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What is the missing-middle housing initiative?

As the City of Victoria prepares to host another public hearing, we look at what the missing-middle housing initiative is, what it isn’t, and what people are worried about.

The City of Victoria’s ­proposed missing-middle housing ­initiative will once again be the subject of a public hearing this week, as the city wrestles with what some call the largest overhaul of the city’s residential ­zoning process ever undertaken.

The public hearing has been set for Thursday at 6:30 p.m.

The goal of missing-middle housing is to increase the number of housing options in hopes that more families will be able to stay in the city, while ensuring new development suits the character of neighbourhoods.

The program requires amending bylaws, land-use procedures and official ­community plans to permit infill, houseplexes and ­corner townhouses in some neighbourhoods. Where zoning currently only allows for single-family homes, it would allow houseplexes as well as townhouse projects on assemblies of multiple lots.

The initiative also recommends allowing city staff to approve permits for projects that comply with all design guidelines and ­zoning, in hopes the time saved by not requiring ­council approval would reduce costs for consumers.

The initiative has split ­Victoria’s council and residents, judging by the first public ­hearing, which saw impassioned pleas from those on either side of the issue for about 4½ hours.

What "the missing middle" is

The term missing middle refers to medium-density housing options such as houseplexes, small apartment buildings and rowhouses or townhouses that fit between detached single-family homes and mid-rise to high-rise apartment buildings.

The goal is to increase the number of options by amending bylaws, land-use procedures and official community plans to make it as easy to replace a single-family home with a houseplex as it is to rebuild a single-family home on the same lot.

At this point medium-density housing makes up about five per cent of new home construction in Victoria, while apartments, condos and detached houses make up the other 95 per cent.

What it isn’t

Missing-middle housing is not designed to be affordable housing —it’s targeted at those with moderate or above-moderate incomes in the city, providing a lower-cost alternative to single-family homes, while meeting needs condos can’t.

Medium-density housing does tend to be cheaper than single‑family homes, so it can provide a chance for new households to enter the real estate market or for those downsizing to age in place.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps has repeatedly said it is only one piece of a very complex puzzle, but taken together with other initiatives that tackle affordability and the rental pool — Victoria is exploring programs to make it easier for non-profit housing providers to build more affordable homes across the city, for example — it can start to make a dent in both issues.

Arguments in favour

Proponents say it will increase housing options for young families and might even encourage young professionals to stay or to relocate to Victoria, and that it could help to open up the rental market as people move from rental accommodation into new houseplexes or townhomes.

They say the status quo, which encourages replacing one single-family home with another, or replacing an aging apartment building with a newer, more expensive equivalent, does little to address the need for more housing units of varying types in the city.

Another argument in favour of the proposal is that currently, building a houseplex or small apartment building on a lot zoned for a single-family home involves a long and expensive rezoning process that adds costs with required community amenity contributions, development cost charges and strict design guidelines.

Concerns

Some owners of single-family homes are concerned increased density on their blocks will result in a drop in the value of their homes.

Others worry that renters living in affordable suites in homes will be turfed as the homes are razed to make way for new houseplexes and small apartment buildings.

Opponents also worry that proposed reduced parking requirements will add strain to neighbourhoods already struggling with lack of space for vehicles. Under the missing-middle proposal, developments will require just 0.77 parking spaces per unit, less than the 1.0-1.45 spaces per dwelling required by current zoning, as the city aims to reduce vehicle-ownership rates and encourage other modes of travel.

There are concerns the proposal will provide developers with a blank cheque to produce large buildings out of character with neighbourhoods — some city councillors and residents have noted there are too many loopholes developers have been able to exploit in the past.

Additional fears include that it would reduce green space and alter the tree canopy and streetscape, while doing nothing for affordability.

Some argue there has not been enough engagement and opportunity for the public to have their say on the initiative.

The physical differences

Concerns have been raised about the size and scope of the structures allowed under the initiative.

Setbacks on a standard lot zoned for a single-family home would be reduced by 1.4 metres at the front and 1.5 metres to the side, while building heights would be increased by 2.9 metres to 10.5 metres for a pitched roof and by 1.9 metres to 9.5 metres for a flat roof.

Middle-density buildings can cover 40 per cent of a given site, 50 per cent in the case of heritage conversion projects, while existing single-family zoning allows for site coverage of 30 to 40 per cent.

Construction will have to pass a design review that will have comprehensive guidelines for shape and style.

The numbers

Victoria’s population was 91,867 in the 2021 census, up 7.1 per cent since 2016. The city estimates as many as 111,299 people will live in Victoria by 2041.

With a boom in condo and rental apartment construction in recent years, the number of private dwellings in the city has increased 7.8 per cent in that time to 53,070, basically keeping pace with population growth.

Missing-middle advocates note, however, that most condos and apartments don’t suit the lifestyles of young growing families, professionals or empty nesters who may want more space. And only 34 units of missing-middle-style homes were issued building permits last year — nowhere near the city’s target of 167 missing middle units annually. The city’s housing strategy calls for 1,000 new missing middle homes over six years.

In a recent city staff ­housing report, it was noted missing-middle housing ­continues to represent a small ­proportion of overall development in ­Victoria because the ­projects are not as economical to build as apartments and, unlike ­single detached homes, they are subject to rezoning ­requirements that add time, cost and ­uncertainty to the approvals process.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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