A City Needs Housing Opportunities for All

Updated: Jul 19, 2018

Where do young families, seniors and others looking for an opportunity to own a home in Victoria go? Registered Planner Rob Barrs' thoughts on housing diversity.

The world is discovering the delights of walkable urbanism and the amenities that Victoria has to offer and the city is experiencing a surge of interest in real estate investment with the median price for single-family houses jumping 7% from this time last year. As with Victoria’s larger cousin Vancouver, this is pushing home ownership out of reach for all but the most affluent residents or newcomers who bring wealth from other markets. Several of my friends and colleagues from Vancouver have moved here in the last few years and others are talking about it. At the same time, the population density within many of Victoria’s single-detached neighbourhoods is essentially stagnant, as empty nesters remain in their homes longer and family size decreases.

So, where do young families, seniors and others looking for an opportunity to own a home in Victoria go? For some, condominium apartments downtown will be a viable option. Others will bite the bullet and nearly bankrupt themselves to buy a single-detached home in the City or move to outlying locations to own a slice of the North American Dream. But many will be left out, searching for that ‘missing middle’ form of housing (middle density, middle size, suitable for a middle-class household income) close to where they work and play. One option to address this need is the townhouse, a form of housing that has stalwartly served cities the world over for centuries.

Planning the Neighbourhood

Within the context of a housing shortage, Victoria is developing plans for all of its neighbourhoods. Vic West and Burnside Gorge have been completed. Fairfield and Gonzales are well underway with plans for the other neighbourhoods to follow in the next few years. These neighbourhood plans are an important in ensuring additional housing options that can help address the lack of housing options in Victoria. Done right, policies to support multi-unit housing can add neighbourhood vitality, support local retail, and create opportunities for more affordable home ownership and rental.

In Fairfield, there has been a lot of public discussion recently about housing density and neighbourhood character. There appears to be some acceptance for new housing opportunities, while other residents are opposed and fear the changes will negatively impact the “character” of the neighbourhood. I’m somewhat sympathetic to the argument of preserving neighbourhood character. I live in a single-family neighbourhood, albeit one that has secondary suites in most basements and every other house on my street has a laneway cottage. Still, I would not be happy if someone stuck a 4-storey apartment building next to my house.

However, taken literally, preserving the existing ‘character’ can be shorthand for shutting out any form of change and any form of difference (people not like us). Some have put forward the idea of ‘gentle infill’ in the form of multiple units in single-detached buildings that can be converted from existing housing stock, as a solution. The intent is that this form of housing can preserve the neighbourhood character while creating more affordable forms of ownership and rental housing.

Diverse Housing for Diverse Needs

A city of diverse people needs diverse forms of housing. Income levels vary, and individual and family needs change over time, resulting in a wide range of housing needs in City’s such as Victoria.

Multi-plexes in a single-detached style of development are good for younger singles / couples and some active seniors. However, this type of development is unlikely to suit all needs. Families typically need at least two, three or sometimes four bedrooms, and not everyone wants to live underneath another household with the inevitable noise issues that entails. Also, these type of units typically involve lots of stairs so are not suitable for those with mobility limitations.

The Modest Townhouse

The townhouse is a form of housing that is reasonably dense and reasonably affordable. It uses between half and a quarter the amount of land a single-family house occupies. They help achieve population density, sufficient enough to support frequent transit service (transit-supportive densities). They are “ground-oriented” and similar in height to the single-detached building style. A style desired by most families and most neighbourhoods. Townhouses can support people through most of their housing lifecycle(s). Affordable to first time buyers and young families, and appropriate for aging empty nesters too.

Townhouses come in a variety of forms such as the strata townhouses where ownership of the building envelope and lot is shared by the owners and managed through a strata corporation. These are the stacked townhouses version, that have a single-level ground floor home, ideal for the mobility-challenged, as well as an upper unit accessed by a staircase. These are very prevalent in Montreal, San Francisco and other very livable cities. Another variety is the traditional row house that sits on its own legally subdivided lot and avoids strata fees and the need for a strata corporation that are loathed by some.

Townhouses typically cost about a half to two thirds the cost of a single-family dwelling. The median price of a townhouse in Greater Victoria in May 2018 was $550,000. This compares to $825,000 for a single-detached dwelling. If we follow the 30% of gross household income guideline used by CMHC and most housing agencies to measure affordability, a Townhouse that sells for $550,000 is affordable for a household earning approx. $90,000 / year.

Townhouse development could be enabled by including policies and land use designations in the neighbourhood plans that encourage this form of housing and then re-zoning areas to allow this form of housing either proactively by the City or in response to applications from developers.

The Not so Slippery Slope

Residents often resist changes to their neighbourhood fearing that allowing any new types of development will lead to opening the floodgates to all types of development. This is the slippery slope argument. However, change, even in a hot market like Victoria tends to happen slowly. Not everyone wants to sell their house to a developer. In fact, assembling a handful of lots to build a modest townhouse development will likely prove challenging and development approvals don’t happen overnight.

Perhaps we can be generous and stretch the meaning of 'neighbourhood character’ a little bit. To me, a row of townhouses in my neighbourhood would be a welcome change so long as they are thoughtfully designed and landscaped. Townhouses are a form of housing that, if well designed and landscaped, can fit very well in a single-family neighbourhood. They are ground oriented and of a similar proportion, height and scale, to single-detached homes. They generate the type of transit-supportive, more affordable family-oriented, housing that Victoria surely needs right now.

Rob Barrs is a registered professional planner and a principal with Modus Planning, Design & Engagement Inc.. He was previously a board member and chair of Smart Growth BC and is a co-founder of Wayblaze Crowdfunding Inc.

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