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Municipal Politics

How Vancouver’s Little Mountain Could Be a Model for Affordable Housing

And what’s stopping it in its tracks. A look inside a years-long saga.

David Chudnovsky 24 Nov 2023The Tyee

David Chudnovsky is a former NDP MLA and opposition critic for homelessness in the B.C. legislature. During his time in office, Little Mountain residents asked him to advocate for them.

Located near 35th Avenue and Main Street in Vancouver, the Little Mountain housing community of 224 postwar housing units was originally built for veterans returning from the Second World War.

For more than 60 years, Little Mountain was an affordable place to live for thousands of families. Those days are now long gone, but Little Mountain could be a model for affordable, sustainable housing in Vancouver. It's central, it's close to transit and shopping, and schools are within walking distance.

Little Mountain could be a model for family-friendly social housing that the city desperately needs. But to make it happen, we need political will that is obviously in short supply. The ABC council’s recent deflection to Holborn Group, which now owns the land, is the latest in a long history of bungling that has had wide-ranging impacts for almost 17 years.

As a former MLA for Vancouver-Kensington and opposition critic for homelessness in the B.C. legislature, I have a long history with Little Mountain too. Its former residents asked me to advocate on their behalf. It’s a role I took seriously and still do.

It all started on a sunny day in late March 2007, when residents of the Little Mountain social housing community were summoned to a meeting with BC Housing. So began a saga of corporate greed and bureaucratic bungling that’s still unfolding today, almost 17 years later.

Residents were told their community of 224 homes was to be redeveloped. They would move back into their new houses by the Olympics in 2010. They were warned — pushed — to leave as soon as possible or BC Housing couldn’t guarantee appropriate “short-term” replacement housing for them.

No one listened to residents from the start

Little Mountain residents argued at the time that if redevelopment was to go ahead, several principles should be followed.

At community forums, in kitchen meetings and informal discussions, residents shared the following principles for moving forward with any redevelopment.

Nobody listened.

As a result, the BC Liberal government’s plan for the project alongside developer Holborn was dead wrong from the start. The last thing Vancouver needed in 2008, when the contract for the project was signed, was 1,500 more million-dollar condos. That’s even more true today.

From the beginning this was a plan to build expensive market housing. The replacement social housing was always just a means to an end — profitable private development.

For years the site remained empty. Finally, in 2015, the first of the promised replacement social housing buildings was opened with just 53 units. But the site has largely remained a huge vacant lot since 2009. The community has dubbed it the “Rich Coleman Vacant Lot.” Coleman was the BC Liberal minister responsible for housing who famously predicted the Little Mountain project would be a “win, win, win” for everyone.

As soon as it was clear a deal had been done with Holborn back in 2008, residents and their supporters in the community started asking to see the contract. Finally, in August 2021, the contract was made public after a lengthy freedom of information process.

And what a sweetheart deal it was.

The selling price of the land was $334 million, but Holborn didn’t pay anything until 2013 when it made a $40-million deposit. The deal includes $211 million in interest-free loans until 2026. The loans don’t have to be repaid in full until 2031.

Interestingly, the original interest-free portion of the loan was until 2021 — but Holborn got an extra five years of no interest when they agreed to build the first social housing building.

Holborn gets to deduct the cost of building the replacement social housing from the $334 million. And Holborn can discount their final bill by three per cent per year since 2013 — something to do with the “cost” of waiting for building permits.

By 2021 the site was mostly still a gigantic vacant lot. With the publication of the contract details, pressure was mounting on the city, the province and the developer. Community members had begun to call on the provincial government to “take back the Mountain.”

The three parties signed a memorandum of understanding to “work together to expedite the delivery of all housing units in the Little Mountain Development.” The memo said that non-market housing units and associated community amenities were to be prioritized, so non-market housing would be “ready for occupancy by a target date of Dec. 31, 2024.”

No one who has followed this story for all these years believed then or believes now that the non-market housing would be “ready for occupancy” by the end of 2024. They're still working on the second social housing building. And that building has only about 60 units.

With ABC, another long delay

Most recently in October 2023, Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim and his ABC-dominated council gave up the only small leverage the city had. Previously, council had required Holborn to finish the replacement social housing before the company began work on the for-profit market condos. Holborn asked them to drop that provision and they quickly acquiesced.

The application, of course, was preposterous — and just one more insult to the people who once lived at Little Mountain, and to their long-ago destroyed community. Holborn argued that they were having trouble financing a market development. Now people who desperately need social housing must wait even longer for their homes.

There was nothing in the application council approved that said how long Holborn will have to build the social housing. The council policy in itself was an incredibly weak requirement. After all, it’s been 17 years since BC Housing started pushing the residents of Little Mountain out of their homes. But at least Holborn had some small incentive to get the social housing built.

Now they can delay the social housing one more time with absolutely no guarantee of when it will be built.

What’s needed now, and how the province can help

Why was it up to the city to once again bail out Holborn, to make it even easier for them to build their profitable market development? They're a private development company. Is it because funding is hard to get? Sometimes that’s what happens. Aren’t we told endlessly that profits are justifiable because corporations are willing to take risks? Why is it our responsibility to solve their problem for them by delaying, again, desperately needed social housing?

If it weren’t so tragic, the Little Mountain saga would be a joke. Nobody believes the social housing will be built soon. Nobody believes the new “target” dates Holborn has put forward are real. Nobody will be surprised the next time Holborn comes to the city with an urgent request for help to solve their next funding crisis. Nobody will be surprised when the ABC majority gives them what they ask for.

It’s time for the province to step in. Instead of just replacing the units at Little Mountain, we need hundreds of additional social housing units, co-ops and affordable rentals. Make Little Mountain a model affordable and sustainable community.  [Tyee]

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