Shannon Graham is a strong citizen who lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Today she's sharing a guest article about the challenges and opportunities that come from population growth in her community.
Nobody seems to be from Victoria. I moved here from somewhere else, and so did all my friends.
Victoria, British Columbia is located on an island off the coast of Vancouver. We’re surrounded on three sides by glorious ocean, and the fourth is a mountain range, the Malahat. Besides housing an ancient boreal rainforest filled with world-class hiking trails within day-trip distance of the city, it bottles the southern tip of the island off from the rest of it. There is only one road through the mountains. The mainland is accessible via several ferries. It’s an expensive, multi-hour trip from mainland to Victoria, but once people get here, they often don’t want to leave.
There are opportunities here. We’re the seat of provincial government, so several ministries are based here, as well as a large military base. The local University of Victoria has several internationally acclaimed departments, cranking out a fresh batch of smart folks every year. The city is so full of artists that every mechanic's shop and bakery seems to have a full wall of mural art.
In the spring, cherry blossoms and daffodils come out, and soon after that we start shutting down streets each weekend for block parties and markets. We have 17 breweries and a tool library. Our mayor rides her bicycle to work every day. It’s not even a very nice bicycle. It’s a steel mountain bike from the 90’s and she rides it hard.
The City of Victoria proper is a tiny grid, about 19 square km (7 sq mi). The Greater Victoria CMA (Census Metropolitan Area, the area counted as Victoria by the every-five-years census), however, is 696.15 km2 (268.79 sq. mi). That covers all the areas south of the Malahat.
When the revolution starts, maybe we’ll pull up the drawbridge, cut ourselves off from the mainland, and live off our excellent locally grown beef, eggs, cheese, vegetables and fruit.
But that’s not today. Today, people are flooding into town.
Where are we Going to put all These People?
From 2011 to 2016, Victoria’s population rose by 7.2%, above the national average, and an increase of about 5800 people. A number that would hardly be noticed in Beijing and bat no eyes in New York, it’s filled up our little town to the point that it feels like we’re choking. 17,316 people moved into the surrounding area, Greater Victoria, but the trick is, all those government and military jobs, as well as most tech jobs, are located in Victoria itself.
People keep on moving here, and Victoria is faced with the question — on our little peninsula, bordered by the sea and mountains, covered by lush farmland and rocky outcroppings — where are we going to put all these people?
Many of the newcomers are retirees. Victoria has been Canada’s top retirement destination for a long time. Older folks who sell a family home back east can often afford to pay cash for a new condo.
People come here for work, too. Prior to 2011, one of the hottest job markets in Canada was in the oil fields of Alberta. It was common to hear of people living in rural BC and flying out to Alberta during the week. High oil field salaries paid for those long commutes.
However, the 2011 oil bust eliminated a lot of those jobs and you can see that reflected in the population change data from 2011 to 2016. As I said, the population of Victoria proper rose by 7.2%, but in Langford, a neighboring municipality within the Victoria CM, it rocketed up 20%.
Victoria’s real estate market has always been strong due to the retirees, but 2011 is when our construction boom seems to have started.
In 2011, driving around Victoria, you’d see a lot of very deep holes in the ground. Now in 2018, those holes have mushroomed up into condo towers. Compared to Beijing or New York it’s nothing much, but to someone who lived through it, our skyline is positively bristling with new growth.
Did the oil boom cause Victoria’s construction boom? Not necessarily. For one thing, Langford’s 20% population growth from ’11 to ’16 was actually down from the previous growth from ’06 to ’11, which was 30%. But there does seem to be a connection. A lot of tradesmen were suddenly without work, but they had been paid very well in the oil fields. Some of them came to Victoria, bought houses with their savings, and went to work in construction.
The University of Victoria is another source of newcomers. A common story is that of the UVic graduate who came here for school and didn’t want to leave after graduation. With all of the seniors here, there is plenty of demand for healthcare professionals. In addition, the excellent engineering department turns out software, mechanical and electrical engineers who found or work for tech startups in the city.
Some people come from the nearest mainland city, Vancouver. Victoria is affordable, when viewed through the very specific lens of someone moving here from Vancouver, the most expensive city in Canada.
Not Enough Money, not Enough Room
You can see that many of the people moving here have money: retirees, tech workers, skilled tradesmen, and medical professionals. However, someone has to pour coffee and wash dishes as well. There is no shortage of work here; in fact, many local business are struggling to hire enough staff to stay open. Salaries remain stubbornly low, though.
One great example is line cooks. Line cook is a responsible, skilled, difficult job with high standards and long hours. Victorians wait in line on Sunday mornings out front of the dozens of outstanding brunch spots. It’s an important position. But there are hundreds of open line cook positions open on Victoria’s Craigslist as of this writing (10 March 2018), and restaurants have closed due to lack of cooks.
Of the line cook jobs posted, I saw that the offered wages ranged from $13 to $17 per hour. The highest wage was a single position offering $23/hour for a first cook. $17/hour translates to a take-home pay of around $2400 for a 40-hour week. A cook should be able to afford an $800/month rent. Once you count tips and the fact that most cooks work more than 40 hours, it’s just possible they could afford the median rent of $918 for a one-bedroom apartment in Victoria proper.
That still doesn’t seem to be enough. We keep hearing about this shortage. It isn’t so much that rent is expensive. It’s hard to find a place to rent at any price.
So shops close down frequently. This used to be more obvious a few years ago when downtown was riddled with empty storefronts. Despite the density of downtown Victoria, despite all the wealthy people who live here, many shops just can’t afford to pay rent and staff wages at the same time. It’s less obvious now; more of the storefronts are filled, but a lot of the ones that used to be chronically empty are now dispensaries.
Yet people want to live here, so they’ve exerted themselves creatively. They live in their cars or RVs, camp rough in the parks, or cram dozens of roommates into the large, beautiful old mansions that fill Victoria’s historic neighborhoods. For one memorable year, there was a tent city with several hundred people camped out in front of the courthouse, causing great consternation for the local police who didn’t have the authority to remove them.
There are basement suites and laneway houses. Recently the city of Saanich, adjacent to Victoria and within the CMA, relaxed the rules around in-law suites. In practice, most people who wanted to rent out their in-law suite were doing it already, but now that’s it’s legal, a few more are available.
That’s not enough either. Jonathan Tinney, city planner for Victoria, says, “Six years ago there were 800 to 1000 rentals on the market at any given moment. Now there are between 100 and 200. Something changed for sure.”
Those who don’t want to live marginally with roommates and rent from landlords who may throw them out using the “Landlord’s use” clause, move to outlying areas. The rent isn’t cheaper ($975 for a one-bedroom in Langford), but at least there are places available. They drive into town for their jobs.
If you look at the map, you can see a red line connecting Langford to Victoria. That 15 km stretch is a gridlocked parking lot most days. We have buses, but the buses are stuck in traffic too.
It’s not Just a Supply Problem
How are we going to get some breathing space? The private market is doing its best with the new condo towers, but condos don’t help people who can barely afford $917 rents, let alone 20% down and mortgage payments for a $438k condo (the average price of a Victoria condo in 2017). You have to go out as far as Sooke — a 40km drive along gridlocked roads — to find prices of only $240k. That doesn’t help either.
Those numbers put housing affordability firmly in the realm of middle class people, yet 20% of Victoria proper’s inhabitants are low-income, above the Greater Victoria CMA rate of 13% and the national rate of 14%. If you’re low income, you pretty much have to live near downtown where the jobs are because you can’t afford a car as well as rent.
Kay Melliship, director of the Greater Victoria Housing Society, agrees with Jonatan Tinney and says “[Increasing supply is] the only way. We have to have an increased supply of housing that's not in the market, that's affordable.” Her nonprofit group is working to create new housing at below-market prices, using federal housing subsidies. Rent is based on a percentage of income and you don’t have to be making minimum wage to qualify.
However, Nicole Chaland, spokesperson of the Cook St Village Residents Network (CSVRN), has a different point of view. “Older housing tends to be cheaper,” she says. “When you tear down old apartment buildings, even if you replace them with more units, they cost more to live in.”
She pointed out a study by Josh Gordon of Simon Fraser University: “Vancouver’s Housing Affordability Crisis: Causes, Consequences and Solutions”. The study points out that even when you control for factors like the strong economy, the desirability of living here, and the normal population increase as a result of immigration and children growing up, real estate prices in Vancouver have still risen unreasonably quick. Vancouver is in a similar situation to ours, a few years further down the road, so a lot of his math is applicable here as well.
This isn’t just a supply problem. The supply is increasing like crazy, but it hasn’t helped prices at all. Certainly it hasn’t worked in Vancouver, where their construction boom has been underway at least since my parents fled from rising prices in 1991.
Throwing up new towers is not going to solve our problem. The towers will come, but we need other approaches if Victoria is to keep its diversity, its artists and its gloriously weird people. As Chaland says, “We don’t want to become an enclave of the wealthy.”
The CSVRN wants “gentle density”. Cook St Village is a neighbourhood in Victoria proper, close to downtown, but very distinct from it. It has its own main street with restaurants, clinics, clothing and furniture stores, all in a few short and walkable blocks. The area surrounding is mainly single family residential, but in the form of huge old mansions from Victoria’s old colonial days. A tower in that area would be jarring, but there’s plenty of room for two and three story apartment buildings that can dramatically increase density while spreading it out manageably.
To help with that, the city administration is planning to incentivize affordable housing development by number of bedrooms, instead of number of units. The condos going up now are full of one and two bedroom units. Changing that to bring in more three and four bedroom units will open the city up to families with children.
The 15 km gridlock could be eased with light rail from the ferry in Sidney, to Victoria, to Langford. That’s a huge project that will take money and political will that just isn’t available. However, better buses are possible. Instead of being stuck in traffic, they can have dedicated rapid travel lanes — and those lanes are in fact being installed right now.
Density in Victoria’s core was 3,965 people per square kilometre, even back in 2006, while the CMA as a whole averaged only 494/sq km. There’s lots of room to grow.
For all the struggles of living here, everyone in Victoria has one thing in common: we really, really want to be here, and we want to make it good. We’ll find a way to make room for everyone.
(All photos by Richard Graham.)
About the Author
Shannon Graham is a web developer and urban planning enthusiast in Victoria, British Columbia. She's had the opportunity to travel as far as Nicaragua, Denmark and Spain to see how the people live there. Her keen interest in the shape of the roads, houses and neighborhoods eventually led her to taking part in her city's local politics, helping shape the future of Victoria through volunteering. She has been a Strong Towns member since 2016.