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The Little Mountain social housing site in Vancouver on March 26, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Both the province and Vancouver planners say they have learned painful lessons about how not to redevelop valuable social-housing sites after the debacle of Little Mountain, a prime Vancouver site that was sold to a private developer 14 years ago and has sat mostly vacant since then.

Those lessons are going to be applied as B.C.’s housing agency looks at redeveloping another major site almost the same size and vintage as Little Mountain, with the goal of protecting tenants in a way those in Little Mountain never were, the agency says.

Skeena Terrace is a 1960s social-housing project with 600 people living in 234 rowhouses and apartments in a hidden corner of the city near Boundary Road and Lougheed Highway. When it is redeveloped over the next few years, the province won’t sell the land – and won’t allow tenants to be cleared off the site, as happened more than a decade ago, Housing Minister David Eby said.

Nor will the province feel pressured to build a lot of high-priced condos on the site to try to finance the rebuild of the social housing, Mr. Eby said.

Holborn Group, the developer that has owned the Little Mountain property for 14 years, has just begun work on the second of five social-housing buildings promised since the transaction. The company still hasn’t started construction on the market condos that will provide most of the money the province is still owed.

“I’m just appalled that we’re in a situation where we’re still waiting for the site to be properly developed with the social housing that everyone believed was going to constructed within a decade,” Mr. Eby said this week.

Details of the province’s transaction with Holborn have never publicly been released and are currently the subject of a court hearing.

Mr. Eby said that he has read the contract that the then Liberal government signed with Holborn – a document he calls a “sweetheart deal” – and said he is looking forward to the impending B.C. Supreme Court hearing on whether the it should be released.

Holborn challenged a decision last October from the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Office to release the contract in response to a request from former NDP MLA David Chudnovsky, who has fought for more information on the sale since 2007.

Mr. Eby said it’s unlikely the province would ever expropriate the site, as some members of the public have suggested, since it would have to pay current market value. Holborn has not done anything illegal, he said, but they haven’t been good corporate citizens.

“I thought the developer putting up a banner along the lines of, ‘A good story takes time to tell’ was in incredibly poor taste and really reflects how out of sync this company is with public sentiment about what they’ve been doing with this site, which is basically nothing.”

A Holborn official noted that all the social housing is slated to be built in the next few years, before any market housing, but declined to provide information on other issues.

“We cannot comment on anything related to the purchase and sale of the land at this time, apologies,” wrote Philip Jiang, the company’s development manager, in an e-mail.

Vancouver planners say the Little Mountain situation jolted the city in the last decade into focusing on a key part of redevelopment: tenant displacement.

“That was the start of a learning process for us,” said Dan Garrison, Vancouver’s assistant director of housing policy. The city now has a rule that it doesn’t issue demolition permits until developers are ready to build, he said, in order to prevent still-functional housing from being cleared of tenants and then left empty for years, as happened with Little Mountain.

At Skeena Terrace, BC Housing started letting tenants know in January that a redevelopment is planned for the site and that discussions on how it should be done will be held soon.

Mr. Garrison and rezoning planner Yardley McNeil said the city will be looking at a significant increase in the number of apartments on the site.

“We think the site has enormous potential. We think it could be developed with a lot more density,” Ms. McNeil said. The city would also be looking for additions to neighbourhood services, such as a community centre and daycare space, as well as much-needed local retail for the area.

There are 234 units there now, mostly postwar-style row housing, along with one seven-storey building. All are rented at a “rent geared to income” (RGI) formula, where no one pays more than 30 per cent of their household income. People applying for a one-bedroom can’t earn more than $55,000, while the largest apartments with three or more bedrooms are open to those with household incomes up to $85,000. People don’t have to move out if their incomes go beyond that once they move in.

Sheryl Peters, director of redevelopment for BC Housing, said those 234 RGI apartments will be rebuilt and rented on the same basis. But BC Housing is still deciding what kind of mix there might be for any added apartments on the site, which has spectacular views to the east of Burnaby because it sits at the top of a small escarpment.

But she said the agency wants to avoid having a sharp division between the low-cost units and a lot of expensive, higher-end rental housing. Instead, she would like to see a mix of rents, with some providing surplus revenue that can subsidize rents in other new apartments.

That’s something Mr. Chudnovsky, who has been the province’s most persistent critic of the Little Mountain deal, would like to see.

“That’s what the residents of Little Mountain were asking for 14 and 15 years ago,” he said. They asked for the land to stay public, for a redevelopment plan that would allow them to stay on site while construction was phased in, and – most importantly – for the amount of subsidized housing to not just be maintained but increase.

Skeena Terrace residents say they haven’t had much of a chance yet to consider the impending redevelopment.

“I was just notified,” said Shannon Biancafiore, a 21-year-old who moved with her baby into a two-bedroom apartment at Skeena Terrace in December, 2020, after a stint in a bachelor suite in a local non-profit’s transitional housing.

She appreciates the affordable rent – less than $1,000 a month – but can see how more modern upgrades to the site will be an improvement.

“It’s a nice building, but the floor is thin – you can hear everything. I think this will be better.”

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