Protesters call on province to buy back Little Mountain site after years of housing stalls

Take back Little Mountain rally
More than a decade after the B.C. government sold a piece of prime Vancouver real estate to a developer on the promise much of it would be turned into social housing, a group led by a former NDP MLA is urging the province to take Little Mountain back. Jill Bennett explains why.

A decade after a private developer razed hundreds of old social housing units on Vancouver’s massive Little Mountain site, protesters are calling for the B.C. government to buy back the land.

Hundreds of local residents rallied Saturday in front of the 15-acre lot of prime real estate next to Queen Elizabeth Park, saying the province’s sale to Holborn Properties Inc. has only hurt low-income families.

“Everybody needs to step back and acknowledge that this was a failure,” said David Chudnovsky, a member of the Community Advocates for Little Mountain.

City of Vancouver unveils long-delayed replacement for former Little Mountain social housing complex
City of Vancouver unveils long-delayed replacement for former Little Mountain social housing complex

“We’re standing next to a vacant lot that’s been here for more than 10 years. People started being pushed out of their social housing units 12 years ago. It’s time to acknowledge that this redevelopment scheme didn’t work.”

The Little Mountain site’s history is a rocky one. A land sale deal had been in the works since 2007, after the federal government transferred it to the province. More than 200 social housing units, which were built in the 1950s, were demolished in 2009.

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The then-BC Liberal government didn’t close the $300-million deal with Holborn until 2013, which also came with a pledge to replace the social housing and add 232 new units. The details of that sale have never been fully disclosed.

The City of Vancouver finally rezoned the property in 2016.

READ MORE: 9 years after Little Mountain social housing demolished, modular housing to rise on nearly empty site

Only a 54-unit building for seniors and a 50-unit modular housing structure have been built on the site since 2015, leaving the rest of the land empty.

Holborn says it plans to open 282 units of social housing and about 1,300 units of market housing, which would be built in a series of phases that could take at least a decade.

A development application for the southeast corner of the property at Main Street and 37 Avenue, which would bring 126 market units and commercial space in an eight-storey building, was introduced last December and approved by council in July.

An artistic rendering of 5299 Main Street at the Little Mountain site in Vancouver.
An artistic rendering of 5299 Main Street at the Little Mountain site in Vancouver. Holborn Properties

A second application for another eight-storey building with 63 social housing units, which would be managed by BC Housing, was submitted to the city in January.

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Chudnovsky said the years of proposals and applications have only slowed down what could have been done quickly by the province, namely providing upgraded social housing to replace what was demolished.

“Even if the social housing is replaced, we will have lost 10 or 15 or 20 years when people could have been living in that social housing,” he said.

“And then to build 1,500 million-dollar condos? No, that’s not what we need in Vancouver.”

READ MORE: Little Mountain social housing complex mostly empty 10 years after being slated for redevelopment

In a statement, Housing Minister Selina Robinson did not say whether her ministry was looking into buying back the land or pursuing public housing on the site, only blaming the previous government’s actions.

“Public land should benefit the people of our province and it’s disgraceful that the BC Liberals gave away control of a valuable site like Little Mountain to a private owner,” Robinson said.

“Our government is making different choices and responding to the housing crisis by investing in building thousands of affordable homes in Vancouver.”

The NDP campaigned on building 114,000 rental and co-op homes over 10 years. That goal has since dwindled to less than 40,000 units of publicly-funded housing.

READ MORE: Majority of B.C. government housing projects have experienced delays

While the province says 22,459 units are underway as of the end of August, an update from the Affordable Housing Investment Plan Report shows 59 per cent of those units are experiencing some sort of delay.

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Don Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway who attended the rally, said he plans to bring the residents’ concerns to Ottawa and see if a solution can be found at the federal level.

“If there is going to be a re-purchase of this land, federal funds would help make that happen, so that’s the message I’m going to take back to my peers,” he said.

“I’ll tell you what’s unacceptable is a decade of empty, fallow lands here in the middle of I think the worst housing crisis in Canadian history. That’s not acceptable, and we need to do something to change it.”

Little Mountain 10 years later
Little Mountain 10 years later

Also at the rally was Ingrid Steenhuisen, who grew up in the old social housing community and is one of hundreds who have been promised a first chance at the new units when they’re completed.

Steenhuisen now lives in the sole building standing on Little Mountain, while most of her former neighbours have since moved to other homes. She wondered whether Holborn’s promise to the former tenants is too little, too late.

“They didn’t just demolish the buildings, they destroyed a thriving community,” she said.

“We were one big family, and I want my family back.”

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