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Vancouver house costs: How do you solve a problem you can't measure?

A path to progress

Exorbitant home prices are driving locals out of the city, and many say foreign, particularly Chinese, investors are to blame. But no data exist to show that, and those who've tried to collect it are called 'racist.'

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    Realtors' signs are hung outside a newly sold property in a Vancouver neighborhood where houses regularly sell for millions, in September 2014.
    Julie Gordon/REUTERS
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Linda MacAdam can hardly recognize the Vancouver neighborhood she’s known since 1945. Within the past five years, young families have been priced out by multimillion-dollar homes, most of which seem empty.

On her community association’s bike patrol, she keeps seeing tall trees and attractive homes being ripped out. When people do move in to these large houses, they are often housewives or students – and most only speak Chinese.

“I feel like we’re being invaded,” says Ms. MacAdam, who grew up in the city’s Dunbar area and moved back after a 15-year marriage. “I honestly can’t stand to be here. I can’t wait to escape.”

Renowned for its beautiful views and temperate Pacific climate, Vancouver has attracted Asian investors for decades. But the city's character is changing, as rampant house costs price long-time Vancouverites out of their native home and produce loud protests against Chinese homebuyers.

Yet while the phenomenon of foreign buyers driving up prices in popular cities is familiar – see New York, London, or Sydney – Vancouver has an added wrinkle. No one can actually say for sure that foreign capital is to blame, because officials don't collect much data on homebuyers. In fact, many are disinclined to do so for fear of rattling a sector that is propping up the regional economy. And those who have tried to fill in the information gap have found themselves accused of conjecture and racism, complicating both discussion of the problem and what the solution might be.

"Without finding out who" buyers are, says Andy Yan, acting head of Simon Fraser University's city planning program, "we're just talking about phantoms, and I don't think that's particularly helpful."

Foreign money

“People who were born in Vancouver are being forced to move farther and farther,” says Charles Hou, a retired teacher who lives a few streets away from MacAdam. “Now I don't think there's any way that a teacher can afford to live in this area. I think we're going to lose teachers and doctors, nurses, professors.”

Mr. Hou's worries are commonplace. As with San Francisco, Vancouver's tech firms say their high-salary employees are leaving because they can't afford a home. So few families are moving into Vancouver that officials are considering closing 21 schools.

The number of single-family homes valued at more than $1 million has jumped from 19 percent in 2006 to 91 percent this year, according to city data adjusted for inflation by Mr. Yan.

“What happens when these great neighborhoods, that were created for families with children, just don't exist?” he says. “The highest price that is paid is that the next generation of Vancouverites aren't born.”

Hou puts the blame on Canadian policy dating from the 1980s. Then, during a recession, Canada started marketing its west coast as a safe haven for wealthy Asians worried about the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule.

Canada offered permanent residency to thousands who invested $800,000 in the economy. The program was shelved in 2012 after producing few jobs and little tax revenue.

But Hou, who has lived in Dunbar for five decades, says that realtors approach him every few months, offering millions of dollars for his home. He is pretty certain those trying to buy his house are part of the Asian permanent-resident influx.

“Canada made a big mistake in allowing people to buy citizenship,” Mr. Hou says. “They've been driving the market up and pushing out people who are living here.”

No data

But no one can say for sure, because of the dearth of official data on Vancouver homebuyers. British Columbia has no restrictions on non-citizens buying properties, and the government argues that dramatic action would collapse property prices and clear out homeowners’ savings. Construction and real estate are also propping up an economy hard hit by slumping resources prices.

That forces those like Yan who do try to determine the share of foreign buyers in the city to be creative. He previously tried to estimate how many purchased apartments weren’t lived in by crunching electricity-usage data. He can’t tell how many houses are being bought by Canadian citizens, how many Chinese families are laying down roots in Vancouver, and who is only buying homes for investments.

Yan attracted scorn from city officials last fall when he analyzed six months of housing transactions in wealthy areas like Dunbar. Of the 172 buyers who spent $3 million on average, 36 percent identified themselves as housewives or students. Two-thirds of buyers had “non-anglicized Chinese names,” indicating they were likely from mainland China.

The mayor accused Yan of divisively making housing into “a race issue.” Yan was shocked; his great-grandfather was one of 81,000 Chinese immigrants whom Canada charged a "head tax" at the turn of the 19th century.

"If one becomes critical or analytical of the residential real-estate market in Vancouver, there is an attempt to tar that person as a racist, which I find is really disingenuous towards the actual history of anti-Asian racism," says Yan. "It's not only to justify the status quo, but a way of silencing a much-needed dialogue on the issue of affordable, secure housing."

Last year, a group of millennials launched the #DontHave1Million campaign, combining petitions and rallies to push the provincial government to collect more data. The group wants to know how many homes are bought by non-residents, how many homes are vacant and how frequently homes are flipped.

Yet British Columbia officials believe the problem is homegrown. A 2014 survey by the federal housing regulator found that only 2.3 percent of Vancouver properties were purchased by foreigners. But Yan notes this excludes people with spouses or children in Canada who only visit for weeks each year.

Benjamin Tal, who has studied Vancouver’s housing woes for years as chief economist for CIBC World Markets, says many are making “back-of-the-envelope calculations” in the absence of reliable figures.

“The extent of foreign money impacting the market … it’s an extremely sensitive issue,” says Mr. Tal. “The lack of data is really unhelpful; it fuels the imaginations of other people.”

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