Greater Victoria's high land costs weigh on Habitat for Humanity

The high cost of land in Greater Victoria is making it difficult for Habitat for Humanity Victoria to plan future projects, says its board chairman, David McLean.

“Our biggest concern is getting affordable dirt for us to dig in,” said McLean, a former Victoria councillor.

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Saanich has accepted an option from the non-profit housing agency to purchase municipal property at 4000 Cedar Hill Cross Rd.

Habitat hopes to build four side-by-side townhouses on the lot, which it now has to take through both a rezoning and development-permit process, McLean said. Presuming that project goes through, Habitat then needs to find affordable land for its next project.

“We’ve got the beginnings of a decent cash flow, in terms of our build fund, so that’s not the issue,” McLean said.

“It’s getting land that’s affordable. We can get volunteers to come and build and hammer nails, and we get a mix of trades that we have to pay and volunteers that will come and do grunt work, and painting and landscaping and all that kind of good stuff.

“But to make it affordable, we’ve just got to get a break on the land costs.”

The agency budgets up to about $50,000 a unit for land costs. While there is land available in the outskirts, Habitat is family-orientated and likes to be in established neighbourhoods, McLean said.

Saanich council has been helpful in scouring its inventory for available property, McLean said. The Cedar Hill Cross lot became surplus when McKenzie Avenue was upgraded. Habitat has since been consulting with the neighbours about the potential rezoning.

“We’ve been getting good responses from the neighbours because the one thing about Habitat is that it [involves] home ownership. We give folks the equivalent of a down payment through their sweat equity and they then own the property in time.”

A public hearing is at least six weeks away, he said. Habitat wants to start the project in the fall.

“We don’t start building until we’ve raised 50 per cent of the actual capital costs. We’ve got, basically, enough now for the land costs. Then we’ve got to put 50 per cent of the actual hard costs in terms of the materials and trades [together],” he said.

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard said his municipality looks for suitable properties for Habitat.

“We’ve done a number of projects with them before. This is a piece of property we bought in order to widen McKenzie Avenue. We’ve done that and we have the balance of the property available. It seemed like a suitable site to ask Habitat if they would like to acquire it,” Leonard said.

“We like the model. It provides affordable housing but has an equity component where the families end up being owners. They do three or four at a time. I think we all wish they could do 300 or 400 at a time.”

Habitat doesn’t have an inventory of land. The organization has been consulting with various municipalities looking to see what they might have available and is able to offer a tax receipt if anyone has property they care to donate, McLean said.

He hopes the agency isn’t put in a position of having to down tools after the Saanich project.

“That’s tough on your volunteers to start, stop and start, stop.”

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