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Developer apologizes for social housing delays at Little Mountain site

Joo Kim Tiah: "If it makes it any better, I would apologize for how it's taken so long. It was never the intention."
Joo Kim Tiah, CEO of Holborn Properties Ltd., at the Little Mountain redevelopment site in Vancouver Thursday.

The developer behind the massive Little Mountain project in Vancouver that has seen little activity in 16 years apologized Thursday for the delays in building almost 300 units of social housing on the site.

Joo Kim Tiah of Holborn Properties Ltd. said at a news conference to launch the construction of a 48-unit social housing building that he “felt bad about the whole situation.”

“If it makes it any better, I would apologize for how it's taken so long,” Tiah told reporters at the site.

“It was never the intention. It's a very long backstory of why we're here, why it has taken so long. But I don't think we need to go there. What we can do is just focus on moving ahead as quickly as possible.”

Tiah shared the “backstory” with Glacier Media in November 2023, where he said Holborn wasn’t allowed to apply for rezoning until 2013. Council approved rezoning in 2016 and didn’t enact it until 2018.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in 2020, followed by inflation and rising construction costs. Tiah noted then — and at Thursday’s news conference — that Holborn has still built one 53-unit social housing building and is close to completing a 62-unit building.

He promised in November 2023 and again Thursday that all 282 social housing units will be open before the end of 2026, with Holborn expected to break ground this year on two more buildings on the site.

Mayor Ken Sim (middle) along with city councillors, Holborn CEO Joo Kim Tiah, Queenie Choo of SUCCESS, Musqueam Indian Band member Gordon Grant and others Thursday at Little Mountain. Photo Mike Howell

'Getting the job done'

Thursday’s news conference included Mayor Ken Sim because the 48-unit social housing building will be owned by the city. The building is being built as part of a community amenity contribution from Holborn.

The building and property will include the new Little Mountain Neighbourhood House, a 69-space child-care centre, a public plaza and park. The property is located behind the Main Street-facing 62-unit social housing building nearing completion.

Both Tiah and Sim spoke at a lectern adorned with a slogan that read “getting the job done,” which was in contrast to the slogan Holborn placed years ago on the fence surrounding the 15-acre property that said “great stories take time to write.”

Sim acknowledged the “checkered past” of the project.

“We have the opportunity to do two things: we can litigate the past and come up with reasons why we can't do it and get really oppositional,” the mayor said. “Or we can say, look, there are a lot of people that need housing here, and let's make some hard decisions.”

'Occupancy permit holds'

Sim was referring to a decision he and his ABC Vancouver colleagues made in November 2023 to amend a housing agreement with Holborn that removed “occupancy permit holds” for three of the 12 lots designated for market housing.

The holds — a standard practice in contracts — were in place so that Holborn would have to first build all the social housing before proceeding with the market units. That requirement was based on the property once being home to 224 units of 1954-era social housing that had deteriorated and was later demolished.

Holborn wanted the agreement amended because the company said it was unable to obtain financing for the first two phases of the market units without unlocking the holds on three lots.

At the time, Holborn told staff it wanted to launch pre-sales for an 87-unit market building by the end of the year and simultaneously submit development permit applications for three other buildings.

“The banks will not finance us when there's such strict occupancy holds on the delivery of social housing, and that's essentially why we are asking for this,” Tiah told Glacier Media in November 2023.

He said financing would cover servicing the entire site, including the social housing lots.

“When you develop anything, you finance a whole lot of it from the banks,” he said.

The site of the City of Vancouver's future 48-unit social housing building at Little Mountain. Photo Mike Howell

'Terribly bad taste'

David Chudnovsky, a former NDP MLA who fought for years to obtain the contract between the B.C. government and Holborn to redevelop the property, attended Thursday’s news conference

Chudnovsky told reporters after the news conference that the event, which included Tiah, Sim and city councillors participating in a sod-turning photo opportunity, was done “in terribly bad taste.”

“It's not a day for celebration,” he said. “It was in March of 2007 that the people who lived in a very successful social housing community — Little Mountain — began to be pushed out of their homes, and were promised that they'd be back in their new apartments by the time of the Olympics in 2010.”

Added Chudnovsky: “So to come today, and to pretend that this is a day for celebration, it seems to me is in very bad taste, and the mayor should have thought twice about it.”

'Feeling very good'

OneCity Coun. Christine Boyle, who recently secured the NDP’s nomination for the Vancouver-Little Mountain riding, said she wasn’t going “to hold my breath” on Tiah’s commitment to have all 282 social housing units open before the end of 2026.

In November 2023, Boyle and Green councillors Adriane Carr and Pete Fry voted against amending the city’s agreement with Holborn to deliver the social housing units first.

“We needed them 15 years ago, we'll take them when we get them,” she said.

“But in the fall, the majority of council voted to let them off the hook for needing to build those before building condos. I remain really concerned about that because it was the last piece of leverage we had to try to get that social housing built on any kind of timeline.”

Added Boyle: “So it would be great if they're open by 2026, but we'll see.”

ABC Coun. Mike Klassen, who also attended the news conference, said “all the factors that go into making sure that we deliver on time are being addressed right now.” He said the city is “very motivated” to get all necessary permits and site servicing in place.

“So I'm feeling very good about this neighbourhood finally blossoming and the fact that we're getting it done,” he said.

“I've been going past the site for the past 16 years. And it is one of the things that I prioritized when I got elected. I said let's get this thing built, and get to the bottom of what some of the problems are to get there.”

Michelle Wright was a teenager living at Little Mountain social housing complex when she and her family were displaced more than a decade ago. Photo Mike Howell

'Haven't stopped dreaming'

Taking in the speeches Thursday was Michelle Wright, who was a teenager when she and her family were displaced from the original social housing complex at Little Mountain.

Wright, 29, is now a single mother with two young children and lives in a one-bedroom place in New Westminster, where the family shares a king-sized bed.

Wright wants to move into one of the new social housing buildings at Little Mountain. She noted the agreement BC Housing secured with Holborn is to allow the original occupants of the housing first right of refusal on the new units.

But she was told that right doesn’t apply to children of adults who were living in the housing. She said her mother is elderly and doesn’t want to move from her current residence. So she asked to take her place.

“I haven't stopped dreaming that we can move back here,” Wright said. “This is where I was raised.”

After the news conference, Wright was approached by two representatives of Holborn, who said they would work with BC Housing to see if they could find her a place in one of the new units at the site.

The Little Mountain purchase and sale agreement from 2008 said Holborn was to pay the B.C. government $334 million for the property. Tiah told Glacier Media in November 2023 that Holborn had so far paid $40 million of the $334 million.

SUCCESS will operate the city's building when it opens in 2026.

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