Of the many actions Premier David Eby proposed during his election campaign in September 2022, many, if not most, of them were already introduced prior to 2024. The biggest item that had yet to be announced, however, was BC Builds, but that finally changed last week, when the program and its first three projects were officially unveiled.

The BC Builds initiative is a program with three prongs that come together with the goal of building housing that is affordable to middle-income earners — a segment of the population that is less discussed when it comes to housing, but one that is also increasingly facing affordability challenges.

First, the program will create a bank of underutilized land that is currently owned by a government entity, First Nation, or not-for-profit. BC Builds will then match those landowners with developers and help push those projects through the approvals processes so they can begin construction as soon as possible. From there, BC Builds will also provide low-interest construction financing to help see those projects through and/or provide grants to ensure affordability.

There is a lot of hope in the BC Builds initiative and the concept behind it. Just a day prior to the Province's announcement, federal Minister of Housing Sean Fraser, although not directly referencing BC Builds, floated the idea that federally-owned land could be made available for housing development. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined Eby and Mayor of Vancouver Ken Sim in Vancouver to announce that the Government of Canada was contributing an additional $2B in federal financing to support BC Builds, on top of the $2B in low-cost financing and $950M in grants that BC Builds launched with last week.

In light of all of that, in an interview with STOREYS, Minister of Housing Ravi Kahlon discussed the concept behind BC Builds, other cities in the world the Province looked at when developing the program, future iterations of the program, and how the various pieces of legislation introduced last year will support BC Builds.

I’m aware that the idea of BC Builds came from Premier Eby during his campaign. In terms of making it a reality, what were some of the first steps?

When we first came up with the idea, we sent an email around to local governments asking them who would be interested. From that, we identified 20 sites, but it's not exclusive to that. Since the announcement, we've had many local governments come forward and offer additional sites, so we expect this to grow. In fact, BC Builds was built to grow. At the moment, we have 20 in the queue, but it's not limited to that.

Historically, in BC, we've focused on building affordable housing for people who were making less than $85,000 a year — supportive housing, deeply-subsidized housing — but what we've seen with the significant increase in people in British Columbia is that right now, many of the projects that are coming forward in the private sector are not able to reach teachers' incomes, or healthcare professionals' incomes, so many communities are struggling to attract the workforce and the talent that they need.

The BC Builds concept is about using land that is either owned by the government, First Nations, or faith-based organizations and using government financing and tools to prioritize getting permits and approvals to build housing that can help us attract that workforce. For example, the first project is in the City of North Vancouver, which is trying to attract workforce at Lions Gate Hospital and to support the local port.

The lands that were identified are being described as "underutilized." How was "underutilized" defined?

That was actually very challenging. Many of the conversations, whenever you talk about government land, is land that has a purpose, and so people don't necessarily like to raze the sites that they have. Methodically going through lands that are within Crown corporations, within different entities within government — it took us some time. We have created a bit of a land bank of opportunities, but quite frankly, since we've announced it, we've had a lot of local governments come forward and say, "We have land and we want to attract this type of workforce to our communities."

Quite frankly, the private sector, at this point, is unable to build that housing that we need. We need the private sector to continue to build housing for market rates, cause we're so far behind in terms of the housing supply, while we're stepping in — in partnership with the private sector, local governments, and not-for-profits — to build housing for this [middle income] segment, which has been neglected in BC certainly, and across Canada, I would say.

Was the concept of BC Builds inspired by similar programs elsewhere in the world?

Definitely. We have modelled this work off of what we've seen in Vienna and Singapore. It's a slightly different context so it's not exactly the same, but mostly the same. I know, for example, California is looking to do something similar to this. They just passed a few bills to allow this type of housing to be built on faith-based organizations land, but the problem they have there is there isn't a central entity that can mobilize this. We're fortunate we have BC Housing, so we are now ahead of other jurisdications. My guess would be that this is going to be something that all provinces will have to consider in the years ahead.

BC Builds has a stated goal of cutting pre-construction timelines to 12 to 18 months, which I imagine would require some urgency when it comes to vetting development proposals. Sites will be made available via a Property Opportunity Notice, but will there be a set time regarding how long that opportunity will be available?

As the sites start coming forward, we will be posting them on our new BC Builds website that we've launched, which will not only be for people looking for a place to rent, but also for those in the development and construction industry who want to bid on the projects. We'll be putting timelines on how long we'll be looking at each individual proposal, but it'll be rolling, so it won't be one intake. As sites come online, we'll continue to post them on the site so people will have opportunities as they come forward.

We're gonna need the private sector to build this because this is not an expertise we have within government. Projects will go online, people will have the opportunity to bid on it, and I think that's the kind of partnership that's gonna help us achieve our goals overall.

And are there any other expectations for these projects other than that they have to be rental projects?

One of the conditions that we have with local governments that bring a project forward or being a parcel forward is that they prioritize the BC Builds project. In many cases, that means they have to move it to the front of the queue.

I understand the BC Builds program will also have a homeownership program at some point. When can we expect more details?

The goal is to start with rentals in year one, but we are moving into ownership in the coming years, and we will be partnering with private land-holders as well. Likely, the homeownership [program] will be next year. We need to get the rental portion off the ground. As you can imagine, launching a program of this scale is a considerable effort. With that being said, we're learning. We're learning from jurisdictions like Vienna, learning from jurisdictions like Singapore, who've been doing this for a long time, successfully. It's a model that we know works; it just hasn't been done in North America at the level that we're trying to do it at.

When we last spoke, you talked about how the various pieces of new legislation interact with one another. How do those pieces of legislation interact with BC Builds?

The legislation that we introduced last fall actually helps us get these projects done faster as well. Now, when projects fit within a community plan, they are required to go to public hearings, which saves — in some communities — six months to a year.

All the changes work in alignment. When we were developing BC Builds, when we had all the policy teams working on this, they were constantly collaborating to ensure that as we address challenges on one legislation, that it's helping address the others. That's why we introduced so many pieces of legislation together, because we wanted to show the public how they all work together.

On a different, but related note, the second cohort of municipalities to receive housing targets was expected to be announced in late-2023, but have yet to be announced. When can we expect that announcement?

The first 10 communities' updates are going to happen in March, so we're gonna start engaging with communities that were in the first round, and I do expect, in the next three to four weeks, that we'll have the next 10 communities announced.