Many are hoping that this will be the year that construction will finally get into swing at the Little Mountain site, which was one of Canada’s largest social housing projects – about four city blocks in size. The developer is expected to begin a long-overdue master-planned community at the mostly empty, grassy acreage that is adjacent to Queen Elizabeth Park. Whether or not it will be enough is another matter.
Little Mountain is six hectares of prime property in the Main Street neighbourhood, situated between Ontario and Main Streets and East 33rd and East 37th Avenues. It’s been 12 years since the province phased out 224 units of low-income housing and evicted about 700 residents after selling the property to private developer Holborn, best known as the builder of Vancouver’s Trump Tower. Clusters of low-rise social housing buildings were torn down and the residents dispersed. They were originally told new social housing would be built, and they’d be welcomed back. The years have ticked by.
But there is a glimmer of hope. Holborn submitted an application last year to develop its second building at the southeast corner of the site, as part of Phase 1 that is expected to get going this year. The application is for an eight-storey building at 155 East 37th Ave, made up of 63 social housing units to be run by BC Housing with commercial at ground level. The city gave conditional approval to the development permit application, and expects to receive a revised submission from Holborn soon. And another building adjacent to it is in the pre-application process. It will contain 48 non-market units owned by the city and run by a non-profit partner, with a neighbourhood house and daycare. It’s the start of a four-phased project to build 14 residential and three mixed-use buildings at the site.“We anticipate further applications from Holborn early this year, which will include both social and market housing,” the city said in an e-mailed response.
Before the developer builds any market condos, they are expected to deliver two non-market buildings as part of Phase 1, says the city. Holborn is required to build 282 social housing units in total, although the dates for completion are unclear. Rezoning that was done in 2016 allows for about 1,300 market-rate condos.
But questions remain as to the timeline, and if the project will answer the demand for affordable housing. Development permits have not been issued – and once they are, it’s expected that it will take more than a decade to fully develop the site. Sources say that there is no contractual requirement for the developer to deliver housing by a scheduled date. The slowed housing market in Vancouver will also likely affect the delivery of housing units. The rezoning report states that exact dates of completion are “dependent on a variety of factors, including approvals, construction processes and market conditions.”
The application to build one eight-storey building is a somewhat underwhelming start to a much-anticipated master-planned community, say those who’ve been closely involved.
David Chudnovsky was the NDP member of legislative assembly for Vancouver-Kensington from 2005 to 2009, and he’s lived in the area for years. He represented evicted Little Mountain residents and attended most of the meetings before and after the decision was made to raze their homes. He, too, questions the progress of the plan.
“My skepticism comes from 12 years of waiting around,” Mr. Chudnovsky says. “Yes, they say that there is an application for a development permit. They say it will be built in 2019. We will see. And if it were to be built in 2019, it certainly wouldn’t be finished in 2019. Forgive me if I’m skeptical.”
Mr. Chudnovsky has applied for a copy of the original agreement between the province and Holborn, in 2007, which has been kept secret. He hopes to receive a copy of it in February, as part of a Freedom of Information request.
“I and many others have asked to see the contract right from the beginning, so that we would know for sure what the provisions are. “It’s never been made available. In the next few weeks, I expect to hear from the province about the availability of that contract.”
Mr. Chudnovsky remembers low-income families being told they’d be moving back to Little Mountain by 2010. If he had his druthers, he’d like to see a new deal negotiated with Holborn.
“I’ve said this for a decade – the last thing we need in Vancouver is another 1,300 high-end condos. That’s not what we need. We need rental, social housing, co-ops, housing stock that ordinary folks in Vancouver can live in and stay in, instead of getting pushed out. And replacing the social housing that was at Little Mountain was a dumb plan. If you are going to redevelop the site, you should double or triple the number of social housing units that are there.”
City councillor Christine Boyle also wants to push for a better deal than the one entered into by the BC Liberals when it sold off the land in 2007.
“I don’t understand what their plan is there,” Ms. Boyle says. “Certainly it would make sense to me that they would map out what the whole block looks like, and how it fits together, and we as a council would assess it all together, and not just piece by piece. “So that may be one way that council responds.
Ms. Boyle had campaigned on the idea of turning Little Mountain into a rental-only zone, which, she says, caught the developer’s attention. Holborn was not enthusiastic:
“We heard from the developer pretty quickly in our campaign office, and they said clearly that there wasn’t actually a timeline to rebuild the affordable units that they had committed to, that they had a plan for when they wanted to start building the rest of the units but no set deadline for when they would replace the social housing.”
She knows that rental-only is “a big ask,” and unlikely to go anywhere, but with a new council, she sees a bigger pushback for more affordable housing at the site.
“Over all, my sense is that the whole original deal needs to be renegotiated because it was not a good deal for Vancouver residents. I think that there is support on council. This is certainly a council that wants to have a different relationship with developers than maybe has been the case in the past, and a lot of the conversation in the election was about wanting less developer influence. So that’s being felt. Whether or not the province is willing to go back to the table, and whether or not we legally have the tools to be putting rental-only zoning into some portion of that land, are still to be determined. But keeping the pressure up matters.”
Little Mountain was one of Canada’s largest and oldest social housing projects, built in 1954 and operated by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC). It was a community of nearly 700 low-income people housed in 224 multifamily housing units. Kids played on the huge lawn that surrounded the low-rise buildings. It was a thriving little community where neighbours knew each other for decades. When the federal government transferred it to BC Housing in 2007, the Crown corporation put out a call for bids. The buyer was Holborn Group, a relatively new development company with a young chief executive officer from Malaysia named Joo Kim Tiah.
Holborn outbid other developers and purchased the property for more than $330-million, to be mostly paid in increments, as the property was developed. The arrangement has meant that the taxpayer has been holding the property all these years for the developer, who’s watched his asset grow in value.
Mr. Tiah was out of the country and did not respond by deadline to a request for an interview for this story. In previous interviews, he has said the development has been hampered by delays due to the controversy and extensive consultation with the public and the city. However, he said has every intention to build.
“People always paint developers as evil,” he said. “I am here for the long term, and I want to build a good brand. I sympathize with the situation. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
He would not discuss the deal with the province, calling it “confidential.”
“We knew it was a great piece of land, that it was special. Land is so scarce here in Vancouver. We loved the location, right next to the park,” Mr. Tiah said. “The market housing will be priced to where the market is, that’s all I can say.”
And he cited the risks. “If, God forbid, the market tanks 50 per cent in the next eight years, what happens then? If the market goes down, do I get a refund? I don’t.”
After the province evicted the residents, a few fought to stay on, even as the windows around them were boarded up. Filmmaker David Vaisbord, who lives nearby, documented their plight on film, which he intends to release as a documentary once he finds funding. He also has a detailed blog called the Little Mountain Project.
“What’s most important to note is that the replacement social housing, at this rate, will not be complete for another 10 years, making it 20 years in total until the contract with this community is fulfilled,” Mr. Vaisbord says. “Little Mountain is one of the greatest redevelopment failures in the history of this city, if not the worst, considering the harm it did to real lives of the low-income tenants who lived there. You can’t say that about the Concord Pacific, or the Olympic Village boondoggles, as they were unoccupied before they were developed.”
In 2014, Holborn responded to the public outcry and constructed a five-storey building with 53 units of social housing for seniors. Because nothing has been built since, last year, the city and BC Housing built 46 units of temporary modular housing at the site for homeless people. Those units will stay for three years.
Since the rezoning, the property assessment has climbed from $101,385,000 to $362,009,000. Ms. Boyle would like to see some of that windfall captured with a new “land value capture tax,” which would also have the overall effect of curtailing speculative behaviour. Landowners would be less inclined to hold property and wait for the market to go up.
“I think the kinds of negotiations that are happening have changed,” she says. “There will be pressure from council in whatever the proposal is, to make sure that there is real affordability built into that. Hopefully we see that, and if not, I think it will be a tough negotiation.”