Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024

With the popularity of teleworking, transforming empty federal buildings into apartment buildings is often touted as an easy solution to the housing crisis. In reality, the process is very long and complex.

23 years to build housing on federal land

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Transforming federal property into an apartment building can easily take 10 years, according to the Canada Lands Company.

  • Laurence Martin (View profile)Laurence Martin

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Blue and white, glass, 1010 Somerset in Ottawa, which has two floors, is a building like thousands of others across the country. For years, it welcomed federal government officials who came to work there every day.

In June 2015, the Department of Public Works, responsible for building, decides it no longer needs it. The property is then declared “surplus”.

Years pass. The market value of the building is assessed, as is its physical condition. Five years later, in August 2020, a mandatory federal consultation process began. We need to see if other public entities are interested in it.

The City of Ottawa, which owns the land next door, is raising its hand. It plans to build a new recreational center, a park, a French-speaking school, possibly, and above all residential towers with 150 social housing units.

We contacted the City to find out when the first families will be able to move in. His answer: by 2038. So 23 years after the building was declared surplus.

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The City of Ottawa was able to benefit from a federal subsidy to acquire 1010 Somerset at a lower cost in exchange for a promise to build 150 affordable housing units there by 2038.

Of course, the case of 1010 Somerset is complex, firstly because we plan to build more than just housing on the former federal property. The plan proposed by the City of Ottawa also arouses the concern of many residents of the neighborhood, who fear that the century-old park located on the neighboring property will be destroyed by the construction of the French language school.

In addition, this project is part of a larger set of affordable housing that the City wants to develop in the sector and, according to the administration, flexibility must be ensured […] in project management of construction.

One ​​thing is certain: Despite its specific challenges, 1010 Somerset is far from the only example of a federal asset that takes years to be converted to accommodate houses or apartments.

In 2018, the Trudeau government launched the Federal Lands Initiative (FLI) to build 4,000 housing units, including several with a social vocation, from empty government buildings or land. 1010 Somerset is also part of this initiative.

Five years later, halfway through the 10-year deadline to sell land, only 204 units have been built and are now inhabited, according to data obtained by Radio-Canada.

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This Habitations l'Équerre project in Sherbrooke is one of two Federal Lands Initiative projects including construction is complete.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), which oversees the federal initiative, indicates in writing that hundreds more units must be completed during of the next few months. CMHC is also convinced that it will respect its initial target of 4,000 housing units by 2027-2028 and that it will even be able to exceed it.

But the small portion of housing built to date in connection with this initiative clearly illustrates the slowness of the process of transforming federal property – a slowness that goes beyond the cumbersome municipal regulations, which are often criticized.

Between the moment when a department considers that it no longer needs a building or land and the moment when housing is built and families live there, it is a process that can take 7, 10 , 15, explains Marcelo Gomez-Wiuckstern, vice-president of communications at the Canada Lands Company (CLS).

This self-financed federal company, which acquires a large portion of empty government land before reselling it to developers, works in parallel and sometimes also in collaboration with CMHC to transform empty federal property into housing.

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The federal government committed last year to subsidizing the construction of 72 new housing units, including at least 30% affordable, on this former military base in Calgary, which has been vacant since 1998.

What is particularly time-consuming, according to Mr. Gomez-Wiuckstern, are all the consultations that must take place, when a ministry has decided that it no longer needs 'a building or land.

According to a government directive, the property must first be offered to other departments, crown corporations, provinces, cities and indigenous groups, which have priority to recover the federal property. This process alone can take several years.

Only once these consultations have been completed can the building or land be transformed to accommodate housing, but again, other steps are often necessary. Sometimes it is necessary to decontaminate the land, change zoning, consult the local community, and even carry out initial development work, before the baton can be handed over to developers and builders.

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The federal government announced in November that additional units will be built at the Village des Riverains, located in Ottawa on former National Defense land.

A few weeks ago, the Trudeau government proudly announced that nearly 30,000 new housing units would be built on surplus federal government land by 2029. But how can it achieve this in what is, after all, a fairly short time frame?

In reality, some of these lands have been vacant for at least a decade or two. The lengthy process of consultations to see if other public entities or Indigenous groups are interested has already taken place.

For example, the federal announcement promised 307 new housing units at Village des Riverains, a site that formerly housed the former Rockliffe military base in Ottawa.

However, the Armed Forces base was decommissioned in 1994 – almost 30 years ago – and it was not until 2011 that the CLC finally acquired it, after a round of federal consultations. Infrastructure work, to build sewers and new streets, only began in 2016, again after a long period of community discussions and planning with the City. The first houses only began to appear in 2017. It is far from a rapid process.

When we get bogged down in endless administrative procedures, it shows a lack of efficiency of the government apparatus. And we need to remedy that as quickly as possible.

A quote from Pierre Paul-Hus, Conservative MP for Charlesbourg—Haute-Saint-Charles

The Conservative Party is also counting on the conversion of 15% of federal buildings to compensate for the lack of housing, among other things by building affordable units. Mr. Paul-Hus does not specify, however, what specific aspect of the current process he would change to speed up construction starts, but speaks of removing bureaucratic barriers.

We have to put an end to this, the consultations. Now is not the time to consult. We have a housing crisis.

A quote from Denis Trudel, MP and spokesperson for the Bloc Québécois on housing

Another administrative challenge: the Trudeau government does not have a central list that compiles the total number of empty federal buildings. Each ministry is responsible for its own building stock. It is therefore difficult to predict the number of housing units that can be built from federal properties when we do not even know how many of them are currently vacant.

In an interview with Radio-Canada, the federal Minister of Housing, Sean Fraser, recognizes, on the one hand, that there needs to be a centralized list of empty federal properties and, on the other hand , that the consultation process in place, although necessary, is too long and must be reviewed.

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Minister Sean Fraser says he is studying different strategies to speed up the consultation process when federal property is deemed surplus and could be transformed into housing.

He specifies Besides, transforming federal property into housing is not as easy as we think.

However, his colleague Jean-Yves Duclos, who is head of the Ministry of Public Services and Supply, suggested the opposite recently, at a press briefing. According to him, several empty government buildings are quite easily, in certain cases, convertible into affordable housing and residences.

An idea that the spokesperson qualifies of the Quebec Construction Association, Guillaume Houle, if only from a logistical or structural point of view.

An office tower was not built to be a housing tower.

A quote from Guillaume Houle, spokesperson for the Quebec Construction Association

Indeed, he explains, in a federal building, toilets are often grouped in one place, whereas they are needed in each unit in an apartment building. Electricity needs are not the same. Ventilation, which must be at an almost industrial level in an office building, does not need to be as prevalent in residential homes.

In short, the changes to be made are so important and complex that, often, he explains, the most profitable thing for a developer is to literally demolish the building and build a new one.

So, if vacant federal properties, often well located in the heart of cities, represent an attractive solution to the housing crisis for politicians, it is clear that with current processes, the transformation of a building or even an empty plot of land cannot be done overnight.

With the collaboration of Marie Chabot-Johnson

  • Laurence Martin (View profile)Laurence MartinFollow

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