Union of church and real es­tate un­locks value from the earth be­neath and the sky above


As van­cou­ver land prices soar, the City’s places of wor­ship Are see­ing An op­por­tu­nity. Justin Kim, ex­ec­u­tive min­is­ter of First bap­tist church, says the church has en­tered into A part­ner­ship with de­vel­oper westbank to Build A 57-storey Condo on the site. The deal gives the church fund­ing to help re­store its Cen­tury-old Build­ing.

The city of Van­cou­ver’s places of wor­ship, which sit upon more than $3.4 bil­lion of real es­tate, are get­ting into the hous­ing game more than ever be­fore, scal­ing projects sky­ward in an at­tempt to ben­e­fit both their con­gre­ga­tions and a com­mu­nity fac­ing a hous­ing cri­sis.

Re­li­gious groups have long pro­vided hous­ing. In past gen­er­a­tions, those ef­forts fo­cused on help­ing vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tions with shel­ter beds for the home­less, refuges for women and children flee­ing abuse, and hous­ing for low-in­come se­niors. But the role of Metro Van­cou­ver’s re­li­gious groups in the hous­ing world is chang­ing.

Chris­tian and Jewish groups, in par­tic­u­lar, have pro­vided se­niors hous­ing for decades. Since the 1990s, it has be­come more com­mon for churches, of­ten land-rich and cash-poor, to de­velop small af­ford­able apart­ment build­ings.

But in re­cent years, as Van­cou­ver land prices have soared, the scale of these projects has in­creased dra­mat­i­cally along with the range of house­holds they seek to serve. Re­li­gious groups are tap­ping into their eq­uity, un­lock­ing value from both the earth be­neath their feet and the sky above their heads.

The B.C. arm of the United Church of Canada is de­vel­op­ing 500 units of rental hous­ing spread over five sites in some of the prov­ince’s most ex­pen­sive mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties.

First Bap­tist Church is ven­tur­ing into a grand project with pri­vate de­vel­oper Westbank that in­cludes, along­side pub­lic ameni­ties, a 57-storey high-end condo tower de­signed by the late Bing Thom, one of Canada’s most fa­mous ar­chi­tects.

The lat­ter deal will give First Bap­tist Church fund­ing for seis­mic up­grades and restora­tion on its cen­tury-old West End build­ing, 37 child care spa­ces, and a new sev­en­storey build­ing of af­ford­able rentals to be con­structed by Westbank, in ex­change for what’s known as an “air par­cel” to ac­com­mo­date the 57-storey condo tower, said First Bap­tist’s ex­ec­u­tive min­is­ter Justin Kim. De­tails of the deal have not been made pub­lic.

Van­cou­ver churches have in­creas­ingly sold air parcels, which can be worth mil­lions. In ex­change for trans­fer­ring what the city calls the “un­used ver­ti­cal den­sity” above an old two-storey church build­ing to al­low a de­vel­oper to build a higher build­ing at a nearby site, for ex­am­ple, the church typ­i­cally re­ceives money from the de­vel­oper for seis­mic up­grades, her­itage build­ing im­prove­ments, and other ameni­ties that aid the church’s com­mu­nity ser­vice.

Kim rents in the West End with his wife and three kids un­der age 10, and says he’s keenly aware of the strug­gles of ten­ants in this hous­ing mar­ket. His own apart­ment is full of boxes this week, as his fam­ily packs up for their third move in five years.

“There’s no way we can get into the mar­ket. We can’t buy, so we’re at the mercy of the mar­ket right now,” Kim said. “A lot of our friends are ac­tu­ally mov­ing out of the West End . ... It’s just tough for young fam­i­lies, and a lot of se­niors are wor­ried about their sit­u­a­tion, too.”

That’s why, he says, it’s cru­cial the First Bap­tist de­vel­op­ment in­cludes a new af­ford­able rental build­ing of ap­prox­i­mately 46,000 square feet, com­pris­ing 61 units rang­ing from bach­e­lors to three­bed­room units, most of which will be avail­able at be­low-mar­ket rent.

The ad­ja­cent condo tower, known as the But­ter­fly, will be one of Van­cou­ver’s tallest build­ings. Its re­zon­ing was ap­proved in 2017 by Van­cou­ver’s coun­cil.

“With any or­ga­ni­za­tion, there are ob­vi­ously some folks who are con­cerned about it,” Kim said. “But what’s guid­ing the church is the op­por­tu­nity to serve the com­mu­nity . ... This is not just for our quote-un­quote church peo­ple, this is for the West End com­mu­nity. So with all of that con­sid­ered, yeah, for sure there were peo­ple who were con­cerned. But the con­gre­ga­tion had made a de­ci­sion with a sense of vi­sion around it, and we’re mov­ing for­ward.”


While Van­cou­ver’s re­li­gious groups, par­tic­u­larly Chris­tian and Jewish, are not new to the hous­ing world, the multi-mil­lion-dol­lar First Bap­tist de­vel­op­ment is em­blem­atic of the mas­sive scale and am­bi­tion of the new wave of projects.

“This has been go­ing on for a long time, but it’s just re­ally heated up lately,” said Si­mon Davie, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Terra Hous­ing, a lo­cal firm that con­sults on “so­cial pur­pose real es­tate” projects, in­clud­ing sev­eral with churches.

Re­li­gious groups are in a unique po­si­tion, Davie said, be­cause they have both “a will” and “an as­set.” Their “will to do mis­sion work” drives them to serve the com­mu­nity, Davie said, and their as­set — land — is the sin­gle most sought-after com­mod­ity in the de­vel­op­ment world.

“What’s re­ally changed in the last 10 years ... is that as­set they have, es­pe­cially in ur­ban cen­tres, is a lot more valu­able,” Davie said. “So the dis­crep­ancy be­tween what’s built on site and what’s pos­si­ble to build has grown ex­po­nen­tially.”

The B.C. As­sess­ment Au­thor­ity ’s “churches and bi­ble schools” cat­e­gory in­cludes all kinds of prop­er­ties owned by faith-based groups, in­clud­ing gur­d­waras, tem­ples, syn­a­gogues and mosques. Be­cause of B.C.’s his­tory and de­mo­graph­ics, many of the high­est-value prop­er­ties in this cat­e­gory be­long to Chris­tian churches rather than other re­li­gious groups.

There are about 2,400 prop­er­ties in this cat­e­gory in B.C., ex­clud­ing 152 ceme­ter­ies, ac­cord­ing to data pro­vided by Landcor Data Cor­po­ra­tion. The City of Van­cou­ver alone has 323 re­li­gious prop­er­ties with a com­bined as­sessed value of more than $3.4 bil­lion. Many of those re­li­gious prop­er­ties oc­cupy prime real es­tate. The as­sessed value of the three most ex­pen­sive Van­cou­ver prop­er­ties in the “church” cat­e­gory, for ex­am­ple, has in­creased by 44 per cent over the last three years alone.

That to­tal of 323 Van­cou­ver re­li­gious prop­er­ties doesn’t in­clude some high-pro­file — and high-value — sites that have been re-zoned for re­cent or fu­ture de­vel­op­ment, such as First Bap­tist’s Bur­rard Street site, with its 2019 as­sess­ment of $125 mil­lion, and a re­cently com­pleted 22-storey mixed-use de­vel­op­ment on Thur­low Street, a part­ner­ship be­tween lo­cal Pres­by­te­rian churches and Bosa Prop­er­ties, as­sessed this year at $81 mil­lion.

Con­gre­ga­tion had made a de­ci­sion with a sense of vi­sion around it, and we’re mov­ing for­ward.

Un­der the B.C. As­sess­ment Act, places of pub­lic wor­ship are gen­er­ally ex­empted from prop­erty taxes. How­ever, other prop­erty owned by a re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tion, in­clud­ing park­ing lots, of­fices and even va­cant lots slated for fu­ture de­vel­op­ment, may be sub­ject to prop­erty taxes.

If an old church can find a way to sell air space or oth­er­wise join with a de­vel­oper to cre­ate new hous­ing, while also un­lock­ing funds to ren­o­vate the church and po­ten­tially build new ameni­ties like a se­nior cen­tre or day­care, “it seems like it’s a win for the church, for the de­vel­oper, and for the city,” said Landcor CEO Jeff Tis­dale.

While peo­ple may be­lieve any af­ford­able hous­ing has to come from gov­ern­ment, Tis­dale said, re­li­gious groups have po­ten­tial to “be a key piece to un­lock­ing part of that puz­zle.”


B.C.’s hous­ing min­is­ter wants the gov­ern­ment to fos­ter part­ner­ships be­tween re­li­gious groups and real es­tate de­vel­op­ers.

A ma­jor pil­lar of the B.C. gov­ern­ment’s Hous­ingHub pro­gram, launched last year to de­velop homes for house­holds with av­er­age in­comes be­tween $50,000 and $100,000, was in­spired by re­li­gious groups that said they need a fa­cil­i­ta­tor to con­nect them with de­vel­op­ers.

“Hous­ingHub is sort of like Yente, the match­maker,” B.C. Hous­ing Min­is­ter Selina Robin­son re­cently said, re­fer­ring to the char­ac­ter from Fid­dler on the Roof.

“Her job was to bring fam­i­lies to­gether who had shared val­ues and a shared pur­pose, to make a suc­cess­ful mar­riage,” Robin­son said last month on The Van­cou­ver Sun and Prov­ince’s Hous­ing Mat­ters pod­cast. “And that’s what the Hous­ingHub does.”

In the past year, Hous­ingHub staff have met with 16 groups rep­re­sent­ing sev­eral dif­fer­ent faiths.

One of the pro­gram’s first ma­jor projects is a part­ner­ship with the United Church, which is con­vert­ing five old church prop­er­ties into mixed-use build­ings that will pro­vide 500 units of pur­pose-built rental hous­ing, some of which will be sub­si­dized, for peo­ple of all be­liefs.

“The old is done and the new is not yet here,” says Terry Har­ri­son, who is lead­ing more than half-adozen multi-mil­lion-dol­lar hous­ing projects un­der the aus­pices of the B.C. re­gion of the United Church of Canada.

Work­ing with Hous­ingHub, Har­ri­son is de­vel­op­ing 75 rental units at Como Lake United in Co­quit­lam, an­other 140 units at Brig­house United in Rich­mond, and 100 at Lake­view United in East Van­cou­ver. The United Church of Canada will main­tain own­er­ship of the five prop­er­ties, she said, while the con­gre­ga­tions will gain a mod­ern new church space and a stream of rent rev­enue.

In ad­di­tion to the Hous­ingHub projects, Har­ri­son has helped United Church con­gre­ga­tions in Van­cou­ver and Burn­aby part­ner with de­vel­op­ers to pro­vide hun­dreds of units of mar­ket-based con­do­mini­ums.

With its de­clin­ing mem­ber­ship, the United Church strug­gles to hold on to its rank­ing as the largest Protes­tant or­ga­ni­za­tion in the coun­try, and is as­sess­ing what legacy it can leave fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. It is find­ing a sig­nif­i­cant part of its en­dow­ment will be var­i­ous forms of hous­ing.

“Many of our build­ings are at the end of their lives,” says Har­ri­son. The gen­er­a­tions of United Church mem­bers that built the ed­i­fices, she said, have largely failed to counter sec­u­lar cul­ture and pass on an ac­tive Chris­tian faith to their children or grand­chil­dren.

“There has to be death be­fore there can be res­ur­rec­tion,” says Har­ri­son, who is up­front about how most United Church con­gre­ga­tions in B.C. are strug­gling, even if a rel­a­tive few are thriv­ing. “Some­thing has to give to let some­thing new emerge from what has been hap­pen­ing.”

The B.C. arm of the United Church of Canada has been ar­guably the most ac­tive of any re­li­gious group on the West Coast in turn­ing church prop­er­ties into var­i­ous forms of mar­ket and sub­si­dized hous­ing. But it’s def­i­nitely not alone.

Some down­town Van­cou­ver con­gre­ga­tions have en­tered into projects that have led to con­struc­tion of lux­ury sky­scrapers. The city’s tallest build­ing, the lux­u­ri­ous 62-storey Shangri-La, was com­pleted in 2009, after the ad­ja­cent Coastal Her­itage Church pro­vided air space in ex­change for de­vel­oper Westbank pro­vid­ing $4.4 mil­lion for the church’s build­ing restora­tion and $1 mil­lion to­ward so­cial hous­ing in the city.

Be­cause Protes­tants and Catholics were by far the largest re­li­gious or­ga­ni­za­tions to set­tle and build places of wor­ship in south­west­ern B.C. a cen­tury ago, their con­gre­ga­tions are of­ten tear­ing down old churches while col­lab­o­rat­ing with de­vel­op­ers to con­struct “mixed-use” build­ings, blend­ing new wor­ship space with hous­ing for all kinds of peo­ple, re­gard­less of their re­li­gion.

Jewish groups, whose mem­bers also have long roots in the prov­ince, have pro­vided se­niors homes for decades, and have more re­cently ex­panded into other types of hous­ing, es­pe­cially for low­er­in­come Jewish fam­i­lies.

Most Van­cou­ver syn­a­gogues are less land-rich than some of their Chris­tian coun­ter­parts and their prop­er­ties have less re­de­vel­op­ment po­ten­tial, said Shel­ley Rivkin, vice-pres­i­dent of com­mu­nity af­fairs for the Jewish Fed­er­a­tion of Greater Van­cou­ver. More, like the Tikva Hous­ing So­ci­ety founded in 2006, have a man­date to pro­vide hous­ing for the Jewish com­mu­nity rather than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of some other Van­cou­ver-area re­li­gious groups said their com­mu­ni­ties are not in­volved in large-scale hous­ing projects now — of­ten be­cause their places of wor­ship are more mod­ern — but that could change in the fu­ture.


Not all high-stakes hous­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions be­tween faith groups and de­vel­op­ers have gone well in the past. There are sev­eral cau­tion­ary tales in­volv­ing clergy who dive into agree­ments with pow­er­ful de­vel­op­ers, said Har­ri­son.

“There’s a DIY (do-it-your­self ) cul­ture in many con­gre­ga­tions,” Har­ri­son said, which can be a down­side in the com­plex world of real es­tate, es­pe­cially in a high­priced mar­ket.

In late 2014, a United Church con­gre­ga­tion in the Okana­gan de­mol­ished its church build­ing, only to have their en­vi­sioned “$20-mil­lion arts, wor­ship, re­tail and condo com­plex” fall apart, the United Church Ob­server re­ported. The parish­ioners were left with­out a church, and the fi­asco caused ac­ri­mony within the con­gre­ga­tion.

Such real es­tate de­vel­op­ments of­ten in­spire “very lively de­bates in­side those con­gre­ga­tions,” said Jonathan Bird, a past mem­ber of Metro Van­cou­ver’s steer­ing com­mit­tee on home­less­ness who has con­sulted with sev­eral Van­cou­ver churches on hous­ing plans over the last 20 years.

“They’re de­cid­ing: ‘What do we do? Do we re­de­velop? ... Is this a de­vel­oper we can trust? Is that the name we want to be as­so­ci­ated with?’ All of those are im­por­tant ques­tions, and it’s of­ten not a straight­for­ward an­swer to them,” said Bird. “With­out nam­ing names, I’ve had some qualms about projects in the last 10 or 15 years where I think: ‘Gee, that looks to me like it’s pri­mar­ily a busi­ness de­ci­sion, not a mis­sion de­ci­sion.’ For a Chris­tian or­ga­ni­za­tion, or re­ally any faith-based or­ga­ni­za­tion, I think the mis­sion comes first.”

If an or­ga­ni­za­tion can sub­si­dize af­ford­able homes — such as for se­niors or low-in­come fam­i­lies — that pro­vides a clear ben­e­fit for the com­mu­nity. But with the re­al­i­ties of Van­cou­ver’s hous­ing mar­ket, with a near-zero rental va­cancy rate putting pres­sure on all kinds of fam­i­lies and not only the most vul­ner­a­ble, even the ad­di­tion of new apart­ments at mar­ket rents can be help­ful, said Bird.

Churches work­ing to de­liver mar­ket hous­ing for mid­dle-in­come fam­i­lies is “an emerg­ing trend,” Bird said. “It’s only start­ing now to hap­pen.”

Since last year, Bird has served as the church en­gage­ment spe­cial­ist for the Union Gospel Mis­sion, a Chris­tian so­ci­ety that fo­cuses, as it has for al­most 80 years, on home­less shel­ters and tran­si­tional hous­ing, the bot­tom end of what Bird calls the “hous­ing lad­der.”

Those ef­forts are cru­cial, Bird said, “but at the same time, if that’s all we ever do, we’re never go­ing to end home­less­ness. Be­cause there is a hous­ing lad­der, and if you’re only re­in­forc­ing the lower rungs, you’re go­ing to get peo­ple dis­placed from higher up, land­ing down on the heads of those be­low them.

“Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, in other words, is one of the pri­mary driv­ers of home­less­ness,” he said, “And if you’re not con­struct­ing pur­pose­built rentals for the mid­dle class, then even­tu­ally, they are go­ing to dis­place the peo­ple in the SROs. And that’s ex­actly what we’re see­ing.”

That’s be­cause it’s in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult for the pri­vate sec­tor, on its own, to build hous­ing for an in­creas­ingly large pro­por­tion of fam­i­lies in Metro Van­cou­ver, where hous­ing prices have far out­paced me­dian house­hold in­comes, pegged in the last cen­sus at around $72,000 a year. Many mid­dle-in­come Bri­tish Columbians, earn­ing in the $50,000 to $100,000 range, “have been priced out of hous­ing in com­mu­ni­ties across the prov­ince,” says the Hous­ingHub web­site, and the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment sees part­ner­ships with non-prof­its — in­clud­ing re­li­gious groups — as a way to pro­vide af­ford­able homes for those fam­i­lies.

“You cer­tainly could make a the­o­log­i­cal case and an eth­i­cal case for of­fer­ing hous­ing to peo­ple in that in­come bracket,” Bird said. “There is a demon­stra­ble need there.”

“The Bi­ble never spec­i­fies a min­i­mum or a max­i­mum level of ap­pro­pri­ate in­come ... it al­ways talks about rel­a­tive wealth and rel­a­tive poverty . ... In a va­ri­ety of ways it says, in both the Old Tes­ta­ment and in the New, if you have two coats and some­one comes to you who doesn’t have any and asks for one, you should give them your spare.

“Out of this ethic of abun­dance, you give what you have, give what you can,” said Bird. “And I want to see that kind of ethic hap­pen­ing in the way we treat our real es­tate.”



“Some­thing has to give to let some­thing new emerge from what has been hap­pen­ing,” says United Church prop­erty re­source team lead Terry Har­ri­son.


The Union Gospel Mis­sion’s Jonathan Bird stands in front of the old, de­mol­ished UGM build­ing on Wed­nes­day. Since last year, Bird has served as the church-en­gage­ment spe­cial­ist for the Union Gospel Mis­sion, a Chris­tian so­ci­ety that fo­cuses, as it has for al­most 80 years, on home­less shel­ters and tran­si­tional hous­ing, the bot­tom end of what Bird calls the “hous­ing lad­der.”


A ren­der­ing de­picts the highrise pro­posed next to First Bap­tist Church. In ex­change for an “air par­cel,” the church will get fund­ing for seis­mic up­grades and restora­tion on its West End build­ing, 37 child-care spa­ces, and a new seven-storey build­ing of af­ford­able rentals.


Si­mon Davie, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer for Terra, chats out­side Wil­son Heights United Church, which cre­ated an af­ford­able hous­ing project on its park­ing lot.

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