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After 15 Years, Little Mountain’s Housing Promise Still Looks Empty

More deadlines missed as frustrated citizens beg Vancouver councillors to ‘ramp up pressure on all parties.’

Jen St. Denis 10 Jul 2023The Tyee

Jen St. Denis is a reporter with The Tyee covering civic issues. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen.

The much-delayed Little Mountain redevelopment in Vancouver will miss a BC Housing target to complete all 284 units of social housing that must be built before the 1,400 units of market housing can start.

In the 15 years since Vancouver-based developer Holborn Group bought the 6.2-hectare site, it’s remained largely empty — a frustration for neighbours, city residents and local politicians in a city known for its housing woes. But recently, nearby residents noticed a new building was under construction — a presentation centre to advertise the condos Holborn eventually hopes to sell.

That led a residents’ group to look for assurance that the social housing construction is on track, because Holborn is required to have all the social housing complete and occupied before people can move into the market housing.

The Riley Park-South Cambie Community Visions steering committee was previously told by former BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay that the social housing would be completed by the end of 2024. But the City of Vancouver now says a key building — a combined neighbourhood house, daycare and 48-unit social housing building — won’t be done until summer 2025.

“You ask for an update, and the updates are given, but it’s always: ‘It’s not happening this month,’ or, ‘The developer’s architects, well, they’re fine tuning something,’” said Allan Buium, a retired teacher and a member of the Riley Park-South Cambie Community Visions steering committee, which is in the same neighbourhood as the Little Mountain site.

The committee recently wrote a letter to Vancouver city council, asking to “put more pressure on all parties, so that they endeavour to meet the completion date(s) that are stated in the MOU [memorandum of understanding].”

Little Mountain is known as one of the most disappointing — and mysterious — public lands sales in B.C. history. In 2008, the BC Liberal government sold the social housing site to Holborn Group of Companies for $334 million. The existing 224 units of social housing were torn down in 2009, and residents were forced to move out of their community.

Holborn was then supposed to replace the social housing with new buildings, and fully develop the site with 1,400 units of market housing. For the B.C. government, the deal was supposed to yield $334 million to spend on building new social housing throughout the province.

For five years, David Chudnovsky, a former NDP MLA, fought to make the sale agreement between the B.C. government and Holborn public through a freedom of information request. When that sales agreement finally came to light in 2021, the province confirmed that Holborn had paid just $35 million of the $334-million sales price.

In 2013, the then-BC Liberal government approved a five-year extension on a $211-million loan given to Holborn, extending the interest-free loan to 2026 — a benefit worth about $9.5 million to the developer based on provincial borrowing costs at the time. The developer also received a low-interest loan for $88 million to complete the social housing.

Rezoning for the site, a complicated process that took several years, was completed in 2016.

The revelation that Holborn had yet to pay the bulk of the purchase price to the government led to the 2021 memorandum of understanding between BC Housing, Holborn and the city, with all parties committing to move as fast as possible to complete the housing plan for the site.

Despite all the taxpayer-funded help, today the site is still an expanse of long grass and wildflowers. A chain-link fence is adorned with Holborn advertising banners that say, “Great Stories Take Time to Write.”

One 47-unit social housing building on the site was completed in 2015; another 62-unit building was supposed to be completed in winter 2022 but is still under construction today. BC Housing says that building will be completed by late 2023 or early 2024. Buium said it’s his understanding that Holborn is able to start pre-selling the condo units before the social housing is complete.

The Tyee reached out to Holborn Group via email, but it was not able to provide comment ahead of publication time.

The Riley Park-South Cambie Community Visions steering committee sent a letter to then-housing minister David Eby about the delays at Little Mountain in September 2021. The group got a reply back from Ramsay one year later. Ramsay, who left BC Housing in September 2022 several months before being implicated in a conflict-of-interest scandal, wrote that despite the frustrating delays, progress was being made.

He told the committee the proceeds from the redevelopment have already been reinvested in eight municipalities throughout B.C., resulting in the construction of 30 new supportive housing developments.

In addition to the 47-unit building completed in 2015 and the 62-unit building still under construction, Ramsay wrote, “two additional buildings for a total of 119 units will start construction in within the next year and are estimated to be completed by the end of 2024.”

In an email response to questions from The Tyee, the Ministry of Housing says a planning group made up of representatives from Holborn, the city and BC Housing continues to meet every month to make sure the non-market housing is proceeding as planned.

Buium said it’s been painful and frustrating to watch the project stall for so many years.

“They’re obviously getting ready to start selling condos, but we said ‘Why?’ We haven’t seen the social housing completed,” he said.  [Tyee]

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