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Why does 'missing middle' housing make people so angry?

Meant to refer to medium-density housing options like houseplexes, small apartment buildings and townhouses, the term ‘missing middle’ attracts a surprising amount of ire from opponents

It has sparked protests in cities around the U.S., it divided the City of Victoria’s council chambers last fall, and it remains on the top of the agenda in both Victoria and Saanich for the coming year.

“Missing-middle housing” is meant to refer to medium-density housing options like houseplexes, small apartment buildings and townhouses — housing that fits on the spectrum between detached single-family homes and mid-rise to high-rise apartment buildings.

But the term has been “weaponized” by its opponents, says Luke Mari, principal of Aryze Developments.

Mari, whose company builds homes across the housing spectrum, including “missing middle” projects like townhomes, said the strong response to the phrase likely comes from a combination of factors — from poor communication about what missing middle is and isn’t to misinformation being circulated, especially during last year’s municipal election.

It also represents a significant shift in thinking about housing.

Mari notes that the traditional land-use pattern across North America has been to build housing towers in city centres and leave the surrounding neighbourhoods to single-family homes.

“That has played out in Victoria — the neighbourhoods have seen very little housing growth, if any, and missing middle is the first policy that’s actually trying to get into the neighbourhoods,” he said.

That tends to inflame emotions, he said, noting the suggestion townhomes or duplexes could spring up in single-family neighbourhoods is seen by some as a contravention of the informal deal struck between councillors and the constituents.

Mari also said that many people are upset because they are under the impression missing middle translates into affordable.

“It’s never been about a price point. It’s not a middle-income price point — it’s a housing form,” he said. “It’s a missing housing form of townhomes and duplexes, which also happens to be more affordable than single-family homes.”

The shift to missing-middle housing is something that’s happening all over North America, sparking protests recently in Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and California.

Closer to home, Victoria council and residents were split on the issue last fall, so after two years of engagement and a three-day public hearing featuring more than 12½ hours of impassioned pleas on both sides, council was forced to refer the matter to the incoming council after the Oct. 15 election.

Broadly speaking, the goal of Victoria’s proposed missing-middle policy is to streamline the approval process to increase the number of housing options between single-family homes and condo towers.

The initiative requires amending 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 would also allow city staff to greenlight permits for projects that comply with all design guidelines and zoning without having to get council approval.

Those pushing for it believe the initiative will increase the number of ­housing options so more ­families will be able to stay in the city, while ensuring new development suits the character of neighbourhoods.

Those against it say it does nothing to improve affordability, and could kill green space and displace renters as older homes with suites could be demolished to make way for large houseplexes.

Others believe it would hand ­developers, who would no longer require rezoning approval to demolish and rebuild on single-family lots, a blank cheque to build what they want, forever altering neighbourhoods.

Whatever side residents find themselves on, it generates heated discussions.

“It tends to evoke strong feelings, not just here, but anywhere it’s proposed to be implemented across North America, and there’s a lot of places, particularly in the south, that are looking at missing middle housing and implementing it now,” said former Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who was disappointed the initiative was not enacted during her final term on council.

“People fear that they’re going to lose something — I think that’s part of it,” she said. “People also fear that change will happen really rapidly, that when the missing middle housing policy is passed their neighbourhoods are going to change overnight. I think that’s why there’s such energy around it.”

That energy fuelled the extended three-day public hearing in Victoria last fall, with more than 100 residents weighing in.

Former Victoria-Hillside NDP MLA Steve Orcherton was one of dozens who blasted council during the hearings over what he worried would be a profound change in community planning.

“I am disheartened, disgusted and profoundly disappointed by this initiative and other collective actions you have taken,” he said, adding the transition should happen as part of a slow and thoughtful process.

But the negative sentiment was balanced with plenty of passion from those in favour of the program.

Fairfield resident David Berry said if the city had started this kind of program 20 years ago, he’d have a choice of housing options, but as it is, he and his friends have been considering leaving the city.

“Most of my generation has either been pushed out of Victoria or forced to live in extremely insecure housing. I’m fighting for the many like me who want to stay in Victoria to raise a family,” he said.

Kathy Whitcher, executive director of the Urban Development Institute, said on top of people feeling they were misled on missing-middle housing’s affordability, many believe the initiative is a threat to single-family homes.

“Density is another trigger for people,” she said. “But there is a shift happening and eventually there will be no more single-family houses built.”

Whitcher said given the number of people flocking to Canada’s urban centres, where there is already a shortage of housing, cities are nearing a tipping point where only multi-family buildings are built.

“We need to densify our cities and areas where people want to live,” she said.

In that context, the phrase “missing middle” has become a symbol of the pace of change and potential loss of control through blanket zoning policies.

“I don’t think that people fear change — I think people fear loss and they equate change with loss,” Mari said, adding he tries to talk about the benefits of densification to assuage those fears.

He just may be doing it with new language.

He noted the term “missing middle” now has such baggage attached to it and elicits such strong responses from people that developers, politicians and residents will all be searching for new terms to describe it.

Whitcher agrees, adding it’s a little like the term “green,” which was thrown around so liberally 15 to 20 years ago that its meaning was lost.

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