You Got Yours, Now Please Let Others Have a Chance: An open letter to neighborhood associations

Living in a walkable urban neighborhood provides many direct and indirect benefits. More walking creates a friendly and livable community, living close to services saves residents time and money, and by reducing total driving it reduces traffic and parking problems, accident risk and pollution emissions imposed on others. If you live in such an area, you already enjoy these benefits. Now, please share them with others, particularly those with lower incomes. It’s only fair, and creates a better community.

According to CRD projections, to increase affordability our Region must add over 2,200 more housing units annually, about half of which should be priced for moderate- and lower-income families. Some areas are helping to serve these needs: downtown Victoria has more than 3,000 high-rise units, and the West Shore has several hundred single-family houses under various stages of development. However, these won’t meet most lower-income households’ needs. Not everybody is suited to downtown or suburban living, and both high rise and suburban single family housing are costly to build. Considering land, construction, operating and transportation costs, the most affordable housing type is generally low-rise (two- to six-story) wood-frame townhouses and apartments with unbundled parking (parking rented separately from housing units) located in a walkable urban neighborhood.

Our region has a severe shortage of such housing, due primarily to nneighbourhood opposition. Existing residents oppose lower-cost housing types, lobby for reduced building density and height, and demand far more parking than lower-income households actually need, which drives up housing costs.  Why? Because they have nothing to lose. They already live in a walkable neighborhood and want to exclude others.

Low-rise apartments with unbundled parking are generally the most affordable housing type, but are prohibited in most of Victoria’s residential neighbourhoods (indicated in yellow in this map).

 

Of course, infill development can cause noise and dust, and may increase local traffic and parking congestion, but it also provides substantial benefits. It creates more vibrant and diverse neighborhoods, increases local business activity and jobs. Residents of walkable urban neighborhoods tend to own fewer cars and drive less than they would in more sprawled locations, which reduces total regional vehicle travel and associated congestion, parking, accident and pollution problems. Critics sometimes argue that low-income households will attract criminals and reduce property values; in fact, most affordable housing occupants are responsible seniors, students and workers, and allowing more compact development increases property values.

At best, preventing affordable infill development reduces symptoms, but allowing affordable infill treats the roots of urban problems causes by sprawl and automobile dependency. Many infill housing opponents may someday want such housing for themselves or loved ones when it’s time to downsize, or when they want nearby housing for a parent, adult children or friends.

Real-world examples illustrate how development restrictions can reduce housing affordability. In 2003 a developer proposed the Bohemia and Castana, a pair of three- and four-story mixed-use buildings with 71 residential units, a third of which were to be moderate-price rentals, in the Cook Street Village, a walkable neighborhood in Victoria, British Columbia. Local residents objected. They considered the buildings too tall, too bulky and too modern, although the critics were unable to explain exactly how they would be harmed by a fourth story. Never-the-less, the opponents were successful: the City rejected the proposal. Instead, the developer constructed a three-story building with 51 condominiums but no rental units. In a city with nearly 50,000 houses, 20 fewer moderate-priced units is too small to notice, but if this is typical, it indicates that community resistance typically reduces affordable infill housing development by a third compared with what developers would provide in less restricted markets.

Reducing the Bohemia Building’s allowable height to three stories forced the developer to reduce from 71 units including twenty moderate-priced rentals to 51 more costly units with no rentals.

 

When infill development is restricted, the lower-priced units are usually the first to be eliminated, because they are the least profitable. This forces lower-income households to pay more for housing than they can afford, or live in less accessible neighborhoods where they will drive more and increase regional traffic problems. This is a fairness issue: living in a walkable urban neighbourhood increases low income resident’s economic opportunity and social inclusion.

It is time to say Yes In My Backyard to affordable infill housing development!

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A condensed version of this blog was published in the Times Colonist newspaper.

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