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Ten years later, the fight for social housing at Little Mountain continues

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Half wreck of Little Mountain

Affordable rental housing in Vancouver has become a distant memory for most people. However, ten years ago, in Vancouver, the affordability crisis was in its nascent stages. During that time, the B.C. Liberal government, BC Housing and eventually the City of Vancouver began the process of privatizing a large social housing community called Little Mountain. During the past decade, Little Mountain became where some of the housing activists cut their teeth, where the Liberals and BC Housing began to indicate how they intended to deal with housing in B.C.  

The Federal government has finally chosen to return to the social housing debate with the recent budget allocations for a National Housing Strategy. The B.C. Liberals are facing re-elections and right now much of the social housing has disappeared. We felt that perhaps the best way to learn how to intervene is to learn from the ongoing fight for Little Mountain. We will be focusing a lot on Little Mountain at rabble.ca in the coming months, because it is where some of the seeds of the current crisis lie.   

On Saturday morning, April 8, at 10:30 am, Community Advocates for Little Mountain (CALM) will hold a ceremony at 37th and Ontario St in Vancouver to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of when the process of destroying Little Mountain began. It will be a short ceremony so please be on time and bring your cameras. 

Before this event, the Activist Toolkit interviewed David Chudnovsky, former president of the BC Teachers Federation and former MLA from Vancouver Kensington, who is a founding member of CALM. The following is excerpted from the interview.


What was Little Mountain?

Little Mountain is a housing community that was built by the federal government in the 1950s. It was a community which, like many other social housing communities in the country, was for people who couldn't afford accommodations in the private market.  It was a very successful community of 224 units of social housing, including lots of family housing.  Thousands of people families lived their lives and kids grew up at Little Mountain. It was among the most successful social housing communities anywhere in British Columbia, that's for sure.  

Divestment and privatization

In the 1990s, the federal government sold Little Mountain to the province for a dollar.  It was a time when the federal government was getting out of the social housing business, stopped building social housing and didn't want to incur the administrative expense and the maintenance expense to run social housing so they gave it over to the provincial government. The provincial government ran the social housing at Little Mountain like they did many other communities, through their agency called BC Housing, which is an agency which administers social housing among other things.  

Around 2006, people who lived in Little Mountain started hearing rumours that the site which is prime Vancouver real estate, close to Queen Elizabeth Park which is a beautiful park.  The rumour was it was going to be sold, or re-developed, or something was going to happen. In 2006, because of the instability, people started to leave and they weren't replaced. It should be said that these homes were not in the best shape, which was part of the excuse, explanation, reason, that the government eventually gave for destroying the community, but I am getting ahead of the story.

March 2007, exactly 10 years ago, BC Housing held a meeting to which they invited all of the residents. It was clear there was going to be an announcement of some kind of redevelopment or something. Something big was happening. I was asked by the residents if I would attend that meeting because I was a member of the Legislative Council, representing a constituency across the street from Little Mountain. The border of the constituency was across the street, it ran up one side of little mountain. They called me because they had contacted the Vancouver Langara MLA, Carole Taylor, who was actually a cabinet minister, and they didn't get any help from her office. So, they called me and asked me if I would attend the meeting and I did attend that meeting.  

At that meeting, BC Housing announced that there was going to be a redevelopment of the community. They said they would work with a private developer, sell the land, and that the 224 units of social housing would be replaced, people would have to move, but they would be back in their new houses by the time of the Olympics. People were also told that they had better move soon because if they moved soon, BC Housing would help them find a place that they wanted to move to, either in another social housing project or some place in the private market. If they waited they may not have any choice and would have to go where they were told to go. They started manipulating and intimidating the residents and trying to convince them any way they could to leave.  

Organizing starts

The people who lived at Little Mountain started to formulate a response to these moves by the government and by BC Housing. Even though the homes were getting to be pretty old, and needed to be maintained, most people did not want to move. They wanted to stay because it was a good place for them and their kids to live.  

First they said "Don't knock down our homes and build a new place, fix up our places, fix up our homes. If you fix them up, it will cost way less and there will be less disruption to our lives." BC Housing said "no" to that.  

Then the residents came up with other principles which they thought should be followed. One was they didn't think that this public asset should be sold, they thought it should be kept public. A second was redevelopment should be done in phases with the least possible disruption to people's lives. Start one phase, the people impacted move out for a little while and then they would be able to move back into their homes, then move on to the next phase of building. A third principle that they laid out was that if, in fact, this community was going to be redeveloped, it shouldn't just be 224 replacement units of social housing. It is a gigantic piece of land, more units of social and affordable housing be developed and built there. One estimate, at that time, said that there was a potential to triple the number of social housing units available at Little Mountain. 

So, several things were happening at once at that time. Residents were moving out because they kept being told "if you don't move out, BC Housing won't be able to find you appropriate accommodation." The second thing that happened was that people started to organize against the destruction of their community, both the people in the community and supporters who lived across the city, and there was a series of demonstrations and rallies. People made submissions to City Council which in the end was the body which had to approve the zoning. They came to Victoria, at one point, while I was still in the legislature, so before 2009. I organized for a group of residents to come to Victoria to talk to the minister and the government. As the place was being emptied of people, eventually BC Housing started covering all the windows with wood. As that was happening artists from across the city, and not just artists also just ordinary folks, were coming and putting murals and designs and cartoons and pictures on the wooden coverings on the windows. Little Mountain became quite a cause célèbre in the city. You've got to picture it, it is a very big piece of land in the center of the city, and so people go by there all the time.

An organization was created called CALM, Community Advocates for Little Mountain, which was made up of community activists and some people who lived at Little Mountain who coordinated a whole bunch of the activities and demonstrations and rallies and eventually actually created an ongoing weekly event called the stand for housing, they sort of broadened the issue to sort of include the need for affordable housing all over the province and dozens and dozens of weekly demonstrations, first of all there were weekly demonstrations at little mountain for housing and then there were particular days on which people around the province also demonstrated for housing, and it all came from CALM.

Alright, so, it took years for them to convince almost everybody to leave. In November 2009, virtually everyone had left and so BC Housing came in and demolished all of the buildings except one where there were still four tenants. These four tenants kept being told "you have got to leave" but they wouldn't. Finally, at the end of 2010, they got eviction notices, which we appealed to the residential tenancy board that deals with rules. They contacted me again to advocate for them. By then I was not in the legislature anymore, I had chosen not to run again in the 2009 election but I was still involved in helping support the people who lived there. We appealed to the residential tenancy board.

We also did some more organizing, this time with planners. We got a group of retired city planners, who had worked for the city in the planning department. We had a couple of contacts, one in particular. This group had a lot of influence and contacts at the city level. They began to get involved behind the scenes. In the middle of the process of the appeal to the tenancy board, to our shock and amazement, the eviction notices were withdrawn. Not only that, B.C. Housing announced that they would fast track the first building of replacement social housing.  

Through the whole process, there is a development company called Holborn Developments, which is a giant Malaysian holding company, in the wings.  This is actually the same company which built the Trump building in downtown Vancouver. They're negotiating with the province to be the developer, to buy the site and to redevelop it. This reminds me of the fourth principle that the community laid out. They wanted to see the contract. What was the contract? What is the deal?  We never have seen that contract and it is unlikely we ever will see that contract. So after the four tenants were allowed to stay, they promised they would build the first building with 54 units of social housing and it would be the first thing to be built. It was built and that is the only building that has ever been built on that site. The four people who had been holdouts were allowed to move in. However, two people had died in the interim. Now I am going to finish because there is one building and a gigantic vacant lot. And that's the history.

Lessons learned

One of the lessons is stick to it.  I mean there's a group of people who have been at this for more than ten years and we've had some small victories, very small, but victories nonetheless and we continue to fight.

The second thing is listen to the people who live there because their experience and their wisdom is very important. They had a plan way back in 2007 that was much better than the government's plan if you wanted to redevelop Little Mountain. We've heard through the grapevine that the government will never do the same kind of redevelopment again. One of the victories is the government is not going to come in and knock down a place anymore. Redevelopment since Little Mountain has been done in phases, as the residents recommended. The irony is that was what the Little Mountain residents advised, and what eventually happened at Little Mountain, was development in stages. The government claimed that phased development was impractical, and "it couldn't be done" but that is in fact what did happen. 

Third, we learn that this government is intent on privatizing social amenities social services and it does it in lots of different ways. This and other governments have almost succeeded in redefining what we mean by social housing. This is an important point and one that I feel needs to be noted by people who want to know what was going on. It used to be that social housing was housing for people who couldn't afford housing in the marketplace, low income people, poor people. What happened now is that they have redefined social housing. When our government talks about "social housing" they mean what we used to call "supportive housing." 

Supportive housing is absolutely necessary and we need more and more of it but it should not replace and be conflated with "social housing."

Supportive housing if for people who have health issues, both physical and mental, people who need additional supports, people who have drug related problems, and people with behavioural challenges. This is what they mean now in British Columbia when they say social housing. The notion that the government has a part to play in providing housing for people who simply can't afford homes is quickly disappearing. Government provides some subsidies to some people to help them find places in the private marketplace but in a market like in Vancouver where there are virtually no vacancies, subsidies to help poor people find a place to live are basically just gifts to landlords. Therefore, one of the lessons of all of this is to keep your eye on government policy and what it is they are trying to do in terms of getting out of their responsibility to provide for people who can't otherwise afford to find a place to live.

Market is not the solution

First and most important solution is that the senior levels of government have to get back into the social housing business for sure. The president of RBC just said this too. In British Columbia and Vancouver, the market is the problem not the solution. The development community and governments keep saying that the way to solve this problem is to provide supply to increase the supply of housing. Well, there are several problems with that.

They have been building thousands of condos in Vancouver over the past decade. The supply has been increasing exponentially but the cost of homes, rental and for purchase, have gone up exponentially as well during that time.  Therefore, the evidence is that supply doesn't solve the problem.  

The second thing is, most people who talk about supply don't talk about affordability. Even the people who support the notion that increasing the supply is going to solve the problems of housing and affordable housing, admit that the current cost of the increased supply is going to be significantly higher than what people can afford. 

Government's role

Federal: Under the Liberal government of Paul Martin, the federal government got out of the social housing business, they have to get back in the social housing business and have to have a National Housing Strategy.  

Provincial: Until 2001, the NDP provincial government, was building social housing. There is lots to be said about the NDP provincial government, I am not uncritical of some of the things they did, however this was a good thing they did. Between six and seven hundred units of social housing were built every year under the NDP in the 1990s. If we had just continued with those units of social housing for the last 16 years, since the NDP left office, there would be approximately 10,000 additional units of social housing available today.

According the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a federal government entity, affordable means a third of family income is paid for housing at all income levels.  Affordable for someone who makes $30,000 a year is $10,000 a year in housing costs.  The development community and various governments have been working hard to change that definition.  The developers and some government officials both at the city and provincial levels have said, I heard them and it is well known that they have said this, that affordability means that a unit of housing is affordable if somebody can afford it.  Well, no, that's not the case!  The government should go back to an objective measure of affordability because we need to have a goal that allows for housing to be affordable for people in a way that doesn't intrude on the other things that they have to spend their money on and government has to take the lead on that.  

Government should be much less timid with the developer community. All over the world, developers are required to build social housing as part of development plans. I just read an article that in Denmark a developer has to give 20 per cent of the land they are going to build market housing to the development of social housing.

Municipal: In municipalities around the world, the government has required developers to provide a certain percentage of the housing they build as affordable housing. If you build a development, let's say 20 per cent of that development must be affordable, rent geared to income at 30 per cent, but way below market so people can afford their homes.  This is not pie in the sky.  80 percent of the people who live in the city-state of Singapore live in some sort of subsidized social housing which eventually they can buy if they so wish. More than 50 per cent of the people in Hong Kong and Catalunya in the Basque region do this, the people in Los Angeles have just voted to have a scheme like this in their jurisdiction that governments can do.

Another thing the government could do is get back into the co-op business. It used to be that the Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation provided low interest loans to co-ops that allowed them to build their places so that low and middle income people could live together in co-ops and thousands and thousands of people in Vancouver grew up in those co-ops. A mixture of housing strategies would create affordability across the board.   

La lucha continua

The city has now approved the development plan of Holbrooke properties for the lot and we'll what happens to the site. Nothing has been built and it is just sitting there. There are all kinds of people who would like the development, when it finally gets done, to include more than the 234 units of replacement social housing. According to the most recent development plan we saw there are 224 replacement units, 10 units of aboriginal housing and a vague promise of approximately 40 units of what they are calling affordable housing, so we will see what that turns out to mean. At this moment, nothing is happening. The development plan was approved by City Council. Of course, we were there to talk against that plan.

There will be an event on April 8 at 10:30 am PDT outside the Little Mountain site to mark the 10 years since people started being pushed out of Little Mountain and I can say that there will be some really interesting visuals so bring your cameras.  So we're not giving up.

Image: David Vaisbord

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Xmas card from Little Mountian by David Vaisboard

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