Non-profit housing groups say the province's decision to transfer land and buildings to them is a good way to protect social housing, contrary to what B.C.'s Auditor-General has said.
Carol Bellringer's report on BC Housing's "asset transfer program" concluded, in a highly negative report, that the province did not provide a clear consideration of how selling off $500-million worth of land and buildings to non-profits will "impact access to safe, affordable and appropriate housing in B.C."
But representatives from the province's big non-profit housing sector say the Auditor-General didn't look at the advantages that have come with letting the non-profits take over.
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"It has put these buildings in community hands and made control of them local," said Kishone Roy, chief executive officer of the BC Non-Profit Housing Association. "And it's a game-changer in giving non-profits control over their assets."
Mr. Roy also emphasized that having non-profits owning the land and buildings dedicated to social housing will mean that there can't be any sales to private developers, such as what the province did a decade ago with the Little Mountain social-housing complex in Vancouver, which it sold to Holborn Group for $300-million.
Although Holborn is being required to replace the 224 social-housing units that were on the site before, many groups have criticized the sale, saying it destroyed a community after the developer required everyone living there to move away even though there has been no construction on the site since it was sold 10 years ago. They also say it was wrong for the province to sell such a valuable asset.
Mr. Roy pointed out that non-profits in the province already own and operate about 60,000 units of social housing. Until the asset transfer, BC Housing only owned and operated 9,000 units.
Mr. Roy said there is indeed a challenge for the future of social housing and whether it can be sustained and expanded, as the Auditor-General said. But he emphasized that that is a problem affecting all of the social housing in the province, not just the small portion still owned by BC Housing. And, he said, whether the assets are transferred or not doesn't change the basic problems.
Many non-profits are struggling to maintain current levels of subsidies for the renters in their buildings, he said. All of them need more help from the province to maintain their aging buildings and will be put under stress if the province doesn't increase the incomes of their low-income tenants in future years.
The Auditor-General's report on the asset transfers, released last week, acknowledged the land and buildings sales will provide an immediate short-term benefit to the province, by bringing in money that can then be invested in 4,000 new units of social housing and more rent subsidies.
But Ms. Bellringer noted that BC Housing is transferring properties without assessing whether the non-profits will be able to maintain the current levels of rent subsidy or have the capacity to leverage their new holdings to develop extra social housing.
"Will non-profit providers need to raise rents to cover the cost of aging buildings to remain viable? Will the non-profits be able to keep the buildings as social housing? Our audit found that the ministry had not fully addressed these questions," Ms. Bellringer wrote.
As well, the province will end up paying $1-billion back to those non-profits for the properties, because they will be covering the principal and interest payments on their mortgages for 35 years.
So far, in the two buildings that have been transferred to non-profits, the rents haven't changed. Another two buildings are due to be transferred this year.
Nicholson Tower in Vancouver's West End, which was acquired by the non-profit Bloom Group last April, has 220 units where tenants are either paying the shelter rate or rent that is pegged at 30 per cent of income, said CEO Jonathan Oldman.
Mr. Oldman said he believes that the non-profit groups can do a better job of managing buildings for tenants.
"When we took over, there was a lot of concern that these were being sold to the private sector," he said. "But we took a lot of time to talk to everyone and people have come to trust us. There's important affordability there and we're committed to retaining that."
The same rent situation holds true for the 368 units in Stamps Place, one of the city's biggest social-housing projects, a complex built in 1968 next to the Raycam Community Centre in the Downtown Eastside.
But Guy Wakeman, the president of a tenants' council there, said that tenants still have concerns about BC Housing getting rid of its properties.
He acknowledged that the new owners and operators, the non-profit New Chelsea Society, has been more communicative than the BC Housing staffers.
But, he said, there's a worry among all tenants about what happens after the current 35-year mortgage that New Chelsea had is paid off.
"Who knows what will happen then? There's just no long-term plan."