Vancouver housing: Some of the kids of Little Mountain hope to return

The kids who lived at Little Mountain when it was razed in 2009 are now adults. Some hope to return, but it’s not clear if they can

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Michelle Wright remembers a childhood of riding bikes through the courtyard of Vancouver’s Little Mountain neighbourhood with the other kids who lived there, climbing trees together in nearby Queen Elizabeth Park, sleeping over at each other’s homes, going to church with each others’ families.

“There were so many children and teenagers there, and we were like a family. … We all grew up together,” Wright said. “So we were really, really sad that we had to leave each other.”

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Wright lived in Little Mountain from the time she was a toddler until she was 13, shortly before the 224-unit social housing project off Vancouver’s Main Street was demolished in 2009.

Back then, B.C. Housing told families like Wright’s that the social housing would be quickly redeveloped and they could return to new homes there within a couple of years.

If the promises had been kept and timelines met, Wright and her family would have returned to a new home at Little Mountain while she was still a kid. Now, a 29-year-old single mother, Wright would love the opportunity to raise her children in the new social housing being developed on the site.

But that doesn’t seem likely to happen.

VANCOUVER, BC., April 25, 2024 - Former resident Michelle Wright on scene as Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim attends a groundbreaking ceremony for a city-owned 48-unit affordable rental housing building in the Little Mountain neighbourhood, in Vancouver, B.C., on April 25, 2024. (NICK PROCAYLO/PNG) 10104572A [PNG Merlin Archive]
Former resident Michelle Wright at the construction site for a city-owned 48-unit affordable rental housing building in the Little Mountain neighbourhood, in Vancouver, B.C., on April 25, 2024. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10104572A

After years of delays as the six-city-block site has mostly sat empty, there is some movement at Little Mountain. Last week, Wright watched as representatives of Holborn Properties, the development company that owns the site, appeared with Vancouver politicians to celebrate the groundbreaking of a new social housing building there. Other social housing buildings there are expected to break ground this year.

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B.C. Housing is offering the new social housing to former Little Mountain residents, but to the heads of the households, like Wright’s mother — not to those former residents, like Wright herself, who were children when they lived there.

Wright said B.C. Housing encouraged her mother to apply for a home in the Little Mountain redevelopment, but as a senior now, she does not want to move again, but instead wanted her daughter and grandchildren to take her spot. B.C. Housing told her it doesn’t work that way.

Wright, who lived in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for years after leaving Little Mountain, recently moved into a social housing building in Burnaby. It’s a new building in a good area, she said, but she’s under-housed, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with a seven-year-old and nine-year-old. She would love for her kids to have their own space — especially if it could be in the same Little Mountain area where she had such a wonderful childhood.

VANCOUVER, BC., April 25, 2024 - Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim (second fro right) in action at a groundbreaking a city-owned 48-unit affordable rental housing building in the Little Mountain neighbourhood, in Vancouver, B.C., on April 25, 2024. (NICK PROCAYLO/PNG) 10104572A [PNG Merlin Archive]
Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim (second from right) at a groundbreaking a city-owned 48-unit affordable rental housing building in the Little Mountain neighbourhood on April 25, 2024. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10104572A

B.C. Housing has been working to reconnect with former Little Mountain residents, and about 40 households have expressed an interest in returning, said Erin Harron, B.C. Housing’s acting associate vice-president of service delivery and regional operations.

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But that’s limited to the heads of those households, Harron said, not former child residents like Wright.

People who grew up at Little Mountain will not go to the front of the queue for the new buildings there, Harron said, but if they qualify for social housing, they are encouraged to apply.

“It’s really important to consider this in the broader context of the need in the Lower Mainland for social housing,” Harron said. “We really have to think about fairness and the needs of others.”

Indeed, the need is massive, and seems to always be growing.

More than 32,700 households across B.C. were waiting for social housing through B.C. Housing’s registry at last count. According to Metro Vancouver, the number of households on the waiting list in the region increased by 27 per cent between 2022 and 2023. This includes families with kids, seniors, adults with disabilities, single people, and just about every kind of household seeking social housing.

Some applicants might be waiting on the registry for years.

It’s not a first-come, first-served waiting list, said Harron. Instead, B.C. Housing considers the needs of applicants (such as their income, or family composition), as well as their preferences (such as living in a specific city).

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Some applicants will end up in properties managed by B.C. Housing, while others might go to buildings belonging to about 120 non-profit organizations. Applicants are encouraged to check in with B.C. Housing once every six months or so, Harron said, and can improve their chances of finding housing by expanding their preferred geographic region as much as possible.

Wright is not the only former child resident of Little Mountain who would like to return, said Ingrid Steenhuisen, whose family lived there for decades and knew Wright’s family. Steenhuisen knows some of those grown-up kids of Little Mountain personally, she said, but “there must be dozens, definitely.”

Many former residents of Little Mountain describe it in similar terms: Some of the families had problems at home, the buildings themselves were not in great shape, but the community there was real and it was strong.

When the buildings were demolished and those families were scattered, the community was destroyed, too.

“When you grew up in a setting like this, you sort of become one big extended family,” Steenhuisen said. “Everybody knew everybody.”

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Kids play at Little Mountain on January 2, 1971.
Kids play at Little Mountain on Jan. 2, 1971. Photo by Brian Kent /PNG

Steenhuisen, now 66, grew up at the original Little Mountain in the 1950s and 60s, lived there for much of her adult life, and was one of the former residents able to return to the first new social housing building on the site, which opened in 2015. She is still in touch with many former residents, including other adult children of Little Mountain.

“If the parent or head of the household doesn’t want to return, why can’t that home go to the daughter with kids who does want to return?” Steenhuisen asked.

The Little Mountain redevelopment’s first new social housing building opened in 2015 had 53 homes. A 62-unit social housing building is under construction and expected to complete this year.

Holborn Properties says they expect to break ground this year on the remaining social housing, and for all of those buildings to be completed by 2026.

Wright is happy, she said, to see the long-empty site is finally moving ahead with the construction of new social housing. But she wishes she had some assurance her family could have a future there.

“I had the best childhood there,” Wright said. “I just want to give my kids the best life possible.”

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With files from Nick Procaylo

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