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Proposed bylaw changes to speed up affordable housing developments in Victoria inch forward

City staff would assess affordable and supportive housing projects instead of councillors
The downtown Victoria skyline. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Victoria councillors will likely go to the public for input on bylaw changes meant to expedite the building of affordable housing.

The changes would delegate the authority to issue development permits for affordable and supportive housing projects to city staff, eliminating the need for council approval and public hearings. They would also eliminate the requirement for a rezoning application when increasing density up to a maximum outlined in the Official Community Plan.

The goal is to reduce risk and costs for affordable housing providers, and speed up the application process of building affordable housing.

A staff report notes that, as of the last census, nearly half of Victoria’s 27,720 renter households are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing and B.C. Housing has a wait list of about 1,100 for affordable rental housing.

The proposal comes after non-profit housing providers identified uncertainty when rezoning is required as the greatest challenge to building affordable housing, because it increases time, cost and risk to applications, and limits the ability to secure senior government funding.

The bylaw changes would only apply to housing developments owned and operated by a registered non-profit housing society or government agency, or operated by a registered non-profit residential housing society or government agency with a legally binding arrangement with the property owner.

Mayor Lisa Helps called the changes “critically important,” citing a project in Fernwood that faced an extra year to reach a public hearing and cost an additional $5 million as a result.

“If we pass this policy today and then make the subsequent bylaw changes, we will be lining city of Victoria projects up very, very well for government funding,” she said.

Councillors voted 6-3 on Thursday to send the bylaw changes to a public hearing. The vote will need to be ratified by council in two weeks before heading to residents for input and a final decision from councillors.

Representatives of eight non-profit affordable ­housing organizations — including Cool Aid Society, Our Place and Pacifica Housing — co-signed a letter in support of the proposed changes, saying the need for housing has never been greater and this represents a step towards expanding the city’s affordable housing stock.

“Every day, we receive ­applications from people ­living in precarious, sometimes dangerous, housing situations, and from people who are ­couch-surfing or living in their car — the hidden homeless,” the group said.

The Urban Development Institute also wrote to council to express support, saying the changes “will take pressure off the political process and accelerate the approvals on much-needed affordable housing.”

However, a letter from the Victoria Community Association Network expressed concerns about waiving the opportunity for public comment.

“Checks and balances are provided by the opportunity for the public to review proposals, comment, or raise concerns in the public forum,” it said.

Coun. Geoff Young, who with councillors Stephen Andrew and Charlayne Thornton-Joe voted against sending the proposed regulatory amendments to a public hearing, said the changes go too far, highlighting the ­concerns of VCAN that residents will lose a sense of control about what happens in their neighbourhood.

Young said: “What we’re saying to the neighbourhood is: ‘We’re not going to say here’s what’s proposed, we’re going to be saying here’s what’s going to happen, and you may like it or not, but it’s going to happen anyway because council has given up its authority over zoning.’ ”