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Comment: Victoria city council lacks urgency on housing

Re: “Rockland residents say revised condo plan ‘not significantly different,’ ” June 28.

Re: “Rockland residents say revised condo plan ‘not significantly different,’ ” June 28.

 

Many of us locals agree with the judgment of the Rockland Neighbourhood Association spokesman who said about Abstract Development’s redesigned proposal for the Truth Centre property that it is “not significantly different” than its initial proposal.

For those who don’t know, the developer initially proposed cramming 96 units onto the space, ignoring repeated pleas by neighbours that the project was too big for the site and out of touch with its architectural heritage. It envisioned an out-of-place six-storey condominium on Fort Street, with a five-storey condominium tucked behind it, and 12 towering townhouses along the residential Pentrelew Place. Residents had taken to calling it “the Great Wall of Pentrelew.”

Neighbours and local residents were almost unanimously opposed to the out-of-scale proposal. We pleaded with Abstract to reduce the scale, and when Abstract refused, we gathered more than 300 signatures on a community letter to city council outlining our concerns.

Council heard the neighbours and sent Abstract back to the drawing board. But Abstract has now come back with a proposal that is little changed. It has merely reduced the five-storey condominium to four and the number of townhouses to 10 from 12. The six-storey building on Fort remains, though there is nothing like its size for blocks in any direction.

Why has Abstract so deliberately stuck its thumb in the eyes of the city council — and local residents — almost totally ignoring their instruction to address matters of scale and height?

I think it is because Abstract recognizes that council seems to be out of ideas when it comes to solving our housing crisis. Abstract probably thinks council is likely to swallow its pride at Abstract’s insultingly minimalist revision because council as a whole imagines only one solution — just to endlessly build more luxury condominiums.

It’s widely acknowledged that Victoria faces a severe housing shortage. And yet council seems to lack the clarity and strategic tools to deal with our situation.

Council did not pass a motion in April by councillors Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday to ask the province to extend the 15 per cent foreign buyers property transfer tax to Victoria. It had begun to reduce price inflation in Vancouver. Inexplicably, councillors Marianne Alto, Chris Coleman, Margaret Lucas and Geoff Young voted against it.

They seem to have listened closely to the real-estate developers who have grown rich from the way Victoria housing stock has become investment-class assets for the international rich looking to diversify their portfolios. Lucas even called for more supply, as though Victoria might be able to build its way out of its housing shortage.

But we know from the experience of Vancouver and Toronto that it’s not possible to build more supply to solve shortages and unaffordability. The Globe and Mail recently reported that foreign nationals are purchasing 23.8 per cent of Victoria’s housing. Almost one-quarter of our housing stock is becoming investment assets, much of which will not be leased at all. In the face of this, council remains mute.

You don’t have to agree with Mayor Lisa Helps’s idea of billeting to ease our housing shortage to see that Victoria has a real affordability and availability problem.

The new provincial government presents an opportunity for the city to engage productively on matters of housing, and to reboot its efforts to increase availability and affordability. City council needs to request a foreign-buyers property transfer tax for Victoria, and perhaps a tax on unrented properties whose owners are absent. This won’t be a panacea curing all our problems, but it will help.

I urge citizens to call Alto, Coleman, Lucas and Young to ask them about their reluctance to defend Victoria housing stock for Victoria citizens.

Meanwhile, council also needs to reject Abstract’s slightly smaller but still wildly over-massed revised project. It should not continue to approve inappropriately sized development projects such as that at the Truth Centre, as though our housing affordability problem could be solved just by building more supply.

If it does so, it is poised once again to hand over windfall profits to condominium developers at the expense of the neighbours, and the city’s citizens.

 

Chris Douglas lives in Victoria.

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