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The Little Mountain social housing site, in Vancouver, on March 26, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia is putting together a “land bank” that will consist of public land to be used towards the creation of affordable housing.

The bank will include provincial, federal and municipal lands, and Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon said in an interview last week that he expects the initiative, called BC Builds, to be launched early next year.

He says the era of selling off public land is over, and instead, government is making use of existing public lands and even buying up more land, particularly around transit.

It’s a major policy shift compared to the previous decade. Starting in 2013, the Liberal-led provincial government began selling off more than 160 public properties throughout B.C., calling the assets “surplus.” In an effort to generate revenue, they sold off former schools, health and transit related properties, and acreage, including crown land on Burke Mountain in Coquitlam and a six-hectare site in Surrey, originally proposed for a hospital.

Little Mountain in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant, which saw about 700 low-income people displaced as a result of the province’s deal with developer Holborn, was a controversial example of public land not just lost, but squandered.

The 6.2-hectare site has been largely vacant for 15 years. As part of an agreement with the province, the developer is supposed to deliver 284 social housing units by 2024, before any market housing is occupied.

A 62-unit social housing building is nearing completion, although behind schedule. Mr. Kahlon said he expects it to complete in the coming weeks, and displaced tenants have been notified that they get first dibs on the new units.

But to the chagrin of onlookers, the developer is also building a presentation centre for its market condos.

“In a housing crisis, to have that much prime land sitting there, with not enough happening, is unacceptable,” said Mr. Kahlon.

Allan Buium, a member of the Riley Park-South Cambie Community Visions steering committee, says it could be another 10 years until the site is built out at this rate.

“There is a level of frustration when people walk by, and at the same time, we ask ourselves, ‘how long is this going to take?’”

The situation begs the question: is the selling off of public land ever justifiable?

“We should never go there. We will always regret it,” says Mr. Kahlon. “Generally, I think it’s a bad idea – any time lands have been sold, they are missed opportunities.

Burke Mountain is a classic one on housing. Look at the sale of the Highway 10 and 152nd Street site in Surrey that was supposed to be the hospital, which was sold to private developers, and now it’s taken us years to find another parcel of land for housing.

We are facing huge pressure in communities for affordable housing, for school sites, for health care related facility sites.

“I think the days of selling government assets and lands is gone. In fact, we are going the other direction.”

When BC Builds is up and running, the province will partner with developers to build housing for middle-income households, but the government will retain ownership through leasehold land arrangements. Municipalities have shown interest in contributing, he says.

Some public agencies might need convincing. The Vancouver School Board owns Kingsgate Mall near the new Broadway subway line, and it was recently disclosed through court documents that it was considering selling off the centrally located site for redevelopment. The mall is currently leased to major developer Beedie Group and the VSB has taken legal action against the developer, claiming back rent is owed.

“Why would they dispose of any assets when a lot more can be done on that site and they can still get some revenue out of it?” asks Mr. Kahlon. “That would be my message to the Vancouver School Board: ‘come talk to us and let’s find an opportunity to get a win-win.’ There’s an opportunity for the school board if they want the revenue, but for us to be able to build health care and child care and affordable housing near a Skytrain station is a no-brainer.”

He says there is no legislation that gives the province first-right-of-refusal if the property were to come up for sale. But Mr. Kahlon said that when B.C. Builds is up and running “the avenue would be more clear.”

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The property, which continues to sit mostly empty after lengthy legal battles, once housed about 700 people before being demolished.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

In a 2020 land asset strategy report, the VSB identified 40 parcels of land identified as “surplus.” In June, 2022, the VSB trustees voted to close Queen Elizabeth Annex, citing a future decline in student population, even though the city is projected to grow.

Tech entrepreneur Vik Khanna, volunteer director for the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, has made it his new job to challenge the VSB on its land use strategy.

“How does an organization that manages almost a $6-billion portfolio of real estate – much of which can be used to build housing in the city – how can it go so ungoverned? That’s my new work,” he says.

“If the VSB … are thinking about 40 dispositions, that is going to decimate a lot of communities.”

In an e-mail response, the VSB said that they couldn’t get into specifics because the Kingsgate Mall case is before the courts. However, no decision has been made, and the disposition of public land would have to be approved by the Ministry. As well, there is a 90-day process where all government ministries are informed of the availability of the land parcel.

Frustrated with the slow process by senior levels of government, Burnaby mayor Mike Hurley’s council is in the process of creating a housing authority for the express purpose of taking more control over the housing process.

Judging by the ever-present cranes and all the skyscrapers, anyone can see that Burnaby is delivering housing supply at a rapid pace. But the mayor doesn’t believe market supply will bring down prices. Government programs deliver affordable housing, he says.

Only in rare cases, he says, should public land ever get sold off.

“We are doing long-term leases which allow people to develop housing on there, or other things, and that is the case for the vast majority of our [public land]. That’s how we see it.”

As well, when government does sell off public land, questions often arise around the returns they get on behalf of taxpayers.

The city of Vancouver made headlines in 2013 when it traded 508 Helmcken St., valued at $15-million, for 1099 Richards St., valued at $8.4-million, to developer Brenhill. Four years after a rezoning, the Helmcken property was assessed at $130-million. The developer had agreed to build social housing on the Richards Street site, using a $39-million B.C. Housing loan. On the Helmcken property, they built a luxury condo tower.

After the deal, instead of relying on city staff valuations, the city began doing third-party appraisals of city land as regular practice, on properties worth more than $1-million.

However, Robert Renger, former senior planner for the city of Burnaby, says there wasn’t an independent appraisal done on the 2,300-square-foot laneway that the city sold to developer PCI Developments in 2020. The lane was part of an assembly to build the 40-storey tower under construction at Granville and Broadway.

The city sold the property for $3.795-million, based on a low allowable floor space ratio for a five-storey building. Mr. Renger takes issue with the sale because by 2022 the city increased the allowable density to four times that, after the developer changed their proposal to a 40-storey rental residential and commercial tower.

He cites a staff report that shows staff members were aware of the developer’s proposal for more density. He estimates the city should have received an additional $6.86 million.

“Vancouver seems to sell land to developers while the density for development is still unknown, leaving millions on the table for developers to profit from” says Mr. Renger.

Jerry Evans, the city’s Director of Real Estate Services, responded in an e-mail that a separate appraisal was not necessary because the city had already had an appraisal done on an adjacent city-owned property that they considered comparable.

“Generally, there are a number of considerations for when public lands may be contemplated for sale [including but not limited to the lands being no longer required for any civic purpose, or to facilitate the delivery of public objectives],” Mr. Evans said.

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