The former Olympic athlete's village in Vancouver is in the news again, but this time no one is celebrating. The billion dollar plus development, originally built to house athletes then converted to a residential housing development, was primarily financed by a loan from the city of Vancouver. Millennium Development Corp., developer of the project, currently owes the city $731 million. Millennium was scheduled to pay back the first $200 million by August 31st, but came up $8 million short. They managed to find another $5 million by September 20th, but they are still $3 million short. On top of this, they have another $75 million due in January. The city is considering legal action against the developer.
This isn't the first we've heard about financial troubles with the project. The city actually took over the loan from Millennium’s initial lender due to cost overruns. The repayment schedule was considered feasible, given the strength of the Vancouver real estate market. Unfortunately for them, sales have been slow. While 223 units sold during the presale, only 36 units have moved since. This leaves more than half of the units. 454, lingering on the market. The city has actually been forced to take over the 252 units of social housing that were required to be built due to the city's inclusionary zoning laws.
Amidst this turmoil, the city is doing everything it can to ensure that the remaining units are neither sold off cheaply nor rented out, since this would reduce the long run selling price. Their solution is to wait for the market to rebound. Councilor Raymond Louie stated that “the benefit of being the city is that we are lasting and we can stay forever...it's a paper loss for now, but we can wait for the market to recover.” Of course, if this were a wise decision, why are private brokers and developers not doing the same? The answer is simple: the assets are depreciating anyways, so they may as well cut their losses. The problem here seems to be that the sitting government is afraid that it will look bad for them if the sale of the units doesn't cover the full loan amount. By telling the developer to sit on the assets, they can claim that the debt will be repaid when the market recovers (and they are happily retired from council).
The British Columbia government reported that the cost of the Olympics to BC taxpayers was $925 million. The original estimate was $600 million. On top of this, the federal government kicked in $1 billion for security costs. That also doesn't count the $700 million they spent on highway upgrades, $2 billion for a light rail extension, or $885 million for a convention center. Millennium’s financial troubles threaten to add to the losses incurred by taxpayers. Reports claim that the development is worth between $150-200 million less than what they owe the city. On top of that, at least 15 of the pre-sale buyers are trying to back out of their purchases. The bad news for taxpayers just keeps coming.
While the city was forced to back the loan in order to live up to its Olympic commitments, there is a clear lesson here: cities should not be in the housing business. Even though they've managed to keep housing prices artificially high, they can't break even on a housing development that was advertised to the whole world. Either the housing market will overheat again, and the project will become solvent, or the taxpayers will lose a couple hundred million dollars. Potential home owners in Vancouver can't seem to win. The best thing the city can do at this point is admit failure, and allow Millennium to have a fire sale. It won't do much about the cost of living in the city, but at least a few people will pick up bargains. Of course, politicians aren't likely to cut their losses. Better to pass the buck to the next council.