Victoria considers minimum-size restriction for downtown housing units

Mayor Lisa Helps says review of new downtown housing is more about livability than unit size

Times Colonist
July 10, 2018

Photo - Victoria city hall clock.
Victoria City Hall

Victoria councillors have asked staff to consider setting a minimum unit size for downtown apartments and condos.

Mayor Lisa Helps said the review, which comes as councillors are about to send a revised zoning bylaw to a public hearing, is more about livability than unit size. That might mean ensuring a unit has an operable window or access to open space.

“What we don’t want is hearing: ‘Oh, it’s affordable housing,’ but it’s a tiny box that isn’t really very nice to call home,” Helps said. “I’m a firm believer that design can go a long way to creating livability in a small space. So I think that’s what we’re looking for, what design guidelines can implement that would create livability, affordability in a small footprint as well.”

While other areas of the city have minimum-size limits for multi-unit residential buildings, downtown Victoria, which has become home to an influx of micro-lofts, never has.

Two years ago councillors considered removing the minimum unit size in all multi-residential zones in the city. Instead, they directed staff to set at standard minimum unit size of 33 square metres — 355.2 square feet — in multi-unit zones outside downtown and set no minimum for downtown.

The Downtown Residents Association would like the city to impose a minimum unit size for downtown as part of a new zoning bylaw.

It’s an idea some councillors say has merit.

When the first of the micro-loft condo units were approved, the thinking was that for people living in them, downtown coffee shops, restaurants and open spaces would be their living area.

“Then we started to find out that people were using them for short term vacation rentals and when I asked [why], they would say they’re not livable for long term because they’re so small,” said Coun. Charlayne Thornton-Joe at a recent meeting of councillors. “So that is to me creating a concern.”

“I absolutely agree that where true housing is being provided it may be appropriate to have smaller unit sizes,” said Coun. Geoff Young, citing student housing as an example.

“But I certainly don’t want us to be in the situation that Coun. Thornton-Joe mentioned where people have the feeling that units are not really livable and that their best use is as STVRs,” he said.

The idea is opposed by the Urban Development Institute; it says a minimum-unit size in downtown will detract from the ability of developers to provide more affordable housing.

“This type of requirement will limit the ability of developers to bring a diverse housing supply to market and limit the ability of developers to respond to market conditions,” UDI executive director Kathy Hogan said in a letter to council.

Coun. Marianne Alto said livability isn’t necessarily a function of size.

“I can certainly point to many folk in my community where the unique and really quite outstanding opportunities to live in what I would consider to be a very small space have been very comfortable and very acceptable and really all that they want,” Alto said.

Helps said there’s no longer a worry new small units downtown will be used as vacation rentals because council has already amended the zoning to prohibit that. “You can’t build new units to be STVRs. You can only build new units to be rental units to be lived in by people renting or owning.”

Helps added that she wants to encourage student housing downtown.

“I want to see more students downtown. I want to see more student housing downtown. I want to see UVic downtown with students in housing.”

Coun. Pam Madoff said a staff review is an opportunity to re-examine the experience to date to see if it has been successful.

“We now have units that are 267 square feet. Maybe that’s a fabulous thing but maybe it isn’t. We need to know,” Madoff said.

Coun. Margaret Lucas opposed the idea of a minimum-unit size saying she doesn’t want the city to stifle creativity or put too many roadblocks in front of development. “It might turn away some ideas that could come forward because we’ve put stuff in place before they even come.”

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