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‘Take Back Little Mountain!’ Vancouver’s Housing Cry

Five demands, and a plea that Rich Coleman’s lousy deal be undone.

David Chudnovsky and Norm Dooley 13 Dec 2019TheTyee.ca

David Chudnovsky was BC NDP MLA for Vancouver-Kensington from 2005 to 2009. Norm Dooley is a member of the Riley Park-South Cambie Community Visions group.

“The Little Mountain redevelopment has been an appalling failure. It’s an embarrassment to the Government of British Columbia and an insult to the people of Vancouver.”

With those words, the Riley Park–South Cambie Community Vision (RPSC) and the Community Advocates for Little Mountain (CALM) launched a campaign on November 30th to overturn the sale of the former social-housing site in central Vancouver and return the land to public ownership.

In 2008 when Rich Coleman, the then BC Liberal Minister Responsible for Homelessness, announced the sale of Little Mountain, he predicted that the redevelopment of BC’s first social-housing complex would be a “win-win-win” for everyone. Coleman was dead wrong. It wasn’t win, win, win. It was instead lose, lose, lose.

The residents of Little Mountain lost their community.

Two hundred and twenty-four households lost a place to live.

British Columbians lost the 15 acres of Little Mountain to privatization.

BC Housing lost more than 200 units that could have housed people in desperate need.

Vancouver lost one of its most successful social-housing projects.

The provincial treasury lost more than $20 million—the estimated rents from 224 residences over 12 years (and counting).

Coleman touted the sale to Holborn International as a great financial deal for the province. He promised that the social housing would soon be replaced. Yet, in the years following removal of the tenants (which began in 2007) and demolition of their homes in 2009, only one building (53 units) has been replaced, and only a small portion of the selling price has been paid.

Details of the deal have been kept secret. In 2018, a freedom-of-information application for the contract between Holborn and BC Housing was submitted. A copy of the sales agreement with every monetary figure and every relevant detail redacted was provided to the applicant, so the FOI application is still active. But, some wording did remain. Here is a direct quote from the contract:

“Time shall be of the essence of this agreement and shall remain of the essence notwithstanding any extension of any of the dates hereunder.”

Nevertheless, ten years after the buildings were demolished, the site remains an empty 15-acre lot.

851px version of IMAGE.Aerial-Little-Mountain.jpg
The 15-acre Little Mountain site, largely empty since affordable housing there was razed in 2009. Photo source: Holborn/City of Vancouver

Through the good work of Vancouver Sun reporters Lori Culbert and Dan Fumano, a few facts about that deal have come to light:

The sale was first announced in 2008, later renegotiated, and finally signed in 2013, when title was transferred and Holborn made a down payment of $40 million.

The total agreed-to price was 334 million dollars.

Holborn pays for the property in “chunks” and only as new buildings are started.

There is no deadline for completion of the project and there are no financial penalties for going slow.

There is apparently no interest charged on the outstanding balance.

There is no deadline for re-building the required social-housing units.

Holborn gets to finance the social-housing construction as a non-profit.

The company will subtract the cost of rebuilding the social housing from the total sales price.

The developer pays for the social housing in inflated dollars as each building is completed, thus reducing the value of the total amount owing.

The facts speak for themselves. There is no doubt that the deal with Holborn is terrible for the people of the province.

Five demands

But a poor deal alone is not a sufficient reason to demand that the deal be reversed and the land returned to public ownership. There is a more compelling reason why it is time to Take Back Little Mountain.

The BC Liberal government could have used the land to support various forms of market and non-market housing on a long-term lease basis, but it chose not to. By selling Little Mountain instead of developing it, the former BC government gave up the opportunity to provide homes for low-income people, working families, the elderly and others who need assistance. Still, it is not too late to act.

CALM and RPSC, together with hundreds of neighbours across the City, are calling on the government of BC to Take Back the Mountain and start over with a new plan for Little Mountain that would deal with the real needs of the residents of Vancouver. Instead of the planned 1,400 million-dollar condos, the community groups want the province to:

1. Replace all the social housing that was demolished.

2. Build hundreds more social-housing units.

3. Add new homes with guaranteed below-market rents and a guarantee the units will remain rental.

4. Create hundreds of affordable ownership options such as co-op and co-housing;

5. Make Little Mountain a model for affordable and sustainable development.

There are many ways the government could Take Back the Mountain. B.C. could expropriate the land or buy it back from Holborn for the small amount the developer has already paid (around $40 million). Government could introduce legislation that would return the site to public ownership. There are many options, but what is important is that government take action now. It is a question of political will.

Not only the provincial government needs to act. The federal government and Vancouver’s mayor and council should also provide support. None of the three current governments was responsible for the botched plan at Little Mountain. So they don’t have to save face. Especially in the midst of a housing crisis, they could and they should come together to do what is right.

RPSC and CALM are asking Vancouver residents to call their MLA’s office; write to Premier Horgan, Minister of Finance Carol James, and Minister of Housing Selena Robinson, and Prime Minister Trudeau and talk to Mayor Stewart and City Councillors. Ask them to reverse the deal with Holborn, Take Back The Mountain, and return the Little Mountain site to public ownership. A petition to Premier Horgan for signing is available online here.  [Tyee]

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