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B.C.’s housing minister says the province should never again have to spend almost half a billion dollars to buy hotels for homeless people to live in, noting that while the purchase was made appropriately, it was done in an emergency to alleviate a crisis.

David Eby said the province is working on long-term solutions, including a new fund to help non-profit groups buy apartment buildings to keep them off the speculative market.

“The province needs to get out of the crisis response to homelessness,” Mr. Eby said.

Mr. Eby’s comments came after Auditor-General Michael Pickup issued a report on Tuesday examining the purchase of nine hotels over two years for $204-million. He found the price was eight per cent less than their assessed values – the total came to $221-million with closing costs. The province spent nearly $200-million on further hotel purchases during that time, but those were not part of the audit.

Mr. Pickup concluded there was no sign that any usual procedures were bypassed during the purchases, which he said involved “considerable public expense” and were decided on very quickly during a crisis.

The Howard Johnson hotel on Granville Street in downtown Vancouver cost $56.6-million and the Patricia Hotel in the Downtown Eastside cost $64.4-million, both well in excess of the normal cap of $35-million set for such purchases by Treasury Board.

Both have parking lots next to them that BC Housing said at the time could be developed. They were part of a total of $403-million spent in the past two years to buy hotels, motels, shelters and other buildings that were part of the emergency response to the pandemic and to clear homeless camps in Vancouver and Victoria.

The purchases provoked controversy, in part because of the high prices, and in part because people experiencing homelessness were moved into areas not used to that population.

Mr. Eby said a coalition of taxpayers also supported the hotel purchases as a better way of tackling homelessness.

He said the purchases were the right moves as the pandemic emerged.

“It’s easy to forget those early days and the urgent need there was to get people inside.”

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The Auditor-General’s report suggested BC Housing and the government should address questions about how to keep the public informed on purchases like this and the long-term plans for the properties.

BC Housing is moving ahead with plans to redevelop the Capital City Centre Hotel in Victoria in partnership with Chard Development Ltd., which owns the former White Spot next door.

BC Housing is seeing a high level of scrutiny these days. Mr. Pickup’s office is also looking at the agency’s response to housing women who have fled domestic violence during the pandemic. As well, the NDP government has ordered a review of the housing agency to make sure it has the financial and operational ability to carry out the province’s aggressive housing agenda. That plan, announced shortly after the NDP formed government in 2017, has a goal of creating 114,000 new homes in 10 years, including 7,000 new rentals, ranging from co-ops and subsidized buildings to market-rent apartments.

In the most recent mandate letter to BC Housing, the minister spelled out the agency’s targets as 14,350 units through the Community Housing Fund, 1,500 units through the Women’s Transition Housing Fund, 1,750 units through the Indigenous Housing Fund, and 2,500 units through the Supportive Housing Fund.

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