Crunch time is coming for Victoria’s Missing Middle Housing initiative, which will go to a public hearing on Thursday. It’s a controversial idea, one that, the theory goes, would increase the housing supply in Victoria by making more efficient use of land.
That means greater density, which will mean visible changes wherever multiple-unit residential structures replace single-family homes. This would affect every neighbourhood in Victoria.
The concept is simple: It is already easy to replace a single-family home with another single-family home, so make it just as easy to put duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes or townhouses on that spot.
To make that possible, council would change zoning throughout the city. If that happens, someone who wants to put a fourplex where a single-family home now stands would not need to seek a rezoning, which can take a couple of years and all of the aggravation — and risk — that goes with putting a proposal before council.
This is not just a Victoria issue. If this initiative is approved in Victoria, and is shown to be making a difference, we could see it in virtually every community on Vancouver Island.
The idea has generated controversy, with many Victoria residents worried that its approval would change the character of existing single-family neighbourhoods.
Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, the leading advocate for the initiative, says it would not bring overnight changes; she envisions a plan that would roll out over five decades. Beyond that, she says that the city’s 70-year-old house conversion policy, as well as strict design guidelines tied to the Missing Middle Initiative, should reassure everyone that a neighbourhood’s character would not be hurt.
Missing middle housing already exists, although we don’t necessarily call it that. It is usually in older homes built for single families, sometimes designed to house staff as well, that date from about a century ago. Starting in the 1950s, property owners were allowed to convert qualifying buildings to include more self-contained dwelling units.
The number of units varied; the larger the house, the more units allowed. Since the conversion policy was introduced, hundreds of multi-unit buildings have graced Victoria’s streets, and they are not obvious from the street.
Those conversions did not adversely affect the character of their neighbourhoods, and the Missing Middle Initiative does not have to, either. The design requirements call for any houseplex — with two to six units — to be similar in size and style to a large, historic house, and maintain usable back yards. Townhouses on corners would also have strict design requirements.
To consider this another way, the 1951 conversion policy encouraged the reworking of larger homes into multiple units. The new initiative would encourage the replacement of smaller homes, the ones too small to be divided as they stand. With the design guidelines, the replacement house could be far more appealing than the one it is replacing.
Besides, the more housing there is close to where jobs are — downtown Victoria, and the commercial/industrial area north of downtown, stretching into Saanich — the less urban sprawl will be needed. That is better for the environment, and will ease the pressure on neighbouring municipalities.
The Missing Middle Initiative has been controversial, and there is always reason to worry about good intentions having unintended consequences. What will happen to land values? Will the design guidelines be adequately enforced? Will there be enough parking spots on affected streets? Will there be enough public places such as parks?
Without a major change in policy, however, more people will be forced out of Victoria’s housing market. We need to make better use of our limited land area, so we need to encourage the construction of more multi-family units.
Given that this initiative would, over the next few decades, affect every neighbourhood in the city, this will be a crucial decision — one of the most important that council has faced in this term. If residents, those who own homes and those who do not, are concerned, they should learn as much as they can.
More information on the initiative is on the City of Victoria website, Victoria.ca, and Thursday’s public hearing will allow residents to express their views.
In the final analysis, we need to create more housing in Victoria. The Missing Middle Initiative will help us achieve that.
>>> To comment on this article, write a letter to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org