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Bike-share comes to Vancouver at last, helmets and all

July 20th, 2016 · 18 Comments

So I ambled down to the official announcement of the bike-share launch, held on the picture-perfect seawall with kayakers going by, the glass towers sparkling in the sunshine, and an elderly gentleman playing the street piano nearby.

My official Globe story is here, but those of you who know anything about me realize that I’m a big bike-share user wherever I go. Bike shares are so ideal for so many reasons. As a tourist, I’m long past the age where I can walk 25 miles in no-support rope sandals and not feel any pain. And it takes a long time to see a city by walking. Cars go too fast, are too hard to park. Buses, okay, but they’re limited by routes and schedules. Bikes in a bike share are like travel freedom in a bottle. You see the city close up, at your own pace, and you pick up and drop the bike as needed.

So far, I’ve done New York, Minneapolis, Toronto, Lyon, Paris, Montreal, Montpellier. I would have liked to in San Francisco, but they had none in the Mission district where I was, and in Montevideo, Uruguay, but was too rushed.

So I’ve had a wide range of experiences, mostly good, occasionally bad, i.e. high ratio of malfunctioning bikes, credit cards that don’t work in the system, bike docks impossible to find, etc.

Obviously, my 24-minute ride today from under the Cambie Bridge on the south side to Hornby/Pender downtown isn’t the last word but, here goes

  • SEVEN speeds, compared to the three in other cities. Woohoo. This ought to make the hills a little bit easier.
  • Very smooth. Obviously, these are new bikes, in better shape than a bunch of the clunkers I rode in Lyon, with seats that kept slipping or only one gear. But still, yummy smooth.
  • The helmet is locked to the bike with a cable, an ingenious system. Though CBC did report one cable had already been cut and helmet stolen as of this morning. Still, it’s smart and easy.
  • I was worried when I picked up my bike that I’d end up downtown with no place to dock it. That is actually one of the biggest problems I’ve run into — getting to a place and every spot is filled at docks for blocks around. You see people standing with their bikes waiting for someone to show up and take one out so they can dock. But, for now at least, they’ve got two spots available for every bike there, so no problem when I arrived on Hornby.
  • Not that many bike docks so far (only 23), so hard to judge about how that all is going to work. Based strictly on me, bike systems work best when there are loads of docks, so many that you hardly need a map to find them. At this point, I’m just out of the area where docks are going to be, as I’m sure are many bike riders in this city. But, theoretically, it will expand. The first time I went to New York, there were only about three docks in Williamsburg. Last December, they were everywhere.
  • At the end, took three tries to ensure it was docked properly. I had to jam it in hard three times before I got the signal that it was in.
  • The worst part? Taking it out for the first time. I’ve never had such problems, in part because I’ve always been only a day or week user elsewhere. So you stick in your credit card, get a code and you’re off. Here, as a founding member, I’d been given a fob and was told my four-digit pin. But I guess somewhere along the line a few months ago, someone also emailed me a seven-digit OTHER code. Which I didn’t remember ever getting, didn’t have on my phone, and had to call in for.
  • Then, to actually unlock the bike. It turned out that it use a bike, you have to hit a button on the panel to “wake up the bike.” Then you have to press 1. (Neither of these are intuitive. There were written instructions sent to me but, as a long-time user of bike shares, I paid no attention and assumed I could just figure things out on the spot. So wrong.) Then you put your fob on the marker. Then you enter your four-digit pin. Then you have to do something else on the panel. Then you enter your seven-digit pin. Then you enter your four-digit pin again. Then you put your fob on the marker again. Seriously, folks, I am not making this up. Be prepared. If you are the kind of person who has trouble with your TV remote, you need to bring a teenager with you.
  • Fortunately, I made it through, mostly because I had two highly paid Mobi staffers standing next to me. (I’m pretty sure sweat was running down their backs as I got testier and they started to imagine what would happen if a Prominent Journalist couldn’t go on a bike ride. Media disaster, which would completely negate the carefully orchestrated photo-op ride the mayor made through a special pre-perforated banner in the middle of the news conference.) Anyway, I finally went on my way.
  • A couple of people along the way called out, “Hey, is that the new bike share bike?” and one woman chatted to me at an intersection, all excited about using one.
  • Definitely going to be using when I can, though it will be strange to be doing it in my own city.

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The temperature goes up in Vancouver housing wars, with stories on data and racism

July 19th, 2016 · 16 Comments

Just when you think things can’t get any more virulent in Vancouver’s debates over real estate, they do.

As far as I can tell, the heat went up starting with the province’s decision two weeks ago to release three weeks worth of data on sales, which showed that about five per cent of Vancouver real estate is bought by foreign investors, according to data now being collected by the province.

(The data indicated some distinct hotspots in Richmond and Burnaby, where the rates were 14 per cent and almost 11 per cent respectively.)

Then Pete McMartin at the Vancouver Sun weighed in after that, making a forceful case that now it was pretty clear that racism was really underlying the conversation. His argument, if I can summarize, was that, since it’s clear that foreign-investment levels aren’t that high, what’s really going on is that Vancouverites just don’t like wealthy Chinese people of any description. Only he was a lot more vividly than that.

That, of course, sparked a huge reaction, with Justin Fung (Housing Action for Local Taxpayers) and Fenella Sung (Friends of Hong Kong) becoming the go-to spokespeople on local media making a counter-argument, that the current debates over housing do not have a race-related element and, if I’m capturing this correctly, they’re really just focused on the reality of the Chinese economy.

Then the Georgia Straight weighed in with several articles, including Travis Lupick’s two-part series on Vancouver’s history when it comes to race and real estate, here and here. That contrasted, at one point, the way stories and studies about the overwhelming influence of foreign money appear to get much more public traction that stories and studies that assign it a role as just one factor among many.

He also wrote an earlier news story quoting Vancouver human-rights activist Victor Wong, which really made people set their hair on fire, as well as accusing the Georgia Straight of now being in bed with developers.

Then Doug Todd from the Vancouver Sun added his essay arguing that the current conversations are really about policy, not race.

Throughout it all, each side made accusations that the other side is just trying to shut down any conversation. There were also suggestions that white people don’t have any authority to talk about racism (although it seemed to me that suggestion was only made about those raising issues about racism, not if they were saying there is no racism). And there were those who suggested that you had to pick your side — you could talk about racism or you could talk about affordability.

As for me — well, I’d like to see, as I’ve said elsewhere, a conversation where we can talk about what is and isn’t problematic about coverage where race is involved, without either side screaming “you’re trying to shut down the conversation.”

I know my journalism students struggle with race issues and have for years. I had a whole class once a decade ago that balked at writing a story from a school-board report that suggested Chinese ESL students were performing differently on certain tests from other ESL students. For them, the idea of referring to anything with a generalization about race was abhorrent — even if it was a rigorously conducted school study. It took a lot of talking from me to get them off that position.

I’ll have more to say about this at a later date.

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The long, hard battle to make sure housing subsidies go to the right tenants

July 19th, 2016 · No Comments

ICYMI, here is my story about a recent court case, where Red Door Housing Society removed the subsidy from a tenant who didn’t report income her daughter had been getting. Now they are being asked to pay $1,990 for their three-bedroom townhouse on the False Creek waterfront, instead of $650.

It’s a small glimpse behind the curtain of the struggles that housing groups go through to ensure that people aren’t taking advantage of the subsidy system. One operator told me that some audits have been initiated when staff noticed tenants driving up in BMWs.

Susan Snell at Red Door said her organization is really rigorous about verifying income and removing subsidies if necessary, in part because they have some resources to fight the battles. She said other, smaller groups sometimes just won’t challenge tenants because they feel like they don’t have the wherewithal to start a fight.

There have been a few other cases that have made it to Supreme Court over the years — a guy at Mole Hill trying to sublet his unit for market rate, among them.

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Will the housing crisis finally make someone pay attention to renter issues?

July 11th, 2016 · 24 Comments

That’s what I’m wondering, as the bizarre Vancouver and Toronto real-estate frenzies mean that more people are staying in the rental market for longer — maybe forever.

The Globe is doing a series on renter issues. I kicked it off on Saturday with a look at the general picture across the land and a little bit of history about how we got here, along with the stories from a few renters, some going through hell, and some who’ve found a way to cope.

Canada has an unusually high home-ownership rate, at 69 per cent. At this point, it’s higher than the rate in the United States. And, although I know I’m just asking for a troll attack by daring to mention this fact, Vancouver has a high ownership rate compared to other cities.

I’ve often wondered if both of those are due, in part, to the fact that renters feel so unprotected. (My guess would be another big part is the fact that real estate in Vancouver has been the go-to investment vehicle for decades, seen as something that will gain value at better than stock-market or bank-interest rates.)

Housing researchers tell me it’s impossible to sort out all the factors that go into that high ownership rate, but I can’t help but think the tenuous situation for renters plays a part. As Ingrid Cheung said in my piece, she and her partner panicked when they thought they would have to move and scrambled to make an offer on their apartment when it was put up for sale.

The problem I see, too, with this issue is that a lot of people, even in the renter world, are probably doing okay. Like with homeowners, if you got a place many years ago and you’re not in danger of being kicked out, you’re probably paying way below market because your landlord was restricted to cost-of-living rent increases.

So it’s really the newcomers and those thrown unwillingly into the market who are feeling the most pain. Are they a big enough group to get some political attention? Well, feels like these days, anything could happen. Maybe Christy Clark will have a news conference next week announcing more money and more protections for renters.

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The latest data battle: 19 days of sales stats for B.C. and what to believe

July 10th, 2016 · No Comments

The province said it would start collecting data on foreign ownership in June and, this week, Finance MInister Mike de Jong revealed the results from, I’m guessing, the first 19 days of collection.

The total of the goverment information is here, which doesn’t answer all the questions I would have had (couldn’t be there because was writing 2,000 words about the forgotten people, renters.)

The data release has, of course, spawned the usual hand-to-hand Twitter combat that has become the norm in these overheated days.

My assessment? It’s another sliver of information, at least as worth looking at as some realtor claiming that every house in West Van is going to Chinese buyers or a study of 170 sales in six months in one small area of the Lower Mainland.

Of course it’s not complete and I don’t think anyone ever claimed it was. It will be a lot more interesting when there’s a full six months, at least, or full year of data. I do wonder if there is a sales burst around Chinese New Year that would show up, since it’s something that some realtors prepare for.

But I don’t understand some of the carrying on about how inadequate it is. Even De Jong said it should not be seen as conclusive.

Did it measure all foreign capital coming in, as critics bemonaed? Of course not. We all knew it wouldn’t because the province announced what it was going to measure several months ago.

But it did tell us how much was being bought by outright foreign investors, which I found interesting.  So Richmond, where foreign investors accounted for 14 per cent of sales, is almost at the level of Australia as a whole, where foreign-investment records have indicated offshore purchasers account for 15 per cent of sales. (Though there, non-residents are only allowed to buy units in new projects, not existing homes.)

And Burnaby was at 11 per cent. That confirmed my sense that it is a preferred spot. Every time I look at one of Jens von Bergman’s helpful census maps, there is a small hot spot of recent Chinese immigrants along Kingsway — I’m guessing in the new condos. One of my Twitter conversants said s/he doubted that number, though it might be a blip, but I’m not so sure. It seems to me there’s been some concerted marketing, both by local builders and those with Chinese connections, of the new condos in Burnaby to offshore buyers.

What I’m not clear on is what happened with purchases made where the owner is listed as a numbered company or the land-title records show a lawyer’s office. When I did my story a couple of years ago on the large Woodward’s tower and a smaller building in Coal  Harbour, I found that, especially in Woodward’s, there were more numbered companies and lawyers’ offices than outright foreign addresses.

Someone on Twitter said those buyers had to indicate whether directors or the buyers behind the lawyers’ address had to indicate nationality. I would hope that happened, though I have no direct proof that it did. And, of course, you have to count on people to tell the truth. However, since there is no penalty for providing the facts, I can’t see what the hesitation would be. (Unless that becomes part of the public record and people who wanted to hide identities are now exposed.)

I agree it would be interesting to know more, although I have to wonder at the level of information some people are asking for: Information on where every dollar is coming from for the purchase, information on whether the buyer pays taxes in Canada, and more. I don’t even know how you would satisfy some of those requests. A new immigrant who buys a house wouldn’t be filing tax returns until after the purchase — will that also become part of the requirement to buy a house, that the buyer has to provide income-tax information forever after?

But then, the arguments seem typical for the way this debate keeps morphing.

Remember, way back in ancient history, I think it was maybe 18 months ago, possibly as much as two years, the main complaint was about “foreign investors.” Then it became obvious that people were calling anyone who looked Chinese a foreign investor, so the target became foreign investors and investor immigrants to Canada.

But the immigrant investor program ended in 2012 and the 1,500 or so still possibly coming from Quebec each year can’t be driving an entire Lower Mainland market that has 50,000 or 70,000 or whatever sales in a year. (If 10,000 sales in 19 days in whole province, then ..)

So the public anger turned towards any immigrant who is here but 1. is possibly sneaking money into the country from China 2. has a spouse working abroad who is a non-resident and not paying Canadian taxes. Now there’s a call for data on all that.

I’m not surprised that politicians can’t keep up with the morphing demands. Or if they choose to answer the easiest question. (First lesson in journalism when teaching interviewing: Don’t ask your subject more than one question at a time or s/he will always answer the easiest one.)

At any rate, this new info is something. A year’s worth will be better.



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Plan for 10,000 more in Commercial Drive ‘hood gets cautious approval from residents for now

June 28th, 2016 · 46 Comments

It’s been one long haul, but finally city planners have come up with the draft for a Grandview-Woodland plan. (They presented it to the citizens’ assembly Saturday night, after which several attendees went for beer. This planning thing is not for amateurs.)

Here is the city’s summary of the plan, which envisions about 7,000 new housing units, 9,500 new residents in the next 25 years, a redevelopment of the Safeway site at Commercial/Broadway to a plaza with a couple of 24-storey towers on the east side and other office/condo/rental buildings on other sides, an enhanced little commercial strip on Dundas, taller buildings on East Hastings in the valley around Clark, with lower buildings on Hastings where the street rises, plus much more.

Unfortunately, the city doesn’t seem to have posted yet the excellent PowerPoint presentation that planner Andrew Pask showed the assembly Saturday (and which I’ve also seen), which has sketch-ups showing what the planners’ ideas are for the Safeway site, the Boffo Kettle site, the Hastings Street corridor and more. Just has a lot more visual detail. It’s supposed to be going up soon.

People I talked to yesterday (Dorothy Barkley of GWAC, Eileen Mosca, longest-serving Drive advocate I know, Barbara Cameron of No Tower Coalition) sounded generally favourable, although no one has had time to absorb all the details yet in the 250-page report. (My story, condensing all their comments, along with assistant planning director Kent Munro’s, into a tiny wad of Kleenex, here.) There are some concerns, of course, like the plans for 18-storey buildings at Clark and Hastings. As well, I saw Kyle MacDonald tweeting yesterday about the low densities still on Nanaimo.

I’ll wait to see how it all evolves. But at least no instant outrage, which is something these days.

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Alarm over the sale of a Chinese-society residential hotel gives glimpse of hidden world

June 21st, 2016 · No Comments

The May Wah Hotel is a relic of old Chinatown, built in 1913, filled with tiny rooms where Chinese seniors and not-so-senior others have an extremely affordable haven.

But the Shon Yee Benevolent Association that owns the building and runs it decided, after many years of debate, to put it up for sale recently. Some members were afraid that they’d discover, like a naive strata council, that the building needed massive repairs that they’d never be able to afford.

The news of the sale set off a dust storm of activity, as my story in today’s Globe details. People are looking to either show the association how it can be run more profitably or to buy it and maintain it as low-cost housing.

But, for me, the more interesting part of all this was learning something about the struggles of these societies that have supported local Chinese for decades but are struggling over what to do now about their assets. (Interestingly, Shon Yee does own another residential building at Hastings and Princess, which is much more modern. The society is not at all thinking of getting rid of that one.)

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A tour of Alberta cities (with some tours of mayors offices thrown in)

June 21st, 2016 · 5 Comments

I’m from Regina, so a Prairie kid, as all good Canadians are. But it’s been a long while since I’ve travelled east. So it was a pleasurable surprise to do whirlwind visits to Edmonton and Calgary recently.

I interviewed the mayors of those two cities. (Story here, for comparisons on who among Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton is the most extroverted, who is the most nerdy, who gets the most done, who is the strongest and weakest on Twitter.)

But, as much fun as it was to talk to these two in their little municipal castles, it was equally fun to walk around their cities.

Both of them made me realize how squeezed Vancouver seems in its downtown. Yes, we are vibrant and busy and packed. But our downtown public space, in comparison, seems to be largely pushed to the edges: the seawall and Stanley Park, Jack Poole Plaza, David Lam Park.

That was different in Calgary and Alberta, where there are big spaces carved out right in the middle of the city.

I loved the huge rectangular public space in front of Edmonton’s city hall, bordered on two sides by cultural spaces. And Calgary’s big downtown parks — the Olympic park with its pool, also bordered by theatres — and another park that sported Joe Fafard metal horses were like huge gulps of fresh air amid the buildings.

Calgary was impressive in its downtown urbanism: bike paths everywhere, a pedestrian street that was thronged at lunch hour, and then a second street a block over dedicated to the city’s streetcar lines. (Less impressive was the ride out to the ends of those lines, which seemed to travel through industrial lots, alongside highways, dumping people at giant malls or what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. The tallest residential building I saw along a line was actually a long way from a station and plunked in the middle of an industrial zone, with not a single interesting thing around it.)

And I was truly envious of the gorgeous piece of art, the giant wire-mesh head, in front of the imposing Norman Foster skyscraper.

Edmonton has less of the bike-lane thing going on and is struggling with its streetcar. A former student told me it’s faster for her to walk or take her bike than take the train, which also has the delightful advantage of keeping motor vehicles on the streets (and bikes and pedestrians) waiting for long, long periods at gated intersections before the train finally goes by. But it still feels pleasantly walkable downtown.

And it has some building boom going on (though the ginormous, metallic stadium is like something imported from Mars) and lovely restored brick buildings, a Sunday market that was jammed with visitors, trying out everything from Chilean specialties to bison burgers, amid the pottery, flowers, jars of honey, wooden thingamabobs, children’s clothing, gourmet cookies, and so on.

And the multi-ethnicity was startling. We think we’re so diverse here in Vancouver but, really, we’re anglo, Chinese, South Asian, Filipino, and not a lot else. Both Edmonton and Calgary felt more like Toronto, with their mixes.

I don’t pretend to any deep thoughts. These are quick impressions, the things that interested quickie visitors notice. Things that will inspire interested quickie visitors to go back.


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A question from a reader: What is this Chinese word in the real-estate brochures?

June 6th, 2016 · 5 Comments

Dear readers, any answers to this question that just came in over my blog transom?

An advertisement from a realtor appeared in our mail today, with the usual pictures of houses just sold (prices ranging from over 8 million to 2.5 million). Some of the pictures have “just sold” or “new listing” printed on them, but others have a Chinese word–“anpan” (暗盘). I know some Chinese, but I am so curious what this term refers to! And why just print it in Chinese?

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Is it possible for Vancouver to do an affordable home-ownership plan, given our insane land prices?

June 5th, 2016 · 4 Comments

Vancouver has said it’s going to start a small “affordable home-ownership” program, with an initial 300 units over three years.

It’s hardly the first city to do this. There are programs all over the continent that have started up as resort towns, universities, mid-sized cities, and large cities have all tried to find a way to ensure that one group of potential residents — people making decent but not fabulous incomes — can find a place to live in their communities.

In a recent story for the Globe, I talked to the people who run some of the programs elsewhere: Toronto, Whistler, UBC. One woman who’s been doing this for a while, Heather Tremain, had serious reservations about how Vancouver is going to be able to do this, given land prices.

In a recent speech to the UDI, Bob Rennie (marketing guru, Svengali, adviser and fundraiser for a wide variety of politicians) suggested that Vancouver should stay out of this game because, even with a 20-per-cent reduction in price that it’s proposing, that isn’t any better than what the same buyer could get by moving to Burnaby or Coquitlam.

My very certain guess is that Vancouver will pay no attention to Rennie on this one. Yes, it’s true, all housing problems can theoretically be solved by telling people to drive until they find something they can afford. But many civic leaders, housing advocates, regular folks are uncomfortable with that.

One: That then risks producing a city populated by only two kinds of people, the extremely wealthy and a service class, willing to cram into tiny, shared spaces in the cheaper parts of town. That’s not a healthy mix.

Two: It takes away a choice that many feel should be on offer. That is: if you really, really want to be in the heart of your community and you’re willing to accept less space and less of a profit on your home, we will find an option for you.

After all, affordable home-ownership plans, the ones that survive, aren’t really offering a discount. They are offering to let someone buy at below-market rate, in return for selling at below-market rate. Many people won’t like that deal. Either they aren’t that wedded to the city and they’ll move to Burnaby or Coquitlam, where they can buy outright and perhaps get something bigger. Or they’ll find a way to stretch to buy at market price in Vancouver, so they can get the full profit.

I should say that I continue to hear from people about one of the niggling problems with these programs, which is enforcing the rules. One affordable home-ownership effort that BC Housing took part in turned out to be somewhat disappointing. People got a deal to be able to buy — and then their units started showing up as rentals on Craigslist, in completion violation of the spirit and the letter of their agreements.



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