Skip to main content

The last row of homes left at the 15-acre Little Mountain social-housing site in Vancouver on June 26, 2012.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Ingrid Steenhuisen fought for five years to stay in the Little Mountain social-housing project that has been her home since she was a child.

So had Sammy and Joan Chang, a blind couple who had lived there since 1971.

On Thursday, they found out they had won their battle after BC Housing, the city of Vancouver, and a developer agreed on a way to prevent their eviction.

"I'm in shock," said Ms. Steenhuisen, who started crying Thursday afternoon as she talked about everything she and her mother had gone through to stay.

"People were saying I was the eternal optimist and that it couldn't be done."

The Changs were also ecstatic. "I'm so happy we don't have to move," Ms. Chang said.

The agreement also spells out that a new, first 50-unit phase of social housing will be built on the site as soon as possible, with those four households given the right to move in first.

Other families who used to live at Little Mountain, which sits on the edge of Queen Elizabeth Park in central Vancouver, will also be invited to move in.

The saga for all of them began in 2007, when Housing Minister Rich Coleman came up with a plan to sell the six-hectare site, where the Little Mountain social housing project had sat since 1954, as a way to generate money to build much more social housing.

Holborn Properties, a company owned by a Malaysian-based family, bought the site in early 2008 for a rumoured $300-million, before the recession.

The deal spelled out that the Holborn would build 224 replacement units of social housing, which would be mixed in with the 1,000 or so market units that would be added. The original Little Mountain tenants would be offered the right to move back in.

But the legal agreement between the province and Holborn also specified that all the residents had to be off the land by Dec. 31, 2012.

The other 220 households moved to social housing units offered to them elsewhere by BC Housing in 2009.

Unless Holborn and its president, Joo Kim Tiah, agreed to alter the terms, the province could have been found to have breached the terms of the contract if the residents weren't off the property by the deadline.

Ms. Steenhuisen, the Changs, and two other households refused to leave, staying on in one row of units while the rest of the site was razed.

BC Housing served them all with eviction notices in the summer. They were holding out hope for a last-ditch effort, an appeal to the Residential Tenancy Branch on Monday. No one expected they would be successful.

But, behind the scenes in the last few weeks, Vancouver came up with an offer to subdivide a piece of the site, the developer agreed to let the tenants stay on, and BC Housing agreed to the construction of a first 50-unit phase of social housing.

"The city came up with a creative idea," said Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang.

Pressure had been building up to find a solution in recent weeks. Activists, former city planners, and others behind the scenes were lobbying to prevent the four households from being pushed out.

Film-maker David Vaisbord had been documenting the Little Mountain saga since 2008 and has been showing his short films this month. One eloquently portrayed how the Changs, though both blind, had been able to thrive because they were able to remain in a place they were familiar with.

Everyone was jubilant at the decision.

"That's incredible," said Mr. Vaisbord, whose work illustrates what many people felt about the process – that it had destroyed a community with no regard for the people who lived there.

He, like former COPE councillor Ellen Woodsworth and others, hopes it will never happen again.

"Yes, we need to redevelop sites. But I hope we've learned something in the process and that this experience won't be repeated."

The agreement also spells out details that had been unclear before, such as that the social-housing units will have bedroom-to-bedroom replacements. The Little Mountain complex, geared to families, had many units that were two or more bedrooms.