When Colby Brewin was a little kid running around the Sooke Lake Modular Home Co-Op, she knew that for her, Langford would always be home.
The now-25-year-old put down roots, settling into a condo with her partner and getting a job with the Capital Regional District (CRD). But today, home prices keep rising, and for Brewin, the idea of raising a family in her hometown is starting to feel more and more out of reach.
“I pictured myself here for the rest of my life. I never imagined ever having to move away,” she says. “And I think that feeling was reinstated growing up, seeing the community that Langford was developing into, becoming this family community where kids have things to do and teenagers have support.
“The community is really well integrated,” she adds. “But I’m starting to lose that vision a little bit here. And I really hope we can bring it back into focus.”
The West Shore is expanding rapidly, and other regions are taking note. In October 2020, the Cowichan Valley Citizen reported that North Cowichan Mayor Al Siebring was notably impressed with Langford’s pro-development policies, citing the city’s integrated approach to affordable housing solutions. And earlier this year Maclean’s ranked Langford the top community in B.C. for livability, coming out 16 spots ahead of Victoria.
But experts say building liveable, affordable communities requires a deliberate, balanced approach, and it’s not yet clear what the future holds for the West Shore.
More spent on housing on the West Shore
Rapid and unyielding growth in a handful of communities on Lək̓ʷəŋən territory — particularly Langford, Colwood and Sooke — has impacted the region’s housing market, but living on the West Shore isn’t exactly accessible for all. According to the CRD’s 2020 Housing and Transportation Cost Estimate Study, the average Colwood household spends $16,740 per year on housing, while the average Victoria household spends $14,040.
Other West Shore communities boast high shelter spending too, with average household housing costs in Langford coming in at $17,556, Highlands at $19,212, Sooke at $15,102 and View Royal at $17,352.
According to the study, these housing costs include rented, owned and mortgaged properties. The costs represent a total of all housing expenses including mortgage or rent payments, property taxes, strata fees, heat, water and electricity.
Brewin recalls the four-bedroom Colwood home her family rented when she was a teenager. It cost about $1,600 a month, she remembers. Now the house is on the market for more than $800,000.
“The reason why my family decided to move was actually because our landlord was going to raise the rent, just to align with market prices after a few years,” she says. “It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We had to find different accommodations after that.”
Growth and development on the West Shore is booming. By the City of Langford’s own projections, the municipality will see a 123 per cent population boost over the 25 years between 2001 and 2026 — an echo of population growth predictions for the rest of the West Shore, expected to rise 66 per cent in the same time period.
In Langford, subdivision applications more than doubled between 2019 and 2020, when the city received 496 land development applications, and in 2020 the city earned $2.6 million in building permit revenue — far exceeding the budgeted amount of $1.8 million. The growth is visible in the amount of new builds dotting the region. According to Langford’s 2020 Housing Needs Report, just over half of Langford’s housing stock was built between 2001 and 2016. During that time, 36 per cent of new builds were single-detached houses.
But in the years that followed there was a shift. From 2015 to 2019, single-family dwellings took a back seat to apartments, which made up 72.5 per cent of additional dwellings. In the Housing Needs Report, Langford connects the strong demand for apartments to purpose-built Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) programs and low interest rates.
Langford’s growth has alarmed enough residents for a more than 900-member civilian group to form online with an aim to keep a close eye on the approvals and processes of the municipal government. Despite her concerns about affordability, Brewin understands why.
“I get the need for housing, and I totally understand the need to build supply, but I just don’t think that it’s fair that we’re destroying our municipality’s green space to provide supply for the majority of the region,” she says.
Several respondents to a survey about West Shore development launched by The Discourse identified affordability as a top concern.
“The rent is way too high,” wrote one respondent.
Another respondent wrote: “As I understand it, the biggest challenge is balancing the need for affordable housing for prospective residents with the needs of current residents. In Langford, this is not being handled well. Langford’s system of streamlining development approvals comes at the great expense of shutting out the voices of current residents. We are worried about rapidly dwindling greenspace, lack of due care for the environment, lack of sufficient infrastructure to support the rapid increase in density, near constant blasting and construction noise, damage to our homes, among many other things.”
Policies don’t shift the market
Affordable housing is described typically as housing that costs less than 30 per cent of the total household income. In 2018, the City of Victoria formally adopted that definition, acknowledging that costs to rent or own a home in the core continue to outpace local incomes.
Ann Dale, a professor with the Royal Roads School of Environment and Sustainability, says residential development doesn’t automatically correlate with affordability — not without deliberate, integrated planning.
“You have to ask, are a percentage of these new condos, these new developments, co-operative housing? Shared housing? Senior housing? Young couple? Or is it all the same socio-economic group they’re targeted at?” Dale says.
The Capital Region Housing Corporation (CRHC) opened three developments providing more than 400 homes for low-to-moderate income families since December, 2020. Those properties — two in Langford and one in View Royal — bolster the existing West Shore supply, which makes up roughly 34 per cent of the CRHC’s affordable homes.
Another two projects underway in Sooke will add 245 mixed-market homes to the area by 2023.
And West Shore municipalities do have affordable policies in place.
New development in Colwood requires a contribution to the municipality’s Affordable Housing Reserve Fund, which is directed to projects like the Colwood Lodge, where the Greater Victoria Housing Society (GVHS) has preliminary plans to turn the four-storey, 50-unit building into a 119-unit, 15-storey rental apartment building. Another GVHS project — over 100 units of affordable housing at 330 Goldstream Ave. — is nearing completion with the help of a $220,000 contribution in 2018 from the city’s Affordable Housing Reserve Fund. The Aboriginal Land Trust is in the process of building 124 units at 342 Wale Rd., with nearly $500,000 from the city.
In 2004 Langford launched an Affordable Housing Program that includes 39 single family dwellings and eight multi-family condo units. The program, which won the 2008 Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) Housing Award, has a waitlist of qualified buyers hoping to purchase one of the homes, which the city says “periodically come up for resale.” Langford council also modified policy in 2012 so developers could choose between a $1,000 contribution to the Affordable Housing Reserve Fund for every single family-equivalent dwelling created by rezoning — or construct a new affordable home for every 15 single-family lots subdivided.
But those policies don’t reach everyone. An affordability gap analysis of Langford homeowners revealed that lone parent families living on a median income are spending 30 to 50 per cent — or more — of their income on housing. Couples without children are typically out of the affordability range for single-family homes and townhouses too.
Those affordability rates improve for renters — but only slightly. Lone-parent families are, again, spending more than 30 per cent of their income to live in a one-bedroom apartment, and a two- or three-bedroom unit will typically cost more than 50 per cent of their income.
James Munro, GVHS director of real estate development, says the newer stock of apartments on the West Shore are still out of reach for many, and the average Langford rent (around $1,550 for a one-bedroom unit, according to rental listing analyst Zumper) is skewed by the older apartments on the market — most of which aren’t available.
“There’s a lot of occupied old stock that’s fairly low [cost] and there’s new stock that’s fairly high [cost],” Munro says. Still, he says more available units might mean that people ready to move out of older buildings will free up the older stock, leaving them available to people with lower incomes. Of course, landlords can — and often do — raise the rent, but that’s only feasible as long as the market stays tight.
“I think the next two years is really going to show us, because there’s an awful lot of units opening up,” Munro adds. He points to developments like Colwood Corners, a project that will bring more than 470 residential units to the corner of Sooke Road and Goldstream Avenue. The project includes everything from low-end market, moderate affordable and full market units, plus more than 14,200 square metres of commercial floor area.
“That will kind of remake the rental market in that area entirely,” Munro says.
The role of transportation
Eric Doherty, a Victoria-based freelance transportation planner, echoes that focus. Affordability isn’t just housing, he says, it’s living a good life.
“Quite often, when people move away from public transit, they move away from walkable areas, in order to find less expensive housing [and] they end up in a trap where [they are] spending just as much money overall as they would have closer in,” he says. “Because every extra car they add to the household costs about $6,000.”
The CRD’s 2020 Housing and Transportation Cost Estimate Study quantifies Doherty’s concerns. The average annual transportation costs for those on the West Shore is significantly higher than core municipalities — for example, the average Langford household spends $13,444 annually on transportation, compared to $7,921 per household in Victoria.
That’s connected, in part, to the rate of car ownership, which is higher per household as you move west of Victoria. The report itself notes that ownership and maintenance are the most significant costs — not distance travelled.
“It’s not even a predictable expense,” Doherty notes. “Most low-income people are driving used cars and … one year it might cost you a few thousand, the next year it might cost you $9,000.”
In April, the Goldstream News Gazette reported that a newly approved six-storey Langford residential development at Goldstream and Fairway Avenues had been halved from the original 12-storey proposal after public backlash. One of the biggest concerns? Traffic congestion.
Related: Controversial development proposal heads to Langford city council
Doherty says now is the time to put resources towards public transit, walking and cycling — not highway expansion.
“In 2008, the provincial governments came up with a transportation plan that included bus rapid transit, with continuous bus lanes all up Highway 1,” he says. “It didn’t have a freeway interchange, it just had very fancy bus lanes and bus stations. And somehow, over the years, that idea of emphasizing public transit — which is affordable transportation — just got lost.”
In B.C.’s 2008 plan, $1.2 billion was earmarked for RapidBus BC lines — energy efficient, high capacity buses on major routes in high-growth urban centres like Victoria, Kelowna and Metro Vancouver.
“Even going back to 2008 there were people in the [Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure] who really understood the potential of dedicated transit lanes in places like Victoria,” he says. “They saw the potential of how you could move so many more people, and they also saw the … impossibility of jamming more cars into areas like downtown Victoria.”
As part of a West Shore Transit Priority Plan, priority bus lane expansion on Victoria’s Douglas Corridor was completed in 2018, but the portion of the route stretching from the Colwood bus exchange to the McKenzie Interchange remains either in the planning stage or untouched.
And Doherty says transit planning included in the 2020 South Island Transportation Plan was almost a step backwards.
“I’m not seeing concrete proposals to actually get stuff built for public transit,” he expands. “Whereas the proposals for highway expansion, they’ve all got very firm wording about budgets and moving ahead. All the transit staff vague wording.”
Related: Transportation study falls short, say West Shore mayors
Joshua Evans, a coordinator with the University of Alberta’s Affordable Housing Solutions Lab, says solutions come in three formats: regulatory measures like inclusionary zoning or rent control; demand-side programs like housing subsidies or lowered interest rates; and supply-side solutions such as the provision of below-market or non-market housing.
“There’s no silver bullet solution,” Evans says. “It’s more a matter of what combinations of responses will yield the most results.”
Municipalities have power when it comes to zoning, planning and affordable reserves, Evans adds. Opportunities lay at the intersection of municipal regulatory responses and provincial and federal housing supply, which is often sold to or operated by non-profit organizations.
“Today, a huge proportion of our non-market housing is not-for-profit run, and [non-profits] play a really important role,” he says. “There’s definitely solutions where we assist or facilitate these not-for-profits in their ability to develop housing and increase the supply of housing.”
Evans also points to co-operative housing, a model used frequently in the ‘70s and ‘80s for people with low to moderate incomes. Controlled by members, co-op rental housing has no outside landlord.
“It’s a model that’s somewhere between private rental and home ownership. … It’s its own unique thing,” Evans says. “And historically non-profit co-operative housing has been a really important supply of affordable housing in cities across Canada.”
Related: During a time of social isolation, cohousing builds community
One of the biggest pieces around the supply solution is changing perspectives and ideologies around social and affordable housing, Evans says.
“We kind of see it as a residual sector, and [think] housing is only for those in dire need,” he says. “As a result, when it comes to social housing in Canada, it’s a little less than five per cent of the total housing stock in the country.”
Providing more affordable housing is one thing, making a community is another, says Dale. She cautions against a proliferation of housing developments that fails to simultaneously consider the need for meaningful, diverse spaces.
“It’s not going to work if it’s sustainability for some and not for all,” she says. “So you know, a lot of people say, ‘Well, we’re building green, and we’re building better.’ But if our communities don’t offer a diversity of cultures, a diversity of food choices, a diversity of amenities and activities, then they just become homogeneous, you know, one box after another box.”
Transportation is key to community building too, Dale says. She points to a master plan developed by New York City council and Amtrack, proposing 12,000 affordable homes at Sunnyside Yard, the hub of a regional rail network between Manhattan and Queens. Purposeful building along major corridors and transportation routes could be key on the West Shore, she says.
“What local governments can do, even if they’re in a development bind where they have to grow, or they can’t raise any more money … is to develop innovative policies to encourage the very changes you want to make for a greater sustainable community.”
Doherty believes investments on the Galloping Goose Regional Trail are worthwhile, too. Things like separating bike and walking lanes, adding in better lighting and faster snow clearing could make it a more viable commuter route, he notes.
“Equity, diversity and inclusion — do we really mean anything by that?” she posits. “Or are they just words?”
To Doherty, integrating accessibility into urban planning means creating communities where people can live well without a vehicle. That means safe sidewalks and crosswalks and cycling routes safe for all ages and abilities.
“A transit centre still has some cars, it’s still accessible by motor vehicle if that’s what you need to do, but you’re not forced to get everywhere and go everywhere in a car,” he says. “You’re not forced to have four cars in order to live as a family with young adults.”
“I think the potential is there to make the whole region more affordable, … healthier and more pleasant,” he says. “We’re at a turning point in the region, with the CRD board, whether we’re going to make the region more affordable or less affordable, healthier or less healthy, whether we’re going to try to meet our climate targets or just not bother.”
Colby Brewin and her partner are young — but they got a lucky break, she says. Their condo was purchased during a downswing in the market. She doesn’t know what her options will be moving forward, but the born-and-raised Langford resident hasn’t given up on the West Shore yet.
“We know that we won’t be able to afford a single family home and so we’re looking for maybe some sort of co-op housing or town housing, but the options there are just so limited,” she says. “It really is becoming more of a game of luck or personal background. People are getting tons of help from family, just to get into the market, and unfortunately, that’s not the reality for a vast majority of our population.”
This Delving Into Development article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.