Comment: A welcoming manifesto for inclusiveness

Housing policy is not just about houses, it is also about people, and who may live in a community.

Many current policies discourage affordable-housing development in existing neighbourhoods. These exclusive policies are unfair and harmful. It is time for good people to proclaim: “Yes in our backyard! We want diversity. We welcome new neighbours.”

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Everybody needs a home where they belong, feel safe and can maintain a mailing address. However, many Victorians lack affordable-housing options. In fact, Victoria has one of the least affordable housing markets in Canada.

Not only does housing unaffordability contribute to homelessness — that is only the tip of the iceberg — high housing costs also burden many moderate- and lower-income people (such as lower-wage workers, students and pensioners), and are an impediment to economic development, because businesses find it difficult to recruit staff due to our city’s high cost of living.

Considerable research indicates that in attractive and geographically constrained cities such as Victoria, the key to increasing affordability is to allow more moderate-priced infill housing development, such as townhouses and three- to six-storey condominiums and apartments.

To be truly affordable, considering transportation as well as housing costs, such development must occur in accessible and walkable neighbourhoods, such as in Victoria’s urban villages. Demographic and economic trends are increasing demand for such housing.

An efficient land market responds to these growing demands by increasing allowable densities in urban villages to accommodate more people.

However, many current policies, such as restrictions on density and multi-family housing, and excessive parking requirements, discourage affordable infill. In addition, many neighbourhood associations oppose development due to outdated fears that such housing attracts undesirable neighbours.

This is the root of our housing unaffordability crisis; for the past three decades, restrictive zoning codes and neighbourhood opposition have almost eliminated affordable infill housing development, leading to critical shortages.

Opposition to affordable infill is based largely on myths and exaggerations:

• It is untrue that affordable housing increases crime and social problems. On the contrary, most low-priced housing residents are responsible workers, students and pensioners, and housing at-risk residents is a critical first step in creating more responsible citizens.

• It is untrue that affordable infill significantly increases traffic and parking problems. On the contrary, because residents of such housing tend to drive much less than in automobile-dependent areas, urban infill reduces regional traffic and parking problems.

• It is untrue that infill development impacts are all negative. On the contrary, existing residents benefit from more local services, increased safety and security, and more housing diversity. Many people who oppose infill development might sometimes want such housing options in their neighbourhoods, for example, when it is time to downsize from their single-family home, or if they want their children or grandchildren to live nearby.

• It is untrue that affordable-housing shortages can be solved by government subsidies or charities. On the contrary, although some people need subsidized housing, most lower-income households rely on inexpensive but unsubsidized townhouses, apartments and secondary suites; developing more of this housing in accessible urban villages is the most effective way to increase overall affordability.

This is a timely issue. Last week, this paper published a commentary by Fairfield resident Sid Tafler who advocated reducing allowable densities in Cook Street Village, and encouraged readers to express their opposition to a proposed five-storey building at an upcoming community meeting (“Urban village is more than a mall,” Dec. 4).

At that meeting, I was pleasantly surprised that about half the speakers supported the project in order to increase affordable-housing supply. The youngest speaker made the best argument. Andrew, a 23-year-old resident, pointed out that it is people who make a village, not buildings; accommodating more diverse residents creates a more vibrant village.

It’s time to recalibrate our thinking. The good people of Victoria can create more inclusive communities by changing our attitude about the types of housing we allow in our neighbourhoods. It’s time to say: “Yes in our backyard! We want diversity. We welcome new neighbours.”

Todd Litman is a professional planner who has served on Victoria’s Official Community Plan Citizen’s Advisory Committee and the Mayor’s Housing Affordability Task Force.

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