Victoria exploring ways to encourage construction of townhouses, duplexes

Victoria is exploring ways to address a lack of housing options that city staff and builders say is driving young families out of the city.

While real estate and rental prices are increasingly out of reach for many with middle or lower incomes in Victoria, there’s also a lack of diversity in the type of housing, with few options between million-dollar single-family homes and lower-cost but smaller condominiums, often without any outdoor space.

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The dearth of choice means parents with young children are struggling to find housing that meets their needs for space and cost, such as townhouses, duplexes and triplexes — known as middle housing — and it’s pushing them to leave, said ­Malcolm MacLean, a Victoria community planner.

Census data shows a trend of adults in their 30s and school-aged children leaving the city over the past few decades, MacLean said.

“That tells us it’s really hard for families to stay in the city as they grow and their housing needs to evolve and change,” he said.

Despite policies in the city’s official community plan that encourage middle housing, the creation of townhouses, duplexes and more has been slow compared with apartments and single-family homes. Between 2012 and 2019, more than 600 building permits were approved for single-family homes, while fewer than 250 were approved for townhouses, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, according to a staff report.

Because the majority of the city is zoned for single-family homes, building middle housing requires a rezoning. Staff have identified the rezoning process as a major barrier to the creation of more housing options.

Staff are proposing the city initiate zoning changes that would allow townhouses, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes where zoning currently allows only single-family homes, along with other regulatory changes, to make it easier to build dense housing that would fit the character of neighbourhoods, unlike highrises.

Staff have begun consulting with community associations, builders and the public through an online survey. They presented draft recommendations to council on Thursday and were directed to move forward to the next round of engagement, expected to begin in the fall, before reporting back with final recommendations.

It would likely be early 2022 at the earliest that changes would be implemented if council gives its approval, MacLean said.

Mayor Lisa Helps said she supports the initiative because it’s currently easiest to build the most expensive type of housing, which most people can’t afford.

“Right now, if you want to build a single-family home, it’s a pretty easy process,” Helps said. “If you want to build a ­houseplex or a townhouse, it takes 2½ years, and there are no guarantees.”

Casey Edge, executive director of the Victoria Residential Builders Association, said he and his members have advocated for years for more efficient processes to build middle housing. He thinks the city is moving in the right direction.

Edge said there’s an appetite from builders to create ­middle housing and a demand for it, but the hurdle of the rezoning process makes building it cost-prohibitive. It makes more economic sense for builders to make single-family homes, because no rezoning is required, or condos because they can ­create more units to spread out the cost of the development ­process, he said.

“If it’s no longer cost-prohibitive? Yes, the members will build,” Edge said.

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