Going, Going, Gone…

I am re-posting this article because in the last few weeks, I have had many Oak Bay residents talk to me about their concerns at the rate of small house demolitions occurring in Oak Bay.  Even a well known mortgage broker friend of ours raised this issue in a conversation this week.   “Have you driven around the Uplands lately?” she asked.  “It’s unbelievable.”  Yes, the number of demolitions of smaller and older homes is worrying, threatening green space and accessible forms of housing in Oak Bay.  At the present time, the market is “hot and getting hotter,” driving up prices, creating bidding wars and eliminating housing that could be seen as more affordable.  In addition to lower income earners, middle income earners are now getting squeezed in a current Victoria housing market that some industry observers argue is still 30% under-valued compared to the Vancouver market, from which I understand, buyers are flocking to Greater Victoria.

I don’t have all the answers but Oak Bay can start right now to establish a housing demolition policy that includes new fees and waste management planning, encouraging developers to consider alternatives to demolition.  There is also an outstanding report on floor area ratio adopted by the last Council in 2014 (of which I was a member) but still not implemented.  This would help to address massing on smaller lots, an ongoing concern to local residents and to neighbourhoods.  This is a complex and pressing problem that no amount of talking and hand-wringing will solve.

When was the last time you took a drive through Oak Bay?  Notice anything changing?  How about the number of empty lots, big yellow backhoes and signs of construction on many of our local neighbourhood streets? 


If you think that smaller older character homes and bungalows are disappearing at a great rate of knots, you are probably onto something.  In 2014 alone, there were about 33 housing demolitions in Oak Bay (make that about 34 as of January 2015) and the trend continues.  We should be concerned about these losses to Oak Bay’s housing stock and here are some reasons why.

  • Housing Accessibility and the Real Estate Market

Smaller character homes and bungalows form an important pool of accessible housing in Oak Bay.  These homes are also integral to Oak Bay’s attractive street scapes and landscapes so valued by existing residents and newcomers.  Priced in the $500,000+ to $600,000+ range, depending on size, condition and location, these homes appeal to younger families, older couples who are downsizing and to first-time buyers to Oak Bay seeking more modest accommodation.  They represent entry and price points that are more reasonable than many other homes and properties in Oak Bay, many of which are in the $1,000,000+ price range.  Many people I know who own and live in smaller older homes take pride in home ownership and spend time, money and energy to improve them over time.

While affordability is a term often used to address housing needs in the region, “affordable housing” in Oak Bay is a real challenge, given the high land values.  But for those who want to stretch a bit to buy a home here, the availability of the smaller older house makes home ownership a possibility for middle income families and other groups, until now.  As small older homes go down and new homes go up on the same lot, so do prices and market values on these new homes.   Example:  A small older 1930’s bungalow is listed for sale at an asking price of about $500,000 and sells close to that price.  The house is demolished to make room for a new home that when finished, is listed at over $1.2M.  This scenario is being repeated all over Oak Bay, raising alarm bells for those of us concerned about housing diversity, capacity and accessibility.

Without adequate housing options, our ability to attract new residents to Oak Bay may be compromised and may negatively impact our quality of life.  Local volunteer organizations, local businesses and village economies, schools, recreation facilities and other community services and programs that rely on a stable population and tax base to flourish may see negative growth.  It is also worth pointing out that Oak Bay is one of the few communities in the Capital Regional District (CRD) that derives more than 95% of its annual revenue from residential property taxes.

  • BC Assessment Trends

Recently released 2015 BC Assessment results show a 2.5% average increase to Oak Bay’s property values, bucking the downward trend elsewhere in the CRD.  But what does this mean for Oak Bay’s older, smaller character homes and bungalows?

Digging a little deeper reveals some interesting answers and might explain why the wrecking ball is swinging in Oak Bay.  For instance, a 1937 single storey bungalow of approximately 1,000 square feet, with a full basement and separate garage, located on a 50′ x 112′ lot with rear alley access, is assessed this year at $611,300.  Broken down, the well maintained house with updated kitchen has an assessed value of just $35,300 while the land is assessed at $576,000.  This disparity is not unique to this home.  Comparing assessments on the same street of mainly older homes, we see the same disparity between the assessed value of the house and the lot — the real value in Oak Bay is in its land base and if this trend persists, older houses will continue to disappear and lots will be snapped up by developers.

Last year, the Globe and Mail did a series on the erosion and loss of older homes and neighbourhoods in urban centers, citing Vancouver as a good example of what can happen to established neighbourhoods when development is not carefully planned or regulated.  The same process happened in parts of Toronto and it appears to be happening in Oak Bay.  We need a housing demolition and heritage conversion policy that provides incentives to renovate rather than to raze larger and smaller character homes.

Planning is key and Oak Bay will be developing this year a housing strategy and reviewing its zoning bylaw, as it implements its new Official Community Plan, a thirty year document that was only last year fully revised and updated to reflect a more contemporary vision of how to sensitively plan for change and moderate growth.  Only late last year did Oak Bay finally hire an in-house professional planner to guide land use and last year, Oak Bay re-evaluated its 2007 decision on massing homes on small lots, through completion of the 2014 Floor Area Ratio (FAR) Report.

This report should be brought forward this spring for Council’s consideration and a decision made sooner, rather than later, to act on recommendations that we hope will help to slow the rate of housing demolition and create more flexibility for new and existing homeowners.

  • Conclusions

For years, Oak Bay Heritage has been concerned about housing demolition, especially as it relates to heritage conservation, citing the importance to our community of retaining older character homes, including neighbourhood street scapes and green space.  Admittedly, not every older character house is salvageable.  But where these homes are suitable for renovation, heritage volunteers have long recognized that it is necessary to develop land use policies and incentives that encourage renovation and restoration as alternatives to tearing them down.

The dedicated and skilled volunteers who sit on Oak Bay’s Heritage Commission and the Foundation continue to work hard on behalf of the community, ensuring that heritage values are well integrated with land use planning.  Many residents also recognize that designated and registered homes, homes over 100 years old (century homes) and the inventory of smaller older houses and bungalows are significant assets to Oak Bay’s history; these important landmarks form Oak Bay’s established neighbourhoods and have many stories to tell about owners, families and early human settlement in this area, underscoring the argument that if we continue to lose these houses and landscapes, we also lose a part of our history.

The tension in Oak Bay between the need for more housing options for people of all ages, and the need to conserve and protect our existing housing stock, is an issue that can only be adequately addressed through reasonable building policy and zoning regulation that create a balanced approach to land use planning.  I urge the new Oak Bay Council to tackle this issue as soon as possible and stem the current tide of housing demolitions before it is too late.  Once these smaller, older houses and bungalows are gone and the lots cleared, our neighbourhoods and streets scapes are forever changed.

  • Update

Thanks to readers who responded to this article with questions about what type of incentives would be helpful to encourage renovation and restoration of older character homes and bungalows.  Various jurisdictions use a variety of methods related to supporting re-development, restoration and renovation, such as:

  1. Waiving some or all municipal development permit application fees.
  2. Allowing density bonusing and regulated secondary suites.
  3. Awarding grants to assist with heritage home conversions, to apartments or condominiums (adds hidden density, increases housing stock and preserves the house, green space and street scape e.g., Mole Hill in West End Vancouver).
  4. Accessing a Land and Housing Trust that encourages innovative forms of housing, both accessible and below market, in partnership with a local authority such as a municipality and other community sectors.

None of the above options can be developed or introduced without first consulting the community and involving residents and neighbourhoods in careful planning.