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Community advocates in Vancouver are mounting a campaign to convince the provincial government to take back the Little Mountain social-housing site that it sold to a private developer 12 years ago.

The deal has been mired in controversy for more than a decade.

The six-hectare property near Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Park was sold for $334-million to the Holborn Group in 2007 but has sat mostly empty. The sale resulted in the demolition of 224 social housing units with the condition that they be replaced as part of any new development.

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But since then, only one building with 53 social housing units has opened at Little Mountain, largely because of public pressure to do something after the few remaining tenants refused to leave, and because the slow pace of progress on the rest of the site has infuriated housing advocates.

Former NDP MLA David Chudnovsky was one of several organizers of a rally at the site on Saturday, where he said that the province has a number of options available and it’s up to advocates to push the government to take action.

“It’s just a question of political will,” Mr. Chudnovsky said as he addressed a group of about 100, which included city councillors Jean Swanson and Christine Boyle, as well as NDP MP Don Davies. Several wore #takebackthemountain signs on their clothing.

The Little Mountain sale was completed by the former BC Liberal government. The New Democrats, then in Opposition, repeatedly attacked the sale and the subsequent lack of progress on building up the site.

Now in government, the NDP’s Housing Minister Selina Robinson describes the original sale as “disgraceful,” but her ministry appears to have little appetite to take up the fight.

“Expropriation is complex, often involving lengthy legal processes, and since compensation is typically based on current market values it would likely far exceed the proceeds from the 2008 sale,” said the e-mailed message from B.C.’s Housing Ministry.

Mr. Davies said in an interview that he thinks it’s “challenging but doable” for his provincial counterparts to expropriate or buy the property.

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“Anybody that says it can’t be done is not being honest. You can sell land; you can buy it.”

The Little Mountain sale, completed under the direction of then-housing minister Rich Coleman, was part of a plan to increase density in the city’s older social-housing sites by selling them to developers, who would replace the existing social housing but add market housing. The province’s profits on the sale would then be used, in theory, to pay for additional social housing elsewhere.

The sale was intended to pay for 14 new buildings, with about 1,400 units of social housing for the city’s poorest residents, often struggling with mental health or addiction issues. All 14 went up in the past decade.

Those proposed buildings included the $8.5-million social-housing complex at Dunbar and 16th, the $38-million Marguerite Ford tower near the Olympic Village, the $37-million tower on the site of the former Drake Hotel and several others in and around the downtown.

But the province’s deal with Holborn, a company run by the son of a wealthy Malaysian businessman, did not generate the quick money the province expected.

There were delays for years, as Holborn argued that the social housing should be counted as its developer contribution to the city, while planners said the deal with the province included the requirement to replace the social housing and that Holborn still had to provide other community amenities for the city.

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The company has said that it wants to get building as quickly as possible, but that city rezoning and development-permit processes have taken a long time.

“We’re pushing ahead, we’re doing our best,” Holborn Group development manager Philip Jiang said last week. As for when the first building might go up: “We’re waiting and hope before the end of this year.”

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