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B.C. Housing Minister Selina Robinson said the non-profit asset transfer program, initiated by the Liberal government in 2014, is due to expire in April and staff are examining whether to continue the program. “We want to make sure it’s the right program and is it delivering what it’s intended to deliver.”Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

The new NDP government is looking at whether to continue a controversial program aimed at transferring hundreds of millions of dollars worth of social-housing assets from the province to non-profits.

Housing Minister Selina Robinson said the non-profit asset transfer program, initiated by the Liberal government in 2014, is due to expire in April and staff are examining whether to continue the program.

"We want to make sure it's the right program and is it delivering what it's intended to deliver."

The program has been criticized almost from the beginning by some housing advocates, NDP MLAs, several local mayors and some people who live in social housing, fearing that it would result in a severe erosion in the quantity of subsidized housing available in B.C.

One local politician who noted the concerns and wrote about them sympathetically in a blog post was former city councillor Geoff Meggs, now chief of staff to NDP Premier John Horgan.

In March, Auditor-General Carol Bellringer also strongly criticized the program in a report, saying the housing ministry hadn't provided enough evidence that the program would ultimately benefit social housing or the people who depend on it.

The ministry initiated the program by saying it could raise $500-million as non-profits bought some or all of the 350 potential sites around the province, most of which they run housing projects on, and that that money could be used to pay for 4,000 new units as well as to increase the funds available for rent supplements.

But Ms. Bellringer noted that the program entails the province paying $30-million a year for 35 years to cover the mortgage payments for those non-profits.

"We also concluded that BC Housing has transferred social housing assets to achieve short-term financial targets and enable investments in social housing, but has not demonstrated that it transferred assets based on the ability of non-profit recipients to renew and increase the social housing stock in the province," she wrote.

As of June, 2017, BC Housing had transferred 155 sites to non-profits, almost all of them properties where those non-profits were already operating housing. That number also included four large buildings that had previously been government-run public housing. The transfers generated $455-million.

The BC Non-Profit Housing Association has been generally supportive of the transfer program, saying that, since senior levels of government aren't putting new money into housing, the program allows the non-profits to do that.

By being able to own the land and gets loans against it, "non-profit owners will be able to refinance in order to fund necessary capital upgrades," said one of the group's early position papers. "Refinancing will also facilitate redevelopment of an aging infrastructure where it's beneficial, and allow for the leveraging of the investment to develop new affordable housing projects that can operate independently of government."

However, some tenants in some buildings continue to express concerns about the possibility that, as non-profits are cut loose from provincial oversight and protections, they will end up raising rents and reducing subsidies as they get squeezed to pay for maintenance or redevelopment.

Ms. Robinson said staff will be looking at "those parts that worked and the parts that didn't."

The NDP government has appointed a new chair of the BC Housing board, Cassie Doyle, to replace the previous chair, former Vancouver city manager Judy Rogers.

Ms. Robinson said that her ministry is looking at a variety of other changes and reviews to the province's housing policy.

She said one of her priorities has been directing staff to look at options to close a loophole that currently exists in rental agreements.

That loophole, called a fixed-term lease, has come in for considerable scrutiny and criticism in recent years as landlords have used it to demand rent increases from tenants that wouldn't be legal if they had a standard month-to-month agreement.

"That is high on my radar," the housing minister said.

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan and BC Liberal Leader Christy Clark talk with The Globe and housing leading up to the May 9 provincial election