A policy to give City of Vancouver the first right to buy properties is not recommended: staff

While well-intentioned, the idea of creating a new bylaw that would provide the City of Vancouver with the first dibs to buy property listed for sale for the purpose of generating more affordable housing is not worth the hassle and high cost.

Under a “pre-emptive right bylaw,” the property owners must offer the possible sale to the municipal government first, before accepting an offer from the market.

In a recent memo to Vancouver City Council, City staff stated the “main barrier to further property acquisition [for affordable housing] is funding, not the acquisition process. The existing acquisition process is already effective at acquiring properties we need for this purpose.”

The memo is a direct response to two separate member motions approved by Vancouver City Council in July 2022 and November 2024 directing City staff to explore such a policy.

According to City staff, such a bylaw exists in the City of Montreal, where significant labour resources are required to execute such a policy. While a number of other Quebec cities have created such a bylaw, no other major Canadian city has adopted it.

As of the end of 2023, Montreal has used its bylaw to acquire 23 buildings/properties, including eight lots, seven rooming houses, and two walk-ups. Another four properties were acquired by mutual agreement, in a scenario where the properties did not receive any other offers. Montreal’s municipal government also considered but did not proceed on 57 properties.

City of Vancouver staff deem Montreal’s model to be “effective,” but they anticipate that it would have very similar high staffing requirements and costs.

Moreover, the adoption of the pre-emptive right bylaw would require the Government of British Columbia to make amendments to the Vancouver Charter, the Land Title Act, and/or the Property Law Act. It is noted that the City of Toronto is interested in gaining such a bylaw, but would require similar provincial authorization.

“A pre-emptive right bylaw is unlikely to increase the equitable distribution or quantity of nonmarket housing in Vancouver. The City is in a different context than other jurisdictions in that the cost of purchasing existing properties is the main barrier to doing so, not the acquisition process itself,” reads City staff’s memo.

“The main challenges are the amount of funding available to purchase properties, and timely access to funding for the City and/or non-profit organizations seeking to do so. The development and implementation of a pre-emptive right bylaw would be legally complex, and highly staff and resource intensive. Further, the benefits of this approach are unclear relative to our current property acquisition process, and do not appear to justify the high effort required to implement such a program.”