The three buildings – two towers, one lower-rise building – being hammered on and coated with insulation on the banks of the Fraser River in southeast Vancouver don't look any different from the dozens of other buildings going up near them.
On the outside, they're not.
But these three, along with a fourth on Kingsway, are part of an experiment in Vancouver that many hope can kick off a boom of reasonably priced housing in this expensive city.
That's in part because the 358 units are being built on city land that will be protected from the speculative market that has wreaked such havoc here.
It's also because their developer is not a private company but an entity called the Vancouver Community Land Trust Foundation, the organization the city was willing to give, for $10, a 99-year lease for land worth $25-million.
The recently created land-trust foundation is the Vancouver version of a concept for creating and preserving low-cost housing that has sprouted in a few cities around North America.
A growing number of people in British Columbia are viewing this fledgling organization, and community land trusts in general, as the way to provide an important new option in the escalating struggle over housing.
"We see this as a model," says Kira Gerwing, the manager of community investment at Vancity credit union, which is involved with the current foundation project. "This is a new take on the market sector. It's like a social-enterprise development company."
Residents in South False Creek, that huge swathe of city-owned land around Granville Island that sparked Vancouver's rush to urban living in the 1970s, are considering whether a land trust might be the answer to some of their problems.
That group of residents live in 1,800 units that are divided among co-ops, non-profits, or leasehold strata buildings on a chunk of some beautiful waterfront that faces downtown. They have been trying for years to find a way forward that would ensure they get a strong say in future development or redevelopment in the areas – with vacant land along 6th Avenue and a few available parking garages being prime targets – as well as in negotiating leases with the city.
"We've been intrigued by this idea for a long time because of the possibility of achieving something that will meet the community's needs," says Richard Evans, an architect and 30-year resident of the area. People want to ensure future development matches the unique look and feel of the area, with its pattern-language design, numerous walkways and many enclosed courtyards that are ideal for families with children.
City planners have agreed to look at the idea as a possibility.
"The whole purpose [of the plan just approved] is to help us understand what the trade-offs are around that," said the city's manager of community services, Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas.
If the South False Creek group joined the existing Vancouver foundation, it would make it the biggest land trust on the continent.
Advocates talk passionately about how land trusts help remove property from the speculative land market and preserve it forever.
But, in the Vancouver version, people are also attracted by the other power of land trusts – their ability to harness the energy of hundreds of isolated non-profit housing societies and co-ops, combining their land equity and their clout to be able to finance new development.
"It's a combination of a vehicle for growth and a way to redevelop some sites we already have to greater density. This is a way to form partnerships," says Thom Armstrong, chief executive of the Co-op Housing Federation of B.C.
Mr. Armstrong is a driving force behind Vancouver's reinvention of this idea. Until recently, his main job was just managing the problems of the existing 264 co-ops, with their 15,000 homes, in British Columbia – mostly a maintenance position.
But the city's decision to experiment with a new way of producing affordable housing prompted him and others to come up with the new land-trust foundation. (As well, he said, "We stole this idea from a group in Australia, Common Equity Ltd.," which has transformed that country's non-profit sector.)
Mr. Armstrong is now also the CEO of the Vancouver land-trust foundation, which was formed three years ago, the product of a collaboration among a group of non-profit and the co-federation.
When the buildings they are now constructing are completed, some units will be rented out at whatever price the market will bear. A few others, just as nice, will be rented for $375 a month, the amount that the provincial government provides for housing people on welfare. Some others that are, again, same quality and size, will be rented to people for no more than 30 per cent of their declared income.
Within this small project, the well-off will subsidize the less well-off. Even better, this arrangement won't end after 10 years or 60 years, as do some city affordable-housing projects.
That was all possible because the trust was able to take the assets and expertise of the groups under its umbrella. That allowed it to take on a massive new development and a complex cross-subsidization scheme.
Community land trusts have been around a long time in various forms. One of the best known is in Burlington, Vt., where a then-little-known mayor named Bernie Sanders helped make it possible by championing the idea of land trusts in the 1980s.
The Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, founded in 1984, now manages 565 houses and 2,100 apartments. Some residents own their homes, with the trust retaining some equity, while the owners buy the rest. It is the largest land trust in North America.
Burlington's gift of land is unusual. Most municipalities are unwilling to give away land. And, unlike nature conservancies and trusts that get donations of vast tracts to preserve, there are few private donors willing to give more than a small single lot in expensive cities.
But cities will lease to community land trusts, which provide even better benefits than individual non-profits because they are bigger, more capable of managing multiple projects and they have the capacity to finance large projects.
That emulates, in a way, the social-housing systems that exist in many European cities. There, social-housing organizations are sometimes the biggest developers in a city, as a result of the land and capital they were given by governments after the Second World War to replace decimated housing stock.
Vancouver's land-trust foundation is a long way from that, but Mr. Armstrong is seeing the possibility for the idea to grow spectacularly, performing a service for the many smaller cities in British Columbia that don't have the expertise to develop housing on their own.
His organization has already set up a second foundation to work with communities outside the B.C. Lower Mainland.
The foundation is currently in negotiations with North Cowichan District to work together on that municipality's first-ever low-cost housing project.
Mr. Armstrong's group is also stepping in to help small non-profits that have found themselves in trouble. The foundation has now taken in the Bakerview Housing Co-operative in Abbotsford, which didn't know how it was going to manage the $6-million in necessary renos.
The co-op also had a 25-per-cent vacancy rate because it was so run down.
Now, the land is being transferred to the foundation, which is taking out a $7.5-million loan, backed by its current $225-million in holdings, to do the renos and pay off the last of its federal loan.
"The possibility of doubling our portfolio in a year is high," says Mr. Armstrong, who sees similar needs in many places.
Ideally, that will mean potentially hundreds of new units of low-cost housing developing, as the foundation works with a wide variety of non-profits, co-ops and cities to develop vacant land or redevelop properties whose original low-rise buildings don't take advantage of the maximum possibilities. He is also working with some private developers in Vancouver who are intrigued by the idea of having the foundation take over the low-cost housing the city requires them to build within large projects.
Others who watch this would agree there's a new movement afoot.
"The land-trust deal that Thom did – people all over are taking inspiration from that," says Michael Walker, a lawyer at Miller Thomson, who has worked with many different kinds of land trusts.
The ultimate benefit for people in British Columbia, if it succeeds, is the possibility of significant numbers of new low-cost housing, run by a foundation whose aim is to serve the community.
"When your mandate is to deliver affordable housing," Ms. Gerwing says, "your math is very different from other developers."