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Province's housing program short on detail and direction, some mayors say

Vague plan to allow up to four units on single-family lots suggests varying impacts on communities may not have been thought through, says Oak Bay mayor
Single-family housing on Beach Drive and Gonzales Hill in Oak Bay. The province’s proposed changes would allow up to four units on a single-family lot across the province. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Lack of detail about how the province plans to implement measures such as blanket zoning changes to boost housing construction is worrying mayors across the capital region.

The vague plans suggest some of the ramifications may not have been thought through, says Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch.

“Generally speaking, this appears to be a centralized planning approach focused on units rather than building communities, which can have variability and character,” he said. “I think there is a better way of achieving both goals than taking away control from elected councils and on-the-ground staff with the required expertise.”

Murdoch noted that most municipalities are already working to integrate housing forms like townhouses and duplexes into their single-family zones. Oak Bay had planned to implement a missing-middle or in-fill housing policy within the next year.

That would be new territory for the district because, while the capital region saw 4,809 new homes started in 2021 and 4,787 started in 2022, Oak Bay saw only 27 new single-family homes started in each year. And no townhomes, apartments or condos were started in Oak Bay.

Murdoch said there is public support for the approach council has taken to add infill housing options. “But that support has been conditional on us ensuring the new housing forms are respectful of the character of the community and are tailored to the needs identified in the housing needs report,” he said. “The blanket legislation appears to block that community-supported approach we’ve committed to.”

Murdoch said with Premier David Eby’s announcement this week about housing-boosting legislation expected to be introduced this fall, Oak Bay is left wondering if it should continue its process or wait for six months to learn what it can or can’t do.

Highlands, a heavily forested area that saw only 10 single-family homes started in 2021 and seven in 2022, is also waiting to see how Eby’s housing plan rolls out.

Mayor Ken Williams said the “big, splashy announcement” was so short on detail, it’s hard to say how it will roll out. “So, we’re just focusing on our own plan until we get some of those parameters,” he said, adding that includes work on legalizing secondary suites.

Williams pointed out densification in Highlands wouldn’t make a lot of sense, as it doesn’t have the water and sewer infrastructure to handle it.

“We’re a rural municipality — does it really make sense to throw a lot of money into urbanizing a rural area?” he said, noting doing so would affect the parkland it provides the region.

Esquimalt Mayor Barb Desjardins echoed her colleagues’ concerns, saying the proposed changes will “definitely affect” neighbourhoods and could put more burden on municipalities to build infrastructure to handle the increased density.

“For an older community like ours, it may require significant infrastructure upgrades and that cost comes back and is borne by the community,” she said.

Esquimalt is in the midst of its own building boom, with council approving 2,700 units in the last four years. In the first two months of 2023, 157 new homes were started, building on last year’s total of 529 new starts.

Desjardins wonders how much the zoning changes will affect affordability. “If we’re building the volume for the numbers that we think are arriving and coming here, we’re going to continue to stay in that really high-priced market,” she said.

Saanich Mayor Dean Murdock said the announcement that four units would be allowed on single-family lots is welcome in a community where housing is very much needed, though he also said more detail is required on how the process will work.

“We heard in the announcement that the province will be working with local governments on implementation, so that’s certainly something we’ll be looking forward to. We’ll want to clarify what this means for our policy framework, regulations and permitting processes,” he said.

One area where he’s seeking clarity is whether single-family lots outside the half-rural district’s urban containment boundary would be included in the blanket zoning allowing four units on a lot — something he’s not in favour of.

“That would create an extraordinary number of challenges for us from a growth perspective, from an infrastructure perspective and, I think, have a real impact on our climate targets as well, as more people would end up driving from farther away,” he said.

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