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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 · 2 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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Vancouver mayor (again): Do something, province, about “unregulated speculative global capital”

June 5th, 2016 · 5 Comments

Temperature just keeps going up in this city. The climate change of debate heat.

June 5th, 2016 (Vancouver, BC) – In the past week, we’ve heard a growing chorus of concerns about the economic risk posed by skyrocketing housing prices in Vancouver. Both the Bank of Nova Scotia and the National Bank of Canada urged the federal government to intervene in our housing market, and the OECD’s recent Global Economic Outlook warned that Vancouver’s economy is at risk due to rising household debt and surging housing prices.

It’s fitting that this was the same week as the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver released new data showing a 37% increase in year over year detached housing prices in Metro Vancouver. These trends are not sustainable and we need to be wide awake to the risks they pose to the stability of our economy, let alone the impact they have in pushing local residents, especially young people, families, and seniors, out of our neighbourhoods.

While adding more housing supply is crucial, it is not an affordability solution on its own. With unregulated, speculative global capital flowing into Metro Vancouver’s real estate, we are seeing housing prices completely disconnected from local incomes. First and foremost, housing needs to be for homes, not just treated as a commodity.

I urge the provincial and federal governments to heed the warnings from the financial sector and implement clear measures to rein in the excesses of Vancouver’s housing market. The CEO of Scotiabank spoke out in support of a luxury sales tax. The deputy chief economist at CIBC supports a ‘flipping’ tax as a measure to reduce speculation. I support both these tools and will continue to aggressively advocate for them to the federal and provincial governments as a way to help create a level playing field in the Vancouver housing market.

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The next dilemma in the commuting and transit challenge: Peak millennial?

May 20th, 2016 · 58 Comments

My favourite thing. I got to work for a month on a story about how commuting is changing (or not) in the Lower Mainland.

It was an eye-opener.

I heard a lot of stories about how people make their transit choices with factors I hadn’t thought about. Childcare is key. (Living close to a daycare where you got in or grandparents is like a life-or-death thing.)

Having a bus route that you relied on get altered means choosing a car over transit. Having a great transit option is the best part of some people’s days. And, for some, the chance to live in a place close to nature seemed to compensate for the most horrible commutes imaginable.

Then there are the big factors. Like what is going to happen to millennials as they abandon the craft breweries for marriage and kids.

And the nerd factors. Like, what do local planners look at to try to figure out how to tip a few more people in the region into taking transit.

I won’t rewrite all 4,000 words here. Instead, here’s the link to my BCBusiness story, which I guarantee will make you think twice about how commuting works in this city.



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Province, cities need to decide where their 50% transit funding will come from in next five weeks

May 20th, 2016 · 3 Comments

I will admit straight up that I don’t fully understand the negotiations going on between the province and cities over how they will come up with their $370 million to match the $370 million the feds are willing to put into transit locally from this year’s budget.

I had a long interview with Minister Peter Fassbender, where he said the province is doing everything it can to make sure B.C. and Vancouver get that money. But I didn’t hear any sign of him moving away from the province’s longtime position that it will only pay 33 per cent of any infrastructure project. And the cities are saying they won’t go past 10 per cent.

The minister and premier have been floating the idea that somehow the shortfall could be covered by getting money from a new development charge on projects that go up near transit lines. That might have been an excellent idea for Burnaby and Coquitlam, which are growing towers like mushrooms near the new Evergreen Line.

But mayors say the same kind of development is not going to appear along Broadway, which is already zoned for high density, or Surrey. There will be some medium-rise development along its light rail, but likely not towers.

My Globe story on this is here, but my guess is that there is much more vigorous shoving and pushing going on behind the scenes that what is on the surface.

I also hear from several sources that the province seems to be trying to say to the cities, Just come up with the money for Phase 1 (this year’s $370 million) and we’ll work out the details for Phase 2 later.

And the mayors are saying back, No, it needs to be settled all together and now.



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Social-action groups, residents push governments to take action on housing

May 18th, 2016 · 3 Comments

People who have worked on housing issues for decades haven’t seen this much fear and anxiety about housing in Vancouver ever. When it was just working-class people and the homeless who were having trouble, there was a kind of low-grade concern.

But now that middle-class people working two decent jobs feel like they’ve been priced out of everything except condos in Vancouver and even Burnaby and North Van,the desire to change the system is palpable.

That has various individuals and groups jumping in to make recommend actions. We heard from the UBC and SFU professors a few months ago. Now the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has come in with its recommendations (much broader than just a vacancy tax), a group has formed to pressure all political parties on housing in the lead-up to next year’s provincial election, and two individuals have started petitions asking the federal government to take action (links here and here).

I’m waiting to see, myself, how this all coalesces. The Code Red/Generation Squeeze group isn’t making any specific policy recommendations yet, so as not to get people dissipating their energy on whether this technical detail or that one is the best strategy. Groups like CCPA are making big, broad recommendations that are actually more focused on getting governments to put money into lower-cost housing than on stopping foreign investment. And the resident petitions are focused exclusively on the foreign-investment issue. (One even suggests getting rid of the provision that allows Canadians to register as non-residents and not pay taxes — something that won’t please Canadians who have decamped to Mexico and Thailand to avoid taxes until they need to come back for healthcare.)

My Globe story here.

But to be effective, all these groups will need to sort out a specific change they want, otherwise governments will just allow them to dither amongst themselves. I await.


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Developers put their efforts into most urban, most transit-oriented, most expensive ‘hoods

May 13th, 2016 · 5 Comments

No wonder Vancouver is always in an uproar about some development or another. There’s just so much of it in the city, as I was made aware when someone pointed me to the statistics on housing starts in the region.

Vancouver, in spite of being an almost built-out city and with very little greenfield (never built on) land available, has the most residential construction going on of any municipality, and by a long shot. So far this year, 3,500 units under construction in the city, compared to 1,400 in Burnaby, 900 in Surrey.

That’s because development is Vancouver is so much more certain — for sure, everything will get sold and, for sure, it will be for a good price. Which is what is making the city eternally attractive.

My story in the Globe on all this here. The CMHC report here. And an invaluable source for all things housing, the Metro Vancouver Housing Data Book, here.

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A first for Vancouver: City issues a heritage inspection order for historic house

May 13th, 2016 · No Comments

Huh, never seen this before. The city is really being pushed into doing something. I’ll be curious to see what happens next.

May 13, 2016

Heritage Inspection Order issued for 1550 West 29th Avenue

The City of Vancouver Director of Planning has ordered a heritage inspection of the property located at 1550 West 29th Avenue, for the purposes of assessing the heritage value and heritage character of the property, and to help determine whether it merits heritage conservation.

The action was taken in order to evaluate the home’s potential historic significance: this Tudor-style home built in 1922 was the first Western Canadian house used as a show home to demonstrate the use of modern electricity in homes. This is the first time a Heritage Inspection has been ordered by the City, as a new tool enabled by the Heritage Procedure By-law approved by Council in September 2015.

“We heard very clearly from the public their concerns regarding the potential loss of the historic ‘Electric House,'” says Mayor Gregor Robertson. “Granting temporary heritage protection to this property is an important first step that gives the City time to properly assess its heritage value and character, and I look forward to staff reporting back later this month on next steps.”

This order is being issued pursuant to section 7.1(c) of the Heritage Procedure By-law, No. 11350 and section 583 of the Vancouver Charter and will remain in effect for no more than 30 days.
While the property is subject to this order, it is also subject to temporary heritage protection afforded by section 591 of the Vancouver Charter, which means that a person must not:

(a) alter the exterior of a building;

(b) make a structural change to a building;

(c) move a building;

(d) alter, move or take an action that would damage a fixture or feature identified in the authorizing resolution, order or by-law for the temporary protection; or

(e) alter, excavate or build on the property

unless this is done pursuant to heritage alteration permit.

Staff and heritage consultants will undertake a heritage inspection and the results will be presented to City Council in a public report on May 31, 2016 at City Hall.


The house at 1550 West 29th Avenue is not listed on the Vancouver Heritage Register; however, it is one of the sites nominated as part of the Heritage Register upgrade currently underway as part of the Heritage Action Plan. It was built in 1922 and was designed by architects Townley and Matheson who also designed Vancouver City Hall. The house was built as a show home by the Electrical Services League of BC to demonstrate to the public the “convenience from a house being properly and adequately wired for electricity.”
The Heritage Action Plan (approved By Council in December 2013), includes actions related to updating the City’s Heritage Conservation Program, the Vancouver Heritage Register and completing the character home zoning review. Consultants and staff are reviewing options to encourage heritage and character home retention and will begin public consultation next month and continue through fall 2016.


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