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My advice to the development industry: Show you’re really part of the community by taking a stand on bad behaviour; share your data

December 1st, 2016 · 1 Comment

I’ve spoken on dozens of panels in my 34-year career as a journalist — panels for other journalists, for PR people, for non-profit groups, for students, for housing advocates, for business groups, for resident associations, for government employees — but none has generated quite the tizzy in a teacup as the one I was on this week.

That was partly attributable to the title: Real estate and the media: crafting the narrative. The other factor was the make-up of the panel, which was me and two people who work with the development industry on communications. And the third part was who I was speaking to: the Urban Development Institute’s under-40 group.

My usual little band of hardy critics, some of them suspiciously bot-like, took this to mean that I must have sold out completely (undoubtedly because I’m being paid off by the industry).

Many thanks to my loyal colleagues who took a stand and reminded them of what kind of journalist I actually am and always have been. Less impressed by those so quick to jump to conclusions — and express them in forums where they thought I didn’t have access.

I had agreed to talk on the panel because I thought it was about media influence and coverage of the development industry, with a mix of people on it. One journalist who was invited was out of town for the date, but didn’t express any concern about the topic, I’m told; not sure about others.

It was a bit of a surprise when I saw the title and format of the panel in the publicity that came out a couple of weeks ago. But I saw this as a great opportunity to talk to people in the industry frankly about why their reputation has taken a hit in the public. That’s what I did.

For those interested in the details, I am posting a recording I made of the session. It’s not great quality. I just made it in case someone tried to misrepresent what I had said, but it seems to be audible enough on headphones.

I also transcribed the first part of it, then ran out of time to do the rest. But I’ll post my transcript fragment, as well, for those without the patience to listen to 45 minutes of bad tape.

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City sells land that’s the subject of a lawsuit to developer promising affordable housing

November 26th, 2016 · 1 Comment

The city announced this week it was selling its land at 601 Beach Crescent to Pinnacle for $20 million, a promise of 152 units turned over to the city to be used for affordable housing, and no guarantee of any specific density in a planned rezoning. My story here.

That is sure to be watched closely by all, including Concord Pacific, which turned over some of its land for this parcel back in 1993, on the understanding that it was going to be a social-housing site. Concord is suing the city (as I reported previously) over this, saying the land was never turned over so it could be auctioned off to a private bidder.

We’ll all be waiting to see what happens next. It was hard to get a lot of information from the city or councillors on this, since this had been discussed in camera, but it sounds like Pinnacle may have the option to back out of the sale at some future point. (That was my interpretation, anyway, of somewhat guarded remarks.)

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Should journalists agree to be speakers for developer groups? Sure, as long as there are rules

November 26th, 2016 · 3 Comments

I get targeted personally by a tiny but energetic group of people in town on a regular basis, as part of the ongoing very emotional and fraught debate in Vancouver about real estate and foreign investment.

As a result, some have raised questions this week about why I’m appearing on a panel Nov. 29 with the Urban Development Institute with the improbable title “Real Estate in the Media: Crafting the Narrative.”

So here’s an explainer of how journalists on this continent generally operate when it comes to public speaking, for those unfamiliar with the customs.

Like many journalists who cover a beat, I get asked to be on panels, as a speaker or moderator, or to speak to classes or groups on a regular basis.

This fall alone, I’ve been at almost dozen events, including

  • a session with students at the Ubyssey newspaper on basic reporting strategies
  • a panel organized by BC Housing on identifying the priorities for the federal government in its new housing policy
  • a panel organized by SFU on the impact of international students on real-estate markets
  • a panel with the Dunbar Residents Association about what to do about their emptying out neighbourhood
  • a panel with Gateway Theatre in Richmond on the future of Chinatowns
  • a panel put on by the City of Vancouver on the right to adequate housing.

One more coming up Dec. 14, for anyone interested, will be on “Inclusive Cities – The New Urban Agenda: Lessons from Habitat III.”

I try to do a certain number each year, as part of the public service that journalists do. It’s goes with the territory, along with being interviewed umpteen times by students completing papers or graduate degrees, speaking to high-school and university classes, and answering emails about how journalism works from the general public.

I don’t accept payment of any kind for these talks — or from anyone or any organization that I might potentially cover. (That’s typical of most journalists.)

And, because I’m donating my time, I prefer to give it away to smaller groups with no money than bigger ones who could go out and pay someone for advice.

But I generally accept most invitations, from resident groups wanting to know how to deal with the media to the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association, where I’ve talked on the same topic, to business groups to classes of planning students, as long as I don’t have to give a big, long speech by myself, which I don’t enjoy.

As for next week’s panel, well, when I was issued the invitation, this is what I was told was the general topic:

Broadly speaking, most people in our industry are not familiar with on how the media operates. People would like to learn more about:

o How and who decides what information is news worthy?
o How does the media gauge what people care about?
o How does the media source the information?
o How does the media select experts and choose who to interview?

I was also told that the panel would likely be:

Other speakers we are approaching include Bill Good, Jon McComb, Farhan Mohamed and Ian Young.

Obviously, the topic and the overall composition of the panel changed from what I expected, to my surprise. But I’ll be talking about what I was originally asked to speak on. No one has been in touch to tell me anything different.

 

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The empty-homes tax is done. Well, maybe … except for an exemption to come for “family use”?

November 17th, 2016 · 4 Comments

It was one confusing council meeting at one point Tuesday, as Councillor Kerry Jang made a motion to amend the empty-homes tax, basically asking staff to study new data coming in in 2017 and decide whether there should be some kind of exemption for secondary homes “frequented for family purposes.”

Your guess is as good as mine as to what this might mean. It also caused some confusion at council, which had to break briefly so that councillors and staff could huddle to talk about what that all might mean and whether it was legal and doable.

I need to ask more questions about this, because it’s not clear to me what should happen with families who think that they might qualify for this new, undefined exemption — should they hope it will be allowed and hang on to their condos? or sell or rent now, in case it isn’t allowed. (Or be prepared to take the hit.)

The NPA wanted to delay everything until that question was settled. But the Vision councillors clearly wanted to send the message to the public and media that the tax is moving forward.

In the meantime, the meeting also gave us a glimpse of some of the people who feel as though the tax is unfair to them. It was supposed to apply to people who are truly investors, truly people hedging their investments with empty property in Vancouver. Not them. People who, through good planning and diligence, have managed to end up owning both a house (or two) outside Vancouver and a house or condo inside Vancouver. My story here has some of their comments.

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Is Vancouver becoming a city where people are ready to ditch the single-family home?

November 15th, 2016 · 10 Comments

That’s the argument that University of B.C. prof Nathanael Lauster is making in his just-published book, The Death and Life of the Single Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City.

Lauster (who walks the walk, living in a townhouse in Kits with his wife and two children) interviewed a few dozen Vancouverites about where they live and how they feel about it. His conclusion was that a significant number are adapting to a new kind of lifestyle here, one where they don’t live in a house with a yard but have instead traded that off for smaller space closer to urban amenities.

My interview with him and summary of the book is here. I’m sure many of you will agree with some parts, have some questions about others, as I did.

One of the things I noticed as I read his book was that house was deemed to be automatically equivalent to more space but far from urban activities, a form of housing that cut people off from their communities. Apartments, on the other hand, seemed to be equated to an automatic connection to more parks, shops, other people, and activities.

Yet there are plenty of apartments in the region that are parked in isolation near busy roads and without much around. And there are houses in neighbourhoods that are lively and filled with people walking around, meeting each other and connecting.

It seems to me that it’s more a failure of city planning than something to do with the actual structure of a building that defines whether single-family houses and apartments are isolated or connected, contributors to an integrated community or not.

But I appreciate Lauster’s approach, because the reality is that Vancouver is changing into a region that is different from other cities. Whenever census numbers come out that show more people are living in the suburbs than ever, certain public commentators leap on that with glee, thinking it proves that people really do prefer houses with yards and not urban living.

But the fact is that there are vastly more apartments, townhouses and rowhouses being built in the region than single-family houses, even in the remotest suburbs. The building starts for the region from January to October this year show 3,909 single-family starts and 13,415 “multiples.”

His emphasis in his research is understanding what we mean by home and how having a home structures our lives. From all the evidence, Vancouverites increasingly define home as not necessarily the house with yard.

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Airbnb continues efforts to play nice with Vancouver, removes some commercial listings

November 15th, 2016 · No Comments

I’m told city council won’t decide until January sometime what to do about regulating short-term rentals.

But, in the meantime, Airbnb is doing everything it can to sell itself to council and the general public. The numerous ads are still running (“It helps me pay the bills in this expensive city” “I would never have visited Vancouver if it weren’t for Airbnb.”) and the reports on the benefits just keep on coming. I’ve written about two of them already, the one about economic spin-offs for the city and the one about how much, rather how little, local residents are making from Airbnb.

The latest salvo was Airbnb’s voluntary move to take 130 listings off its site of hosts who appeared to be running commercial businesses.

This seems to be a strategy the company has used in cities where it is fighting to stay in the market, like New York and San Francisco — cities that are popular for Airbnb.

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Empty-homes tax to be debated next week, with some owners sure to say “But it wasn’t meant for people like me”

November 12th, 2016 · 3 Comments

It’s become the norm this fall to attend news conferences announcing upcoming policy issues at council. There was yet another one Wednesday, where Mayor Gregor Robertson and staff outlined the details of the city’s proposed new empty-homes tax. My story here and the city’s report here.

The interesting part now is going to be who from the public shows up to comment on this. I’m told that more than one owner of a secondary home in Vancouver has contacted the city, complaining that the tax is unfair because they were lifelong residents, now retired out of Vancouver, but with a small place here so they can continue to visit grandchildren. Not the stereotype of the vacant condo that has been so prevalent.

At any rate, it’s unlikely the tax will be stopped now. Vancouver is in the cross-hairs, one of the special club of global cities trying to figure out what to do as the price of housing as escalated far past local wages. No one knows quite what to do (except possibly Germany, which maintains pretty tight control on the housing market and ensures that rentals are rock-solid secure) and everyone is trying something of everything.

We will play our part in the experiments.

 

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UBC’s president a leader like Vancouver hasn’t seen before

November 7th, 2016 · No Comments

UBC is a huge presence in Vancouver: a university, a land developer, a research centre, a generator of start-up businesses, and a hotbed of intellectual ferment.

So it means a lot to the city what kind of leader is chosen.

The board’s decision to pick Santa Ono, then former president at the University of Cincinatti, was bold. I’ve interviewed a lot of CEOs, presidents, and executive directors. He’s unlike anyone I’ve profiled before, as I said to my editor at BCBusiness.

This is my portrait of this unusual man, who will be generating a lot of news, I’m sure.

 

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Bing Thom: He lives on for many people in this city every day

October 25th, 2016 · 3 Comments

I was in a classroom yesterday morning where yet another person, one of a series I’ve heard in the last week, talked about how important architect Bing Thom was to Vancouver.

Alden Habacon, UBC’s senior advisor on intercultural understanding, told the roomful of young people that Bing was the first person to say that Vancouver was essentially an Asian city, something that earned him a lot of negative backlash.

Others I’ve talked to in the past two weeks since the shocking news of Bing’s death came out have mentioned their own last encounters with him: a meeting where he was working with others to preserve and revitalize Chinatown or the lunch at his invitation because he wanted to talk about how academics could get involved in leading difficult conversations about Vancouver’s future.

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City looks at limits to density, mandatory social housing units for new Chinatown projects

October 24th, 2016 · 1 Comment

The efforts to “do something” about Vancouver’s historic Chinatown are never-ending. And it’s not just in Vancouver. Cities from Edmonton to San Francisco are also fretting about what is happening to their Chinatowns, either because they went into decline and are empty or, somewhat the reverse, they are being infiltrated by a host of non-Chinese enterprises who like the funkiness of old neighbourhoods.

The latest in Vancouver: City planners are holding workshops on the next stage of the Chinatown plan, with discussions about some changes that have emerged from the last Chinatown plan.

So, as I note in my story today, that means talks about reducing the density of new buildings (at the moment, there is only a height cap, not a density cap, for both Gastown and Chinatown), about possibly requiring a mandatory percentage of social/seniors’ housing in each building (no bargaining over the land lift), and some other changes intended to make new buildings fit into the Chinatown fabric better.

There will be more to come later. The Downtown Eastside plan talked about making efforts to keep local-serving businesses in place. When that discussion starts to get down to details, it will encompass Chinatown.

 

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