Affordable housing is back on the table in Sidney as the municipality considers waiving thousands of dollars in fees and taxes to accommodate a proposed 56-unit downtown apartment building.
The Greater Victoria Rental Development Society (GVRDS) is eyeing three lots on Fourth Street across from the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans Association building. They propose to build, at a cost of around $11 million, a five-storey building tentatively called The Sidney on Fourth. More than half of its residential units will be offered at below market rents. GVRDS Executive Director Alanna Holroyd says in order to maintain those low rents now and in the future, they are asking Sidney council to drop development and permit fees, as well as grant them 10 years of amnesty from residential taxes. The commercial portion of the structure on the ground floor would still be subject to municipal taxation. Holroyd told council Monday they need those exemptions — totalling around $173,000 in fees and an unknown amount in taxes — to help them secure financing for the project and to ensure that the below market rental units stay that way.
“We are confident this proposal meets the local need for affordable housing,” she said during a presentation to council. “(The units) will cost less than existing units, and there are so few of them that exist right now.”
She said the mix of smaller apartments are being designed for individuals or families that, combined, make less than $65,000 a year.
She added local data on industrial and retail workers on the Saanich Peninsula shows around 30 per cent of that workforce — or some 600 people — fit into that category.
“People who move in must have jobs,” Holroyd said in reply to a question from Councillor Erin Bremner, noting she’s not worried about being able to fill the units once they are built.
Holroyd added they based rental rates on Canada Mortgage and Housing (CMHC) guidelines on what would be considered affordable housing in the region. The GVRDS also met with representatives of the West Sidney Industrial Group to determine the need for workforce housing.
Coun. Peter Wainwright asked Holroyd what the CMHC designation of affordable means in this case.
She replied that the CMHC sets criteria for affordable housing for people with low to moderate income — and in this area, that means a one bedroom apartment, rented out at $900 per month, is considered affordable. Holroyd added her target for the new building is a monthly rent of $862.50. That rate may increase, she conceded, based on inflation over time, however she noted the affordability aspect of the majority of units would be maintained through an order on the title of the building.
The project is essentially the same as the GVRDS’s previous attempt to start up in Sidney earlier this year. The Society had tried to negotiate the purchase of a Town-owned parking lot on Third Street next to the fire hall, seeking the same fee and tax breaks. That deal fell through when the Town and GVRDS could not agree on a purchase price. In an email to the News Review, Holroyd confirmed the Society has a deal in place to purchase the properties on Fourth Street, which would be consolidated into one lot for this project.
The GVRDS has already built two affordable housing structures in the region since it started in 2009. A third in Victoria is under construction.
Their Sidney proposal seeks variances on allowable density, building height, setbacks and a reduction in parking spaces. A building this size and scope in Sidney would normally require 74 parking stalls, however, the GVRDS is requesting only 30 in a single level of underground parking.
Coun. Erin Bremner asked about the lack of parking, especially with a level of commercial space being proposed. While there is on-street parking available, Holroyd noted there should be enough, adding they are trying to encourage tenants to use transit or a planned in-house car share program that they are fronting with a $20,000 investment.
The project also looks to create bicycle storage spaces, both in the underground parking space and in the apartments themselves.
Two residents spoke to the proposal on Monday night. While not against it, Brian Losie stated he felt the location wasn’t ideal and its planned commercial space off Beacon Avenue could add to the local retail vacancy rate. Chris Green added he’s concerned about the loss of views by residents on neighbouring buildings.
Council, which has looked upon affordable housing projects favourably, voted to send the proposal on to its Advisory Planning Commission for review and comment. They also directed staff to investigate tax and fee exemption options and to ask the GVRDS to share their project financial outline with the municipality.
Mayor Steve Price said in an interview that the council is “100 per cent supportive of a project like this.”
He said the Town, if it really wants affordable housing, must walk the walk and “actually do something.”
“If this is going to proceed, it will be the will of council that will make these things happen,” Price said.
Holroyd noted that, depending on municipal approval, the Society hopes to break ground in September 2016 and complete the building by late 2017 or early 2018.