Today, I went to an open house at the Cedar Hill Rec Centre in Saanich, BC (W̱SÁNEĆ territory) regarding the municipal council’s decision to consider allowing garden suites. For reference, the municipality of Victoria defines a garden suite as “a legal, detached, ground-oriented rental suite located in the backyard of a property with a single-family home as its primary use”. They are “designed to be long-term rental housing and they cannot be strata-titled or utilized as short-term rental (such as AirBnB)”.
Living in the Greater Victoria area, one can imagine what kind of impact allowing garden suites in Saanich would have in terms of the housing market. It is impossible to walk around downtown Victoria, for example, without noticing the amount of people impacted by the low vacancy rates and the ridiculously high rent. The numbers are even more grave than it appears on the surface - Of the 30,000 people in Canada experiencing homelessness any given night (CBC), 1 out of every 20 live in the Greater Victoria Region (The Greater Victoria Coalition Against Homelessness). That is over 1,500 people without access to stable housing in the Capital Region District. Comparing statistics provided by the GVCAH between 2008 and 2018, the numbers have hardly improved over that 10-year period. It is clear that more direct and concrete long-term solutions are needed to address the housing crisis, and allowing garden suites is a solution to our housing crisis that is both viable and statistically-supported.
In terms of addressing homelessness, garden suites (also known as “tiny homes” or “microhomes” in different contexts) have been shown to help homelessness by taking advantage of unused land to create more residential housing. Hamilton, Ontario, Whitehorse, Yukon, Newfield, NY, Portland, OR, and Olympia, WA are just a few of many cities that have adopted tiny homes as a strategy to create long-term housing options in areas with low vacancy rates. As Greater Victoria’s rental vacancy rate as of late 2017 was still below 1%, it is clear that a predominant issue is a simple lack of residential space. Given the amount of unused land that homeowners possess in Saanich (something that can be observed after a ten-minute walk in the area), allowing garden suites is a smart way to address low vacancy rates.
Allowing garden suites in Saanich is the option for creating housing that most favours accessibility. Moving outwards and building units further away from the downtown core is misguided at best - aside from creating urban sprawl, this would further physically disconnect low-income residents from support services, a concern that is even more serious when considering that people searching for housing are more likely to be accessing said services (mentally ill people, people with disabilities, Indigenous people, et cetera). It is therefore important that new housing be created in areas where there is preexisting infrastructure such as transit and cycling.
Garden suites will also improve social health of homeless people. Building garden suites in preexisting communities means that rather than having to build communities from the ground up, new renters of garden suites will benefit from the preexisting communities that their new homes are being integrated into. They will be able to accrue new social connections with long-term renters and homeowners in their neighbourhood, increasing their social health. Assuming that said neighbourhoods have been given municipal attention and care, new renters will also benefit from parks, recreational services, small businesses, family restaurants, and every other amenity and comfort that is offered from moving into a well-established neighbourhood with a strong sense of community. Why risk the social health of previously homeless, potentially socially-isolated new renters with socially inadequate new developments when garden suites offer the ability for them to be able to integrate into and benefit from preexisting communities?
Garden suites will allow homeless people the same rights and freedoms that other renters possess, rather than being confined by policies enforced upon them at shelters and other housing options. Let me put this into context for you: an example of the kinds of policies that keep homeless people from accessing shelters is that many of them in the Greater Victoria area (and, I’m sure, across Canada as well) often don’t allow couples to stay together. Whether shelters have these policies in place for religious reasons, or simply because their rooms only have enough room for one person per bed, it has been voiced by homeless people many times that this is a policy that makes them choose sleeping on the streets with their partner rather than alone with a roof over their head. Allowing garden suites means that previously-homeless renters will be no more impeded than the rest of us in terms of who is allowed to stay together in a rental suite. They will also be able to do things that they wouldn’t be able to do in other housing options, such as personalizing their space, having a stable mailing address, and hosting parties and other social gatherings. Garden suites means more access for homeless people to the kinds of rights and freedoms that other renters take for granted.
To conclude, the question of whether garden suites should be allowed in Saanich is a social justice issue. What appears on the surface to be a minor regulatory debate is actually part of a growing movement across North America to legalize tiny homes as a viable and realistic solution to low vacancy rates, high rental costs, and homelessness. Now, it is worth noting that the municipality of Victoria (one of 13 municipalities in the Greater Victoria Region) legalized garden suites in 2011, but due to reasons including cost to private citizens, there have been very few built. This is why I would like to take this opportunity to call upon the municipality of Saanich as well as the entire Greater Victoria Region to not only allow garden suites, but to incentivize homeowners to construct them (or build them with government funds) and to subsidize rental costs for them as a solution to homelessness. Though it is true that garden suites are a realistic way to increase vacancy and decrease homelessless in the Region, it is not viable for private homeowners to shoulder the cost of building them. In the examples provided above of successful applications of tiny homes as a solution to homelessness, they were either built by nonprofits or with government funds. This may be an absurd suggestion, but considering the alternatives, it is likely one of the best options we have to address homelessness in the Greater Victoria Area. And hey, even if I’m completely wrong and they shouldn’t be government funded, at least let some old rich white people build a few microhomes so they can help get the rent under 700 a room. Thanks pals!
If you agree with what I’ve said here, please take a minute to complete the survey on the City of Saanich’s website! You don’t have to be a on the city council to have your voice heard on this issue - take a quick minute and let the City of Saanich know that you agree that garden suites should be permitted. Apart from the social justice aspect of potentially funding microhomes for the homeless, they will help to increase rental vacancy rates, lower rent, and we’ll get some real cute architecture out of it.