Changing Views

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Two innovative projects recently received the go-ahead, and both have big potential in the housing market.

The first is for people who have no trouble paying a mortgage. The other helps low-income families into their first homes and, even before building starts, it has already set a big precedent in Saanich.

When Mark Lindholm’s development is full, it will have about as many homes as a typical Fairfield street, but every one of them waterfront: in front, out back, and on both sides. Rising and falling on the tide and moving with the wind and waves, houses sitting on big foam-filled concrete floats are Esquimalt’s newest neighbourhood.

Call it a takeout subdivision, Westbay Marine Village is filling up with modern homes. One day, it’s an empty wharf; the next there’s a three-storey house. There’s space for 36 homes and Lindholm expects to fill them all in two years. The homes are built in Campbell River and barged down to the Esquimalt graving dock’s big yellow crane, which plops them on the water for towing around to West Bay. They’re hooked up to water, electricity, sewer, and natural gas and come with in-floor radiant heat.

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“It’s an overnight success that’s only taken ten years,” joked Lindholm about the years of negotiating with Ottawa a 20-year lease for the harbour site and for the real estate market to notice.

Floathomes aren’t a cheap alternative to life in the ’burbs and living on the water isn’t for everybody, but Lindholm doesn’t expect the pricetag to be a deterrent. “When you look at other centres in the world, we’re still cheap, cheap, cheap.”

They aren’t starter homes and probably aren’t for families, he said. Typical buyers tend to be couples who are 40-plus. Some floathomes are bought as second homes for getaways. They are roomier than living on a sailboat, although life still takes adjusting.

One of the newest floathome owners is Ken Stratford, who runs Business Victoria and has swapped a home in the Gibraltar Bay subdivision of View Royal for life afloat.

“The appeal, personally, is lifestyle and the people living around you,” said Stratford, who appreciates the pace of life. “You get a real harmony to it. You can come home, put on your shorts, and be out on the water in five minutes.” His neighbours are “an interesting mix of people. My next-door neighbour is an engineer who designed his own.”

The numbers work for Stratford, too. A similar 1,900-square-foot, three-storey house on waterfront would probably cost $1 million. With the floathome, “you can do that for half the cost of a waterfront home.”

“What we’re getting is a housing industry growing up around it,” he said. “I think you’ll see dramatic expansion.”

Canoe Pass on the Fraser River near Ladner has 50 floathomes, and there’s talk of creating a float village at Ladysmith and Mill Bay is another prime location. Lake Union in Seattle has 400 floathomes, the biggest community in Canada or the U.S.

The other housing experiment is on a Bethune Avenue property near Town and Country Shopping Centre. The big deal on this little project is that three of the townhouses will have suites — real, legal rental suites for tenants unrelated to the owner. They are the very first in Saanich, although thousands live now in illegal suites in single-family neighbourhoods.

The region’s most populous municipality has held the line, refusing to establish a zone for self-contained suites in single-family areas until this Bethune five-unit “flexisuite” proposal convinced skeptical councillors.

It was first proposed four years ago by the Canadian Home Builders’ Association as an experiment where “mortgage-helper” suites would allow lower-income families to swing the payments. Councillors rebuffed the idea in 2005, but the CHBA persisted and found a new lead partner: Habitat for Humanity.

In the Habitat program, volunteers work beside the families to build their homes, with the owner-to-be required to put in 500 hours of sweat equity. Habitat helps the family finance the new place with a mortgage and imposes tight controls on resale. To ensure its homes go to families who don’t exceed the income targets ($44,000 for a couple with four kids), the cost has to be under $130,000 per unit. Volunteer labour and donated supplies help meet that goal.

Casey Edge of the CHBA said the builders’ group suggested the Bethune project “to show that the private sector could deliver affordable housing.” It could be a model for the Capital Region Housing Corp. which, in the last 25 years, has built more than 1,200 rental apartments and townhouses.

“The Habitat model takes them from renting, probably for all their lives, into the market,” said Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard.

Five families and three tenants get a new roof on completion, and Saanich gets a zoning bylaw for suites in homes, even if it covers just a small property.

“We did it with our eyes wide open. If it works, I’d love to see the private sector build some more. I’d love to see the private sector embrace this model and, if it includes suites, so be it,” the mayor said.

Habitat for Humanity also hopes the Bethune project will be a lever for change. It has two other properties in the Victoria area that could work with houses that incorporate suites. “We could get inundated in the next couple of years. We’ll manage our way through it,” said Jack Shore, a retired CIBC banker who is executive director of Victoria’s Habitat for Humanity.

“We’re hoping it’ll open the door not only for us but for other Habitats around the country,” he said.