WT: I would like to welcome Mark Gifford, he’s from the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia, thanks for doing this, Mark.
Gifford: Thanks for having me.
WT: I was reading a press release yesterday about your organization and the grants that you have done with the POLIS Project on Ecological Governance. Could you tell us how you came to be involved with this, and why?
Gifford: Sure; the Real Estate Foundation of BC has a mission to advance sustainable land use across the province and a key facet of that is our connection to freshwater systems. Our mandate is largely around influencing research and policy solutions. POLIS has been an important partner for us for the past ten years, on finding ways to advance watershed security in the province of BC, through the development of proposals that will inform legislation, to the work we see now, efforts to implement the Water Act and move forward with steps to protect the integrity of our freshwater systems.
WT: I’m trying to connect, why a real estate foundation would be giving grants to a watershed organization? Why is that part of your mandate? Why is that important to a real estate foundation?
Gifford: Two things to clarify; one is to clarify a bit more about us, the name can be slightly misleading. We are an independent foundation, a public benefit organization that receives its income from interest earned on money held in brokerage accounts. There are lots of connections to the real estate industry, but we are an independent entity connected to advancing land use and real estate practices.
For us, there has been a long-held commitment and recognition that freshwater work is fundamental to our land work. So, it’s been a priority for the foundation for close to fifteen years to focus on systemic issues around watershed protection. This is for a whole range of reasons, not the least of which is the recognition of the interconnectedness (freshwater) has with the health and well-being of our land systems. Everything we do in this province, from an economic, ecological, and even cultural standpoint is connected to freshwater and the health of those systems. So, to NOT be tuned in to the ways in which we protect, care for and manage water systems is, among other things, a disservice to the health and wellbeing of our land systems.
WT: I have certainly seen foundation donations and trusts, but this sort of thing, I haven’t seen anything like this. Your model is to take interest generated on real estate deposits, then you decide who gets grants from this? I read the press release on the poll that you have done, I’m wondering if this is something that’s across the country, or is this something very specific to BC only?
Gifford: There is a similarly structured organization in Alberta, but other than that, no. We are creature of statute, arising from the Real Estate Act, a creative way to deliver some public benefit through real estate transactions. The (Real Estate) Act requires real estate brokers, when deposits are made, to put those in trust, and those earn a little bit of interest, but its not really interest that belongs to the buyer or broker, and that’s what the financial institutions that hold those accounts are required to turn over to the Real Estate Foundation. We pool those and make decisions about land use, with an eye to public benefit and community wellbeing. Its one way we can scrape a little bit of public benefit from real estate activity, that’s of no cost to anybody but offers benefit particularly when it comes to public education work, policy development, and research that informs the long-term wellbeing of our land and water systems.
WT: I’m fascinated by the business model! The press release I read said something like, 8 out of 10 people in BC put water management first, as their priority. Were you surprised when you saw the results?
Gifford: Yes and no, this is work we have done with POLIS. We have the benefit of benchmarking this survey over ten years. We have had previous responses that are consistent, the responses from British Columbians recognizing the central importance of water, and it as our most precious resource, and wanting stronger protections. So, we have seen that pattern. Some things that have changed a bit, getting more pronounced are, rising levels of concern with (freshwater) abundance, concern about the levels of stress on systems, we have seen some market shifts there, also (freshwater) relationship to patterns of drought and scarcity, its impact on salmon stock, its connection to forestry, concern around (freshwater) is becoming elevated.
WT: I know that in terms of the Canadian population, at least the people I talk to on a daily basis, they are more and more concerned about nitrate and phosphorous runoff, hard soil, this type of thing, are you going to be doing projects around that in the future? I’m also asking about the idea that phosphates accelerate blue-green growth in lakes and rivers, do you see this as well, is something coming through around that?
Gifford: We are investing in other work, mostly through research, mostly to support universities and community-based researchers to look at those issues as well. We don't do it directly but we make grants to support better understanding and better systems around documenting the impact of a range of pressures on our freshwater systems.
WT: As a researcher, it's always part of my job to find out if there is a scoop coming, would you like to tell us anything that you will be announcing upcoming, are there any grants that might surprise people, or a direction that you are going?
Gifford: I don’t think there are any scoops, but we really try to respond, to work with experts and communities, including people like Oliver Brandes at POLIS, who we partnered with on this poll. We spend a lot of time trying to listen, connect with expertise, research expertise to inform the decisions we are making. We are trying to build capacity, but when we do that, how do we really amplify some of the knowledge and wisdom that exists in this province around this work? What needs support to better use evidence to drive policy around the province?
WT: In ON, when I talk about blue-green (cyanobacteria) or watershed issues, I have never, I don’t think, had anyone in the real estate industry say that “yes, we are giving money to try figure this out”. What I’ve heard over the years is “well, the blooms will come and go”, there’s no real commitment from anyone in the real estate industry to evaluate what damage to our rivers and lakes costs homeowners. What advice would you give?
Gifford: There are great examples of regional boards here in BC. There are myriad organized real estate issues they are concerned about. Some of their strengths are that they are so well connected in community. Most of the real estate industry is really concerned about the long-term wellbeing and health of their communities, its not just a series of transactions for them. I think engaging the real estate industry around their shared interest in long-term community health and well-being and the relationship to ecosystems that support that is important.
We have seen some of our regional boards do a great job of connecting land use and environmental concerns with the conversations they are having even at a property level. There are some good resources that have been developed to help agents communicate and the industry communicate the relevance of watershed and sustainability infrastructure to homeowners.
This past year in BC especially, I’m not sure what the case would be in Ontario, the rising concern around not attending to these risks: insurance risks, wildfire risk, how protected homeowners are, it includes groundwater concerns and access to clean drinking water, balance of domestic use versus the requirements for agriculture and industrial uses and its implication for jobs and the environment, and relationships with First Nations, and the integrity of our financial ecosystems that support jobs, community and our wellbeing.
WT: Would it be ok if I put your name and perhaps the foundation’s phone number, so that people across the country will be really interested in this model, would it be alright if they contacted you?
Gifford: Sure, include our website, refbc.com, my contact info is there.
WT: I want to thank you for doing this, it’s a really interesting business model and not a day too soon.
Gifford: Thanks, I appreciate the time, take care.
For more information on how to gain public benefit through the careful application of funds derived from real estate trust, contact Mark Gifford at the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia , firstname.lastname@example.org, phone: 604-688-6800, www.refbc.com
Water Security: Community-Based Engagement and Action
Interview with WT Interview with Oliver Brandes, POLIS Project