Vancouver City Council has approved a motion staff says will hasten the construction of social housing units on acres of prime land owned by a development company that has made little progress with the property for 15 years.
The Little Mountain lands lie between 37th and 33rd avenues and Main and Ontario streets in Vancouver. It is owned by Holborn Properties Ltd., which has said it intends to build over 1,500 housing units on the property, including 282 units of social housing.
Vancouver's previous city council had placed conditions on the development that prevented occupancy of market condos until the first two phases of social housing were completed. During a Wednesday morning meeting, Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim and the majority of city councillors voted to drop that condition.
"At the end of the day, we need to build more housing," said Sim.
Holborn initially pledged to build 1,400 market value homes and 234 units of social housing on the six-acre site. (Holborn/City of Vancouver)
When Holborn, which is owned by a wealthy Malaysian family, purchased the land for $337 million in 2008, 700 people were displaced from existing housing on the property. So far, only one 53-unit social housing building has been erected on the site.
Dan Garrison, head of housing policy and regulation for the city, presented details Wednesday from a staff report recommending council pass the motion. That report includes a letter from B.C. Housing backing Holborn's request for the city to remove occupancy permit holds on the market condos.
Garrison told council B.C. Housing staff have been in meetings with Holborn and its lenders and can vouch for the company's claim that they could not secure financing.
"That gives me a lot of confidence," said Coun. Peter Meiszner, about the province's involvement. "This is the right way to move forward."
Councillors Pete Fry, Christine Boyle and Adriane Carr passionately opposed the request.
Development on the property, seen here on Nov. 1, 2023, is moving slowly. The Little Mountain development plan currently includes approximately 1,573 dwelling units, including 282 social housing units, a child-care centre, a neighbourhood house and a public plaza and park. The developer has completed one social housing building since purchasing the property 15 years ago. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
Fry said Holborn has significant assets it can draw on for financing, including the Paradox Hotel Vancouver, formerly known as the Trump International Hotel, and an entire downtown city block. He also suggested the province backstop the financing itself.
"Maybe B.C. Housing can pony up," said Fry.
"I don't think that this has been a well and fair process from the get-go."
A 'fairly significant point of leverage for the city'
In 2021, CBC News obtained the purchase and sale agreement between the provincial government and developer Holborn Properties after protracted efforts through freedom of information processes.
The B.C. Liberal government that was in power at the time of the 2008 deal gave Holborn $211 million in interest-free loans on an 18-year term, the agreement shows. Interest does not accrue on that loan until Dec. 31, 2026.
Boyle said Holborn has had years to develop the land and, in that time, has done virtually nothing and watched its property value soar.
Vancouver City Council voted 7-3 to remove restrictions they placed on the Little Mountain Housing redevelopment that would have forced Holborn Properties Ltd. to build its social housing commitments in the first phases of the plan. (City of Vancouver/Standing Committee on Policy and Strategic Priorities/YouTube)
She asked Garrison if the company has been paying the city's empty homes tax, to which he replied the city does not comment on specific files on that issue.
"We have no reason to trust Holborn here," said Boyle, referring to the years already spent waiting for action on the land.
She said a bad deal was made 15 years ago and she was infuriated that the company was asking for another handout.
"We are in a housing crisis and we should be taking a more active role. I can't believe that instead we are stepping back when this housing is badly needed," said Boyle.
The Holborn development is a four-phase project and Garrison said the exemption will not apply to phases three and four. He said a "fairly significant point of leverage for the city" is that it could block the last two phases if promised social housing does not materialize.
Michael Geller, retired architect and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University, said Holborn "literally blew everyone else out of the water with the magnitude of their proposal" when they purchased the land years ago, but have been asking for concessions ever since.
Speaking to CBC Radio, he said that council's decision could be the only way to ensure the social housing is built, but if the city is making concessions it should be asking for something in return, such as firm project deadlines.
"If not met, then perhaps the city or the province who sold the land can take back the property," Geller suggested.
CBC News has reached out to Holborn Properties for comment.