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Housing drives Victoria council agenda, but takeup on 'missing middle' projects slow

Council is approving more housing units in the city than in previous years, but no ‘missing middle’ projects have come forward since a streamlined approval process came into effect in March

Eight months ago, a newly minted Victoria city council promised it would make housing a priority — and it appears to have done just that.

Since January, the new council has adopted a missing-middle housing initiative the previous council could not agree on, and given final approval to the city’s largest ever mixed-use project, which comes with 1,500 housing units.

In the first six months of this year, council approved 1,588 net new housing units, which takes into account units lost to make way for new projects. Last year, in the months leading up to the municipal election in October, the previous council approved 1,008 net new units.

Despite jokes that this council has yet to see a residential housing project it didn’t like, Mayor Marianne Alto said council is weighing housing projects based on what they bring to the table.

“We’re looking at it from the perspective of how can this produce the results that we want — and that’s more and more units of housing in areas across the city now with an eye to how it complements the existing structures in the neighbourhood,” she said. “So I think we are on track.”

The city added two more projects to its approved list last week when it gave the green light to a seven-storey tower at 450 Dallas Rd. that will add 54 units of rental housing on a lot that has an existing 12-storey tower, and approved the consolidation of two single-family lots at 349 Kipling St. and 1400 Fairfield Rd. to establish a nine-unit townhouse block.

And last week’s committee of the whole, rather than declining a project that wasn’t up to snuff, as city staff had recommended, sent it back for revision.

Council has ignored other staff recommendations and advanced projects that lacked parking or didn’t meet design guidelines.

Alto said that’s due to council’s keen focus on addressing the housing shortage and being more willing to adapt, especially in the context of a climate crisis.

“There have been a couple of examples already where, based on current policy, staff have completely correctly recommended something be declined, and council has looked at it and on balance said: ‘In this circumstance, the housing is more important than the parking,’ ” she said.

When it comes to developments that aren’t quite up to scratch, rather than delay the project for months by having a developer re-apply, council would rather try to fix what’s lacking and keep the project alive, she said.

“Shouldn’t your goal be to find a way forward if that way leads to additional homes?”

Alto said council is unapologetic in pushing for more housing, which is why she has been somewhat disappointed in the slow take-up of the missing-middle housing initiative, which aims to increase the supply of townhomes, houseplexes and small apartment buildings, which occupy the middle ground between detached single-family homes and highrises.

The initiative, the biggest overhaul of the city’s residential zoning process ever undertaken, came into force in March, but no project has come forward yet, despite a streamlined approval process.

While she noted that it’s only been three months since it came into effect, Alto conceded that council “tried to roll a lot into one policy, and that it might have been too much in a single policy.”

The slow take-up has spurred the city to aim to review the policy this fall and have staff come back with ideas, analysis and recommendations for changes.

“We know that the core of missing middle is sound, but what we added to it as far as requirements or conditions maybe were too much. So, what do we wrap around it that makes it better?” Alto said.

While council might be ahead of the game when it comes to development approvals, the actual start of construction is lagging.

According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation figures, the city has seen just 247 starts through the first five months of this year, including no starts in the month of May. At the same time last year, there had been 562 new homes started in the city.

Casey Edge, executive director of the Victoria Residential Homebuilders, called May’s zero starts “something I’ve never seen.”

Edge suggested the slow start could be the result of everything from the cost of materials and labour to municipal demands for amenities and development cost charges to the fact most builders are still working on existing projects.

“Every builder tells me they’re busy,” he said.

Kathy Whitcher, executive director of the Urban Development Institute, which speaks for the development industry, said there is no single factor influencing the pace of building. She said developers are working “flat out” in Victoria.

“I think it just comes down to the cost of materials increasing, inflation, interest rates going up, all of that along with all the policy work going on right now with all levels of government,” she said. “Building will continue, but it’s getting harder and harder.”

Alto also noted that council can only do so much to tackle the housing shortage, since the development industry could be held back by a lack of workers, supply issues, rising costs and higher interest rates for borrowing.

She said council has approved 5,300 housing units since 2018, but that doesn’t mean 5,300 have been built.

According to figures from CMHC, the City of Victoria set a record last year with 1,727 new homes started, which followed a similarly strong year in 2021, when 1,204 homes were started.

By comparison, the city saw just 330 starts in 2020 and 688 in 2019.

Greater Victoria set a record in 2021 with 4,809 housing starts, and 4,787 in 2022.

The CMHC noted there were 7,212 homes under construction in the region last month.

Alto said despite the pace of building and amount of activity, there’s every chance councillors will look back in a few years and say they still weren’t aggressive enough.

“Looking ahead, now we’re trying to imagine what another 10 years will look like, are the targets that we had for housing starts going to be sufficient? If I had to guess, I’m going to say probably not.”

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