Shovels broke ground today on the first social housing building slated for the Little Mountain redevelopment site in Vancouver.
Representatives of the B.C. government, City of Vancouver, developer Holborn Properties, and the Musqueam First Nation marked the official beginning of construction on the building, which will consist of 53 social-housing units.
Rich Coleman, the B.C. minister responsible for housing, said profits from the sale of the Little Mountain property are being invested into social housing throughout the province.
“The leverage off this site today affects about 2,000 homes in British Columbia, most of them in the City of Vancouver, plus a number of units all over British Columbia because the ministry of finance, back in 2005 and 2006, when we decided we needed a vision for housing in Vancouver, basically let this become my line of credit,” he stated. “You can actually say that every single dime coming off this site is going into homeless and mental health and addiction housing, or supportive housing, in the City of Vancouver. That’s what this site means to us.”
Joo Kim Tiah, the president and CEO of Holborn Properties, said this first social housing building is “just the first step” for the mixed-use development.
“We remain committed to this project, and I look forward to working closely with all parties and stakeholders as we proceed to the rezoning for the entire site,” he said. “I have no doubt that Little Mountain will be nothing short of a fine neighbourhood that Vancouverites can be proud of.”
But as some of the tenants in the only remaining building at the site looked on, not everybody was as impressed.
“More than six years ago...they destroyed a community,” claimed David Chudnovsky, a former NDP MLA and advocate for the current Little Mountain residents.
“They bulldozed this place in 2009—it’s almost four years that this place has been a vacant lot. They’re privatizing an important asset of the people of British Columbia, in exchange for what? In exchange for simply replacing the 224 units of social housing that were here before. No increase, except for 10 units of native housing, and what else will be here? Holborn will build hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of units of condos that are expensive that don’t speak at all to the real problem of the city, which is the crisis of affordability, for families, for poor people, for older people, for young people.”
Ingrid Steenhuisen, whose family has lived at the site since 1957, is one of the remaining tenants at Little Mountain. She recounted the feeling of seeing her neighbours move away from the site before the other buildings were demolished in 2009.
“It was like family—we helped one another,” she said of the community. “And to see that systematically…destroyed, and to see people losing their safety net, and being torn away from all that—that was really upsetting.”
Sammy Chang, one of the other remaining residents at the Little Mountain site, brought along his own shovel to the event today, hoping to join in turning the sod himself. After the politicians and television cameras left, Chang did just that, while his neighbours, Steenhuisen and Karin Nicholetti, clapped alongside the blind resident as he lifted a shovel full of dirt.
In Chudnovsky’s view, it was the advocacy of the remaining tenants that led to the first stage of construction at the site beginning now, and not months or years down the road.
In October 2012, the B.C. government, the City of Vancouver, and Holborn Properties announced an agreement permitting the initial social housing building to be constructed at Little Mountain ahead of the rezoning process for the site. The agreement allowed the residents in the last Little Mountain building to remain in their homes. The tenants had previously received eviction notices in July 2012.
“This groundbreaking today would never have happened except for the courage of these people, who said no to the eviction,” said Chudnovsky. “They said they refused to be evicted, they refused to be pushed around, they refused to be pushed out of their homes, and they still live there, and if it weren’t for them, this would have never happened now. This would have gone on and on and on, and it still will—there's no zoning approval, there’s no plan, all there is is agreement to build one building with 53 units of social housing."
Coleman said each person that lived at the social housing site was given an opportunity to move and have their moving expenses covered. Former Little Mountain residents, and the tenants in the remaining four households on the site, will be given the first chance to move into the new units.
“I thought we did a very good job in transitioning the site and making sure everybody was taken care of,” said Coleman. “Nobody was taken off this site and left without housing.”
According to Holborn Properties, the five-storey social housing building, which will consist of one- and two-bedroom apartments, is expected to be complete in 2015.
The 15.2-acre Little Mountain property is located between 33rd and 37th avenues and Main and Ontario streets. Construction for the rest of the site still has to go through a rezoning process. In addition to the 234 social-housing units slated for the site, the proposed plan for the redevelopment includes 1,400 units of market residential, a 69-space childcare facility, and a larger Little Mountain Neighbourhood House.