Alexandra Flynn is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law.
There is little doubt that Canada has a dire housing crisis. A recent report published by the Federal Housing Advocate estimated that we will need almost 10 million new homes in the next decade. To address this need, governments must step up with every tool they have available, including by offering up underused public-owned lands no longer needed to deliver programs and services.
The federal government’s announcement on Nov. 7 – that it would unlock six parcels of federal land for the development of much-needed housing in Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, and St. John’s – was a step in the right direction. By 2029, according to the plan, the use of public land for housing is expected to translate into almost 30,000 new homes for those who need them.
This bold action is made possible in part because we know where federal lands are located – that is, Ottawa makes this data available to the public. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for every government in Canada. The result: the public doesn’t know where all public lands are.
The Housing Assessment Resource Tools project, to which I contribute, provides data on housing need across Canada. Now, each municipality can identify how much housing they need, at which income levels, and for particular priority populations. Our project has also created detailed maps of thousands of potential land parcels that could be used for affordable housing in 12 jurisdictions in Canada. These maps show proximity to child care, public transit, and other amenities. They include not only vacant land, but also underutilized parcels like post offices in a single-storey building that are zoned for additional floors on top. These maps of federal, provincial and municipal land parcels give governments yet another option to consider in their housing solution tool kits.
We would love to roll out this information for every community across Canada, but we can’t: the data are either not available, or cost too much. In B.C., land assessment data are easily available to the public at no cost, and the same is true of federal lands. This best practice is followed in the United States, where public property assessment and land data are routinely released.
But in many Canadian provinces, it is almost impossible to access the necessary data. For example, in Ontario and Alberta, the public land registry is run by private companies and available at a high cost. To access Ontario data, we paid $40,000 for a single year of restricted information, plus extra costs to make the data suitable for use.
Without knowing the data, researchers like us can’t help governments with identifying which parcels of public lands are most useful for housing. These data are profoundly important in overseeing what public authorities are doing with respect to our shared resources. And this oversight makes a difference: for example, after obtaining registry data in Ontario, reporters were able to show that some land assessments were unfairly skewed.
According to the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, land acquisition is one of the biggest costs associated with the development of new housing. Given those exploding costs, acquiring land that is close to amenities and other markers of accessibility is very difficult for those who provide affordable housing. Accessing free or low-cost land is vital to achieving the progressive realization of housing that is enshrined in the National Housing Strategy Act.
Despite the dire need for all data possible to solve Canada’s housing crisis, provinces are able to make this information virtually inaccessible to both the public and researchers who are attempting to provide practical solutions. Given the urgency around housing and homelessness, we are in an all-hands-on-deck situation with governments: we need all the data possible to know what homes to build and where.
This is also a question of fairness. Public lands are held by governments on behalf of the public – so why shouldn’t the public know where they are?
Once publicly owned land that is appropriate for housing has been identified on a national scale, the process of creating even more units of affordable housing can truly begin. The federal government’s announcement earlier this month of just six parcels means more than 2,800 new homes. Imagine if we knew the locations and suitability of all other public lands?
Identifying public lands would be a major step toward the ultimate goal of adequate and equitable housing for all. Now, all levels of government just need to tell us where these lands are.