We can all agree that trees beautify our city and we want to have them on our streets, boulevards, and yards. However if you look at the most beautiful and established neighbourhoods in Victoria, those are not original old-growth trees and most are not native. The original trees on those sites were all cut down when the houses were built, but we planted new ones that we can enjoy today. We can ensure that the same happens for infill development. Preserving all trees is not possible, but ensuring that at least as many are planted as are removed can be done and is consistent with how all the other houses in Victoria were built.
We also need to consider that the question is not to cut or not cut trees. People will live somewhere, and if they cannot live in denser housing in the city, they will be pushed out to the suburbs where real forests which form habitats for many more species are clear-cut for sprawling single family developments. Therefore, the best way to preserve trees is to allow denser development.
Most municipalities also have tree protection bylaws and developments plant new trees on or off site to compensate for trees cut to build. For example, despite development, Victoria's urban forest is actually growing.
Developers usually seek variances to build less parking than required in the bylaws. This is because our bylaws call for far more parking than required, usually between 1 and 1.5 spaces per home. A study [1, p. 25] of parking usage at 14 Victoria buildings showed that actual average parking usage was 0.65 cars per home, and that could be reduced by about 40% with appropriate transportation demand management measures like adding car share vehicles, bike sharing, and high quality bike parking facilities. Reducing parking to only what is required drives down the cost of housing. In a study of a typical affordable urban housing development, one parking space per unit increased total development costs by about 12.5% .
Population growth through density and vehicle traffic growth do not always grow together in an obvious way. In the Victoria region, James Bay is 300% more dense than Gonzales but has only 30% more vehicle traffic. The reason for this is that population density brings opportunity for local villages and shops, increasing walkability and reducing vehicle traffic demand. James Bay Village has a number of amenities like a grocery store, drug store, and several restaurants, while the Gonzales community does not. This means that Gonzales residents must find their amenities through transportation to nearby communities in the region. The key to walkable neighborhoods is ensuring that with building and population density comes the opportunity for commercial services.
The current system of long rezoning processes favours big national developers with deep pockets that can buy land and hold it for years while it goes through rezoning. If municipal governments streamline and simplify the rezoning process, it would open the home generation market to small local builders. This would have the added benefit of contributing more townhomes, duplexes, and triplexes to the housing mix and contribute to the missing middle.
At the height of social housing construction in Canada, about 10% of homes were social & below market, while 90% was market-price housing. Today it is about 99% market housing due to a drop in government investment in social housing. We believe that social housing investments should be increased again dramatically, but the vast majority of our housing will always be delivered by the private market. For example, the market apartments built in Victoria in the 60s are the bulk of today's affordable housing units. If new market price development is opposed today, we will not have the affordable housing in the future. Market developments can also be used to build below-market housing at the same time. Cities can develop density bonusing programs to allow additional height for developers that will incorporate affordable housing in their projects.
CMHC rental data for 2020 indicates that the average vacant one-bed unit is advertised for $1428 / month and the average 2 bedroom unit is advertised for $2068 per month -- rents so high that many cannot afford them. That is a direct result of limited purpose-built rental housing in the CRD. Since 1991, the CRD has added only 2062 purpose-built rental units in Greater Victoria while the population grew by 113,000 people. This chronic under building has resulted in low vacancy rates and high rents. Data from Victoria indicates that we need a vacancy rate of about 4% before rents stop increasing. Getting to a 4% vacancy rate requires thousands of new rentals to be constructed.
Despite high rents in new units, many people can afford market rents, and providing rental units for those that can afford them prevents those people from crowding out those with less means in cheaper rentals. Research shows that market rentals reduces rents both city-wide and in nearby units.
However we know that market rentals will never be affordable for many people. In addition to market units, we need to increase affordable and social housing funding to also build thousands of below-market homes for those not served by the private market.
Because housing has been neglected for so long, prices have escalated and unit sizes have decreased over time to hit a lower price point. Many single individuals would prefer to pay less for a smaller unit than more for a bigger one. Those units will not be good for most families, but it provides another option for people to live in which reduces price pressure on bigger units. If it turns out that developers have judged the demand wrong, then those units will be sold at a discount, which benefits buyers. There is no evidence to support that demand does not exist for units of all sizes.
Since 2001, Greater Victoria has grown at a rate of 1.2% per year. However the core municipalities have grown at much lower rates, with the City of Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt, and Oak Bay growing at well under 1% annually [source]. That's not because people didn't want to live there, it's because we didn't build enough homes to accommodate them and prices went up as a result. Many people that wanted to live in the core but couldn't were forced further from town to the western communities (which grew at a rate of over 3% per year).
Home prices stop increasing when there is about 6 months of inventory or more, and rents stop increasing when we have a vacancy rate of at least 4%. We can't stop people from wanting to move to the area (demand), but we can build enough supply to ensure prices and rents don't spiral upwards.
This is a common argument against densification and building the missing middle. In reality, the region’s municipalities have under built for years. In June 2021, a City of Victoria report called “Future Housing Needs and Gaps in Official Community Plan” found that the municipality was short 4,500 to 6,300 homes as of 2016. Since then, the problem has only gotten worse and is expected to continue.
A lack of supply expresses itself in a number of ways too including through low rental vacancy rates, high rental prices,low supply of homes for sale on the secondary real estate market, and high real estate prices. Currently, Victoria and the CRD suffer from all four of these conditions.
Victoria’s rental vacancy rate was 2.2% in 2020 according to the Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation, well below the 4% level needed for a balanced market. Moreover, the vacancy rate was 0.9% for three-bedroom units which puts considerable pressure on families. As a result, rents are very high and getting higher. Real estate prices are also high, appreciating rapidly, and real estate inventory on the secondary market is well under the 6-month level needed for a balanced market where prices would start to flatten out.
Long story short, it is a supply problem. Victoria and the CRD need to build a lot more homes to keep up with the current population much less where it is projected to go.
House prices are causing neighbourhood demographics to drastically change as young families are priced out of historically affordable areas. As land values escalate, wealthier buyers will purchase the homes and tear them down to build mansions, changing the character of the neighbourhood despite attempts to keep it the same.
Affordability and density does not mean high-rises in traditionally single-family home residential neighbourhoods. There are numerous ways developers add to, and enhance, existing neighbourhood character. Infill projects that respect planning and design guidelines will support existing character while allowing families across the income spectrum to continue living there.
Many European cities are beautiful due to their character, yet many of these beautiful European cities are dense and walkable, with many three to seven story character buildings. Municipalities within the CRD have an opportunity to emulate this European example, densify, and enhance the vibrancy, character, and affordability of the region.
While this is true for large builds, it is not true of missing middle housing / multi-family types (e.g., townhomes, duplexes, and triplexes). Rezoning to allow for more missing-middle housing types would alleviate the need and pressure to build taller shadow-casting towers. We would also argue that housing affordability is more important than shadows.
Everyone needs to live somewhere. By giving people the option to live in denser housing that uses less land and energy in areas that are closer to where they work and play, we minimize environmental impact. If that housing is not built, people will be displaced to suburbs, which increases carbon emissions and the need for single-occupancy vehicles in order to travel back into the city for work.
Higher density supports retail and commercial uses as well, and makes public transit viable, rather than encouraging/requiring single-occupancy car ownership.
Currently, our neighbourhoods are still filled by people with ordinary occupations from all walks of life. Many have been living in their homes for decades and purchased when a single family house was still relatively affordable. With a current average single family home price of over a million, only the wealthiest will be able to live in those neighbourhoods in the future. Given that only single family homes can be built by right (without going through the rezoning process), that will accelerate the destruction of existing homes to be replaced by multi-million dollar mansions. Maintaining current restrictive zoning doesn’t prevent change, it excludes the very people that make up current neighbourhoods.
While people do require services, several studies have found that the denser a city becomes, the lower the cost of infrastructure and services paid per household. Moreover, higher density cities benefit from a higher number of taxable households, which increases revenues. This combination improves the local government’s finances. The graphic below by the City of Kelowna provides a succinct summation of this finding:
In addition to Kelowna, the Halifax Regional Municipality found the denser the urban area, the lower the annual cost of services and infrastructure per household. The City of Ottawa also recently found low-density neighbourhoods cost the city $465 per person each year while high-density infill development pays for itself and leaves the city with an extra $606 per capita each year. That is a big difference!
Moreover, in a study of Madison, Wisconsin, Smart Growth America found that city revenues grew faster than expenditures with increasing density, thereby improving the city’s net income. This study is summarized in the table below. Perhaps the most noteworthy finding, though, is that the net income generated by a city on a per acre basis escalates dramatically.
These findings from Kelowna, Ottawa, Halifax, and Madison have been supported by other studies and academics. Densification allows cities to improve services, expand infrastructure, reduce taxes, or all three. In summary, density pays!
Many Official Community Plans (OCP) and Local Area Plans (LAP) in our region are badly out-of-date and don’t reflect current housing needs. For example, Saanich's Official Community Plan was adopted in 2008 and the Victoria OCP was passed in 2012 when detached homes were about half as expensive as today and still attainable for many families. With median detached prices over one million dollars, we need to rapidly make room for more and more affordable family-suitable housing.
Population projections in these plans are generally based on past growth patterns. However as stated in the BC Opening Doors report, building for past growth bakes in current affordability problems, and if population growth accelerates like it has done in Greater Victoria in the past decade, those projections badly underestimate housing needs.