The Housing Crunch

Over the past few months, media attention has focused on the loss of older character homes barged from Oak Bay and transplanted to other communities. 


The San Juan Community Home Trust is a grateful recipient of these homes, re-purposed by the Trust as affordable housing on San Juan Island, Washington State.  This affordable housing project using reclaimed Oak Bay houses is the twist to the story that first caught my attention and that of local, national and international media; if this extensive coverage is any indication, this was a story just waiting to be told.  News media that picked up the story were the Victoria Times Colonist, the Oak Bay News, reporter Kerry Gold of the Globe and Mail (she has written extensively about “vanishing Vancouver”), the Sudbury Star, the Guardian, the Vancouver Province, the National Post and the New York Times, impressive media attention for two small communities in the Pacific Northwest.

Their stories reveal what we already know — that the West Coast real estate market reflects a troublesome trend, characterized by precedent-setting high home prices, demolition of established neighbourhoods, lack of affordable housing and limited inventory, as well as a “spill-over” effect to Southern Vancouver Island, from buyers fleeing Vancouver’s “out of sight” market and seeking more affordable options.

In Oak Bay, the clock appears to be ticking on older homes and neighbourhoods, where a proliferation has occurred in the last 3 to 5 years, of demolitions and removals of smaller character homes and older homes sitting on double lots.  In light of recent media attention, Oak Bay’s Mayor has agreed to strike a Mayor’s Task Force to examine this trend.  While further study may be wise, frankly, one only has to drive through residential areas such as the Uplands and areas in South Oak Bay to see and understand what these losses mean.  And this issue is not new for Oak Bay.  The late Allan Cassidy, architect and former Oak Bay Councillor, contemplated tax incentives in the mid-2000’s designed to protect older character bungalows.

In a nutshell, it’s not just the loss of housing stock; in a high octane real estate market, more than the older house is on the block — a certain quality of life is also up for sale and goes to the highest bidder.  For example, a plain 1940’s bungalow not updated and purchased just over a year ago, was recently sold for nearly $205,000 over the asking price of $725,000.  In Oak Bay today, this is becoming a familiar story, where prospective purchasers are forced to scramble to buy an otherwise moderate house in an atmosphere of intense bidding wars and overpricing.  Moderate character homes are fetching immoderate prices that 6 months ago were thought to be impossible.

The tension between property rights, a market-driven real estate economy and supply and demand are also factors that should be considered; but they don’t tell the whole story.  Faced with similar development pressures, a number of cities are taking steps to address the cause and effect of a housing market out of control.  Housing issues of accessibility, affordability and a near zero rental vacancy rate combine to threaten local economies as younger people, families and retirees are moving out of urban centres to find less expensive housing.

As a result, cities such as Vancouver, Richmond, Calgary, Edmonton, Seattle and Portland have all introduced measures to address housing issues related to pricing, low rental vacancy rates and environmental impacts of factors such as  demolition waste.  In Oak Bay’s case, however, the community does not currently have necessary regulatory planning tools in place to effectively address rapid neighbourhood development and re-development, often characteristic of a “run-away” real estate market.  And as older houses go down, anxiety among local residents goes up.

As observed with recent housing loss, especially in older South Oak Bay neighbourhoods, local concerns about the increase of demolition/removal stem from noticeable losses of mature green space, streetscapes and privacy in neighbourhoods where small lots are the norm.  Unlike the exclusive residential area of the Uplands, where lot sizes can be an acre or more and houses are set back and concealed by mature landscapes, small lots in South Oak Bay are much less discreet; when an old South Oak Bay house comes down and a new much larger, more expensive home goes up in its place, adjacent neighbours can be faced with a looming structure built to the edge of existing lot lines.  That these new homes encroach on the privacy of smaller homes around them is obvious to those who live nearby.

As I have often said, change and development are a natural cycle of growth and I welcome new options to Oak Bay’s housing stock that will complement what is here now and encourage new residents to move in and others to stay.  But the key to growth and development is how effectively a community can manage these changes, so that core community values such as natural environments, social and economic capital and heritage and historical landmarks and neighbourhoods are sustained and not lost.

Oak Bay’s new Mayor’s Task Force includes two municipal Councillors and two volunteer community members representing Oak Bay’s Heritage Commission and Advisory Planning Commission.  Fortunately, there is a timeline of early June attached to the work, with Task Force recommendations rolled up in a report expected to go to Council.  As a private citizen concerned about diminishing housing options in Oak Bay, I hope that the scope of the Task Force will focus not just on the loss of heritage homes, but will include smaller character homes and how their loss impacts local housing affordability/accessibility, services and the economy, social issues, green space, tree canopies, neighbourhood integrity and the environment.