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Victoria council adopts divisive missing middle housing program

The policy is designed to encourage medium-density options — such as houseplexes, small apartment buildings and townhouses — rather than detached single-family homes and high-rises
The missing middle program is designed to encourage movement away from building detached single-family homes and high rises in Victoria and toward houseplexes, small apartment buildings and townhouses. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Missing middle housing, the biggest overhaul of the city’s residential zoning process ever undertaken, is now a reality after Victoria city council adopted the initiative Thursday.

In a vote of 6-3, council passed the program, which is designed to encourage medium-density housing options such as houseplexes, small apartment buildings and townhouses rather than the extremes of the housing spectrum: detached single-family homes and high-rise apartment buildings.

Council members in favour of the program — Jeremy Caradonna, Dave Thompson, Susan Kim, Krista Loughton, Matt Dell and Mayor Marianne Alto — argued it was the right thing to do when faced with the twin crises of climate and housing as it would increase the number of ­housing options and allow families and the younger workforce to stay in the city.

Those against the initiative — Chris Coleman, Marg Gardiner and Stephen Hammond — said the initiative is flawed, will do nothing to address affordability and affect green space.

Some councillors also took issue with the process used to arrive at Thursday’s decision.

Hammond said he was disappointed in Alto’s decision to limit discussion on the motion to 15 minutes per councillor and not allowing council to question staff.

“The pall that is over top of this decision … will make us look like we have kept things from the public,” he said, adding it could have been improved by allowing “just a few more minutes of debate.”

Gardiner went a step further and tried to get the motion referred to a later date.

She acknowledged the housing crisis, but said council was rushing ahead with a decision on what she believes is a flawed concept.

“This major initiative involving a blanket rezoning over thousands of properties took less time to pass through the city land-use process than many developments,” Gardiner said, noting the previous council rushed the issue through engagement during a pandemic and, as a result, there was a lot of confusion about what missing middle entails.

The previous council could not come to a decision on missing middle and referred it until after the fall election.

There had been two years of engagement and a three-day public hearing last fall that featured more than 12½ hours of impassioned pleas on both sides of the issue.

Missing middle is intended to streamline the approval process to increase the number of housing options between single-family homes and condo towers.

The initiative amends bylaws, land-use procedures and official ­community plans to permit infill, houseplexes and corner townhouses where zoning currently only allows for single-family homes.

It also allows city staff to greenlight permits for projects that comply with design guidelines and zoning without having to get council approval.

Dell said the decision strikes a blow for Victoria’s future.

“Despite the weight of this change, I know this is the right direction for our city,” he said.

“A big piece of my rationale for supporting this generational policy is that my Victoria is a leading city, not just in B.C. or Canada, but around the world. I want to be innovative.

“Our land-use decisions in the city need to recognize that if we limit growth in the city, we are encouraging sprawl and environmental destruction outside of the city.”

Dell said because of the significant change, the council has a responsibility to closely monitor how it is put into action.

Thompson said the change is not permanent and can be changed at any time.

“There’s going to be a report in six months and there’s going to be a review in 18 months,” he said. “I just don’t see this as extremely risky.”

Alto said council’s decision allows it to walk in-step with the province as it makes noises about blanket zoning for higher density for the entire province.

“In that context, I believe that this is a direction which is not only appropriate and necessary, but is actually one which does reflect the policy priorities of the current provincial government with whom we are excellent partners, and on whom we rely for a variety of different supports, funding, guidance and collaboration,” she said.

She said it was an opportunity for Victoria to be used as an example.

Coleman said the missing middle does not address affordability.

“Clearly this is going to create some more units, but my suspicion because of land cost is they’re going to be at the upper end,” he said.