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Victoria housing delivery and affordability Q&A with Adam Cooper of Abstract Developments

Adam Cooper of Victoria-based real-estate development firm Abstract Developments talks about the challenges of delivering affordable housing in Greater Victoria, and what's being done about it, in May's Ten on the 10th.

Victoria housing delivery and affordability Q&A with Adam Cooper of Abstract Developments
Ten on the 10th
Citified's Ten on the 10th is a monthly question-and-answer segment connecting our readers with the insight and knowledge of Victoria's top real-estate and business professionals.
May's Ten on the 10th features Adam Cooper, Director, Community Planning & Development for Abstract Developments.
Asking the questions is Ross Marshall, Senior Vice President of the Victoria offices of commercial real-estate brokerage CBRE. As a leader in facilitating large-scale commercial real-estate transactions throughout the Capital Region – which include apartment complexes, industrial retail and office properties, and land/development opportunities – Ross and his team are at the forefront of market-leading real-estate transactions on Vancouver Island.
Would you like to be featured as part of a future Ten on the 10th Q&A? We'd love to hear from you.
For those that don’t already know Abstract, tell us a bit about your company and your new role within the company.

Over the past 20 years, Abstract Developments has built over 500 homes in thoughtfully planned, mixed use developments across Greater Victoria. We are driven by our passion for creating innovative, community-minded developments that enhance how people live.

Our commitment to excellence has been recognized with more than 50 local and national awards for design, customer care and development planning.

Building thoughtful communities requires dedicated resources at the ground level. I am proud to lead our community engagement efforts at Abstract Developments and am responsible for partnering with community associations, neighbours, municipal staff and local politicians to get our developments through the local government approval processes. 

What do you think are the top three factors impacting the delivery of attainable housing in the Capital Region?

The top three factors impacting the delivery of attainable housing across Greater Victoria are as follows:
  1. The time it takes to get a project approved. In my experience it is between 24 and 30 months.
  2. Outdated Local Area Plans. We have not planned appropriately for the growth we are facing and seldom do we see crowds of cheering supporters showing up at Council meetings to support housing projects.
  3. Increasing costs. Over the past few years land and construction costs have risen rapidly and municipalities have only increased their fees and charges (Development Cost Charges, Community Amenities, etc.). Combined with the adoption of Step Code and the rollout of electric vehicle charging, municipalities are significantly increasing housing costs and forcing developers to seek higher density projects.
How can the municipalities within the Capital region provide incentives for developers to deliver affordable housing options with the cost of construction (both hard and soft costs) continuing to escalate?

Municipalities need to streamline their approval processes and reduce the time it takes to get to Public Hearing. Langford has proven it can be done in three months and their growth has been doubling for years now. Why isn’t the rest of the region learning from them? 
Municipalities can also target fee reductions to attract the types of housing they need. For example, eliminate DCC and CAC requirements for rental and affordable housing or provide tax holidays for these types of projects. There are many examples of municipalities that are doing this, we just need put the incentives in place. 
Bold initiatives like eliminating parking minimums in Victoria are being considered and hailed by local developers who struggle with the increased costs to build – particularly over this past year.

The various measures municipalities are implementing to help with affordability eventually come up against approval timelines, particularly in the urban core.  In an ideal world how long would it take to get a project approved?
Ideally, we would like to see OCPs better reflect our current reality - that the proverbial house is on fire and we need to substantially increase the housing supply across the entire region. Projects that fit within OCP should not have to go through a lengthy Public Hearing process. The fight should be had at the planning stage, not the project stage.  

Projects that fall outside of the OCP guidelines but help further the stated objectives of an OCP should also be exempt from lengthy approval processes. 

Projects that fall outside of what is contemplated in the OCP and are required to go through a Public Hearing process should take no longer than six months. That should still provide adequate time for staff and public input, design review and Council approval. 
How long, on average, does it take to get a project approved in the urban core, versus the West Shore, versus the Saanich Peninsula?

In my experience a project approval in the urban core can take between 12 and 30 months - sometimes longer. Developers can improve their timelines by ensuring they submit complete applications and try to adhere to policy. In the West Shore my own personal experience indicates a timeline closer to 6 to 8 months. I cannot comment on the Peninsula as I do not have any experience working there. 
What is a Housing Needs Report and why did the Provincial Government mandate that local governments produce them? 
Housing Needs Reports are a tool for municipalities to better understand their current and future housing requirements. They identify gaps in housing supply using quantitative and qualitative information about local demographic conditions, economics, housing stock and other factors. 
The Province required municipalities to produce these reports so that Council, Planners, Developers, and the public all had factual information that help inform decisions on individual applications, as well as longer term plans and policies such as Official Community Plan, Local Area Plans or Housing Strategies. 
In short, there is a lot of media attention around housing, but there was little quantifiable information to hang decisions on. My personal take is that the are excellent and help to clearly articulate the supply issues we are facing. They are putting us stakeholders on the same page and shining a light on the fact that we are not keeping up with demand for housing.
What did these reports identify so far as projected number of homes required to keep up with growth? 
The short version is that across the region, we are not meeting the demand and we are not supplying enough housing. Most of my experience bringing housing to market has been in Saanich and Victoria, their needs are identified below based on the data in their respective Housing Needs Reports. 
It is worth noting that this data may not be capturing the latent demand not met in the period prior to 2020 (i.e., the demand may be greater than shown below). Also, worth noting is that the Housing Needs Reports are relying on old census data (2016) and that overall the Housing Needs Reports may be underestimating growth pressure. The Township of Esquimalt’s Council did not accept their Housing Needs Report as they felt the methodology for predicting growth was substantially underestimating the reality. For more information on this, I would encourage readers to check out the UDI’s Webinar series on Housing Needs Reports, where I speak with Planning Staff, Mayors and ultimately David Ebby on May 26th, 2021.
  • Victoria: anticipates an additional 2,900 new households between 2020 and 2025. This translates to an additional 483 homes per year until the end of 2025.
  • Saanich: anticipates an additional 3,049 new households between 2020 and 2025. This translates to an additional 508 homes per year until the end of 2025.
How are municipal governments planning to address supply issues? 
In general municipalities are taking steps to address supply issues. Many are focusing on Housing Strategies, streamlining approval processes, and updating local area plans and / or their OCP to ensure development capacity is considered. Some are further ahead in taking steps to ensure adequate supply (i.e., Langford). In Victoria, Mayor Helps has put forward ‘3 Big Ideas’ to tackle supply (you can read more about these ideas here: In general Victoria exploring some interesting solutions. These include:
  1. Allow 4 to 6 units of housing on every single-family lot in the City. This is an attempt to tackle the “Missing Middle” housing problem, by creating opportunities for infill development in established neighbourhoods. I am very encouraged by this and hope other jurisdictions will follow suit. If we want to deliver more housing in a sustainable way, we cannot continue to have the vast majority of our land based dedicated to the most expensive and least sustainable form of housing.
  2. Eliminate Parking minimums. Victoria is recognizing the cost of providing parking is a major contributor to overall housing costs, averaging between $50-$60,000 per underground parking stall. They City is looking to shift their policy focus toward an outcome-based approach that aligns with the vision they have for the future of the city and transportation. Developers who wish to provide more parking than the maximum allowable would be required to pay into a green infrastructure fund that would be directed to improving public transit, as well as walking and cycling facilities. As I am Transportation Planner in a past life and someone who is passionate about bikes, I do appreciate the vision, but have some concerns about whether buyers are ready to accept a no car lifestyle. Over time I believe we will be able to move in this direction.
  3. Eliminate Public Hearings. The city is exploring the opportunity to eliminate public hearings for projects that are in alignment with the Official Community Plan. My understanding is they would begin this as a pilot for affordable housing and then would look at expanding to rental and / or market housing depending on how the community reacts to this approach.

Personally, I think this is the right way to move forward. We should be encouraging residents to engage at the time the plans are being developed, not when a project comes forward to Council for consideration. We should have the debate and the tough discussions when plans are being developed and then after we agree what is appropriate, allow the projects to move through the process. This would save developers considerable time in the process, add certainty, and hopefully allow for the supply we need to be created.  

What can developers do to help local governments? 
Developers are experts at building housing, and we need our local government partners to work with us and listen to our input. I am impressed with an approach I heard about in Langford where a need was identified for a particular form of housing (small single-family homes with suites that could be sold for less than $700k). 
Rather than studying the issue or consulting with the public, Langford worked with their development community and ask the question “what kind of zoning do you need to deliver this kind of product to the marketplace?” This approach leverages the knowledge of developers about financing, construction costs and what buyers are looking for to create a win-win situation. These kinds of conversations are so important. Currently the UDI has a liaison committee established with Victoria so that staff can collect feedback from the industry on how possible policy changes and direction they have been given from Council. I would love to see this kind of collaboration with other municipalities in the region, so that we can all move forward together. 
What is next for Abstract, what is your focus for the next 12 months?

Over the next twelve months we are focusing on tightening up our internal processes as we continue to grow. We are trying to find ways to work more closely with community partners and educate the public about the need for housing and the challenges we face as builders. 
We have over 20 projects at various stages of development and we are looking at new sites every day. It is important to make sure we have a team of dedicated professionals who love where they work, and we are consistently looking for ways to support them. The pandemic has solidified our resolve to ensure we support our team and create a healthy and safe workplace. C

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 Article resources

  • Would you like to be featured as part of a future Ten on the 10th Q&A? We'd love to hear from you
  • View CBRE Victoria's website here
  • View Abstract Developments' website here
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  • 2019
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    • March, 2019: Luke Mills of Megson Fitzpatrick Insurance talks about the insurance industry
    • April, 2019: Greg Damant of Cascadia Architects talks about architecture in Victoria
    • May, 2019: Real-estate development with Robert Fung of The Salient Group
    • June, 2019: Rental housing industry Q&A with David Hutniak of LandlordBC
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    • February, 2020: Private lending and the mortgage industry Q&A with Len Shorkey of Shorkey Mortgage Corp.
    • March, 2020: Strata insurance premiums Q&A with Luke Mills of Megson FitzPatrick Insurance
    • April, 2020: Rental housing and COVID-19 Q&A with David Hutniak of LandlordBC
    • June, 2020: COVID-19's impact on Victoria's real-estate Q&A with Jordan Milne of GMC Projects
    • July, 2020: Multi-unit residential and commercial building fire safety services Q&A with Tim Lindsay of the Vancouver Island Fire Protection Association
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    • September, 2020: Victoria real-estate development Q&A with Sam Ganong of Curate Developments
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    • November, 2020: CRD affordable housing and CRD parks services Q&A with Stephen Henderson of the CRD
    • December, 2020: Real-estate values, wine and housing market Q&A with Johnathon Sipos of Cielo Properties
  • 2021
    • January, 2021: Mass timber construction, the Mayfair District and junior hockey Q&A with Edward Geric of Mike Geric Construction
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    • April, 2021: Northern Junk, Capital Iron lands and Victoria real-estate development Q&A with Jon Stovell of Reliance Properties
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