Housing Affordability in Oak Bay

A two-part public forum on housing affordability in Oak Bay, sponsored by the Community Association of Oak Bay, brought packed audiences to both sessions held February 24 and March 3, 2018 at Windsor Park.  The following summary is based on my notes and observations of presentations and one of the small group discussions in which I participated.

The Context: (based on a presentation by Kay Melliship, Executive Director of the Victoria Housing Society)

With a regional “housing crisis” in Greater Victoria, where the average house price is now at just over $840,000 in Victoria and about $1.2M in Oak Bay, it’s no wonder housing affordability is on the minds of many, including local governments.  Oak Bay is particularly hard hit when it comes to providing housing options and choice for all ages and stages of life.  Recent data shared at the two forums reveals the following:

  • Oak Bay had a o.7% increase in population over the past 2 years
  • 63% of Oak Bay’s housing stock is single family dwellings
  • 22% of Oak Bay’s housing stock is rental
  • 70% of Oak Bay’s private households have two or less people living in them
  • the CMHC estimate for how much of household income should be spent on housing cost is 30% but in Oak Bay, the cost of housing is about 45% of household income
  • the average rental cost of a one bedroom apartment/condo in Oak Bay is $1,004 per month

Household income is also used to determine the cost of borrowing and servicing a mortgage.  For example, a moderate household income for two people with no children is defined as $69,000 per year.  But to purchase a house at $840,000, a household income of $118,640 would be needed.  To purchase a home in Oak Bay, household income would have to exceed $118,640.  It’s clear that buying a home in Oak Bay or renting an apartment or condo are geared to moderate income levels and up.

What are some of the factors, then, that make Oak Bay so expensive and such a challenge for available “affordable” housing?

  • high land values
  • rising construction costs
  • “slow and risky” municipal approval processes
  • rising interest rates for buyers and developers
  • household income level

The term “affordable” normally refers to subsidized housing (partially government funded) that includes housing for low income singles, families and seniors, the disabled, women fleeing domestic abuse and single parent families.  Because of the factors listed above and other housing challenges, little if any affordable housing that is subsidized currently exists in Oak Bay.  The municipality is, however, a partner in the CRD’s Regional Housing Trust Fund and makes annual contributions to the Fund that support affordable housing projects in other regional communities.

The Challenge:

The last time increased housing density was developed on a larger scale was during the 1960’s, when apartment buildings and duplexes were built throughout the municipality.   Development of this scale has not occurred in Oak Bay for decades, until now.

Often described as “built out,” changes to Oak Bay’s housing stock had been subtle and moderate, focused largely on single family dwellings.  But the real estate boom of the mid-2000’s heralded another building boom that has been particularly noticeable in the Uplands and in South Oak Bay.  Coupled with the fact that Oak Bay had no professional planning staff until just over three years ago, the injection of new investment wealth into the market created a “perfect storm” for change.  Older homes in the Uplands and character homes in South Oak Bay have been picked off by developers and buyers with an insatiable appetite, who have taken advantage of a high end market.

There is an ongoing tension in Oak Bay about housing — questions most commonly asked are:

  • Why do we need change?
  • Why do we need more options and choice?
  • Why do we want more density?
  • Who is driving the market in Oak Bay?

The counterpoints to these questions are:

  • Oak Bay has limited housing choice and options for those wanting to downsize from their single family home.
  • Our community should remain open, vibrant and welcoming, especially to a younger demographic.
  • Secondary suites are a viable form of housing and should be regulated.
  • Residents who want to age in place and remain in their community should be considered in any housing plan.
  • Duplexes, multi-family housing, town houses and more rental accommodation should be encouraged.
  • Communities change and grow to remain sustainable.

I have always believed that if we don’t manage change, it will manage us so developing a better vision for future housing and anticipating Oak Bay’s housing needs should only be achieved through sound planning and a housing policy, strategy or plan that provides a framework.

The Conversation:

No doubt, the conversation as to future housing needs for Oak Bay is just beginning.  With a recent motion from Oak Bay Council about the regulation of secondary suites, the conversation will continue well past the next municipal election in October 2018.  It’s a conversation that we need to have but should be underpinned by authentic public engagement.  The 2014 Official Community Plan lays out guidelines for housing and now the community must decide the best way forward.  Let’s keep talking…