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How B.C. has transformed the thrifty into millionaires and made millennials feel poor

June 19th, 2017 · 8 Comments

I got asked earlier this year by Nick Rockel, the editor of BCBusiness, to write a story based a cascade of financial data about Canadians that Environics Analytics had gathered. Since I’m obsessed with this general topic — how we spend money in ways that we don’t acknowledge, the impact that money and possessions (or lack thereof) have on our sense of well-being, behavioural economics — I jumped at it.

One of the factoids that I noticed almost immediately was that millennials in B.C., Vancouver especially, have more money socked away in investments than millennials in any other part of the country, by a significant margin.

It didn’t take much to figure out why. It’s because they haven’t been able to put it into real estate, since that feels out of reach for many of them — even those whose household incomes are very healthy six figures.

I put out a call on Twitter asking if anyone wanted to talk about this, not expecting much. My experience in journalism has been that people don’t like talking about their financial lives, either because they’re embarrassed at how they spend or they just think it’s a private matter.

But, boy, was this different. I got so many calls and emails from frustrated and enraged millennials on this issue that it was like standing in a windstorm. My story aside, any politician who remains deaf to this level of anger is in trouble.

Here’s the story I wrote as a result. Thanks again to all who shared their stories.



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The last big downtown waterfront area about to be developed — and it will be the most complicated of all

June 2nd, 2017 · 3 Comments

If you think the current Chinatown debates are heated, wait until things really get going with Northeast False Creek.

The city is going to present the proposed ideas so far in a big fair/demo on June 10, with material from all of the many participants involved (park board, stewardship community work on the Hogan’s Alley project/black community, Concord Pacific, engineering with new road plan, Canadian Metropolitan Properties, etc.).

I got an advance look at the ideas and plans so far in my story here. Here’s information about the planned block party to introduce everything June 10 here.

There is already some criticism, with one Hogan’s Alley advocate saying that what the black community is getting from all this is token stuff.

I’m sure the people currently in an uproar over development in Chinatown will be weighing in (though I was talking to Doris Chow of Youth Collaborative for Chinatown yesterday, who is also on a stewardship committee, and she sounded excited about some of the possibilities in the new parks and blocks planned for new Chinatown).

Plans for buildings are preliminary yet — they’re more concepts (terracing, horizontal lines along the park edge, etc.) and massing than actual designs yet.

Lots more to come.


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How much development in past — and future — for Chinatown

May 24th, 2017 · 4 Comments

A knowledgeable person helpfully compiled this list of past projects and possible future ones in Chinatown, so you can get a sense of the change in the area.

The unit counts might be off a bit here and there, but all those projects that have been completed, are under construction or have been actually submitted (so the Bonnis proposal at Union and Main doesn’t count) add up to around 950 units in about a decade. Of those, about 680 are condo and 270 are rental, almost all market rental.


129 Keefer, 29 condos over retail, James Schouw, not a rezoning. To DP board, and for sale as if approved
137 Keefer , 14 units over retail, also Schouw. Approved? Not clear whether this is also for sale or not; not a rezoning.

Future (no application yet)
Bonnis; Main & Union, potential future rezoning for 150′. Developer open house held in January, but no application yet.
Tosi’s for sale, but not yet acquired by a developer?
Various other sites have been bought/sold in the past couple of years, including the block with the Emerald restaurant and the Chinatown Supermarket, but there have been no applications. Tosi’s could get a rezoning, as far as I know nothing else is eligible.

Under construction
245 E Georgia 40 unit 9 storey rental on 25′ lot, not a rezoning.

recently completed
Framework, 231 E Pender, not a rezoning, 60 condos by Porte over retail
611 Main (188 Keefer) W T Leung for Westbank Projects, condo with 22 seniors rental over retail
633 Main (181 E Georgia) Bosa Blue Sky, all rental ‘Chinatown’ over retail.
Keefer Block, 189 Keefer, not a rezoning, 10 storey 81 condo over retail, completed 2015 built by Solterra.
The Flats, 29 unit condos on a 25′ lot with yellow steel shutters, not a rezoning, completed 2014.

V6A on Union and Ginger on Main are also condo buildings built in Chinatown to zoning, both 9 storeys, completed 2009 and 2010.

Besides my friend’s list, I’d add that BC Housing is about to rebuild a social-housing project in Chinatown, adding some market units to it and replacing all of the existing ones.

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Chinatown project turns into “line in the sand” as people argue it will change the future of historic area

May 24th, 2017 · 8 Comments

It’s a 12-story condo plus retail plus social housing building on an interior block of Chinatown, meant to fill what is now a surface parking lot (formerly a gas station).

But the project by Beedie Development Group has turned into a pitched battle, with opponents seeing it as the nail in the coffin for historic Chinatown and supporters seeing it as as the kind of development needed to bring life back to a neighbourhood that’s been in decline since the 1970s.

The city hall public hearing started last night, raucous, from all accounts and will continue for several more. My story that lays out the main points and background is here. Lots of fun reading on the city’s website about the project, especially all of the letters for and for and for and against and against and against. (A new batch just got posted today, the last link in each side here.)

Undoubtedly, whatever happens, this is going to mark a turning point. There’s a review of the Chinatown plan coming up in a couple of months and there will be adjustments to it that will likely make larger projects in Chinatown more difficult and even more scrutinized.

Even those who are supporting the Beedie project, like Henry Tom of the Chinatown Merchants Association, say that zoning should be changed so that huge developments with 200-foot frontages are not allowed. Instead, they and others say that development should be finer-grained, with more of the kinds of developments that have happened on the area’s unique 25-foot-wide lots.

I have a feeling councillors aren’t sure which way to go on this or whose voices to listen to. There are a lot of realtor/developer/marketing types and employees who have weighed in with support letters, some of whom live in the area. And there are a lot of young activists whose parents or grandparents had links with Chinatown, even though they don’t live or do much in the area any more. And then there’s the older generation that “saved” Chinatown in the 1960s — Shirley Chan, Hayne Wai, Mike Harcourt — also against the development.

This is not a slam dunk for anyone.

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What will it be like to live in Vancouver’s new green buildings?

May 24th, 2017 · 4 Comments

There’s been a huge focus in recent months on Vancouver’s plan to move to a zero-emissions building code, but mainly on one aspect of it, the impact on natural gas.

But what else will look and feel different as Vancouver moves to its new, unique building code? I talked to people who have built condo towers and single-family homes to ask them about what stays the same and what doesn’t. My story is here.

For those unclear about what’s happening, any multi-family projects requiring a rezoning had to start meeting the new code as of May 1. Next phase coming next year. Ultimately, all new buildings will need to meet the code by 2030.

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The ridings to watch for the election: Not Vancouver, not the north, but the suburbs

May 9th, 2017 · No Comments

Increasingly, suburban ridings are filled with people who are finding that they are not living the dream, but are having to deal with issues that used to be thought of as strictly urban: homelessness, drug use, transit, school closures, and more.

And that’s what makes them an interesting group to watch during elections — their ideas about life aren’t necessarily locked into ideological positions and, sometimes, they will switch parties based on the immediate crisis in front of them.

Here’s my brief look in Vancouver magazine at what’s going on in the suburbs during this election.


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Vancouver Tenants Union has successful launch — and now …

May 5th, 2017 · 1 Comment

The newly formed Vancouver Tenants Union got well over 200 people out to its founding meeting on a Saturday last week, which was a promising start in don’t-like-to-commit Vancouver. It got a lot of coverage from media, including me/Globe.

Now the trick will be to see what the group, started by some active in the Downtown Eastside but others who are just fed up as well, will be able to do next. There is some real possibility of momentum given how insecure Vancouver’s many renters feel. And those aren’t just people in small West End apartments or Downtown Eastside residential hotels.

I’ve talked to renters paying $2,000 and $3,000 a month who feel just as precarious. They weren’t at the meeting (or I didn’t spot any of them, at any rate), but they have just as many issues as others on other parts of the housing ladder.

There’s a West End meeting scheduled for May 31. We’ll see what happens next.


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Libs not touting it in speeches, but policy position is that referendum still needed for regional share of Broadway, Surrey lines

April 27th, 2017 · 10 Comments

In the 2013 election, Premier Christy Clark was quite vocal about requiring a referendum for any new tax, fee or whatever that the mayors wanted to help pay for the regional share of transit.

This time, candidates have stayed away from that.

However, the Liberal Party made it clear — in its response to the TransLink mayors’ council questionnaire — that a referendum will still be required when mayors are trying to decide this time how to come up with the rest of their share for the 10-year, $7.5-billion plan for transit improvements. The feds and province have kicked in about $5 billion at this point and the mayors have approved some property-tax and fare increases, but none of that is enough to cover the full bill.

(My Globe story on this in today’s paper here.)

The party also said it will fund one-third of the Pattullo Bridge as long as there is a “strong business case.” I always thought the strong business case was that the bridge is about to fall into the river, but I guess I know nothing.

I couldn’t understand why that wording would suddenly appear until I remembered that the Libs also promised a cap on all tolls in the region. And the planning for the bridge had always factored in tolls. In fact, at a transit panel that I moderated recently, TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond said that the one thing TransLink would do differently to avoid the problems the Port Mann Bridge has had with finances is to ensure that no money has to come out of the operations budget to help make the mortgage payments on the bridge.

So, if the possibility for revenue from tolling the bridge is now limited, that means TransLink will have to develop a new business case.

Anyway, transit planners must be praying for an end to this election campaign, before any more little grenades can be thrown their way.

As I noted last week, that started with the two major parties competing to reduce or eliminate tolls altogether, to the dismay of mayors and rational policy-makers.




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Board of Trade issues report endorsing “missing middle” forms of housing and alternatives to home ownership

April 19th, 2017 · 9 Comments

I have to say, it’s a sign of the times that 350 people, many from the business and development community, would turn out to a five-hour session on housing policy. But that’s what they did yesterday, when the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade organized a set of panels to go along with a report they issued on housing solutions.

My story in the Globe that condenses it all is here, plus I tweeted throughout yesterday, for those who missed it.

As I noted a couple of times, the report is exclusively focused on supply, to the dismay of those who believe that demand controls are part of the solution. And there were some people talking about the need for local residents to alter their expectations, which produced some scathing pushback on Twitter.

But the report showed there is a slightly different approach to supply these days. It’s not just build more condos. There’s a big emphasis on rental, a form that does help keep some housing out of the speculative-investor market. And there were even references to alternative models of home ownership, the kind usually espoused by small housing collectives or non-profit groups. Things like shared-equity ownership models, cohousing, and more.


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A rare housing choice: Living in a rowhouse without having to be in a strata

April 19th, 2017 · 5 Comments

For almost as long as I’ve covered the urban-issues beat in Vancouver, people have talked about how great it would be if we had fee-simple townhouses — that is, townhouses where the owners don’t have to belong to a strata. They just own their particular row/townhouse individually, with some agreement about how to handle common walls — just as many Ontario and Quebec owners do.

I thought the dream was still unrealized when Michael Geller tweeted out a picture of some fee-simple townhouses in Coquitlam. There was an ensuing Twitter discussion, with me expressing surprise. Then Surrey’s city manager, Jean Lamontagne, contacted me by email to tell me that such rare things were starting to appear in Surrey.

Hence, my story in the Globe, which took a look at the little shoots of experimentation happening in various places, including Nanaimo, on this issue. (Thanks to whomever tweeted about Nanaimo, which also prompted me to call there.)

So why care about this form of housing? As more than one person has told me over the years, a lot of older couples don’t want to move to condos because they don’t want to have to have their lives governed by a committee. As a result, they stay parked in their four-bedroom homes all over the city, which is an inefficient use of housing. If this could catch on, it might encourage more of those people to pass on their homes to people who actually need four bedrooms.

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