Capital Daily

Saanich's Housing Strategy For The Next Decade

Episode Summary

Saanich's council has approved a new housing strategy that will remain for 10 years. For Municipal Monday, Councillor Zac De Vries explains the strategy, its goals, and the reasons behind their choices.

Episode Notes

Saanich's council has approved a new housing strategy that will remain for 10 years. For Municipal Monday, Councillor Zac De Vries explains the strategy, its goals, and the reasons behind their choices.  

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Episode Transcription

Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Jackie: Hi, my name is Jackie Lamport. Today is Monday, August 13. Welcome to the Capital Daily Podcast. Today on the show, the municipality of Saanich has officially approved their housing strategy for the next ten years. The strategy will inform all housing decisions going forward in Saanich. So for Municipal Monday, we're joined by Councillor Zac de Vries to run us through the strategy and how it was developed. 

Zac, welcome to the show.

Zac: Thanks for having me on. 

Jackie: Let's first talk about this strategy and how it came to be. What was the process for getting here?

Zac: Well, it was a long road. It dates back to the 2018 election, where almost all councillors ran on housing and doing better for our residents in that regard. And so it quickly made its way onto our council strategic plan, this idea of housing strategy, and we deliberated about how best to go about that. Eventually, the consensus and, I guess, early 2020 was that a housing strategy task force would be the best way to develop this. And so that final decision, oops, was made in June of 2020. And we went then went into the summer, and selected task force members from a whole bunch of applications and struck the task force in September of 2020. They deliberated until March, at which time we took their recommendations out to the public and had an extensive survey and engagements that helped us refine the housing strategy, and that was what came before council and August of 2021.

Jackie: I want to ask about the community consultation but first, how does this interact with the official community plan? 

Zac: Yeah, so this, this dovetails with the official community plan because it is aligned with the vision and values in there in terms of promoting environmental sustainability, and social equity, and economic vibrancy, and so deeply connected to that. And as we know, anything that comes forward and sadness will have to be consistent with the official Community Plan. What the housing strategy does is it sets out a blueprint for how we're going to address housing, and then we'll make decisions case by case. We'll be bringing in new policies, and we'll be breathing that kind of contemporary life into the OCP. So it's connected to its values; it's bringing in new specifics that will be defined in future processes. 

Jackie: The community consultation, as I just mentioned, what did you hear from people, and what do they want? 

Zac: What we're hearing from people across is that it's no surprise, we're hearing that housing is too expensive, is not available, it's not in line with local incomes, people are worried about their children and their ability to have their loved ones continue to live in this community. And people also want to ensure that community consultation remains part of the process and that there are going to be opportunities for existing residents to weigh in because I think people understand that we can't shut ourselves off from the world and the demand that's generated for our region. Yet, we've got a special responsibility still for people who have made their lives here, whether existing owners or existing renters or new residents.

Jackie: So now the municipality has the housing strategy that will go on for ten years. Can you tell me what the priorities outlined are? 

Zac: Yeah, we have 12 priority actions, which will be accomplished in the next three years. It is our goal, and like this is everything from identifying surplus land and salvage or underutilized land that the municipality owns and leveraging that. This would be focused on the non-market and supportive housing opportunities because, of course, they are missed by the market. There's a lot we can do for middle-income earners and above when it comes to market housing. But we also have to ensure that we're meeting the needs of all residents. And so that's a key opportunity there. We'll be looking at some incentives we can have for our non-market and below-market housing providing partners. We've done this kind of on a one-off basis in the past. If a nonprofit springs for rental, we've tried to assist them with the DCC waivers and such. So we'll be just looking at that to make sure that we're good partners to bring forward this non-market housing as effectively as possible. We also want to incentivize purpose-built rental more broadly, including market rental. So we'll be looking at that quite carefully because we know the need for rent is quite high; 26% of Saanich renters live in poor housing needs or extreme core housing needs. 

We want to ensure that there are opportunities there because people are being squeezed out in that regard. We'll also be proactively developing a tenant assistance policy or guidelines. And so that is just meant to safeguard tenants. We don't have the same economic factors in Saanich that Victoria or Burnaby have experienced, so it's going to be, I think, less of an issue, but I think just proactively, we need it. What we need it for is the number one source of rent evictions, insanity, which is in the single-family house market, because that's where almost all of our rent evictions happen. We haven't had a multifamily renovation yet. And of course, we want to safeguard against that too, because as buildings age, pressures for redevelopment begin to mount. 

The other policies we've got as a priority is focusing on a middle missing middle housing program. So this would focus on neighbourhood infill and allow diverse forms of development that are at the lower scale, of course, like we're talking from mid-range apartments down to for plexes, triplexes, and stuff like that. But allowing that missing middle, I think, will offer a lot of opportunities for ground-oriented development, which is, of course, a key desire for many residents, including families. Included in this would be the idea of small apartment zones. These would be three, four, walk-up buildings and stuff like that. And it just allows for high quality but more a cheaper construction that would create a lower barrier for entry into new builds.

Jackie: I'm thinking Langford there with all the buildings in Langford; it's kind of similar.

Zac: I'm thinking more about a small apartment building, next to Hillside Mall, in Victoria. It's three, four walks off that occupy what used to be a single-family lot. It's got about 11 units in it, and it is renting those units for $1100 a month, which is a brand new building that is unheard of, and an old building in Saanich built in the 70s rents at about $1400. I think that kind of speaks volumes to the opportunity that creates for people to have a highly livable space and a new space of great quality, near a place that's desirable to live, especially for students in particular. We'll be looking to strengthen the district-wide approach to housing, ensuring that policies and strategies are updated through the official community plan and consider our entire municipality's needs. 

We're already going about the next one, the development process review. So on our end, we are looking to make our processes as efficient as possible to ensure that there's more elasticity and in, in supply, and then we can convert more profit to public benefit. If it's getting eaten up by bank interest during a lengthy process, that's money that's leaving our community that could have gone into much better things that would provide value to our residents; we're also looking to have a stronger mechanism to prioritize affordable housing projects. We've done this with certain projects; Nigel Valley is a good example of that. We're looking at ways that we can even go further on that. That's because they're particularly challenged with financing or, or timelines, or often, it's a redevelopment project. So, the sooner you can get residents back into new housing, the better. 

We'll also be reviewing our onsite parking requirements, and I think this is a big opportunity. My immediate preference is to get rid of housing minimums, sorry to get rid of parking minimums and move towards an empirical process in determining parking requirements, just mostly from a climate change perspective. I also understand the benefits that that can have to affordability. So our last one will be very strictly monitoring and tracking progress on the housing strategy because we want to make sure that any action we take yields the kind of results that we're looking for. We'll have to take that into account and take a new approach if this isn't working because I think that's been the biggest mess over the last 20 to 30 years is house prices have doubled several times. The response hasn't been their purpose-built rental and signage for the most part until very recently hadn't been built for 30 years. And there was no political response. 

This is about building accountability and ensuring that our goal here is better housing outcomes for our residents. We need to ensure that that's where we're headed, and if we're not, we'll reevaluate and try something new.

Jackie: Yeah, I think ten years is a great amount of time to plan out for, but a lot can happen in 10 years. So it's good to be able to pivot when you need to. I also read that the specific strategies will be unique to local market conditions. How does that work? 

Zac: Yeah, so we'll be taking into account matters such as, "Where's the land market going, and what does that look like? We want to ensure that whatever strategy we have is feasible. For example, if our missing middle program was only going to allow triplexes, there's going to be a substantial limit on the type of income of residents that that would serve. And so we want to take that into account and understand those aspects. Otherwise, we're not going to be successful. 

As part of your report, you noted that the 2016 census found that 50% of Saanich residents were moderate to low income, yet only 10% of the housing is priced for that group. We've seen in the data when you mentioned that Saanich is used to accommodate a wide range of incomes. Luckily, many of these people have been able to lock in their housing through being long-term tenants or through ownership. The barrier to entry for ownership was far lower in the past, and now you have shifting market conditions. So, you still have a wide range of incomes within Saanich neighbourhoods, but that's not sustainable in the long term. When you look at the new entrance into that neighbourhood, that's the people subject to the new market conditions. Yes, the vast majority of 90% of regular people cannot afford to enter the Saanich neighbourhood. 

If you look at people who already own their home, 90% of them in most neighbourhoods, sometimes a little bit higher, sometimes a little bit lower, could not afford to buy their home if they had to do so today, even in the prime of their career. To me, that just speaks volumes about why we're doing this housing strategy. We want to protect what made Saanich great and what made it great was that it was an opportunity for such a diverse range of people and their incomes, and we want to get back to that. If we don't go down this route of a housing strategy, and we let the market take its course, what's going to happen is essentially going to become a suburb with the super-rich because that's all the new entrants that would be able to break in and so that's at the heart of why we're doing this. 

Jackie: Housing is an issue where there will be many different solutions depending on every person's situation as you're talking about. That's when we can focus on the housing spectrum to help inform strategies such as this, so can you briefly explain What the housing spectrum is? And then can you explain how it helps this strategy?  

Zac: Yeah, sure. So, very briefly, like the housing spectrum, it talks about all forms of demand for housing that exists in our community. And it starts in three main categories. We've got non-market housing; we have the below market housing, range and strictly market housing. At the bottom of the spectrum is your emergency shelter. And I've always been hesitant to include that in non-market housing; it's emergency housing, but it's not quite the same. You move up into supportive transitional housing and social and subsidized housing that meets the non-market housing component. Within the below-market housing component, this is where we start to service people of moderate incomes. And this is below-market rental housing, or we are trying to incentivize and support affordable homeownership programs as well. This is a kind of a unique range because this exists kind of in a quasi public-private space. 

What we're trying to do is we're trying to leverage market housing to deliver this below-market housing to maximize the benefit of new housing to our residents. So the non-market side is very focused on government intervention and government programming, and we're looking to support that how we can, and looking to incentivize the below-market housing, but then also, we do recognize that market housing serves a need, whether it's market rental housing or homeownership. What we've seen, I think, in Saanich is that given the lack of new housing in the housing space, people are starting to compete for units that they wouldn't normally be competing for people who are traditionally owners competing for rental, and that's been pushing up rent in Saanich. So how this shapes, our housing strategy is that we wanted a strategy that would consider the entire housing spectrum. 

I think the weakness of other housing strategies is that they might only focus on non-market housing or focus very narrowly on one section of housing. You have to look at the whole system because we want to ensure good results for every resident. And I don't think our work will be done until every last resident is included in this. 

Jackie: One of the common concerns on the island when it comes to housing and building more housing is its impact on green space, especially when we see just large sprawl. How does this strategy address that?

Zac: That is a big concern. Luckily, in Saanich, we're already endowed with a pretty significant parks network, I think, perhaps the envy of the region. So that is very fortuitous. I think, of course, geographically, as we know, areas in Saanich, where we lacked green space, currently, most notably the west side of Shelbourne Valley, and think about Uptown Douglas. And so it's certainly a need. We have to be working on these things at the same time. Like you can't just focus on the housing itself. For housing's sake, you want to keep your residents in mind. And so obviously, yes, they have their housing needs, but they also have their green space needs. And that's why Saanich is committed to urban greening. It started earlier this summer; before we approved the housing strategy, we first approved the 330-300 rule, the idea that people should be able to see at least their bare minimum of three trees from their house and be able to have all neighbourhoods at 30% vegetative coverage and to have a park within 300 meters of your home. Saanich already hits the 95% target of having a park within 500 meters of people's homes. And so we're just we're trying to step that up. 

We have, of course, some neighbourhoods that are much higher than 30% coverage, but we're looking at areas like the Gorge still come and others where we don't have that coverage. And we're going to be updating our urban forestry strategy and other measures to ensure that we can do urban greening and provide space for recreation in park settings in the long term. We've got to deal with these things comprehensively because people can afford to live here if you build the housing, but they're not having a high quality of life because they don't have green space. We've also failed, and so we're looking to do these both at the same time. 

Jackie: Lastly, housing is an issue that is becoming increasingly extreme and out of reach for average-income Canadians across the country, so Saanich is by no means unique in this being a large concern. So what are you looking for from whichever party makes up the federal government this election?  

Zac: So yeah, in regards to federal parties, I'm looking for a lot bolder housing and park policies in terms of really creating pathways for first-time homebuyers because I think what we've seen over the past several decades is just how difficult that's become particularly on how difficult it is to build up a downpayment, especially in with the direction prices have gone. I do recognize, too, that you don't want the market to heat up even more. And so, the more ways there are to differentiate first-time homebuyers from repeat homebuyers. 

I think the better because people do need it, and then I think we hear the story all the time that my rent is the same as a mortgage payment. I hate hearing that story because I know from my research that homeownership is essential in Canada to building wealth. What we've seen is that more and more homeownership is being tied to family wealth. And that's just going to start exacerbating inequality over time because we've been seeing this trend where people rely on their home equity to send their kids to post-secondary. With our current system, we've got a situation where that will be out of reach for many renting households, and we see renting households increasing, which is not a problem in and of itself. 

I think what I'd also be looking for from these federal parties is the understanding that our social welfare system in Canada works a lot better for people who are homeowners compared to renters and that renters have a lot less ability to build equity and pull on their own financing. I think that the federal government has a responsibility to bridge some of that divide inequality and ensure that there are benefits and support, particularly for renters across Canada.

Jackie: Zac, thank you so much.

Zac: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

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Thanks so much for joining us today. If you enjoyed the podcast, please leave a rating and a review. And also, subscribe so that you don't miss any episodes going forward. We post new shows every Monday to Friday. My name is Jackie Lamport. This is the Capital Daily Podcast. We'll talk to you tomorrow.