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Urban Planning

How the Missing Middle Can Save Cities

We need a new housing approach to meet the big challenges ahead and make our communities vibrant and diverse.

Luke Mari 29 Mar

Luke Mari is an urban planner, land economist and principal at Aryze Developments. Find him on Twitter @TalkToAryze.

When it comes to the future of cities, there seems to be a hole in the centre of the discourse — almost a “missing middle” of sorts.

Among debates about whether electric cars are the answer to our climate woes or merely a mechanism to justify sprawling suburbia, and conspiracy theories about walkable “15-minute city” neighbourhoods, we are failing to emphasize some of the very people who are at the core of the issue, and who desperately need housing options at the core of our cities — families.

The unfortunate reality is that we are throttling the evolution of cities in Canada through misguided and regressive policies.

And the lack of family-friendly housing will continue to have a significant impact on our potential.

The demographic data for Vancouver Island, for example, paints a bleak example of what lies ahead for many centres. According to the provincial government’s 2023 labour market outlook, Victoria has the highest projected rate of job growth in the province. A good thing, right?

However, when projected demographic trends are taken into account, this demand for workers is exposed as the dilemma which will be the task of a generation to solve.

By 2030, 25 per cent of the City of Victoria’s population is expected to to be seniors, with similar numbers in Saanich and the region as a whole.

Where are these workers going to come from — and more importantly, where are they going to live?

Crucial to the ability to attract these people to Victoria (and keep them here) will be the creation of family-friendly housing suitable for those with children. Families migrate to where there is suitable housing and unless we supercharge our plans for a rapid transit network and bulldoze a sizable portion of the South Island’s remaining forests, these families will need to live in and around the urban core.

This symbiotic relationship between housing and our economic potential has been broadly ignored in the heated back and forth regarding the missing middle housing policies proposed both in Victoria and Vancouver. While often confused with a specific price point, missing middle housing actually refers to a "missing" housing form. This building form is a range of multi-unit housing types that can provide diverse, more affordable and walkable housing options in neighborhoods. These include duplexes, triplexes, townhouses and apartment buildings that can sit between single-family homes and large-scale towers.

So let’s say missing middle housing is built for families within the urban core of the capital region and we attract people of working age. Despite having to dodge a few more tricycles as we walk down the streets, we would be the beneficiaries of a host of positive outcomes.

Not only would our economy thrive from a healthy workforce, but there would be more density to support local businesses. According to a study by the National League of Cities, urban areas with a high number of children tend to have a lower poverty rate and more stable economy, owing to the fact that families with kids tend to spend more on local goods and services. Data also shows that cities with children are more culturally enriched, as these areas tend to be more welcoming and appealing to newcomers.

We also need to acknowledge that housing alone is not enough; kid-centric planning extends beyond creating spaces for Lego-littered carpets. Vibrant, family-friendly cities require playgrounds, fields, splash pads, schools, corner stores and — perhaps most importantly — streets and sidewalks that are safe and easy to walk, roll and scoot down. It’s not that we can’t accommodate this checklist within suburban development, but the established city core is best equipped to answer the needs of growing families. 

When it comes to road safety, ICBC data show us that the older core communities are where road users can feel safest: when normalized for day and night populations, Victoria, Oak Bay and Esquimalt are three of the four safest municipalities in the Capital Regional District. The region’s inner residential neighbourhoods are already furnished with the basics: serviceable transportation routes, closely spaced amenities and recreation infrastructure. These are the areas we should be encouraging young families to call home.

The provincial budget promised measures aimed at increasing the availability of family housing, which is something that we haven’t seen in generations. Now is our opportunity to ensure that this housing ends up where we need it most: in our urban core, close to all of the other things families require for happy, sustainable lives.

At the same time, municipal governments seem to be developing the political will to lead with proactive measures. Victoria council’s approval of the Missing Middle Housing Initiative — while an incremental step — is an unprecedented example of a council willing to take the long view and show bold leadership to ensure the continued vibrancy and competitiveness of a medium-sized city.

This confluence of factors means that we have a real opportunity to spread this model across both the province and country. 

All said, we have many reasons to be hopeful that Canadian cities will continue to appeal to families, but affordability remains the challenge.

This is where, in an ideal world, a crucial ingredient will enter the recipe: federal incentives. Looking back at the 1960s to 1980s, Canada built a great deal of rental housing for middle income earners through the Multi Unit Residential Housing program. In fact, the vast majority of Victoria’s current rental building stock, even today, was built under that program. If grant programs such as this were married with the Missing Middle Housing Initiative and strong council leadership, we could not only reinforce our urban fabric with multigenerational neighbourhoods, but create long-term resiliency through attainable rental housing. 

Looking locally, one step in the path towards a more affordable Victoria is acceleration of the municipal Rapid Deployment of Affordable Housing Resources program. The program promises quick approval processes for affordable housing that meets program criteria (including non-profit ownership), eliminating the necessity for any form of council approval.

This delegates the development permit process entirely to staff, shaving what can be years off the development timeline. Proposals such as the recently approved Anawim Women’s House — currently nearing completion in a residential area of Victoria — would now be free of the need for a council approval process, which stretched well over a year in duration.

We all want a city where projects like Anawim’s, which provides seven private apartments and support to women at risk of violence, are more easily and cheaply constructed. In September, 14 Greater Victoria non-market housing providers released a list of calls to action, urging local governments to accelerate processes, unlock municipal land and promote collaboration. We can safely say that these policy innovations are addressing the first and third issues on that list. Imagine the progress we could see if the city began to make municipal land available in a meaningful way? This is the next step.

When viewed individually, this spectrum of housing obstacles can seem overwhelming. Where do we begin? Like solving any puzzle, we start on the edges and work our way in. With new policy frameworks and bold municipal leadership, we’re well on our way — and if we stay focused on the task at hand the middle pieces won’t be missing for long.  [Tyee]

Read more: Housing, Urban Planning

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