December 20, 2022 – Did you hear? Recent development plans for a six-acre wooded property smack in the middle of Qualicum Beach apparently fell through, and now 433 Dorset Avenue is up for sale again. That’s a big chunk of property.
Here we go again. In the absence of a Town housing plan, what to do, what to do? Throw up a high-rise or two, develop a bare land strata subdivision of townhouses, or carve the property into a couple nice in-town “acreages?” Maybe this would be a good location for a small commercial strip, a walk-to secondary source of goods and services for the town’s west enders? Should members of our community have any input on the possible re-development of this parcel of land? Should our elected municipal representatives? Or, should development decisions be left to the Town’s staff? What to do?
A nation-wide conundrum poses major local dilemmas
The unavailability of appropriate housing is a concern to thousands of Canadians. Increasing the supply of new housing units is one common objective here in QB and across the nation. But the consensus ends there.
Currently there are no widely accepted answers to the many important questions that need to be answered before we can get anywhere close to a workable national plan to solve the housing “problem.”
There are myriad underlying economic and social factors to be considered, from wealth inequities and wage suppression, to the unrealistic presumption that everyone should own their own home.
Municipal governments cannot alone solve the big problems. But they do have a role in setting local policy and regulations in accordance with a clear, robust set of housing objectives that enhance, not diminish, their local communities.
Locally, there are multiple dilemmas to be resolved before a workable, sustainable, effective plan for housing can be established for Qualicum Beach.
Simply let the market solve the housing problem?
Whose job is it to properly define the housing problem and then govern the choice and timing of solutions? Some say leave it to the private sector and the invisible hand of the free market.
That’s been tried — doesn’t work, as evidenced by the dire straits that many people find themselves in now, would-be home buyers and renters alike.
Left to their own devices the private sector simply follows the money. An unfettered housing-as-commodity market will naturally build whatever delivers the biggest profit margin at the lowest risk.
The private sector’s response to the housing needs of the minimum wage worker with no cash reserve or credit rating has been virtually non-existent, apathetic and even sometimes hostile — too bad, go find a tarp but get off my lawn or out of my doorway. The private sector is not the housing crisis solution on its own.
Thus, we do need some structure of public sector policy, law, and regulation at one or more of the five levels of governance – federal, provincial / territorial, regional, Indigenous, and municipal and, most importantly, a voice at the neighbourhood level. That’s where we live.
Perpetual ad hoc densification in existing neighbourhoods?
Current legislative initiatives are a morass of overlapping and conflicting ambitions.
We have the feds planning to increase population and the supply of workers by half a million a year or more — but here’s the key fly in the ointment — without being responsible for creating the infrastructure to support this migration (housing, schools, hospitals, transit, roads, water, sewer etc.).
As a country, we prefer in-migration of skilled, economically self-reliant entrepreneurs. But, we also respond to a moral imperative to welcome people ravaged by war, poverty, violence, persecution, famine and other natural and man-made disasters.
It is folly to think we can continue to simply jam this torrent of newcomers into existing communities without a cohesive plan. That would just set local governments up for failure to serve newcomers as well as locals seeking appropriate housing alternatives.
According to a Guardian report, there are currently over 100 brand new cities being created across the planet. This movement is known as ‘greenfield,’ i.e. building entire communities on previously undeveloped land.
Meanwhile we are immersed in dither, debate and angst about each handful of bedrooms being added in Qualicum Beach.
Where is OUR federal government’s plan to create at least a dozen brand new medium-sized communities across the country EVERY YEAR to suitably accommodate these migrants? Expecting existing communities and infrastructures to absorb this migration simply by shovelling federal taxpayer dollars off the truck is a recipe for increased social unrest and destabilized communities. Not to mention a gross dereliction of federal government responsibility.
Meanwhile our provincial Housing ministry says bring on the money; we’ll just force existing BC communities to suck it up (literally) with euphemisms like “incremental densification” and “gentle intensification” of existing neighbourhoods.
What could “gentle intensification” result in? It might mean tearing up an existing lot to add a couple of bedrooms with a larger single-family dwelling replacement. Or adding a granny suite, or a standalone tiny home, that gets classed as an “accessory dwelling unit” or ADU. On first thought, that doesn’t sound so bad.
But, let’s consider what else that could mean. Knocking down trees that help keep people cool in hot summers and reduce our hydro bills, destroying nesting and food sources for birds and pollinators, disrupting the existing soil microbiome and underground ecosystems thus creating adverse knock-on effects that could degrade our community’s ability to adapt to the effects of climate change. Not to mention the many months-long noise, dust, and fumes of construction, coupled with loss of privacy that comes with homes built near property lines of adjacent dwellings.
One or two such examples are easily accommodated in most neighbourhoods, but what if it were every second or third house on your block? “Gentle intensification” could easily and quickly turn into spot re-zoning on steroids. Does that sound like community enhancement to you? And, would that necessarily erase or even reduce homelessness?
Accommodating both growth and climate change
There is an alternative. If the federal government isn’t going to do its job and create new “greenfield communities” complete with all necessary infrastructure before the first housing unit gets built, why doesn’t the BC provincial government do it?
Instead, the provincial government’s solution appears to be, until they are convinced otherwise, to force mass disruption on existing communities, with the probable outcome of continued urban sprawl onto choice suburban farmland.
Premier David Eby has stated that, as a first step in his 100-day plan: “We are making changes to deliver more homes for British Columbians, faster. We will work with municipalities to set housing targets and make sure the homes people need get built.” Whether the municipality is able and willing to accommodate this growth or not? Are we looking at another construction industry disaster like Vancouver’s “leaky condo” rainscreen fiasco that disrupted and financially devastated renters and owners in the 1980s and 90s?
Fobbing off the housing problem onto communities is also a reckless dereliction of provincial government responsibility.
This may be an attractive strategy to the newly-minted Eby government, allowing them to deflect accountability for the systemic causes of BC’s housing problem. This also allows the B.C. government to avoid an admission of the massive front-loaded cost to BC taxpayers of finding, buying, and equipping the land base required for the creation of an appropriate mix of brand-new towns and cities.
The province’s hasty, ill-considered neighbourhood densification strategy that Premier Eby, new Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon, and MLA Adam Walker appear to want to impose on our communities needs to be fleshed out before shovels are bought and hit the ground.
Neighbourhood densification – hundreds of spot rezonings, or a handful of medium height purpose-built rental buildings?
Some simple math illustrates this dilemma. Let’s say a geographically dispersed community like Qualicum Beach has a deficit of modestly-priced rental accommodation for 1,000 people. Assuming an average of 2.5 residents per unit, we would need 400 additional rental units. This translates to either 400 individual dwellings pasted into existing lots, or five low-rise (eight to ten storey) apartment buildings somewhere in the forested acreages in the middle of town. Or, some combination of the two? Do we even know and agree what types of accommodation are needed, and for how many people?
What do other communities do?
Options, obstacles and solutions being tried in other communities can serve as a starting point, not for the purpose of prescribing best practices for Qualicum Beach, but to encourage a community discussion of innovative options that might work well here.
Light-footprint Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) in Tsawwassen, BC
Strong Towns is a not-for-profit group that links advocates for safe, livable, and financially resilient cities and towns across North America. They encourage incremental development as a right for every property owner in every community, with a simple rule that “no neighborhood should experience radical change, but no neighborhood can be exempt from change.”
A recent Strong Towns article described one B.C. example of a light-footprint ADU added onto an existing residential property in Tsawwassen, a community within the City of Delta. “Brenda Baron knew that her house in Tsawwassen, British Columbia, was too large. She also knew that her niece’s family had been sideswiped by a sudden spike in housing prices in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and was struggling to find a suitable home in the area.”
Thanks to a quirk in the construction of her original home, Baron was able to sell a 50% interest in her property to her niece and use the money to construct a small, nearly detached small home adjacent to her original dwelling. She downsized without moving to another neighborhood and she opened up an ideal place for her niece and her family to live. But she is an exception.
“The city of Delta does not allow people to live in a secondary structure on a single property, unless the property is specifically zoned to include a coach house within a very narrow set of confines. Yes, you can build a house for a golf cart or a pool house for your pool, but the moment those detached structures are habitable for people, the law says no.”
Garden suite ADUs in Edmonton, AB
Another member of the Strong Towns network is Ashley Salvador, an urban planner with experience working across sectors on projects related to affordable housing, climate change, social isolation and inclusion, infill policy, and seniors housing.
Born and raised in Edmonton, Salvador holds an Honours BA in Sustainability and Sociology from Dalhousie University, and a Master’s degree in Planning from the University of Waterloo.
What started as a research project turned into people asking Salvador for input on how they could build their own ADUs and navigate the zoning and permitting processes. She became a resident expert and advocate for “gentle density” enabled by ADUs in her home city, and co-founded an organization to help teach people: YEGarden Suites [YEG is the tag for Edmonton’s international airport]
Ashley’s leadership arc led to her 2021 election to City Council representing her south-east Edmonton ward.
If the future unfolds according to Edmonton’s current long-range City Plan, Councillor Salvador and her colleagues will have their hands full accommodating an extra one million residents, doubling their population, but without expanding the city’s existing municipal boundaries. Given the increasingly apparent impact of climate change on water supply, both in the U.S. and here in Canada, it’s not clear what the City of Edmonton will do if (when?) the source of their drinking water, the North Saskatchewan River, is diminished by receding icefields in the Rocky Mountains. The words “carrying capacity” do not appear anywhere in their gung-ho City Plan.
You can listen to Ashley explain her passion and progress in a short Strong Towns podcast interview at https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2022/12/1/rerun-ashley-salvador
Access to affordable housing is only part of the problem
Last word to the academics. Recently a team from SFU’s Urban Studies program, using data from a representative sample survey of B.C. residents, examined different aspects of housing situations and factors that influenced housing vulnerability or resilience during the pandemic.
In a related publication, the researchers concluded that: “The official core housing needs indicators used to assess housing vulnerability in Canada are unaffordability, overcrowding and poor dwelling quality. We argue that Canadian housing policy needs to go beyond them.”
After analyzing tenant experience in market vs. social (subsidized) rentals, the SFU team found that “market housing tenants were more likely to live in inadequate housing that was too expensive, in ill repair or inadequate in size. In comparison, only 11 per cent of community housing tenants were dissatisfied with housing adequacy, giving high ratings to housing affordability in particular.
“Housing vulnerability means more than the lack of affordable housing — it also means housing instability e.g. renovictions, and access to neighbourhood amenities. Renters in the private market demonstrated unexpected housing vulnerability, faring worse than community housing tenants in important ways.
“It’s clear the market alone doesn’t deliver housing as a social good; more extensive solutions to the housing crisis will come from understanding the social role of housing in building household and community resilience.
“To build long-term community resilience, public policies should pay attention not only to housing adequacy, but also to residential stability and the quality of life that homes and neighbourhoods provide.”
Disclosure: Second Opinion QB is a member of the Strong Towns network. — Editor