Government Accelerating Sales of Surplus Public Property
In December 2018, the government announced plans to sell 243 surplus properties to put them back into productive use over the next four years. At the same time the government chose to speed up the process for selling properties . As part of this streamlining the government has shortened the time properties are offered to other public and nonprofit bodies by 84%, from 180 days to 30 days.
Because these properties are public, owned by the people of Ontario, there is a policy directive) that directs the government to first offer surplus lands to federal and municipal governments, school boards, public colleges and universities, eligible Indigenous communities – and, thanks to an agreement ONN negotiated in 2012, eligible nonprofits.
The intent behind offering surplus lands to these designated groups is to keep the land available for public use – public lands in public or community hands. Once public land is sold to the private sector it is lost forever as a public resource as speculation often drives prices higher very quickly, placing properties out of reach for the nonprofit sector. It is only after these properties have been offered to public and nonprofit purchasers at market rate that the land is offered for private sale. This staged sale process was developed because it was found these public and nonprofit organizations could not move fast enough to compete with the private sector. Public lands were being sold for private development when public and nonprofit entities needed them in their communities.
The government had already streamlined the process by offering the land simultaneously to all designated groups at the same time with a 180-day window for expressing interest and undertaking a purchase. The 180-day period was already tight for many of these groups to determine whether they could purchase the property. The new 30-day period makes it almost impossible for nonprofits. Boards of Directors need to be involved. Donors often need to be involved. Other community groups may need to be involved if it is a shared space. Financing is also more complicated to arrange for nonprofits as financial institutions are not as familiar with their business models. This is all in addition to evaluating and assessing the property. Even if much preparation work has been done, until the property is identified as for sale, these stakeholders cannot be lined up. For many nonprofits, purchasing a property is a rare occurrence and a very big financial commitment.
We operate the Ontario surplus lands registry for nonprofit buyers in partnership with Infrastructure Ontario. We hold the position that the government may not have recognized the implications for nonprofits of shortening the period when public lands were offered to designated organizations but the net effect is that that they will be shut out of repurposing surplus government properties for community use. This will likely mean a lower supply of deeply affordable housing, fewer community centres or hubs, less accessible community services, fewer arts and recreation spaces. This change in regulation is a lost opportunity for the people of Ontario. When public lands stay in community hands, the government gets a sale at market rates and the people of Ontario get a repurposed public asset to provide services in their communities.