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Editorial: Garden suites part of solution

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps expects to see many more people coming through the doors of City Hall to get permission to build garden suites in their backyards.
Photo - garden suite

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps expects to see many more people coming through the doors of City Hall to get permission to build garden suites in their backyards.

Regardless of whether her prediction holds true, city council’s decision last week to speed up the process for garden suites is another tool to help fix the region’s housing shortage. It’s one that other municipalities should consider.

Last Thursday, council unanimously approved a change that means homeowners will no longer have to file rezoning applications or go through long public hearings to build standalone suites. The change took effect immediately.

It’s an example of a relatively easy change that can make a big difference in time and money to homeowners looking for a mortgage helper.

Under the old rules, it cost $4,000 to apply for rezoning, and it took six to eight months to complete, with no guarantee of approval. Every application had to be evaluated by council through the rezoning process.

Now, the cost will be $200, and the application process will take three to four weeks. Approvals will be handled by city staff, instead of by councillors.

The roadblocks produced by the old system can be seen in the fact that since 2011, only 18 garden suites have been built legally in Victoria. The switch turns the process from something daunting into something that most people who are considering a suite can live with.

This isn’t going to transform the housing situation in the city, but it can make a difference, not only to homeowners staggering under big mortgages, but also to renters who face a vacancy rate estimated at 0.5 per cent.

Of course, owners and renters are not the only ones affected. Neighbours, whose interests were served by the public hearings, also want to know that these new dwellings won’t make their lives more difficult.

Council has tried to take neighbours into account by adding rules about privacy. For instance, rooftop outdoor spaces won’t be allowed on garden suites. The new regulations also keep requirements on size, setbacks and height.

As with legal suites inside houses, adding new accommodation in existing neighbourhoods comes with a cost. On-street parking can be a problem when more people are living in the area, and more homes mean more demands on infrastructure such as sewers and water supply.

But the suites can help a city whose population is growing.

Victoria expects 20,000 more residents by 2041, which means another 13,500 apartment units and 2,700 other homes will be required, according to reports to council. There are 6,744 single-family dwellings in Victoria.

Housing all those people on the tip of the Island is going to be a challenge. Areas of Victoria, Saanich and other municipalities, where lots laid out two or three generations ago are much larger than those created today, could accommodate garden suites.

Greater Victoria has to make more effective use of its limited space for housing. Council’s new garden-suite regulations are one way of doing that.