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Reusing surplus government buildings is one solution to the shortage of affordable housing

August 2021

We are, once again, seeing all major parties announcing plans to tackle the housing crisis that we are seeing in major cities all across the country. For anyone who pays attention, there have been many plans in past years, but all of them seem to be just relying on building new housing and apartment units, rather than selling or re-purposing existing government-owned buildings.

Both the federal and provincial governments across Canada are currently sitting on buildings like former hospitals, schools and government offices, some that have been sitting empty or under used for years, that could easily be converted into apartment units. Now I’m not necessarily advocating for any government to become landlords, given how poorly the Toronto Community Housing Authority has operated their units, but contracting private management companies could be a good option, especially if we wish to market them as affordable housing.

Sales to private owners, even if they sell or rent for higher prices, would still increase the available stock, with a shorter move-in time-frame than building new housing.

In recent years, both federal and provincial governments have failed to take advantage of existing housing stocks at former military bases across Canada. I have personally seen several hundred former military homes demolished at former bases in southern Ontario, in Toronto, Oakville, Ottawa (Rockcliffe), Oro-Medonte Township.

Other cities across Canada like Chilliwack, Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary have also seen their PMQs demolished. Most of these properties have been re-developed into high-end housing or at least housing that is not considered “affordable housing.”

Of course, the market delivers what people want, which is understandable. If you’re a developer, you have a right to make as much money as you can and if people are buying your houses, it’s good for business. As a capitalist and somewhat of a Libertarian, who am I to complain in that regard.

My problem is with the federal government selling off the property and homes with no apparent concern for what becomes of it. Is it too much to ask for the feds to retain these properties and rent or sell the homes (to either stay on the property or to be moved) as affordable housing?

Sure the majority of these wood-frame former PMQs were built in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, often without suitable insulation, under construction codes that are insufficient by today’s standards and some without basements.

However, as any homeowner or building manager knows, if you take care of your building properly and update to conform to current codes, it can reasonably last for hundreds of years. Next time you’re driving through the countryside, take note of all the century-old farmhouses.

There are many armouries across Canada that are over 100 years old and the Gothic Revival-style Centre Block portion of Canada’s Parliament building is almost 100 years old (the Parliament Hill Library is older than that).

The Canadian Forces Housing Agency (CFHA), the managing agency for all PMQs at active bases, have been upgrading PMQs across Canada with things such as new siding, upgraded insulation, heating systems and waterlines to ensure their viability for many years to come.

This is in addition to the dozens of former PMQs at closed bases that have been sold to the private sector and continue to be lived in by families.

By having a plan to retain these former military housing units to be managed by the CFHA or similar agency, how many affordable housing units could be provided to needy families?

I personally watched 86 former PMQs at a former Royal Canadian Air Force radar station north of Barrie left vacant and deteriorating to the point where they had to be demolished. PMQs at numerous other (sometimes remotely located) former Pinetree and DEW Line radar stations have been left to a similar fate.

At some former bases, barracks that once housed single personnel have been converted into apartment buildings.

Sometimes it’s simply not economically viable to retain buildings, especially if they have to be moved to another location. Some former bases are far from major cities and the PMQs or converted barracks may prove to be impractical for those who can’t afford the commute for jobs, but for those who are able to commute, it could be a realistic option.

Demolition of perfectly serviceable housing units should be avoided if possible if we are going to effectively combat the affordable housing shortage.

This certainly isn’t the only solution to the chronic shortage of affordable housing in Canada, but it’s an option that shouldn’t be ignored.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/__trashed-2/

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