|A common scene on Vancouver's west side. An empty lot awaits builders, while a small house on an adjacent lot awaits demolition day. In some west side areas, houses that are occupied and not for sale or being demolished are almost a rarity.|
|Pedestrians have to take their chances in the face of Vancouver's real estate frenzy. This sidewalk closure, in conjunction with a new house under construction, was in Point Grey.|
|Construction equipment is becoming as familiar as cars on Vancouver streets.|
As I listened to the familiar crunch and punch of a bulldozer tearing apart yet another house in my Dunbar neighbourhood this week, I thought about the $3-million-plus somebody had paid for the right to do that. And the cost of rebuilding. And whether the resulting shiny new mansion will sit empty for years, like many in my area.
I was also thinking about how for years, anyone who suggested offshore money has anything to do with sky-high real estate prices, demolitions or vacant houses in Vancouver has been accused of racism. Indeed, that was Mayor Gregor Robertson's reaction last fall when urban planning researcher Andy Yan found 66 per cent of buyers in Vancouver's most expensive neighbourhoods had non-anglicized Chinese names, which he said implies they're new arrivals. The mayor's response? "This can't be about race, it can't be about dividing people."
The politicians and the real estate industry -- both with a lot to gain from keeping the real estate ball rolling -- had their way for many years. People were scared of talking about offshore money. A July 7 Guardian story posits this is partly because of Vancouverites' uneasiness about anti-Chinese events here in the early 1900s. "Vancouver was the stage for some of Canada's ugliest episodes of racism: anti-Chinese riots, a 'head tax' on ethnic Chinese, and later an outright ban on Chinese immigration."
But as activist Justin Fung told the Guardian, the housing crisis is a policy and social justice issue. "If you can't even talk about where the money is coming from, you can't do anything about it."
And you have to ignore facts like this:
- Vancouverites have the lowest incomes out of 10 major metropolitan areas in Canada, but the highest home prices. ("The Departed," Vancouver magazine, June, 2016)
- Young people are leaving Vancouver. There was a net loss of 2,350 people aged 25 to 34 to other provinces between 2011 and 2015. That compares to a net gain of 4,199 such people from other provinces in the years 2006 to 2010. (Vancouver magazine, June issue.)
- The price of a typical detached home in Metro Vancouver rose 37 per cent in the past year, to $1.5 million as of May 2016, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.
In response to that last fact, the mayor finally admitted in June that offshore money is an issue. "With unregulated, speculative global capital flowing into Metro Vancouver's real estate, we are seeing housing prices completely disconnected from local incomes."
Even B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong has finally acknowledged that the impact of foreign money on the real estate market is "real." "There's certainly a presence," he said last week. "It is actual, it is factual, and it is beyond conjecture."
But in the last few days, there have been a couple of articles reviving the notion that any criticism of the goings-on in Vancouver's real estate world amounts to racism. Under the headline: "Racism now up front in the housing debate," in Saturday's Vancouver Sun, columnist Pete McMartin said the issue is no longer about housing, but "a matter of culture and race in an increasing climate of mutual resentment."
And in the traditionally left-wing Georgia Straight, Charlie Smith offers obscure praise to longtime journalists who apparently learned their lesson about racism during the controversial flood of Hong Kong residents into Vancouver in the 1990s, and are now reining themselves in in discussing the current problems.
On the ground, in the heavily targeted Dunbar, Point Grey and Kerrisdale neighbourhoods where I walk, I see the real-estate tornado first-hand. Some blocks have been turned upside down by the frenzy; it's actually a surprise to see a house with people living in it, without a for-sale sign or white border markers indicating it's been surveyed for sale. What comes to seem normal are the old houses, vacant and weed-grown, awaiting demolition; houses in various phases of being torn down or rebuilt; or spanking new houses that are glaringly vacant.
I don't think it's racist to worry about your neighbourhood turning into a lonely wasteland. Or as Robertson has finally said: "First and foremost, housing needs to be for homes, not just treated as a commodity."
"What you have is a huge pool of very wealthy people who want to hedge against uncertainty back home," says Thomas Davidoff, a real estate economist at the University of B.C. "Combine anxious money -- a lot of it -- with a beautiful gateway city that has limited space to build, low property taxes, lax regulation on capital flows, and wealth-friendly immigration programmes, and you get a market like this one." (Guardian, July 7, "Race and real estate: how hot Chinese money is making Vancouver unlivable.")