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The sharing-the-pain economy: The Uber and Airbnb ground war in cities

August 12th, 2015 · 68 Comments

I’m currently staying at an Airbnb-type apartment in the Mission district in San Francisco, ground zero (as I’ve discovered since I booked it) of current North American angst over the transformation of former working-class neighbourhoods into tourist parks. In June, I stayed in an Airbnb in Marais, another hot district, where one disgruntled resident had hung a banner outside his apartment: “Non au resto-toit.”

Do I feel guilty? Somewhat, although I try to allay it by not staying at places that appear to be run by agencies, only at real apartments where the owners are out of town temporarily. (Though I sometimes misjudge.)

I’m not a regular Über user. I did go down and experiment with it in Seattle for the purposes of the story I’m linking to here, but have been unsuccessful in getting anyone to pick me up here in San Francisco. I see the cars swarming around on the map, but they never stop for me. Perhaps, like Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, I’ve achieved a bad rating (maybe my article helped with that?) or maybe they just didn’t like the places I was going.

In spite of that, I am a part of this confused new alleged sharing economy, which is not the old tool libraries or communal farms of old, but more about monetizing the assets that middle-class people have and want to maintain, using the magic of a technology broker.

Intellectually, I recognize the problems. But as a traveller, I’m addicted to the way home-sharing agencies allow me to experience travel a different way. (And that all started before Airbnb. I began, as did so many people, with straight-up home exchanges through HomeLink 20 years ago. I moved on to renting apartments through all the little rental agencies that proliferated before Airbnb stomped onto the scene. Then it was VRBO. And now Airbnb, which I have come to like because the listings are quirkier and more often in real homes, not agency-furnished “vacation rentals.”)

A lot of us are in that boat. So are city governments, which are dealing with residents and businesses who love and hate Airbnb, love and hate Uber.

I got a chance to look at the whole issue in depth (thank you Matt O’Grady at BCBusiness for this great assignment), although it was a bit crazy-making as new information and new developments kept popping up every day. (Like Karen Sawatzky’s great initial study on Airbnb in Vancouver.)

Long after I’d filed my piece, I was heading for the airport in Paris, where my taxi driver told me he’d just been part of the strike over Uber the last four days. “L’economie sauvage,” he said with disgust, along with a lot of other explanations about why Uber was so bad for everyone. (The company withdrew from the Paris market shortly thereafter.) And I could see why he felt so strongly. Clearly the taxi business had done well by him. He talked about taking his family on ski trips in the Alps, to a resort in Valencia for the summer — his job was helping support a pretty middle-class life.

This is an evolving story. I keep waiting for the new chapters. In the meantime, here is where we were at in the summer of 2015.



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Vancouver looking for a new chief planner again after only three years

August 3rd, 2015 · 25 Comments

This is a week old but I was in an internet challenged zone after I filed my story, so here it is: The Brian Jackson retirement/resignation, which I know many in this group will have thoughts on, especially about his remarks that ex-city staff were extraordinarily interventionist as they lobbied against various decisions of his department.

I should note that one group who was coming to have some respect for his work was developers, after he lobbied to have the community amenity contributions extracted by the city for rezonings set to a standardized level, at least along Cambie, so that property buyers (and sellers) would have some idea in advance of how much of the land lift they’d have to hand over to the city.

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Reading the smoke signals: The viaducts will be coming down

July 23rd, 2015 · 125 Comments

There’s been no official announcement or news release or staff report yet, but it looks as though the city is headed to a vote on taking the viaducts down, with planners and engineers recommending it, after having gone out and dug up all the new information council asked for two years ago.

As my story in the Globe says, community and business groups are hearing the summary of this new information from city staff, which all appears to be buttressing the argument that the viaducts should come down (would cost $50/60 million to make seismically sound, new commuter route connecting Expo Boulevard to a new Georgia Street extension would only add a few minutes in commuter time, etc etc).

I’m attaching here, besides the story, the PowerPoint that is being used at the community group talks. Not a lot of detail, but it does add a few interesting new bits and bobs of information.

Vancouver’s Viaducts JWG Jun22 Planning PDF



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Metro Vancouver moves to Stage 3 water restrictions: What creative strategies are you using to save water?

July 21st, 2015 · 132 Comments

I worked on commercial fishing boats for six seasons, in my 20s, where water was a precious thing.

We sometimes went out for two or more weeks, knowing we had to survive on the water in the tank. We turned off the tap when brushing our teeth, except for the brief wetting between scrubs, re-used our cooking water in multiple ways, and were just generally miserly about washing. (Yes, it could get as bad as you’re imagining.)

With Metro going to Stage 3 restrictions, I’m hoping everyone is taking these approaches. I’ve heard of some creative ones the last couple of days, like Lindsay Brown rigging up a system to re-use her bathwater. (I’m trying to figure out how to do that from my very high second-floor bathroom, which would entail running a hose over the back porch roof. Hmm.)

Anything wonderful you all have come up with?

You may also use this site to post addresses of people still watering their lawns, by the way, as part of the effort.


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The post-plebiscite transit mess: Surrey, Vancouver look to self-financing, mayors’ council on verge of blowing up

July 16th, 2015 · 28 Comments

In the aftermath of the resounding no in the transit plebiscite, yes, it’s a mess out there.

Mayors are looking at self-financing their big projects in Surrey and Vancouver. (And even Delta is considering using its own money to run some needed buses.) Senior execs are being fired at TransLink, and there are calls for even more change. And the future of the mayors’ council is up in the air.

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall in the conversation among Transportation Minister Todd Stone, Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, and Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson today.

Here are the details of all the Translink/transit-related statements and events in the last week.

Surrey mayor mulls taking back gas taxes to pay for light rail here.

Mayors mull whether and when to quit TransLink; North Vancouver’s Darrell Mussatto is done already. Here

Senior execs get toasted and observers say more needs to happen than just that. Here.

And, last but not least, Vancouver mayor talks about the options city has for paying its share of the $3-billion Broadway line here.

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Are you now, or have you ever been, an economist?

July 10th, 2015 · 40 Comments

A short, funny, thoughtful read here.

The “but you’re not an economist” line gets thrown around a lot. Its purpose is simple: discredit the target and imply that their views should be ignored.

And a typical dictionary definition here.



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What do other Australian academics think of the role of foreign investment in crazy-high real-estate prices?

July 9th, 2015 · 2 Comments

I quoted two Australian academics on the topic in my May story. But are these two out of step with everyone else, renegades who don’t understand the stats?

There are, of course, many media stories and various experts saying foreign investment is having a huge impact.

But there are also many, like Philip Soos and Dallas Rogers, who I quoted, weighing in on other side. Here is what a few  other academics and housing/economics commentators have to say:

Stephen Kirchner: Research Fellow, Center for Independent Research: Foreign investors are not to blame for rising house prices. The real culprits are the taxing and regulating activities of Australian governments that raise the supply price of new housing.

Saul Eslake, chief economist from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said negative gearing was contributing to the inflation of property prices to the point where Australians could find themselves in a “bubble situation.”

Kate Shaw, Future Fellow at University of Melbourne.

It is true that the main culprits for housing prices in Australia are taxation and regulation regimes, as argued by Stephen Kirchner last week. But this is more because of their impact on demand than supply.

Generous incentives including negative gearing and concessions on capital gains tax encourage investment in housing, to the extent that around one in seven Australian taxpayers now owns one or more investment properties.

As there is no limit to how many properties local investors can negatively gear, and with share markets volatile, investment properties are looking increasingly attractive. Australia already has one of the highest levels of household debt in the OECD due to borrowings for property purchases, and this is growing fast.

Overseas investors are adding to that demand. The Foreign Investment Review Board enables global investors to buy new housing in Australia. Along with Canada, Australia has emerged from the 2008 global financial crisis as a stable economy and good investment prospect, with one of the strongest property markets in the world.

Seven Things Keeping Property Prices High (and Foreign Investment Isn’t One of Them):


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What kind of housing should young families in Vancouver be able to get?

July 9th, 2015 · 62 Comments

What is a reasonable price for a young family to have to pay in this city for housing?

It’s a topic that frequently gets muddled in the news, as the rising price of west-side houses sets off a dynamite trail of news stories about how young families are being forced out of the city.

But, unless that young family is the doctor-dentist of #EricandIlsa fame, trying to survive on their paltry $300,000 a year (or was it a month?), that’s not the real issue.

The real issue is what kind of income do young couples/families typically have and what is a not-outrageous expectation they should have about the kind of housing they should get in this city.

I know a fair number of late-20s, early-30s couples these days who do want to stay in the city. They are, no, not service workers. They work at mid-range professional jobs and, between the two of them, earn somewhere in the $95,000- to $120,000-a-year range. (Sorry, I realize lots of singles out there and dual-income couples making less, and that is an even greater problem, one that’s been going on for longer, but I’m focusing on a particular group that has been getting a lot of headlines lately: the solidly middle-class, middle-income young couple.)

According to the handy Canada mortgage calculator website, they could get a $600,000 mortgage for 25 years at 3 per cent for 25 years and pay around $2,800 a month. That’s a little more than a third at the lower end, less than a third at the upper — the usual marker of what’s affordable.

So say they somehow had $50,000 saved for a mortgage, they could get something in the range of $650,000.

I know that the new fake-heritage duplexes in my ‘hood are going for $850,000 or so — so that’s out of range. But, realistically, those places have a lot more space than a young family absolutely needs. The two next to me are 1,800 square feet apiece, which is more than what we live in.

But what should they be able to have? I think we all agree that bringing up a family in too-small a space is more than most people can handle (Kirk and his whole extraordinary family aside). It’s not entitlement to expect to be able to find a place to live on a reasonably middle-class income in this city that isn’t a tiny box.

That’s going to be an important question soon. Vancouver is looking at how to create some affordable home-ownership. But the success of the plan is going to depend partly on what exactly they are able to provide for young families and at what cost.

It’s not going to be a full four-bedroom home on a single-family lot, not any time in the near future. People who want that are going to have to go to Port Coquitlam and Port Moody (which I hear from some realtors they are doing) or further.

What should they be able to expect? I await your ideas.




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Our nasty housing debate and the fight over who is an expert

July 8th, 2015 · 30 Comments

This is going to be a longer post than my usual, so my excuses in advance, but I feel it’s important to address in detail a recent South China Morning Post item that impugns the credibility of someone I quoted and is also indicative of an ugly and unproductive debate that is happening in Vancouver.

As some of you may recall, I wrote a story May 9 that dipped into the debate on housing happening in Australia. In it, I quoted a young academic named Philip Soos, from Deakin University in Melbourne, and Dallas Rogers, an urban-housing policy professor at the University of Western Sydney. (Rogers’ bio is here, by the way, if anyone wants to check into whether he is credible.)

Here was the story I wrote.

Soos, who has studied extensively and written about housing bubbles in Australia, was later written about or referred to in two media stories and a speech by Bob Rennie at the UDI.

Ian Young, a local columnist for the SCMP, wrote a column this week that casts a lot of doubt on Soos’s credentials, calling him no more than “a student, along with more than 45,000 others” at Deakin University and with no qualifications in economics, only an undergrad degree in IT and an MBA. The deck of the story says that Soos is “an IT grad and masters student passing off the university’s address as his personal contact.”

The article also casts doubt on the World Economics Association, where Soos and a co-author recently had an online book published about the history of Australian housing bubbles.


There are a couple of unfortunate things about this story, which is here.

One is that Young doesn’t make any effort to deal with the content of what Soos (and, actually, Rogers too) said. Does he think Soos is incorrect to say that housing prices started to rise in a bubble-like fashion in the 1990s, long before Chinese investment appeared in a significant way? Does he think Soos is wrong about the real-estate industry perpetuating a cycle of domestic-investor speculation? Does he think his numbers are inaccurate on the level of foreign investment? That’s never addressed.  As I said in my note to Young when he emailed me yesterday with his questions, he’s brought a sharp new voice and perspective to Vancouver and these issues, thanks to his connections to Hong Kong, among other things. So it would have been good to get his take on the actual content and research.

Second, he paints a  less than full picture of Soos’s work in Australia and the role of the World Economics Association.

As I wrote to Young, I came across Soos, I believe, through Google Scholar, which I frequently search looking for research papers on foreign investment in residential real estate and its impacts. That kind of research is hard to find, as some of you may know. It seems to be that it’s mainly younger academics trying to puzzle it out, arriving at contradictory conclusions as they study it. (Interestingly, the role of foreign investment in Shanghai is a hot topic there.)

That particular week, I’d heard UBC professor David Ley talk about the efforts Australia was making to track and limit Australian investment. I’ve written about that before in a Vancouver magazine article (the link is here). Since another reporter was covering Ley’s talk, I looked around for people in Australia to talk about what is happening there.

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We aren’t moving into the bears’ habitat. They’re moving into ours. So are the coyotes and everything else.

July 7th, 2015 · 2 Comments

I was inspired to write this story because of my own dealings with the critter invasion.

Like Sheila and Carol in this story, I feel like life has become a non-stop low-level battle against wildlife. I’ve had much of it, though not (I’ve discovered thankfully) rats eating my car wires. But rats elsewhere (one strolled into the house last summer when we had the doors open all day), raccoons (a family that produces a litter of four every year, who eat all my cherries), squirrels (who ate through the plaster of my bathroom ceiling, causing chunks to fall on our heads), skunks, silverfish, mice, bedbugs twice (two words only: diatomeceous earth), clothes moths forever, ants.

It wasn’t like this when I grew up in North Van. I don’t remember ever seeing a mouse.

I went to find out what happened, checking in with some researchers in Chicago, Washington, London, and here. This is what they said.

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