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Impact of out-of-town investors: yes, increases prices; increases them more when supply restricted

November 8th, 2017 · 4 Comments

If you want to be guaranteed loads of clicks in this town, write about how everyone is being driven out by high real-estate prices (caused by heartless politicians, shadowy foreign investors, the real-estate cartel, etc etc) and/or about a study that tries to bring real data to the anecdotes.

So this recent study from UBC got loads of attention all around, though some didn’t like the author’s comments (made separately from the study) that the solution was supply first, and then, a poor second, restricting demand.

The study noted that, yes, out-of-town investors (whether from Chilliwack or Chengdu) who buy properties and leave them empty as second homes or investments do drive up prices. Some people were scornful that it took an academic study to come to this conclusion, but the point was not, do they or don’t they. It was: If they do, by how much.

This quantified the increase, noting that it is greater in Vancouver, where there is more of a supply problem, than in New York, where much more supply was already available and more is being added all the time.

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The archive of by-election coverage

November 8th, 2017 · 1 Comment

Catching up on posting some older stories here. First up: the stories before and after the Oct. 14 by-election, which provided a story with endless interpretation possibilities (Vision dead; no, progressive vote on the rise; no, NPA on the rise; no, people-power politics on the rise; coalitions the politics of the future; yada yada).

First up was the story that focused a bit on how many people working the campaigns were reporting a complete lack of interest or knowledge on the part of voters. That worry turned out to be justified. Just under 11 per cent of people voted. I talked to many knowledgeable, politically engaged people afterwards who completely forgot to vote on the Saturday, saying it had just slipped their minds because there was so little coverage and/or because they never received any kind of reminder from the city in the mail.

Then there was afterwards, with the endlessly fascinating results, as the NPA’s Hector Bremner won the council seat but progressive parties took most of the seats on school board. That set off a frenzy of speculation (two examples here and here) that Vision was dead, a trope that was repeated a couple of weeks later when Vision Councillor Andrea Reimer announced she wouldn’t be running again — an announcement that I understand some tried to get her to delay making because of the damage it would do coming so close after the by-election loss.

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My tour of the underground — underground Chinese restaurants, that is

October 10th, 2017 · 3 Comments

One of the great pleasures of my life is connecting with a wide variety of students as a journalism teacher at the University of B.C. and Langara College.

International students, in particular, bring a different eye and an ability to connect with communities here that many of locals aren’t always capable of.

My students at UBC have come up with a number of interesting stories over the years that have opened my eyes to lives in sub-communities of Vancouver that I have known little about.

One story that one of my students came to me with last year was about underground Chinese restaurants. She had discovered that many of her fellow international students from China were getting their home-cooking fix from impromptu take-out restaurants around the city. The operation she patronized was being run by a couple of Chinese parents who were visiting their daughter, a student, long-term and who had decided to keep themselves busy by turning her kitchen into a take-out operation.

Yes, I know, illegal. Unlicenced. Just like the underground restaurant I used to go to in a bungalow off Commercial Drive, where an aspiring young chef served eight-course meals to select groups of foodies.

Anyway, my former student, Si Chen, tracked down information for me on how many of these there were in the region, what kinds of food, and how to get in touch. And, since my Mandarin is limited to counting to 10 and a few stray words like “central” and “people,” she ordered for me from one particular operation, whose mother/daughter team I got to meet.

Here is my little story that appeared recently in Vancouver magazine about my foray into this little-known (to us white people, anyway) world.



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Vancouver, usually at forefront of hipster trends, finally catches up with outdoor ping-pong

October 10th, 2017 · No Comments

A friend who visited Montreal recently commented on the number of outdoor ping-pong tables there when he came back. Out of idle curiosity, I asked on Twitter if there were any in the Lower Mainland.

The answers I got made me realize that, yes, there were some scattered around but, more fun, there seemed to be a lot more on the way.

Researching this (which included driving around to various new parks and tables) made me realize how much parks are changing — not just big empty fields with a tennis court on one side and a slide on the other. The Slidey-Slide Park next to the roller coaster is filled with different kinds of activities. (Also made me realize a lot of other cities hopped on the outdoor ping-pong thing quite a while ago.)

In the meantime, here’s the story I wrote for the Globe on this little urban trend.

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City puts on a big push to demo new programs for lower-cost housing: rentals geared to income, infills

July 25th, 2017 · 1 Comment

The Vision council is using the slow summer months to push out lots of news on its planned “housing reset” — new policy aimed at trying to shape supply in the city more than it has in the past to create lower-cost housing. The target market, planners and politicians keep saying, is the households with incomes of $30,000 to $80,000.

First off earlier last week was the expected policy on allowing infills (backyard houses that will be bigger than laneways) behind pre-1940s houses, a measure intended to both encourage owners to retain existing houses and add new stock. As I tweeted the day of, this housing, which the city will allow owners to stratify and sell (contrary to laneways), is probably a good option for a certain group of households in Vancouver, say the $80,000 to $120,000 group, but hard to see what it does for the target market of the housing policy.

Sunday, the city unrolled a new initiative — one that aims to figure out a mechanism to require or incentivize developers to have 20- to 25-per-cent of the rentals in a rental building go for rates lower than the market, i.e. geared to the incomes of the 30-to-80 group.

It’s a piece of policy that’s been surprisingly slow in coming. I asked the mayor (twice) why it hadn’t arrived sooner. His answers are in the story.

It’s true that Vancouver — indeed, all Canadian cities — are hampered compared to American cities in being able to get this kind of housing. That’s because the U.S. federal government has, for decades, offered investors tax credits if they invest in low-income housing, where a certain percentage of units in a project have to be rented out at rents affordable to those making below the median income in a city. As well, in Washington, the state government has empowered cities to offer a property-tax abatement to developers with those kinds of projects. I did a story on that a while ago.

So it will be interesting to see what the city can do with its limited array of policy tools here to try to copy that.

Vancouver could lead the way on this. But it won’t be for a while. Given that it can take up to five years to get a rental project approved, I wouldn’t expect to see anyone break ground on this kind of new project until well after next year’s civic election.

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A hidden wrinkle that will make the group decision to sell your condo building even harder

July 19th, 2017 · 3 Comments

There are about 70 groups of residents in the Lower Mainland at present thinking about selling their buildings to developers. That process is already stressful enough. I’m told that, no matter what price sellers get, they are always convinced the developer is somehow ripping them off and making a huge profit.

Then there are the concerns that people in their buildings, or on their strata councils, might be making side deals with developers.

Now, to top that off, it turns out that the share that each person gets is likely going to be based on some strange formula that no one paid any attention to until now. Proceeds don’t get divided up according to assessed value, which most people expect.

Here’s my complicated story on this from the Globe.

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Expect a lot of jockeying among candidates to be the preferred “anti-Vision” vote in by-election

July 12th, 2017 · No Comments

So, thanks to the resignation of Geoff Meggs from council, as he goes off to be chief of staff for John Horgan in the new NDP government, there will be a by-election sometime in mid-October.

Even though whoever wins won’t make a difference to the balance of power on council — Vision will still have six votes — this seat is being seen as a huge plum worth fighting for. That’s because the winner will likely symbolize the choice of Vancouverites for their preferred option when it comes to providing an alternative voice on council.

For the NPA, it looks like a potential chance to elect one of their number who came very close to winning in the 2014 election. Geoff Meggs squeaked into 10th spot with 56,800 votes. Right after him were the NPA’s Greg Baker with 55,700, Ken Low with 54, 970, Suzanne Scott with 54,700, and Rob McDowell, with almost 54,000. (Ian Robertston with 56,400 is out of the running. He’s moved to Victoria and isn’t coming back.) As I mentioned in a tweet, NPA mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe might want to consider a run to get some council experience on his books before the big civic election in 2018. (Then again, it’s a risk. If he doesn’t win, damages his efforts to run for mayor again.)

The Green’s Pete Fry is an obvious contender and, as I noted in my story for the Globe, he’s seriously considering that run. He got 46,500, but might reasonably expect to do better, proportionally, against an NPA candidate.

The highest-ranking COPE candidate was Tim Louis with 31,000. One City, the party that was formed by former COPE people who couldn’t stomach the direction it was going under Tim Louis, ran one candidate, RJ Aquino, who got 30,000 votes.

Does Vision even have a chance? Well, since by-elections often function as mechanisms for people to vent all their frustrations against a current regime, it’s not high. Even Patti Bacchus, the former Vision school board chair, who is considering running, says it will be a tough fight.

She might be Vision’s best chance, with her huge name recognition (she got 73,000 votes, more than most councillors and as much as NPA mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe) and her dogged criticism of Christy Clark and the Liberals, which earned her lots of cred on the left. Whoever runs for Vision is going to have to present themselves as something of an outsider — not clouded by votes for controversial development projects and with a persona that brings a fresh perspective.

We’ll know later who the final choices are but, whoever they are, it is going to be one interesting race.




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Carol Ruby Davis: A heartbreaking death, 30 years ago now

July 6th, 2017 · 2 Comments

Thirty years ago, I was a rookie reporter at the Vancouver Sun. I got sent out to cover the funeral of a sex-trade worker — something we actually did back in those days when we covered so much more in the city. It was a searing experience for me. I’ve never forgotten it or the way Carol’s family allowed me to enter their lives briefly. In Carol’s honour, here it is again.

Carol Ruby Davis will go home today to Masset, the town in the Queen Charlotte Islands where she lived as a little girl, so her people can bury her with traditional Haida ceremony.

The 29-year-old, whose stabbed body was found last weekend dumped in bushes in Burnaby, will have old friends of the family sit beside her white-and-pink coffin all through Saturday night, and more than 1,000 band members will come to pay their last respects.

Carol’s great-uncle, band chief Ernest Yeltatzie, will make a speech in her memory, as will many other people from the band who knew her.

To Vancouver police, Carol Davis was a “known prostitute and drug user.”

To her large family and many friends, Carol was a mother who loved to spoil her children, someone who could laugh so hard she’d just about cry, and a daughter and sister who defended and gave to her family generously.

She made Indian button blankets that have been displayed at the Indian Centre, knocked the glasses off a man who hit her sister in a bar and bought her son B.J. hundreds of dollars worth of presents for his 12th birthday this April.

“She was always proud of being a Haida, too. She knew she came from an important heritage,” said her sister Laurie, standing in front of the portraits of her grandfather, Chief Joe Weir, that hang on her living-room wall.

Everyone in the family knew Carol had been doing drugs since she was 15 – “heroin, coke, anything, if she was desperate” – and that she had worked the streets for years.

“We all accepted her the way she was. Whoever did this to her robbed us of her. I just hope they get the person who did it,” said Laurie, who arranged for Carol’s Vancouver memorial service Thursday.

Carol’s killer has not been found. She is the fourth Vancouver prostitute killed in the past two years, and a number of others have been attacked.

Carol’s street friends said they hadn’t seen her for about two weeks before her body was found. They came to her memorial service, bringing red and yellow roses that they placed in front of her portrait, stopping before it to give the smiling face one last caress or gentle kiss.

Carol’s mother, Ginger Donovan, said Carol often used to drop by to see her where she lived at a downtown hotel.

“She used to have clothes in my room and would come up and change,” said her mother, as she and her three other daughters sat on the steps of Laurie’s house Thursday evening after the service, watching the nieces and nephews play in the front yard while they remembered Carol’s life.

Donovan moved down to Vancouver from Masset when Carol was 8, with part of her family of three sons and four daughters. Carol went to Nightingale elementary, but wasn’t too interested in school.

At 15, she was living with a man and later had her first baby, B.J.

Carol’s mother took care of B.J., born with cerebral palsy, and then Carol gave her sister, Laurie, custody “because she knew she wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Eight years later, after reuniting with B.J.’s father, Carol had a baby girl, Crystal, who now lives with her father in Prince Rupert.

After that, she broke up with her common-law husband and turned to the streets.

“She really wanted to settle down, but then she got into the street life, just too deep, too far to get out,” said her sister, Nettie. “She was a little jealous of me because I went straight and settled down with a boyfriend.”

She didn’t settle down. The last time Laurie saw her was April 25, on B.J.’s birthday, when Carol had him for four days and took him all over town, buying him a $240 leather jacket and a Walkman.

B.J. came back saying, as he always did after outings with his mother, that he had “the best mum ever.”

In the Thursday twilight, as other relatives ate and drank in the living room, B.J. tossed a ball into the air while his aunts and grandmother talked.

“Watch out, B.J.,” one said. “If you throw it too high, God will catch it and you’ll never see it again.”


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Billionaire Singapore owner of Plaza of Nations property promises housing for locals, art museum, a green development

June 27th, 2017 · No Comments

There’s going to be a lot of conversation in the next year (and more) about Northeast False Creek, the last big piece of False Creek waterfront that’s going to be developed.

Every piece of the creek’s development has generated debate, starting in the 1970s when the TEAM council of the day decided to convert former industrial land into family housing — a proposition that many thought was dubious and that would create an “instant slum.”

Vancouverites have debated the look, cost, ownership, marketing, and usefulness for city residents of each new development: Concord Pacific lands on the north side in the ’90s, Olympic Village on the south side in the ’00s, and now this.

I did a story a few weeks ago about the overall plan for Northeast False Creek. This recent story, about the specific plans for the Canadian Metropolitan Properties land around Plaza of Nations, came about because Oei Hong Leong was in town and willing to talk to media.

I’m documenting the utopian ideas everyone is bringing forth so that we have a record of what was planned originally. Then we can compare, at some later date, with what actually ends up being built.

I did ask Mr. Oei about any plans to market the 1,400 units planned for the area overseas. I see that Ian Young posted a question on Twitter over the weekend about his answer on that.

Hey Frances, when you say he won’t be selling overseas, does this mean he won’t allow condos to be bought overseas?
1 reply 3 retweets 9 likes

I asked him only about marketing overseas, since that was the topic du jour at the time I interviewed him. Later in the week, the evolving Twitter snowball on this issue started parsing this issue into more complexities. One is the whole murky issue about whether developers are ACTUALLY marketing their units overseas, whether they’re getting offshore realtors to sell some of their units, or whether it’s a case that offshore realtors are just screenshotting pictures of a development and putting out advertising that claims they are selling units in the project.

So, to answer the question, no, I didn’t start interrogating him about all the ways in which units in his project might be sold overseas, largely because I was not clued in to this at the time of the interview.

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Owners of second homes, empty condos consider renting, lying, selling, and more as vacancy tax looms

June 27th, 2017 · 1 Comment

Vancouver’s impending empty-homes tax — the first in the country — is prompting a lot of angst as owners facing bills of $4,000 to $100,000 a year decide what to do.

You urban-life keeners will remember that most of the units identified as empty are condos. The city’s electrical study identified 10,800 homes in the city where there was no sign of use for 12 straight months. Of those, 9,750 were identified as condos.

The less-well-defined census statistic on “not occupied by the usual resident” identified about 25,000 homes in that category. Previous studies have shown that condo-dense areas of the city, like Coal Harbour, had a lot of units in this category.

So I started phoning around to realtors dealing with condos in this area to find out what is happening. Some of those angry about the tax have claimed that people they know are selling, so I wanted to find out if that was true. (BTW, I mistakenly didn’t include it in my story but, of course, the city is exempting owners from the tax if their strata doesn’t allow rentals.)

But the realtors I talked to (granted, not a scientific sample) said they saw no sign of that. Instead, some are choosing to rent. Some are still protesting, hoping to get the rules changed — that group seems to consist entirely of people who use their condos regularly for visits to Vancouver to see family or enjoy the city or go to medical appointments. As a few sources told me, some people are planning to simply lie outright. Others are planning to lie creatively, i.e. by pretending to rent out to someone while continuing to use the condo the same way as before.

I was surprised to hear that some owners of high-end condos are, in fact, being spurred by the tax to rent out their units. Realtor Holly Wood, also a property manager, told me that’s happening with a number of units she’s dealt with. The picture in my Globe story shows off a nearly 2,000-foot-apartment on Cordova facing Coal Harbour that’s going for $8,400 a month. I’m not quite sure how this is going to solve the city’s affordable-housing problem, but it seems to be providing more rental options for high rollers.

(By the way, I couldn’t check the ownership of the property on Sunday, when I wrote the story, because BC Assessment information isn’t available on the weekend. But I checked today. The owner is someone whose address is listed as Cyprus and whose family name is of eastern European origin, according to the interwebs.)

This story is just going to keep going, with all kinds of outcomes that weren’t anticipated. Your continuing calls with new information about what’s going on much appreciated.

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