Province signs agreement with Little Mountain developer to accelerate construction of social housing

‘Enough is enough with the Little Mountain tragedy,’ says Attorney General David Eby

The Little Mountain property, which once served as one of B.C.’s largest social housing sites, remains largely vacant |Mike Howell/files

The B.C. government announced Friday that it has signed an agreement with the City of Vancouver and Holborn Properties aimed at accelerating construction of long-delayed social housing on the Little Mountain property in Vancouver.

A news release from government said the memorandum of understanding between the three parties prioritizes the construction of non-market housing on the property and to have it completed and ready for occupancy no later than Dec. 31, 2024.

"Enough is enough with the Little Mountain tragedy that was orchestrated by the previous government that resulted in a low-income community bulldozed, an interest-free loan of hundreds of millions of dollars and a massive empty lot growing weeds in the middle of a housing crisis," said Attorney General David Eby in the release.

"We wouldn't be here today if Holborn had not agreed to abandon their court action and release the original contract to the public. That good-faith gesture allowed us to enter into an agreement on timelines they also had no legal obligation to agree to.”

Eby, who is responsible for housing in B.C., added: “It's now up to them and Vancouver to actually get this housing open, which will be met with relief by many people across the province. I am hopeful for the first time in a long time about this project."

Joo Kim Tiah, the principal of Holborn, said in the release that the agreement is a sign of commitment from all parties to proceed expeditiously on the remaining four non-market developments on the site.

“We look forward to maintaining the positive momentum at Little Mountain as it is progressively redeveloped into a thriving, inclusive and sustainable community,” said Tiah, who has been reluctant to speak to reporters about construction delays.

The government’s announcement Friday comes after the contract between Holborn and the B.C government was released last week to former NDP MLA David Chudnovsky and freelance reporter Jeremy Allingham.

The purchase and sale agreement was made public after Holborn agreed not to proceed with a judicial review of an order from B.C.’s Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner to release the contract.

The 99-page document, which was initially signed in April 2008, shows the sale price of the 15-acre property near Queen Elizabeth Park was $334 million. A spokesman for Eby’s office, Michael Cox, told Glacier Media last week that Holborn had only paid $35 million towards the purchase price.

Holborn was given a $211 million loan and an $88 million “credit” towards the promised construction of 234 non-market units on the property. The $35 million was a cash down payment from Holborn to make up the overall $334 million price.

“Approximately $211 million is still owed to B.C. Housing secured by the loan,” Cox said in an email last week. “This remaining balance, regardless of work done, must be repaid to B.C. Housing by Dec. 31, 2031, and will begin to bear interest after December 31, 2026.”

Following the government's announcement Friday, Eby acknowledged to reporters in an afternoon online news conference that nothing in the memorandum of understanding is enforceable. Eby described it as a "good faith" agreement, saying Holborn could have refused to participate.

"The fact that Holborn didn't have to enter into this [agreement] — and the fact that if they don't meet these commitments it will simply result in more bad press — indicates to me that there is reason for optimism that we can get this done," said the minister, who repeatedly criticized the previous Liberal government for drafting the contract with Holborn. "The contract was a giveaway. Politicians were, at best, grossly negligent and complicit."

Eby named Kevin Falcon and Rich Coleman from the previous Liberal government in his comments. Glacier Media sent a message to Coleman last week via a third party for comment regarding the Holborn contract, but had not received a response at the time of this story being posted.

A statement from Holborn to Glacier Media Sept. 3 described the terms of initial contract with the Liberals as "reasonable." The company said the payment structure was typical in real estate deals, with one payment up front and subsequent payments made as the project is built and sold.

"Holborn, as the developer, does not stand to make any profit until after the social housing and communities amenities are built," the statement said. "Only then will Holborn begin to generate revenue through the sales and construction of the market housing units, the proceeds of which will go towards the remaining balance."

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who earlier this week criticized the initial deal, was also quoted in Friday’s news release, saying “we are finally moving forward with an expedited plan to build long-awaited and much-needed affordable housing that will mean more of our neighbours can continue to call Vancouver home.”

The government said a planning group will be established to track construction progress and address any issues that might impact the construction schedules of the non-market housing. This group will meet regularly and include a senior representative with decision-making authority from each party, the release said.

The property has sat largely untouched since Holborn demolished existing 1954-era housing more than a decade ago to prepare the site for redevelopment. Hundreds of people were displaced, with at least four families from the original 224 units fighting eviction notices to prevent demolition.

Holborn’s original commitment in 2008 was to build 234 social housing units, but has only built a 53-unit building, with another 62 units currently under construction. A temporary modular housing complex for homeless people was recently erected on the site.

The updated total number of social housing units planned for the property is 282, with 48 to be owned by the city. Ten of the 282 units will go to the Musqueam Indian Band, according to a separate B.C. Housing document.

A total of 1,500 market units, a childcare facility, neighbourhood house, public plaza and park are also planned for the property, which is bounded by 33rd to 37th avenues between Main and Ontario streets. A new road and extension will also be built.

Calls for a public inquiry and for the current government to "take back the Mountain" — as Chudnovsky urged in a news conference last week — will not occur, said Eby, who added the focus is on getting housing built as soon as possible. He said an inquiry would be expensive and taking the land back from Holborn would mean paying the developer "hundreds of millions of dollars."

"I hope this announcement gives hope to Little Mountain's neighbours that this long, sad saga is drawing to a close — and also gives hope to the families who were displaced from Little Mountain," the minister said. "You were treated unjustly. But hopefully we're turning a corner today."

Note: This story has been updated since first posted.