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Vancouver takes unusual step of going to court for injunction to stop Airbnb host

October 24th, 2016 · No Comments

Unbeknownst to any of us, city staff tackle Airbnb hosts behind the scenes, letting them know that their ads have been noted and their neighbours have been complaining.

Usually, that’s enough, according to the city’s chief licensing inspector Andreea Toma. But that didn’t work with one particular owner, East West Investments, which owns eight units at a complex called Heather Court on West Seventh.

So the city recently went to court for an injunction just asking the company and its director, Heather Chang, to stop. That took some time. A city staffer monitored the ads for the units for months. And then booked a place and stayed in it for two nights. (My story about the court action here.)

Toma said the city was alerted to the problems at Heather Court by other tenants of East West, which was renting out two of its units through Airbnb and the other six to long-term renters. They were worried that their units would be converted.

Toma has said there will be more of these. I have to wonder how many, considering how much effort it takes to nail just one owner. And no word yet and how successful it’s been.



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New TransLink CEO says he welcomes Uber as a complement to public transit, waves the optimism flag about the future

October 18th, 2016 · 8 Comments

TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond has been on the job a little more than six months now. Things have been going mostly well, I’d say.

The volume of anti-TransLink stories has gone down — even though the agency is out doing a public consultation about a $3-a-house tax hike and five- to 10-cent fare hike to pay for some of its part of the 10-year plan.

Desmond, as he’s the first to say, has also benefitted by a change in the winds. The federal government announced its intention to fund 50 per cent of transit projects, in its first phase of infrastructure money, sometime in Desmond’s first week. The province has come on board with an agreement on funding that first phase.

The agency has reportedly sold the Oakridge bus barn for a huge whack of money (BIV has been reporting $450 million), which gives the agency a lot more money to put into the 10-year plan. Revenues are up, as the fare gates have closed.

Our new CEO also is stepping out a little bit in taking firm stands on issues. At a speech at the Vancouver Board of Trade (where I got to do a Q and A with him), he came out firmly supportive of Uber and ride-hailing systems as transportation alternatives that could actually help more people get to transit.

(When I asked him about fears some people have that Uber will set up van routes to skim customers off public-transit routes, Desmond said the local authorities would need to ensure that Uber-type services worked within a framework. Some might be skeptical, given Uber’s willingness to bend the rules and regulations as they expand.) My story on his talk is here.

I asked him about whether the agency risks missing some important deadlines this fall or early next year, if the province doesn’t come to an agreement with the feds about what will happen with second-phase transit funding. He said no worries about that.

I think a lot of Desmond’s positive attitude and good messaging comes from just who he is. I noticed he wrote his own speech for the VBOT talk — handwritten, too. (He also doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I’ve witnessed a couple of withering responses to what he thought were silly questions.)

But I note he’s getting help these days. The PR firm Fleishman-Hillard seems to be on board, prepping him before news conferences and the like.

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First Nations hire one of the region’s savviest development experts to steer projects on their big holdings

October 18th, 2016 · No Comments

You, the general public, may not have paid too much attention to this, but a lot of others on various inside tracks are taking note of the fact that David Negrin, who used to manage development for Aquilini and, before that, Concord Pacific, has been hired by the three local First Nations, who hold a billion dollars worth of land.

My story here has comments by UDI president Jon Stovell about what this will mean for First Nations development in the region — good things, he and others say, because at last they’ll have someone on board who understands who they are but also knows how to deal with the traditional business world.

Negrin has been working with First Nations groups a lot, as Aquilini partnered with some of them (Tsleil-Waututh and Tsawwassen) to do big residential developments.

Many are wondering what Aquilini will do now on that front. The company had hired the sister of Chief Wayne Sparrow, Johnna Sparrow, as an aboriginal adviser, as well as another person from the Squamish First Nation, I’m told. But will they continue their push to do development with First Nations once Negrin is gone. We’ll wait and see.

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As Vancouver’s new chief planner begins his job, architect/urbanist warns about Vancouver’s “toxic conversation”

October 4th, 2016 · 15 Comments


When Vancouver’s new planning director, Gil Kelley, made his first public appearance last Wednesday in a speech at the Vancouver Playhouse, he did so at the invite of an organization called the Urbanarium. One of the group’s key members, architect Bruce Haden, started the evening with a thought-provoking and very candid introduction about the serious challenges facing Vancouver as the city and other municipalities grapple with growth pressures.

These were Bruce’s opening remarks, which I thought were worth circulating.

My colleagues and I recreated the Urbanarium in part because of a profound concern we share about the coarsening of the public conversation over the last few years around city building pressures and opportunities in Metro Vancouver.

In particular, I know there have been many concerns in the design and development community that the Vancouver Planning department has become more risk averse and rule bound than in previous years. In contrast, I know from multiple conversations with citizens engaged in the city building conversation that the level of trust in the planning process is extremely low. So a Director of Planning has often had the near impossible task of being the meat in the sandwich between outraged citizens and outraged architects and developers.

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Thoughts from someone who has pondered Airbnb: Don’t allow tenants to do it; limit the number per neighbourhood

September 30th, 2016 · 2 Comments

Got this by email from a former Nelson city employee and SFU grad student who has spent some time thinking about Airbnb.

As the former City of Nelson employee responsible for preparing its upcoming short-term rental regulations (Nelson is one of the case studies that Vancouver staff reviewed) and as a tenant in Vancouver, I would like to provide my own comments on the proposed STR regulations for Vancouver. I spent four months this summer working nearly exclusively on the STR file for the City of Nelson and I crafted the amending bylaws that Council has tentatively approved. I had a lot of time to reflect on various issues surrounding STR regulation, to say the least.

1. Seriously reconsider the prospect of tenant-run STRs

While I would not go as far as urging you to disallow tenants from operating STRs, I would urge you to give it some serious thought. It is not insignificant. Nelson staff decided, after much thought, not to permit renters to operate an STR. Most leases disallow it and LandlordBC urges its members to ensure their tenants do not do STR. While it is ultimately the tenant-operator’s responsibility to secure permission, by accepting applications from tenants the City is potentially exposing imprudent tenants to the risk of eviction.

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Short-term-rental regulations come to Vancouver, after a big lobbying effort from Airbnb

September 28th, 2016 · 10 Comments

So the city has come out with its proposed new rules for regulating short-term rentals. City report is here and my quickie hit here.

This is already prompting a lot of questions on Twitter, many from people wondering how the city will stop people from declaring that their former basement suites are now part of the main house and they’re just renting out a bedroom in their principal residence, not really converting a secondary suite.

I’m doing a story for deadline so would like to see any other questions and concerns you have about how these new regulations will really work out.

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Empty-homes tax might go even higher than original two per cent proposed, with higher penalties

September 20th, 2016 · 9 Comments

Vancouver councillors debated the proposed empty-homes tax this morning, with some unexpected results. (Well, at least to me, so perhaps I’m clueless.)

The NPA councillors came out AGAINST the tax, which I thought would have been seen as very popular with their base. (See my story for their various reasons.)

And then Vision councillors started making noises about considering an even higher rate for the empty-homes tax than the max two per cent of assessed value that staff had recommended. Plus penalties higher than the current $10,000 that is the most Vancouver can charge anyone for any bylaw violation.

Things continue to evolve.

Along with all that, many more questions and unique scenarios continued to arise. Just to take you through various bits and pieces I’ve now learned:

  • Airbnb doesn’t count as occupancy. So if someone gets audited and they’re not living at the unit, they need to prove they’re renting it out to avoid the tax. And showing revenue from Airbnb rentals won’t count.
  • As long as one unit on a residential (single-family-house-type) property is occupied, the others can be vacant. So someone could live in a laneway house and leave the main house empty and not be charged the tax. An owner who decides to leave a basement suite or laneway house empty won’t be charged.
  • Not decided yet how many months someone will have to occupy a unit to avoid the tax. Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas, the new general manager of community services, was suggesting nine months might be the cut-off.

Happy to try to answer other questions you might come up with about unique scenarios.

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Proposed new regulations for Airbnb and others coming next week

September 20th, 2016 · 2 Comments

It’s getting confusing, all the new housing taxes popping up here and there. Hope to help you keep it straight, especially since some cases will fall under multiple taxes and regulatory regimes.

(Just imagine a foreign investor who buys a unit in Vancouver and decideds to rent it out only through Airbnb. Three new laws may apply: provincial tax on foreign investors; empty-homes tax on the unit because something rented out as Airbnb doesn’t count as occupancy; and then whatever regs come in for Airbnb.)

Anyhoo, back to the subject at hand. So the city will be proposing some kind of regulatory system for short-term rentals in a report out next week. Details are still being worked out, but from everything I can gather, in my story here, the proposal will restrict any rentals to people who are renting out their primary residences (either a spare room in there or the whole house when they’re out of town.)

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Vancouver sets off into the choppy waters with an empty-homes tax, one of a few cities around world

September 15th, 2016 · 2 Comments

So here we go. Vancouver will become the first city in Canada and one of a very select group around the world to charge an empty-homes tax as a way of trying to curb the effects of speculative investment and to get some housing stock back on the market.

I wrote two stories this week on same, one a look at a particular case of an empty house on the west side — presumably the kind of place that will be targeted — and the complicated story behind it. The other, post-announcement, offered assessments from experts about how effective this new tax that relies on self-reporting is likely to be, considering the city does not have the clout, jailing power, or staff of the Canada Revenue Agency.

The tax is already drawing strong responses. Tom Davidoff says it’s great. The official COPE Twitter account sneers at Mayor Gregor Robertson for stealing their idea. Longtime COPE activist Tim Louis says the tax is weak and ineffective. Friends of mine are laughing bitterly at the idea that people will voluntarily report something that could cost them tens of thousands of dollars a year in extra taxes.

We’ll see. As the mayor says, the move is partly symbolic, a signal that Vancouver is not as open for business as it once was. And it’s far from unique. Other cities, which have also seen the numbers of vacant apartments go up while they’re experiencing a shortage of housing, have been looking at vacancy taxes or actually implementing them. Jerusalem doubled the taxes on “ghost apartments” earlier this year, to the dismay of the local construction industry, whose people said the country had invited people, mainly wealthy American Jews, to invest in just that kind of housing.


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Vancouver’s new immigrants not here to make money but to find a better quality of life — and policymakers haven’t caught up

September 6th, 2016 · 14 Comments

As some of you sharper readers may have noticed, I’ve become interested in our significant new bloc of immigrants, those people from mainland China.

(Okay, I’ve always been interested. I got an Asia Pacific Foundation fellowship in 1990 that allowed me to live in China for three months, another different fellowship that took me to Hong Kong briefly in 1994, and I’ve watched the migrations from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China ever since, occasionally reporting on them)

There are so many people writing about this new group, but the overall coverage has been strange and dehumanizing. No one ever actually talks to any of these new immigrants or tries to understand them. They’re just “investors” here to “park their money.” Or they’re outright criminals.

Undoubtedly there are people like that from China. The legitimate stories about crimes or abuses deserve to be covered and some other reporters are doing that. Good on them.

But I’m interested in the people who are coming here, why they’re here and what they make of their life in Canada. I wrote a big story about a month ago that was the result of several months of talking to more than a dozen people and trying to get a handle on their lives in China and here. (It’s here.)

It’s a little strange that more reporters haven’t done some of this. Usually that’s a first move in journalism. If there’s an interesting sub-group in town, you go out and talk to people and find out who they are. I know some fellow reporters haven’t because they’re worried about exposing this group to the blasts of hatred that unmistakably proliferate on social media. I’m hoping more people will start to do more reporting on this new group of immigrants (about 150,000 — three times the number from Taiwan) in future.

Even at the universities, there isn’t much exploration going on that I know of.  I asked UBC geography professor David Ley, who did wonderful, sensitive, and empathetic research on the new immigrants arriving from Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1990s (much of it in his Millionaire Migrants book), if he knew of anyone doing research on this new group. He didn’t.

But, over in sociology, it turned out someone was working on something.

My story today is a far-too-condensed summary of a new study, where UBC PhD student Jing Zhao interviewed almost three dozen people who were about to immigrate or had immigrated to Vancouver, and sociology professor Nathanael Lauster analyzed and co-wrote the results. (The full 31-page study is here, for those wanting more details or source material to quibble with my reporting.)

They found, as I had, that some in this group, despite their privileges (they’re usually well educated and are comfortable financially, if not the billionaires and fuerdai so beloved of many reporters), see themselves as refugees from China, with its rigid education system, terrible air and water pollution, dicey food quality, and restrictive policies on having children.

And they don’t care that much about starting new businesses or getting jobs here because that’s not why they came here. It’s a turnaround from the way many, many academics and policymakers think about immigration, which is usually seen as being strictly about improving economic life. As Lauster says, it’s about time we understand that and maybe adapt our thinking about who these new trans-national immigrants are.


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