $1 million, and eliminating the exemption on capital gains from the sale of a principal residence, a loophole that costs the federal government $6 billion a year. “Nobody does anything to earn that money,” Swanson says, although he admits cutting the exemption means “we will have to invest more in seniors as well, because a lot of people are banking on home equity to fund their retirement.”
SUCH ARGUMENTS SEEM TO BE increasingly influential — especially in the City of Victoria, where Millennials hold a growing share of political power.
According to the federal census, in 2011 nearly the same number of Millennials (18,270) and Boomers (17,070) lived in the City of Victoria. But by 2016, the numbers had tipped decisively in favour of Millennials (23,165) over Boomers (18,100). They will likely tip even further in the 2021 census, given Victoria’s hot economy and boom in apartment construction.
That trend might explain why Together Victoria got all three of its first-time, Millennial-aged candidates elected to council in 2018, and why Mayor Lisa Helps was re-elected. (Helps was 38 when she first won the mayoralty in 2014, making her one of the younger mayors in the City’s history, but the youth record likely goes to Alexander R. Robertson, who was 30 when he became mayor in 1870.) And since then, the council has fast-tracked concerns that often split public reaction along generational lines: bike lanes instead of cars, expanded services instead of low taxes, and new housing instead of heritage, trees, and quietude.
The next big fight over new housing is coming soon. On November 21, the council directed City staff to come up with a plan to increase the stock of lower-cost, “missing middle” housing, such as multi-unit houses and townhomes — and during the discussions, Helps indicated that she wants to eliminate single-family residential zoning across the entire city, as Minneapolis did this past year, to get such housing built.
“I’d like to see us go at least as far as Minneapolis, where they have triplexes as of right [on single-family lots]. I’d like to see fourplexes as of right,” Helps told her staff. (Video of the meeting here; start at 1:51:00.) “There was a big stir in the North America-wide planning community when the headline was that Minneapolis got rid of single-family zoning. From staff’s report it doesn’t seem quite that drastic, but I think we need to do more with the land that we have.”
(One critique of such blanket “upzoning” is that it jacks land values even higher, and only produces expensive townhomes in desirable neighbourhoods, not the affordable housing that cities need. So Victoria’s council, to its credit, also told staff to build an “affordability” requirement into its “missing middle” plan. City staff will present their draft recommendations this coming spring.)
Urban municipalities are now pushing for similar upzoning in cities across North America, in an attempt to address a housing crisis generated by a multitude of factors, including an economy producing a lot of downtown-based, tech- and service-oriented jobs — mainly employing Millennials — and outdated transportation infrastructure that prevents commuting from cheaper housing farther away.
Over the past three years, Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington D.C. have all upzoned parts of their cities to permit greater housing densities, especially along transit routes. And in November, the City of Vancouver directed its staff to draft bylaws that would automatically permit six-storey rental housing on arterial roads and four-storey rentals on side streets near parks, schools and shopping.
“At best it’s an incremental improvement, but once we get this type of bylaw on the books, then it’s relatively easy in subsequent years to extend that,” says Adrian Crook, the founder of Abundant Housing Vancouver, a volunteer-run YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) advocacy group. “I think that’s how we get zoning reform. It’s not a single pen stroke, it’s a bunch of them.”
Of course, another attraction of upzoning to municipal governments is that it eliminates the lengthy consultations and public hearings that are required to rezone residential properties for higher densities. Crook, who was in Victoria recently to speak about the YIMBY movement to the Urban Development Institute, cites a recent battle over 21 rental townhomes in Vancouver’s high-end Shaughnessy neighbourhood, which concluded in a public hearing with dozens of speakers, consuming 10 hours of city council time. (The council rejected the proposal and a 13,000-square-foot mansion is being built on the lot instead.)
“That is the problem with our current housing-approval process,” Crook says. “The people who can potentially benefit from those 21 rental townhomes, they may not even live in Vancouver right now, and they’re not going to be motivated to show up at a council meeting. But the surrounding neighbourhood is highly motivated, because they perceive harms to be directly visited upon them. So that’s what we’re constantly fighting.”
Crook, who’s 43, says it’s “reductionist” to claim the two camps split entirely along Millennial-Boomer lines, but he admits that those demanding density and new housing are generally younger, while the oppositional “incumbents” in residential neighbourhoods are older. “They’re a generation that was raised on Jane Jacobs, and fighting freeways,” Crook says. “That’s a good fight, but now they see any type of growth as a bad thing.”
Crook has seen it in his own family. “My mother lives in Port Moody, in the house I grew up in. She very much fits that Sierra Club-model of environmentalist, but she voted in the current council because she thinks there’s been too much development and change in Port Moody. She loves the Skytrain and West Coast Express, but doesn’t want the areas around the stations developed,” Crook says. “It’s a really weird, contrarian perspective, to want all the amenities but nobody living around them.”
Ross Crockford was born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, and lives in a triplex that predates his neighbourhood’s single-family zoning.