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Public land, prefab homes pitched as housing cure

Manufacturing offsite for ‘public land parcels with underutilized land’ seen as solution to B.C.’s high construction costs and housing prices

Prefabricated apartments and public land are being pitched as paths to solving British Columbia’s housing affordability crisis, according to some city planners and Alex Boston, executive director of the Renewable Cities think-tank at Simon Fraser University.

"This is a huge opportunity to deal an ace card for British Columbia,” Boston told Metro Vancouver directors Thursday ahead of a report calling for the formation of an off-site rental home construction industry.

Boston, whose group advocates for prefabricated, mass timber construction, echoed the report calling for swifter government policy planning to spur off-site construction of prefabricated homes.

At issue is a housing construction industry facing threats from several directions, according to report author and Metro Vancouver housing planner Jessica Hayes.

“In recent years, housing delivery (particularly affordable rental housing) has been challenged by unprecedented construction cost escalation, a result of multiple factors including rising interest rates and labour shortages,” wrote Hayes.

Boston said about 40,000 construction workers will be lost to retirement in the coming decade and it’s unlikely they will all be replaced.

So, one solution, said Boston, may be to create construction efficiencies: building multiple complexes elsewhere and moving them on to a site for quick assembly, not unlike modular homes.

But to do so, Hayes notes the province needs to establish an industry that will supply this demand; essentially, government will need to stimulate the demand by contracting with existing and new prefabrication construction companies. Once that’s done, a stream of construction will begin for non-market rental homes that will spill over into the private sector, once established.

Metro Vancouver directors accepted the report, which calls for Metro Vancouver and the provincial government to coordinate a plan with municipalities.

Burnaby Mayor Mike Hurley warned, however, that time is of the essence.

“Where's the industry? We just don’t have the industry to support this right now,” said Hurley.

“This industry will likely take four or five years to get to where we need to be.”

The plan will be coordinated by former Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps, who is now the housing solutions advisor to Premier David Eby.

This month’s Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) conference will see such proposals from three cities: Quesnel, Courtenay and Vancouver.

The goal, notes Courtenay’s submission, is to utilize “hundreds of strategically located, public land parcels with underutilized land that can be used to cost effectively build affordable housing and grow a predictable pipeline of projects to mobilize investment in manufacturing plant expansion.”

The plan is also to incorporate mass timber construction. Presenting at the UBCM conference alongside Boston will be builder Rocky Sethi of Adera developments, which constructs wood-frame apartments.

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