Lots of housing, but for many, nowhere to live

News Analysis

It’s a number that sticks in the mind: 95%.

Mayor Lisa Helps and her political ally Councillor Marianne Alto voted to approve all but two of some 40 major developments before city council in the last four years, according to The Record’s review of meeting minutes.

That’s so close to a perfect score, it makes you wonder whether some members of council carefully consider each building project on its merits or just vote in favour in the unproven belief that all these new projects will solve our housing crisis.

Close behind Helps and Alto are Councillor Margaret Lucas at 88% approval and Councillor Chris Coleman at 81%.

These high rates of “For” votes are of concern due to the intense controversy some of these projects precipitated in the communities where they’re based. More so, because many of them will not provide housing to those most in need, including working young people and the elderly at the sharp end of the city’s housing crisis.

Among the major new projects are the Customs House, an Old Town luxury building with penthouse condos at a dizzying $10 million, and units in other projects in the $1 million range. Council sweetened the deal by granting a 10-year property tax deferral to 22 of the units in the Customs House. Some of these suites will likely end up in the portfolios of investors or as their second or third homes, and perhaps remain empty much of the year while people sleep on the streets below them.

Overall, council votes 75% in favour of major housing projects. Do the other 25% end up in dusty file cabinets? No, many of them return with changes a year later and are passed, possibly boosting the approval rate to 90% or more.

Now follow me into the weeds. Many of the housing projects decided by council, with a public hearing giving residents a chance to comment, are applications for rezoning, to allow construction of much larger buildings than existing zoning would permit.

Developers invest months and years of time and considerable funds to get to this final stage of approval, but higher zoning can represent a windfall in increased value of the land and the housing units created. That’s called risk and reward–but 75% to 90+% are pretty good odds.

And unlike other cities in BC, Victoria makes minimal demands on builders in return–such as including lower-cost housing units in these projects or collecting special fees in return for zoning upgrades.

In some cases, local residents urged the city to include affordable housing, a demand echoed by some members of council, but rejected by the majority, often by the identical vote of 6-3.

To make things worse, some of these new buildings are being erected on land previously occupied by, guess what–affordable housing. So is 50-plus units of higher-end housing a good trade for 12 apartments of affordable housing? From my point of view, and I’ll venture a guess, the views of the tenants who lost their homes, likely not.

I’m not saying growth is a bad thing, only questioning how often council approves rezoning projects, sometimes with negative impacts on the surrounding neighbourhood, or even the city as a whole. And don’t get me started on building design and planning–that will come later.

Now we’re out of the weeds and we’ve dropped into a restaurant. You own this diner and you’re short of hamburger buns, so you buy more because 100 people will arrive tomorrow and order the cheeseburger–no, we’re in Victoria, the vegan deluxe. After you text your supplier, think about this, because you may be a restaurateur but you still live in a basement suite with your shiftless buddy Rick from Kitchener: when it comes to housing, ordering a stack of buns doesn’t always work, as the link between supply and demand can get distorted.

Overseas on the Mainland, a university prof spent months studying housing stats and records and wrote a report estimating there are 66,719 empty dwellings in Greater Vancouver, despite the ongoing building boom and clamorous demand.

“Here we’ve had more than enough supply and yet the housing costs have gone crazy,” said John Rose, an instructor in the department of geography and environment at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

Sound familiar? Since Victoria is rolling out new housing units like a short-order bakery, trying to Vancouverize as quickly as possible–with high-rise towers, traffic congestion and, hey, we have bike lanes too–it’s only fair to assume we have a similar glaring problem.

That would be 10,000 empty housing units, or 15% of the Vancouver number to reflect our smaller population.

I can’t find a study similar to Rose’s for our region, but I did track down some specific, anecdotal evidence of this trend–in a column I wrote in Monday Magazine that identified condo blocks with empty units downtown, in the Songhees and the Humboldt Valley.

Like Rose, who called his study The Housing Supply Myth, I pointed out that many units were owned by investors who leave their units vacant.

I called the city Condoria, “an empty world of failed housing policies that is turning this city into an enclave of absentee haves and homeless have-nots.” That was ten years ago. Do you think this problem has gotten better or worse in that time?

Only the walls of the old Customs remain after demolition

Back to the voting record: in an interview with the Record at her office at city hall, Mayor Helps was not surprised to learn she ranked at the top of our list.

“I’m in favour of housing. We have to make sure we set up the city for the future.”

She said many people are moving to Victoria and they need places to live. “There are lots of jobs here, but not enough local people to fill those jobs.” This was a brief interview, which I understand, the mayor is busy. But next time I see her, I’ll ask if she’s read The Housing Supply Myth.

First-term councillor Margaret Lucas also defended her record. “We need growth to be sustainable and we need young people.” Before this term of office, she said, there were not enough approvals by previous councils to meet demand. “We were stagnant, getting behind. We had to play catch-up.”

City records indicate 2,459 units were approved in the last three years, compared with 1,669 in the previous three, so we are catching up.

Segue: 150 of the new homes approved are lower-cost housing units, subsidized by government and built by various social housing societies like Cool Aid. Credit is due to the City and to those groups, but these efforts, directed at mid-range earners as well as the lowest income levels, make up just 6% of the total.

Lucas, a hotel manager and developer, points to the increased vibrancy downtown as one of the results of a pro-growth policy and sees the evidence in sidewalk traffic day and night from the Hotel Rialto. She quoted a report indicating a drop in the downtown commercial vacancy rate from 11% of 3.45%. And yes, this is one of the accomplishments of the current council–dead zones downtown have come to life, as the long-standing aspiration for housing in the core has been fulfilled.

But Lucas and other members of council also voted for development outside the core, including at the former Truth Centre in Rockland this May, despite strong opposition from neighbours, and in contrast to stated positions on local rezoning in the last election. In 2014, candidates were asked this question by a residents’ group: “Will you actively support existing zoning and discourage site-specific rezoning in Rockland?”

Part of Lucas’s answer was: “Changing existing zoning should be used in rare circumstances and should be used in conjunction with current strategies for that area.” Growth strategies for a neighbourhood are open to interpretation, but “rare circumstances” was translated to very often in her voting record.

The response to the Rockland question from Helps, a councillor and mayoral candidate at the time, was, in part, “The short and honest answer is no, not in every case. Some times . . . zoning needs to be changed.” Sounds good, but in practice, the mayor voted for rezoning in major projects in the neighborhoods in nearly every case, rather than “some times.”

On the other end of the scale of our voting record list are veteran councillors Geoff Young at a split-down-the-middle 50% and Pam Madoff at 55% in favour, followed by Ben Isitt at 63%. The position of these three councillors proves that traditional political ideology is not a predictor of voting patterns on development. Young is considered a conservative (he ran for the federal PCs in 1988), Madoff leans NDP, while Isitt is further to the left. And Marianne Alto at 95% is also NDP–go figure. She’s also the only member of council who I couldn’t connect with for an interview for this article. But her views are welcome when she has the time.

Young expressed surprise at his ranking at the bottom (or the top, in the view of some) of our table. He generally opposes “undue intrusion” into the neighbourhoods. Of his fellow civic leaders, he says, “the mayor is most concerned with achieving more housing” and “often carries a few people along with her.” But, “there are no voting blocs on city council,” he insists.

Madoff found her 55-45% split reassuring: “Some people think I vote against everything.” She said the debate around the council chamber is often based only on creating more housing units. But she looks at each proposal from the perspective of the housing crisis and those who are most in need. “I ask what does it deliver, is it solving the problem?”

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Okay, you made it to the end. And maybe you want some more.

Here’s an article in the Globe and Mail on The Housing Supply Myth and my column in Monday called Faulty Towers, complete with online debate at local chat site Vibrant Victoria.

 

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