An aerial view over Oak Bay and the marina. Oak Bay residents pay the highest taxes on Vancouver Island. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)

An aerial view over Oak Bay and the marina. Oak Bay residents pay the highest taxes on Vancouver Island. (Don Denton/Black Press Media)

Oak Bay struggles to come to grips with density

Skyrocketing housing costs have led to the population becoming older and wealthier

This is the final instalment of a two-part series on Oak Bay’s role in building the missing middle in Greater Victoria. Read the first part here.

Last year, the City of Edmonton removed parking minimums from its zoning bylaws. In 2019, lawmakers for the state of Oregon amended the rules around single-family zoning. In Vancouver, the conversation around removing parking minimums is underway. But these trends have not made it to Greater Victoria, at least not yet.

And yet, the cost of a single-family home in Oak Bay increased by 48 per cent between 2010 and 2018. For comparison, it is estimated that median household income grew by only 12 per cent over this period.

Oak Bay is now grappling with what it can do to bring relief to the housing crisis and is at the start of its three-year housing framework plan.

The February 2021 median rent for one-bedroom apartments suites in Victoria is $1,570, fifth highest among Canadian cities, according to Padmapper. (Padmapper Image)

“We see people leaving our community because it’s not an option for them. We’re losing folks who have been here a long time,” Coun. Andrew Appleton said. “People focus on structures, the ‘character,’ but to me, the community is created by the people in it. If you lose the community members who don’t have a place to live, that’s a loss for the city.”

The housing crisis is being felt across Greater Victoria, and the densification of cities is one of the main strategies to respond to the impending climate crisis. After all, sprawling, auto-centric cities, are how we got here. Oak Bay recognized that in a 2008 climate change committee report that included a list of actions Oak Bay residents could take to minimize their carbon footprint.

The report also listed density as a key consideration by permitting secondary suites, allowing subdivisions, permitting smaller houses on smaller lots, duplexes and multiplexes, cluster housing, stratas and the conversion of larger homes into multi-unit suites.

Oak Bay climate change committee identified density as a need in 2008. (Oakbay.ca)

In the 1950s, auto-centric development led to sprawl. It led to single-family infill of Gordon Head, and the subdivision of big lots that still remained in Fairfield, Rockland, Jubilee, Camosun, and Oaklands neighborhoods. North Oak Bay and old remaining farmlands were also developed then, including the big-block of land that was once the Willows fairgrounds.

It was a big transformation from the original Oak Bay that was linked by the electric streetcars. Single-family zoning crept through the bylaws and parking minimums were introduced.

However, imagine instead of single-family homes that more attention was paid to building walk-up, three-storey buildings, said Todd Litman of Cities for Everyone.

“The best evidence we have is that we are not adding middle housing and our prices are up,” Litman said.

For decades, ‘parking,’ added ‘traffic,’ and ‘character,’ have been codes that ruled the conversation when development proposals come up in Oak Bay. Forcing developers to build underground parking is extremely expensive and drives the costs of condo or apartment units up.

‘Character,’ particularly, has become a code word associated with single-family housing, and in Oak Bay, that means only wealthy people can live there.

“It’s a blessing and a curse, the aura that Oak Bay is a difficult place for developers to get what they want, but …. it maintains the character of Oak Bay, the old-fashioned look and feel that is quaint, and that from a heritage perspective I love,” said Coun. Eric Zhelka.

For Zhelka, and others on council, one of the most attractive options for adding density to Oak Bay is to convert old houses into suites. It’s something that used to happen frequently but is becoming less common. That, and council’s move to reintroduce duplexes as legal.

“I hate to see a duplex come down, replaced with a single-family home, that means less rental, and to me that’s a disaster,” Zhelka said.

In Oak Bay, it’s a complex situation, as not all agree on the level of density.

“I don’t think we can assume density is the cure-all for affordability, sustainability or livability,” said Coun. Esther Paterson.

“The district has a relatively good, albeit aging, mix of multi-residential buildings; and unregulated basement suites. And there is already an acceptance of subdividing large character homes as a way to preserve built and natural heritage in the community. Transportation/parking is always contentious, although the success of The Clive (increased density/reduced parking) is a model that worked because of its location relative to public transportation. Incentivizing is easier in cities where vacant land, lower land value, and a diversified tax base provide flexibility. As a fully developed small community, options are limited.”

Oak Bay’s static population rate is a problem for the community. Residents and developers are facing extremely high off-site servicing costs. The price of homes is extremely high.

The age of residents is increasingly trending older, as the community becomes less accessible to younger residents. The median age of 52.4 is much higher than the CRD’s median age of 44.8. In a pattern of attrition between 2006 and 2016, the number of residents under 65 declined by 1,050, while the number of residents 65 and over grew by 880 residents.

Meanwhile, the gap between median earners and high-income earners is growing. The proportion of residents making more than $125,000 increased by 22 per cent, while the proportion of households making less than this decreased by 12 per cent between 2006 and 2016.

And while it suggest that Oak Bay’s older population is doing OK financially, Luke Mari of Aryze developments, said there is actually going to become a desperate need to plan for the diverse needs of seniors.

“One of the most significant gaps is the lack of more compact housing forms in Oak Bay that would meet the needs of seniors wanting to downsize from their single family homes but stay in Oak Bay. So in reality, these trends are creating a neighbourhood that is lacking in future accessibility for its current residents,” Mari said.

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