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Councillor Ellen Woodsworth: Little Mountain was “a good model that was working.”

Demolished site highlights social housing tensions

Advocates of the Little Mountain social housing site and local MPs are calling on the B.C. government to stop selling…

By Meg Mittelstedt , in Housing , on November 17, 2011 Tags: , , , ,

Councillor Ellen Woodsworth at the CALM news conference.
Councillor Ellen Woodsworth: Little Mountain a "really good model that was working."

Advocates of the Little Mountain social housing site and local MPs are calling on the B.C. government to stop selling off public lands as a strategy to fund social housing.

The Community Advocates for Little Mountain (CALM) held a news conference at the site near Main and 33rd Street on Nov. 9.

The date marked the second anniversary of the demolition of the Little Mountain site, which today still sits empty and unbuilt.

“There is a lesson here for every level of government,” said Linda Shuto, an organizer with CALM.  “We call on the provincial government to abandon the plan to sell this land. Go back to square one. Do not sell this land!”

The provincially-owned Little Mountain site in Vancouver was sold in principle to Holborn Properties in summer 2008. The sale agreement requires the company to replace the 224 units of social housing demolished in 2009. Proceeds from the sale are to be used to fund social housing on 14 other city-owned sites.

Related: Vancouver politicians press for federal housing strategy

The finalization of the sale has been held up in negotiations with the city over density, building height and site amenities. In mid-October, social housing advocate and former city councilor Jim Green left his role as community liaison for Holborn, raising questions as to whether the process had stalled entirely.

Handing off public land

CALM organizer Linda Shuto and MPs Libby Davies and Don Davies at CALM rally.
CALM to Province: "abandon the plan to sell this land."

Given the upcoming election, some council candidates have taken advantage of what is becoming known as the Little Mountain “fiasco” to bring attention to what they say is a flawed housing strategy on the part of the provincial and the city governments.

“The strategy of selling off these public lands to private investors is just a continuation of neo-liberal policies of privatization that we’ve seen with increasing frequency over the last 35 years,” says Aaron Spires, R.I.C.H. (Rent is Crazy High) party candidate for city council.

“Once we put public land into the hands of private interests, it’s removed from the public sphere. We don’t have any recourse to change it,” said Spires.

Spires says Vision’s promises to end homelessness “were just smoke and mirrors to get elected and hand off these very lucrative properties to developers.” He would like to see Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vision held to account for broken campaign promises.

Lauren Gill, also a council candidate with R.I.C.H., lived in the Little Mountain community for a period of time. She says the value of the land was “worth more than the well-being of the tenants.”

“Before you start tearing down social housing in the middle of the worst housing crisis since the Depression, you better make sure there is housing stock for people to go to without displacing others,” she said.

Gill was at Little Mountain when Vision councillors Kerry Jang and Andrea Reimer campaigned on the steps of the site in 2008. They told residents they would do everything within their power to keep the land public.

“We can’t just let this slide under the rug,” said Gill. “I would like to see [Robertson] step down as mayor.”

A provincial problem

However, city councillors have a different point of view. Tell it to the province, says councilor Kerry Jang.

“It’s not our land,” said Jang. “That’s crown land. If the province chooses to sell its own land, there is no law on this earth that the city can use to prevent it. I said ‘I’ll do everything I can to keep it public,’ and I did. I’m damn proud of it.”

He says the city held up the Little Mountain demolition permit until they were convinced that residents were moved to housing of their satisfaction.

Jang says the role of the city is restricted to land use. The city is negotiating with Holborn for increased units of social housing and community amenities. Holborn wants a rezoning for increased density and increased height, Jang said.

Holborn president and CEO Joo Kim Tiah.
Tiah: Holborn "full steam ahead" since 2009.

“The developer can ask for the moon – and that’s what he’s done,” said Jang. “But that’s just an opening gambit.” Jang says city revision of Holborn’s proposal “could take years.”

Rebuilding community

Holborn CEO Joo Kim Tiah says an initial delay on Holborn’s part in 2008 while the company recovered from the global economic downturn slowed the process initially. However, they have been “full steam ahead” since then.

“Obviously, some people are maybe impatient and want quick results, quick solutions,” said Tiah. He says the community consultation process laid out by the city is a labour-intensive affair.

“If people have doubts, they should come to the advisory group and be involved,” Tiah said.

However, some advocates say the public consultation is a PR event that only looks at surface issues like aesthetics.

Ingrid Steenhuisen, who lives in the one remaining building on the Little Mountain site, says she has attended all but two of the 40 consultations.

“I don’t know that the developer fully grasps the concerns of the residents,” Steenhuisen said. The community lost more than buildings, she said. “I don’t think they get that we’re a family.”

The city is being forced to pick up the province’s responsibility for affordable housing, something it doesn’t have the financial ability to deal with, says Councilor Ellen Woodsworth.

“We’re in a terrible situation right now where Vancouver is becoming a city just for the wealthy. But here at Little Mountain, we had a really good model that was working,” said Woodsworth. “We need to look at what worked so well for so long and why we’ve turned away from that.”