Part 3. Missing Middle Housing, Design Guidelines, and the Protection of Neighbourhood Character

This post will be as much photo essay as written word. I want to show that Missing Middle Housing already exists throughout the city’s traditional single family neigbourhoods and how it fits in and is complementary and pleasing. Next time you’re out for a walk in your neighbourhood, see if you can spot the Missing Middle Housing. The last photo in this post provides one clue as to what to look for! With thanks to Gene Miller for providing the photos and for his passion around making Affordable Sustainable Housing (ASH), a reality in Victoria.

The City is currently undertaking consultation on a proposal to implement Missing Middle Housing in all neighbourhoods and allow for more inclusive housing forms “as of right”, which means without needing to go through a rezoning process. The Missing Middle Housing initiative is focused on creating more townhouses and houseplexes (including duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, etc.) to help diversify housing choices. It’s aimed at people who will never be able to afford a single family home in Victoria.

Fundamentally, Missing Middle Housing is about changing the way we regulate land use. Currently, if an owner of a single family home, or a duplex, or triplex wants to demolish that building and build a new single family home, all that is required is to apply for a building permit. Yet if a homeowner wants to demolish their single family home and build a houseplex, it takes a couple of years to go through a political process, with no guarantee of success.

Here are 12 units of Missing Middle Housing under construction at 945 Pembroke Street across from Central Park and Crystal Pool.

An email I received from a resident commented on this project and is relevant to share here: “I want to bring your attention to two properties with very similar characteristics, but in different areas of town. The two properties are 1645 Chandler Ave (Gonzales), and 945 Pembroke (North Park), which those on council might remember as it was rezoned with zero votes against. These are both very large rectangular 11,000+ sf lots, they have both recently started construction, and they are both within one block of a bike route (Richardson and Vancouver). 

“The differences are:

  • 945 Pembroke will include 2 sixplexes with 12 car light homes
  • 1645 Chandler will have a single family home with a 2 car garage, an accessory dwelling unit, and most importantly, an in ground swimming pool
  • 945 Pembroke had to go through a very long rezoning process
  • 1645 Chandler submitted building permits under its current zoning

“I’m unsure how much the 945 Pembroke units are being rented or sold for, but I am very confident they can’t compare to the $2.4 million 1645 Chandler is being advertised online for.”

A Times Colonist story this week shows the escalating cost of housing during 2021, exacerbated in part by a lack of supply. The average price for a single family home climbed from around $1 million at the beginning of 2021 to $1.3 million at the end. The average price for a townhouse went up from about $650,000 in January 2021 to $822, 876 by December.

There are rallying cries of support for Missing Middle Housing, some rallying cries against, and lots of people with really good questions, concerns and ideas. In this four part blog series, I’ll address these topics:

  1. The Racist and Exclusionary History of Missing Middle Housing (Dec. 5)
  2. Missing Middle Housing, the Displacement of Renters and How Missing Middle Upzoning Alone Won’t Solve the Affordability Crisis (Dec. 19)
  3. Missing Middle Housing, Design Guidelines and the Protection of Neighbourhood Character (Jan. 9)
  4. Missing Middle Housing and More Inclusive, Climate-Friendly Cities for the Future (Feb. 13)
Another example of Missing Middle Housing that retains neighbourhood character.

Missing Middle Housing and Neighbourhood Character

One of the biggest fears people have about Missing Middle Housing is that allowing houseplexes as of right on all lots currently zoned for single family homes, and townhouses on block ends, will fundamentally change the character of our beloved single family neighbourhoods. And, I sense that some people have a concurrent fear that this change will happen overnight rather than over the next few decades.

I’ll approach this fear from a couple of angles. First, by looking at the City’s House Conversion Policy which has delivered much of the Missing Middle Housing depicted in the photos in this post. Second, I’ll share highlights from the proposed Missing Middle Design Guidelines, which have been widely circulated for public input as part of the City’s missing middle engagement process last fall. The Missing Middle Design Guidelines can be found here, near the bottom of the page, right hand side in the documents section.

The design guidelines are the promise to the public about the retention of neighborhood character, even as we make more room for more people in our traditional residential neighbourhoods.

House Conversion Policy

The City’s House Conversion Regulations were first established in the 1950s. The purpose was to offer a viable option for re-purposing larger, older houses. Council at the time recognized that there was a significant stock of houses built at the turn-of- the-twentieth century which were designed to accommodate large families and/or staff and that no longer served their intended purpose and could be redesigned to accommodate a number of smaller suites.

As the report to Council in December 2019 outlines (item F2), “The conversion regulations were structured to allow property owners to convert qualifying single family dwellings, constructed primarily before 1931, to a set number of self-contained dwelling units, based on the overall floor area of the building, with larger buildings allowing a greater number of units and smaller buildings allowing fewer.”

In their report, staff go on to note that, “These regulations have had the intended effect of facilitating many conversions throughout the city, resulting in what could be described as small multiple dwelling buildings nested within existing homes in low density neighbourhoods, with little disruption to the immediate neighbours or the existing character of the area.”

In the fall of 2020, Council updated the house conversion policy from the 1950s to make more homes eligible for conversion, make it easier to convert a single family home to multiple units, and incentivize affordable housing and heritage retention. Key changes include:

  • Houses built in 1984 or before are now eligible for conversion.
  • More opportunities to use the space within a building, such as attics and under height basements.
  • Relaxed restrictions on exterior changes.
  • Incentivize heritage designation, the creation of rental units, or affordable units by allowing more units if any of these elements are included in the house conversion.
  • No minimum vehicle parking requirements and new long-term bike parking requirements.

The policy directions set out in 1951 were in place for seven decades; over that time there was a gradual conversion of many eligible homes into multi family dwellings. The policy was successful in achieving one of its key aims: ensuring that the limited land base in the city provides as much housing for as many people, while maintaining the character and feel of Victoria’s neighbourhoods.

This home used to be single family and has been converted to multiple units to house more people.

Missing Middle Design Guidelines

Like the Council in the 1950s, we are innovating in response to current needs: a housing affordability crisis, a limited housing supply, a growing population, and need to live sustainably given the climate crisis (more on that in the next post). And our approach takes its cues from the 1950s objective of preserving and enhancing the character of the city’s neighbourhoods.

The two main forms of Missing Middle Housing that Council is considering are houseplexes and townhouses.

Houseplexes are very similar to house conversions except they are newly built and designed for the purpose of containing multiple dwellings in one building (duplex, triplex, fourplex, fiveplex, and sixplex). They appear similar in size to a large, historic house and can maintain the pattern of green usable backyards with tree planting space.

Townhouses deliver more two- and three-bedroom, family-oriented housing units compared to any other multi-family housing form. Although the homes generally sit side by side, they could include suites, or be stacked where one townhouse unit sits above another. Townhouse units typically have individual walk-up entries from the street, with access to private outdoor green space.

The Missing Middle Design Guidelines are a comprehensive set of directions to ensure that the houseplexes and townhouses built as part of Missing Middle zoning over the next few decades will enhance existing neighbourhood fabric. The design guidelines aren’t optional, or just a suggestion, they are the criteria that homebuilders will need to adhere to. The guidelines can be found here (bottom of the page, right hand side) and are worth reading in their entirety.

What is clear when reading through them, is the thought, care and attention that staff and the public who provided feedback have put into ensuring a good fit for Missing Middle Housing in Victoria’s urban fabric. The guidelines address the following elements:

Site Planning – To site and orient buildings to maintain the pattern of landscaped front and back yards, that makes a positive contribution to the streetscape and that achieves a more compact and efficient residential building form while maintaining liveability.

Orientation and Interface – A Friendly Face to the Street – To ensure new development is oriented and designed to present a friendly face to the street, enhancing public streets and open spaces and encouraging street vitality, pedestrian activity, safety, and ‘eyes on the street’.

Building Form and Design – To achieve buildings of high architectural quality and interest with human-scale building proportions that support and enhance the established streetscape character and pattern.

Neighbourliness – To ensure a good fit and sensitive transition to existing adjacent buildings to minimize impacts on neighbours and contribute to an enhanced, varied, and evolving streetscape and neighbourhood context.

Materials – To use materials which are high quality, durable and weather gracefully.

Open Space Design – To enhance the quality of open space, support the urban forest, provide privacy where needed, emphasize unit entrances and pedestrian accesses, provide amenity space for residents, reduce storm water runoff, and to ensure that front and rear yards are not dominated by parking.

Just like City Council in the 1950s, our Council recognizes the need for policy innovation to do more with the city’s limited land base and make room for more people in all neighbourhoods. Not everyone wants to live in a downtown condo, and many young families starting out in Victoria will never be able to afford a single family home. Missing Middle Housing is a gentle, gradual approach that will unfold over the next many decades. It will add more housing and more people, and create more inclusive neighbourhoods, now, and for the future.

This picture gives a sense of what is possible: Many homes for many families on one “single” family lot!



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