(re)development + affordability in Saanich

Platform release: (re)development and affordability

What do these two topics have in common? Lots. Most discussions about affordability in the municipal context focus narrowly on social housing, and disregard the significant influence municipalities can exert – both passively and actively – on the cost of living. The good news is, we have lots of room for improvement in Saanich, and lots of tools at our disposal. Here are some of the approaches I will work to bring forward to Saanich Council.

Reduce uncertainty for our residents and for developers by communicating a clear and compelling vision

Uncertainty comes with huge costs. Currently, with out-of-date local area plans and little guidance for development, our residents and community associations are forced into continually being on the defensive to protect the character of their neighbourhoods. Without clear and objective criteria for decision making, it has become ad hoc and unnecessarily political, pitting neighbours against each other, and residents against developers. This is not the proactive, forward-thinking approach we need to ensure our land-use decisions are coordinated and will collectively achieve a community-supported vision. And yet, there are many areas of Saanich in need of redevelopment and investment, and I fear we’re missing out on opportunities simply because we’re not sending a clear signal about what we want our neighbourhoods to look like going forward, and because consequently, outcomes are highly uncertain.

For all its wonderful qualities, many parts of Saanich lack natural community centres and gathering places for young families, seniors, and all those in between. The silver lining is that this creates a lot of exciting opportunities for redevelopment. We should focus on our urban centres and corridors, and work toward more multi-family and mixed-use developments with a wide range of nearby amenities. This approach has so many benefits:

  • increasing the sense of community and our quality of life;

  • supporting residents who wish to age in place in place;

  • maintaining more land for green space and agriculture;

  • improving affordability for renters, young professionals, and young families by increasing housing supply and reducing the need for personal vehicle ownership and use; and,

  • reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by creating more housing in places where people can bus, bike, or walk to the places they need to go.

To action this, updates to local area plans (LAPs) impacting our villages and centres should be prioritized, as well as other areas in which development interest is most significant. In the interest of being more responsive to changing community, market, and demographic dynamics, Saanich should also consider transitioning LAPs to living documents that can be updated as needed. This approach better reflects the diversity of land-use in our municipality, which means circumstances change at different paces in different places. And finally, we should use the LAP updates as an opportunity for both community associations and Saanich to engage residents, as well as representatives of the development community, who have innovative ideas and helpful expertise that is under-utilized.

Improve the efficiency of business processes related to planning

Time is money. It’s true for multinational investors, local property developers, and homeowners seeking to subdivide their lots. In combination with uncertainty about our direction, our inefficient processing of things like building permits and development (relative to other municipalities in the region) is increasingly causing those with an interest in Saanich to look elsewhere. The costs to Saanich are huge: we are largely missing out on a significant wave of investment in the region, and it is also causing considerable frustration and reputational damage among residents trying to navigate the system. My recommended approach to address this issue is to:

  • develop and implement targets for business process efficiency to make Saanich more competitive and attractive to do business (e.g., timelines for issuing building permits and advancing development proposals);
  • commission a service delivery review to support staff in re-allocating resources and redesigning processes to enable the above targets to be met;

  • reconsider the current ad hoc approach to negotiating community amenity contributions to see if there is a more effective and efficient way to achieve our community objectives (e.g., more below-market housing), while also providing the certainty developers need to invest; and,

  • provided it is justified by the outcomes of the service delivery review, increase planning capacity on staff to a level more comparable with communities our size, recognizing that doing so will result in increased revenues from a larger and more diversified tax base, and will help foster goodwill with those seeking to do business in Saanich.

Think outside of the box to improve affordability

Affordability isn’t just a function of housing. Another significant non-discretionary expense is transportation. Millennials are increasingly opting to avoid personal vehicle ownership, and yet we continue to require developers to build parking for all new units, at significant expense. De-coupling housing and parking for appropriately-located developments will help reduce the cost of living for the growing number of people who prefer to commute by foot, bike, bus, or car share, and importantly position our housing sector to adapt to changing market preferences. More aggressively pursuing re-development that puts people in the right places, that is - in close proximity to amenities and public transportation – is also really critical to improve our traffic problem and to foster a stronger sense of community in our neighbourhoods.

I am not opposed to the notion of permitting unconventional housing options like garden suites and tiny homes. However, we need to recognize that doing so is likely to result in only a modest increase in housing supply since many garden suites, in particular, already exist in the absence of regulation. Permitting these new housing options will also exacerbate existing concerns about parking in residential areas, and consume a lot of staff time and resources. I would advocate for holistic consideration of a range of options to identify strategies that are more likely to yield more lasting and effective solutions to our affordability and housing supply challenges. Saanich Council’s recent decision to study the legalization of garden suites illustrates a broader concern I have about our tendency to pursue the politically salient issues of the day, rather than a more pragmatic approach that relies on evidence and best practices to identify the right strategies for our municipality’s characteristics.