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B.C. Premier David Eby, front, announced the $500-million fund to help non-profits buy rental buildings slated for redevelopment.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

In an unusual effort to prevent cheap apartments from being bought up by big investors, the B.C. government will create a $500-million fund this year to help non-profit housing groups acquire rental buildings.

Premier David Eby said the fund, which has long been asked for by housing advocates both nationally and in British Columbia, should allow non-profits to leverage purchases of potentially thousands of apartments and protect renters from evictions or big rent hikes.

“We can’t afford to lose affordable housing,” said Mr. Eby, speaking at a housing co-op in Burnaby, B.C., where the province provided the money last year to prevent it from being sold by its pension-fund holder to a private company.

The announcement was welcomed by people from the housing sector.

They have been saying for several years that any gains made recently in getting new subsidized or even market-rate apartments built are being undermined by the region’s low-cost apartments being constantly lost, as investors buy them, upgrade them and rent them out for much more in Vancouver’s ultratight market.

Much of the region’s least expensive housing exists in the form of low-rise apartment buildings that date from the 1960s and 70s. As the original families or small-time investors have decided to sell them, some have been picked up by real estate trusts or other bigger real estate market players.

B.C. has encountered less of that than Ontario, where there has been a tidal wave of real estate trust acquisitions, but there has still been some.

Jill Atkey, chief executive of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, pointed out at the Burnaby announcement that a rent of $815 is all that’s affordable to someone working full-time at minimum wage, but B.C. lost almost 100,000 homes renting at that price or below from 2016 to 2021.

“Building alone will not solve this crisis,” Ms. Atkey said.

Another organization that has lobbied the government for this kind of fund also welcomed Mr. Eby’s announcement.

“If you want to protect a scarce and valuable asset, you have to make it safe,” said Thom Armstrong, chief executive of the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC and the Community Land Trust. “We can’t keep losing affordable homes faster than we build them.”

Mr. Eby, asked about what will happen if non-profits have to compete with well-financed real estate trusts to try to acquire some of those older apartments, said he is convinced that some owners will be willing to sell at a lower price to see renters protected.

“I think we will see sellers preferentially selling to non-profits,” he said.

Mr. Eby said every deal will be scrutinized, to ensure the province is getting good value, and each non-profit buyer will need to sign an agreement formally laying out their obligation to protect the renters in whatever building they buy.

He said all $500-million will be distributed in the coming fiscal year, which starts April 1, and the whole program will be evaluated at the end of the year to see if it should continue.

The Premier also said his government will look at adopting something the City of Montreal introduced in 2020 – a requirement to any private landowner that the city get the right of first refusal in order to get sites for social housing. (That was made possible by a 2016 decision by the Quebec government to allow cities to do that.)

“I’m very interested in our government pursuing that,” he said.

The City of Montreal announced last November that it had bought a former carpet store under that policy and will turn it into 40 social-housing apartments.