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Opinion: NDP government should "take back" Little Mountain from developer who got sweetheart deal

We need answers, and we need them now
Retired NDP MLA David Chudnovsky stands outside the Little Mountain property Tuesday with a copy of the $334-million contract between Holborn Properties Ltd. and the B.C. government. Photo Mike Howell

Thirteen years ago, fifteen acres of land, the Little Mountain social housing site in Vancouver, was sold by BC Housing to Holborn development company.   Immediately after the sale people began asking to see the details of the deal. Finally, 3.5 years ago, I applied under Freedom Of Information legislation for the contract.  

Now, after thirteen years of appeals from the community and more than three years of corporate stalling, the Little Mountain contract is finally public.  

It’s an outrageous contract, and the details that we now have make that clear.

The BC Liberal government decided to sell the land – a terrible decision - and Holborn bought it.  The selling price was $334 million.  We now know Holborn got a mortgage – a loan – for about $300 million to pay for the property.  Who loaned them the money?  We did.  The people of British Columbia.  BC Housing provided the mortgage.  

What about interest?  There’s a provision in the contract that says they don’t have to pay any interest until 2026. 18 years – no interest payments.

If you or I got a loan for a car or a house or a big piece of land, we’d expect to start paying it off, with interest, immediately.  But not Holborn.  They got to play by different rules.  Rules laid out in what was – until this week – a secret deal.

Little Mountain, once home to more than 700 people, has been largely a vacant lot since its 224 social housing units were demolished in 2009 to make way for Holborn.  The terms of the contract made it easy for Holborn to simply sit on the land and watch its value increase.

They got a huge loan from the government, interest free for 18 years; BC Housing paid for the environmental remediation; any First Nations claims are the responsibility of BC Housing; so were the cost of demolition, of moving the residents and finding new homes for them and real estate fees.  

There are no deadlines or time limits requiring the developer to build homes by a certain date.  BC Housing could have put in the contract – by 2013 so many social housing units will be built, by 2015 so many more social housing units will be built, by 2021 all the social housing units will be built.  But there’s nothing like that in the contract.  No deadlines for building.  No requirements to build.  

No wonder Holborn fought so hard to prevent the contract from being made public, and no wonder they’ve been sitting on the land for all these years while its value goes up and up.  

The release of the contract that Holborn worked so hard to keep secret is a victory – but it’s a small victory.  

The current government should “Take Back The Mountain”.  Remember, it was the BC Liberals and Minister Rich Coleman who were in power when the deal was done.  This development has been a colossal failure – an embarrassment to the people of Vancouver and an insult to homeless and underhoused people across BC.  It’s time for the government to step in.  

We should build the hundreds more social housing units, the below market rentals and the co-ops that British Columbians need and deserve at Little Mountain.  We should ensure that Little Mountain is a sustainable community - a model community, a community we are all proud of.

How could this tragedy have happened?  We need answers, and we need them now. Only an independent investigation can ensure we avoid another debacle like this in the future.  The government must establish a Public Inquiry into the Little Mountain deal.  

David Chudnovsky is a former NDP MLA in the riding of Vancouver-Kensington and a former president of the BC Teacher's Federation