Victoria has adopted what’s being touted as a first-of-its-kind policy that will streamline select affordable projects by delegating them past council, in an effort to rapidly bolster supply in the precarious market.
Council at its April 14 meeting gave final approval to a policy allowing housing projects owned and operated by non-profit, co-operative or government agencies to secure the maximum allowable density for a development’s proposed site. Eligible projects must be consistent with the Official Community Plan and the city’s design guidelines.
The policy change accelerates the approval timeline for certain projects by delegating them to the director of sustainable planning, instead of going through council consideration and votes. Staff believes it will encourage investment into projects deemed affordable and reduce the risk of projects falling through due to factors like construction costs soaring as applicants await city approval.
The move was touted as unprecedented at the meeting and is one of the city’s key strategies to prevent people being priced out of living in the municipality.
“This really is a historic moment in the city tonight, and in British Columbia,” Mayor Lisa Helps said at the meeting.
The unanimous approval followed a rare occurrence at a public hearing where, of the about 20 participants, every speaker supported the direction.
“This could be the most positive step we’ve seen taken by any municipal government in the province to encourage the development of more affordable housing,” said Thom Armstrong, CEO of the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC. He and speakers from various other housing groups said the streamlined process will remove a lot of procedural uncertainty and the cost savings for providers will result in lower rents for people.
Several housing stakeholders emphasized that now more than ever, drawn-out approval processes are leading to affordable housing proposals losing their financial viability.
Residents speaking in favour came from all across Victoria. They were glad to see that projects must meet OCP and design guidelines, which have already gone through public scrutiny. They also voiced concern for neighbours who can no longer afford living in Victoria, and noted the risk of homelessness is far too real for many.
Longtime resident Sandra McMullen’s family’s rent is $700 more a month despite moving from a three-bedroom to a smaller two-bedroom unit. She said many units they looked at have jumped by $1,000 since the fall.
“It’s desperate out there,” she said. “You hear a lot of ‘OK, well leave then,’ but we’ve been here, some of us, our whole lives; our family is here, we’ve contributed to this community for the past 20 years.”
The local business owner said she hears from other mothers from middle-income families, who feel guilty because they “cannot provide housing for their children.” McMullen added that Victoria’s housing options need to be affordable to average wage earners.
“You’re going to need people to flip burgers and run the gas stations and take care of the elderly.”
Councillors said the housing system is broken if working people need government and non-profit help just to afford rent, that people are being priced out of the city and that the new policy is key to allowing people to stay and build a future.
Only about three projects a year would be delegated, based on past housing applications. However, the policy aims to spur investment from senior governments and its proponents said it will send a signal that Victoria is ready to rapidly take action on affordable housing.
Councillors and other speakers also voiced hope that other Greater Victoria municipalities would follow the city’s lead.
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