812 Ontario government buildings are empty, and selling them is taking years

One in six provincially-owned buildings is vacant, and maintaining them is costing Ontario taxpayers $19 million a year.

Auditor general criticizes province for moving too slowly to sell or transfer vacant properties

Previously a psychiatric institution, Century Manor in Hamilton is one of more than 800 disused buildings owned by the province of Ontario. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

They are the ghost buildings of Ontario, and there's a lot of them. 

The provincial government owns 812 vacant buildings, the auditor general revealed this week. That's about one sixth of all the buildings the province owns.

Maintaining the empty sites is costing Ontario taxpayers $18.9 million a year, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk found. But she's even more concerned about the slow pace of the government's efforts to dispose of the unused properties.

The government agency in charge of provincial buildings, Infrastructure Ontario, plans to sell about 80 per cent of the vacant buildings and demolish the rest.

The agency has sold just 144 surplus properties over the past five years, Lysyk found. She says the agency's plan to sell or transfer ownership of the buildings is behind schedule.

"There are a number of things that slow it down," Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli said Thursday in an interview with CBC News. He said selling the typical unused provincial building is not a "clear cut, list it, sell it" process. 

​"Some of the properties are not desirable," said Chairelli. "Some of the properties are jails that have closed down, and who wants to buy an old jail?"

Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli says the province is being 'as aggressive as we possibly can' in getting surplus buildings on the market. (Gary Ennett/CBC)

Infrastructure Ontario's target was to sell 54 buildings in 2016/17, but the agency sold only 25, the auditor reported. 

When properties are declared surplus, the province must give municipalities the right of first refusal to purchase, Chiarelli said. He said it is also not uncommon for First Nations to file land claims on surplus property, putting their sale in limbo. Other times, environmental contamination or heritage status slows the process down. 

The province pledged as part of its response to the spike in housing prices earlier this year to identify surplus lands that could be set aside for affordable housing. 

​Many of the 812 buildings listed as vacant are not full-sized, explained an official at Infrastructure Ontario. They include such things as storage sheds, warehouses and outbuildings, and often a single disused site contains multiple vacant buildings, said the official. 

On average, the vacant buildings have been sitting empty for eight years, the auditor general found. 

The government "needs to do a better job in looking for purposes for those buildings," NDP finance critic John Vanthof said Thursday at Queen's Park. 

"You should either be utilizing those buildings, or determining whether they can be put up for sale and sell them, and bring in the much-needed cash," said Progressive Conservative finance critic Vic Fedeli. "If they're sitting vacant and costing the taxpayer, it's just an opportunity that really needs to be turned into a solution." 

The sales that Infrastructure Ontario has completed in the past five years brought the province $229 million. 

"We're as aggressive as we possibly can in bringing them to market," Chiarelli said. 

The auditor devoted an entire chapter of her annual report to inefficiencies in the province's real-estate holdings. 

The province is wasting $174 million annually by using too much office space, Lysyk calculates. The government's own target is to allot an average of 180 square feet per employee, but the province is currently using 60 per cent more office space than that.

Infrastructure Ontario is "missing opportunities" to reduce office space, Lysyk said. 

Ontario is the second-largest property owner in the country, behind only the federal government. The province owns 4,838 buildings, with 44-million square feet of space.