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Will putting social-housing buildings in the hands of non-profits save them? Or doom them?

April 6th, 2017 · 1 Comment

B.C.’s auditor general came out with a quietly scathing report on BC Housing’s move to transfer its remaining social-housing assets — about 9,000 units of housing when they started — into the hands of non-profits.

That process, when it started a couple of years ago, sparked fears that private developers would be gobbling up these buildings. But they are all going to non-profits, it turns out.

In spite of that, AG Carol Bellringer said the selection process is murky; there doesn’t seem to be any assessment or requirement of the non-profits that they expand the social housing they’re inheriting. And, she said, the province really didn’t come up with any good argument about how this was going to ensure that social housing remains affordable and continues to be a part of the services in a community.

I started getting calls from non-profits after that, saying her report was somewhat unfair. In the story I wrote later, they said that they will likely be better protectors of social housing. They, for instance, won’t sell off a massive site to a private developer, as the province did with Little Mountain. (That happened 10 years ago today, something that housing advocates are marking with a ceremony Saturday.) That sale turned into a bit of a mess after the developer, Holborn Group, first insisted that everyone be cleared out of the existing 224 units, then demolished the units, and then did nothing. Today, only one new social-housing building has been erected on the otherwise vacant site, where the developer is required to eventually replace all 224 of the former units.

Kishone Roy of the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association said, for sure, there are real threats of losses of social housing. But, he said, that is a threat that applies to all of it — the 60,000 units already owned and run by non-profits, as well as the 9,000 units that were still being run by BC Housing. He expanded on that in a story by my colleague, Jen St. Denis at Metro, saying that groups are constantly being squeezed by the government and its payment system to reduce the number of subsidized units.

That’s been happening for years already. At BCNPHA conferences I’ve gone to in the past, non-profit operators have fretted that they have to shift the ratios of subsidized vs. unsubsidized units in their buildings to keep paying the bills. The AG said about two-thirds of all social housing in the province is subsidized. But it’s actually less than that in the non-profit sector, whereas most of the BC Housing units, inherited from the federal government, charge rents that are geared to income so that people only pay 30 per cent of their income or the shelter portion of welfare.

But tenants elsewhere, like those at Stamps Place, one of the complexes that was sold, worry that there is nothing to ensure that non-profits won’t, at some point, reduce subsidies or re-develop with a private partner as a way of trying to generate some cash to expand. (In fairness, that’s what the province said it was doing with the Little Mountain sale: selling for $300-million so that it would have more money to put into social housing elsewhere.)

I guess the question is: Who do you trust more to protect it? Provincial governments now and in the future? Or non-profits whose mission it is to try to provide affordable housing?

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