Thursday, August 27, 2009

Density and neighbourhoods in the core of Victoria

I have been thinking about the issue of density and the cost of housing in general. There is ongoing sprawl in almost all major cities around the world because the typical family wants to live in a detached house if they can. The upshot of this is that there is an ongoing demand for more suburban neighbourhoods further and further away from the core of a city. Vincent Carroll wrote an interesting piece on this for the Denver Post.

Here in Victoria we see this in the growth out on the Westshore, this is where the new houses and new neighbourhoods are being built. We are not building this new houses closer into the city.

One of the major reasons we have a lot of houses being build out on the Westshore and we have more sprawl is that the core local governments are unwilling to allow a higher level of density. Getting the right to subdivide a lot to something smaller is a task in frustration. In some areas of the city it is impossible because restrictive zoning bylaws. As an example, Oak Bay as a zoning called RS1 - One Family Residential.

RS1 in Oak Bay does not allow a lot size smaller than one acre. There is not a lot of RS1 in Oak Bay, but still this these 36 properties take up 200 000 sq metres of land, about 50 acres of land in the Greater Victoria that only have 36 houses on it. I suspect that these 50 acres of land only house about 100 people. A decent sized lot in this city is around 6500 square feet, the size of a lot in Gordon Head would be about this size. The 36 RS1 lots in Oak Bay could house about 240 Gordon Head homes with a population of around 750 people.

There is no public policy benefit from Oak Bay stopping the subdivision of monster single family lots into smaller lots. The zoning has one purpose and that is to create neighbourhoods to expensive for most people to live in. It also helps keep waterfront property more exclusive by having fewer people that can live there.

Oak Bay also has an RS2 zoning - nothing smaller than 1/2 an acre. If someone wants half an acre, fine, but to stop owners from 1/2 acre from subdividing that to something like 6000 square feet is of no benefit to the city or the region or the property owner. It only supports nimbys from having to deal with more neighbours. Why are we subsidizing these people through restricting landowners from subdividing.

We drop down to RS3 - this is a minimum of more than 1/4 of an acre. This is still twice the size of a decent sized suburban lot. Even the RS4 in Oak Bay is still a large lot at almost a 1/4 acre. The smallest single family lot zoning in Oak Bay, RS5, is still over 6000 sq feet in size.

For someone to even consider subdividing an RS5 lot in Oak Bay, you need to have one over a 1/4 acre in size. There are very few properties in Oak Bay that could be subdivided.

What all of this means is that Oak Bay is forcing more people to live farther out of the core of the city than they need to. If Oak Bay were to allow a more reasonable level of density, there would be space for close to 25 000 more people to live in single family homes in Oak Bay.

Oak Bay needs to drop RS1 size to 12 000 square feet and reduce RS5 to 3000 square feet. The others would step down between the two. Beyond that there should be no red tape to any subdivision. If someone proposes a conforming subdivision, it should be a very inexpensive and quick process to allow this to happen.

Higher density would make for diverse neighbourhoods in Oak Bay, something that is desperately needed in Oak Bay. Diversity of incomes and backgrounds of people in Oak Bay would also mean an improvement for the Greater Victoria School District in the discrepancy between the best and worst schools.

If people want large properties it is their right to own them but their rights should not extent to getting local government to damage the environment through restrictive zoning that encourages sprawl. Oak Bay has a right to zone as they want, but they need to held to account for the fact that a neighbourhood like the Uplands is harming our region and world through forcing more environmental damage.

Another 25 000 people in Oak Bay would enhance retail, transit, and reduce housing prices across the region. It would reduce the use of gasoline through lower commuting distances.

Oak Bay is not the only place that is at fault, much of how Saanich zones is in the same situation. Saanich has large areas that do not allow for subdivision down to a reasonable lot size and the smallest lot allowed in Saanich is 400 square meters, a lot size that not that small at all.

There is no shortage of land in the core of this city that could be subdivided to allow for more detached houses, there are simply local government by-laws in place that stop it from happening. I am sure that if we had a local government remove the restrictions to subdivision that there would be a revolt from many property owners against that. I am suggesting going much further than secondary suites and they catch enough flak already.

I would go further and remove a lot of the zoning restrictions on light commercial and retail. Why should someone not be allowed to use their house in the Uplands as a restaurant? Why not allow boats to built on the shore of Oak Bay? What is wrong with making it easier for people to make a living from their property? Why not make our neighbourhoods inclusive of where we live and where we work? Why shouldn't all neighbourhoods be able to produce wealth for the economy?

In my opinion, the only reasonable restriction has to do with actions of my neighbour doing something that restricts my ability to use and enjoy my property. Local government zoming by-laws have been failure, it is time to move to a better model for the 21st century.
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