British Columbia real estate: AI used to search for racist land titles

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No one knows how many land titles containing racist and discriminatory language are written in British Columbia, but a machine learning project by LTSA and SFU may soon find out.

On the eve of West Vancouver introducing a proposal to seek and enter into discriminatory and racist land title covenants, there may be a high-tech solution to rooting out historical relics.

Offensive clauses that prohibited people from owning property because of their race or religion accompanied certain developments in Canada until the 1960s. They have been void in British Columbia since 1977, but they remain on land titles until ’til someone asks the Land Title and Survey Authority to have them expunged.

The District of West Vancouver launched an initiative in 2020 “to determine the process, resources and time required to obtain the cancellation and conclusion of discriminatory clauses”. This report is due to Council on May 30.

Nobody knows how many discriminatory covenants there are in B.C. But, even when you have the address of a home with one, there’s still the very time-consuming and laborious task of sifting through the system of Dark Storage for BC Land Titles Documents – 48,000 microfilm reels containing over 2.2 million active land titles and approximately 100 million pages of documents.

“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack. It’s a very manual process and our historical data is not in a searchable database,” said LTSA Registrar Larry Blaschuk. “It’s an old system that was paper-based to begin with, and the one we have in BC is miles ahead of what they’ve done in other jurisdictions around the world.

Now the land titles authority has engaged with some scientists at Simon Fraser University to use machine learning technology to help find and flag discriminatory clauses.

Using a few sample register pages that have been scanned, the software digitizes the documents and uses an artificial intelligence algorithm to help identify instances where the language may be present.

“Proof of concept is what we’ve done so far,” Blaschuk said. “He finds quite a few. It finds most of them, in fact, especially if they’re typed.

The plan now is to move from concept to a pilot project to validate and understand the effectiveness of the method on a larger scale.

Blaschuck said the project had a lot of interest from the District of West Vancouver and the City of Vancouver “because that’s where a lot of these things are popping up.”

“I have no idea how big those are left in the registry and that’s something we’re hoping to find out,” he said. “They perform in West Van, they perform in Vancouver, but they also perform in Richmond, they perform in Prince George. They are there all over the province.

Finding them is one thing. Removing clauses can still take a lot of work, Blaschuk warned. And the law does not allow the clauses of land titles to be completely deleted or made illegible.

Under the legislation, the land titles office will override any discriminatory recognizance clauses at no cost to the landowner. Blaschuk said they receive about five calls or emails a year making this request.

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