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Who is really buying Chinatown condos? You’d be surprised (or not)

June 19th, 2017 · 7 Comments

The story of the battle over development in Chinatown is an endlessly mesmerizing one. There are so many political forces, so many internal battles, so many different groups, so many issues. There’s also an incredible amount of misinformation, “facts” that have taken on a life of their own in the social-media world.

A curious person could spend years trying to understand everything that’s going on, and that went on as Vancouver city council voted last week in an unusual 8-3 vote that split parties to reject a proposal for a condo building at 105 Keefer with some social housing and community space included.

One small piece of research I did to try to understand the complex economic dynamics of Chinatown is look at who had bought condos in the newest buildings there. Obviously, I don’t have access to pre-sales information — no one does except the developers themselves.

But I did look at the land records for three buildings there, which provided current assessment value, the names of the owners, and the purchase prices.

I’m putting this out here because, well, I did the research and want to use it somehow. As well, more info, based on verifiable facts, is always better, don’t you think? So what did I find?

The three buildings I looked at were, first, the 17-storey Westbank project at 188 Keefer Street, one of the three buildings that went up almost instantly on Main Street in a wave of new development after city council, encouraged by the consensus among Chinatown leaders and advocates on the issue, changed the zoning to permit some taller buildings south of historic Pender Street. Land records exist for 122 units.

The second was 189 Keefer Street, the smaller condo project by Solterra, with 80 units. The 17-storey Bosa project at Main and Georgia is a rental, so I don’t have any information on the inhabitants.

I also looked at Framework, the 52-unit project built by Porte Developments on Pender, just east of Main.

Here are the results

  • Of the 233 units sold in the three buildings (Porte still owns a number of the units in Framework, so not all 52 are included in my total), 161 are owned by people whose list their home addresses for city tax notices, etc., as the unit they purchased. The remaining 72 were bought by people who list their address as somewhere else besides the unit. In general, that means the first group are likely owner-occupiers, the second group are investors.
  • As I have found in past searches of entire buildings, the investors are predominantly people living in B.C.
  • Of the 10 units owned by investors in Framework, one is from London. The rest list their addresses as Vancouver. In one case, there’s an owner from Coquitlam.
  • Of the 80 units in the Solterra building, the 26 units owned by individual investors are from Burnaby, Coquitlam, Richmond, Vancouver, Kelowna (2), Port Moody, and West Vancouver. One is from Geneva. There are two companies listed as owners; one, Chang Holdings, with a Surrey address; one a communications company with a Port Moody address.
  • Of the 122 units in the Westbank building, the 36 that are clearly investors are also mostly local: West Vancouver, Vancouver, Richmond, Surrey. There is also one buyer from Lake Country, B.C., and one from Edmonton. (Among those local owners, 13 have Chinese names, some anglicized, some not.) There are more offshore owners here: Three from Hong Kong, one from China, one from Tarzana, California, one from Salt Lake City, one from Paris. Neils Bendtsen, the successful founder of Inform and a West Van resident, owns a unit.
  • However, the Westbank building has an unusual cluster of buyers that I didn’t see in the other two. Of the owners who list the unit as their home address, 29 are people with non-anglicized Chinese names (Wei Zhang, Sun Kang, etc.). I don’t have any proof that these people are investors who are choosing to leave their units empty, but that is a not unreasonable conclusion. People I spoke to who live in the new condo buildings say the Westbank building, of all the new ones, appears to be only about half-occupied. This group would help explain that.
  • Among the people who do seem to be living in their condos, there’s a mix of ethnicities in the names — a small but steady stream of Chinese names, some Korean, some Japanese, some South Asian, some Hispanic, a whole lot of Caucasian. A sample from 188 Keefer: Batya Wan and Andrew Cook; Simon Li; Gregory Johnson; Martine Perron; Anna and David Weir; Claudia Lau; Mashashi Ishikawa; Jura and Katie Kim; Eileen Wong; Ryan Molesworth; Amir Khan.
  • As I said in a tweet recently, people keep referring to “luxury condos” but it’s apparent looking from the sales records that these were not luxury-condo prices for the original buyers. Assessments have gone up like crazy, it’s true, and prices now are significantly higher than they were for those who bought through pre-sales.
  • At 188 Keefer (the Westbank buildings), the cheapest condo in the land records was bought for $239,900. (It’s now assessed at $398,000.) The most expensive, unit 1801, was bought for $729,900, now assessed at $902,000. The prices appeared to be spread out evenly between those two ends.
  • The cheapest condo at Framework on East Pender, was purchased for $256,686, now assessed at $377,000. The most expensive one in that building sold for $374,000, now assessed at $657,000.
  • At the Solterra building, 189 Keefer, the cheapest condo sold for $269,000, now assessed at $362,000, while the most expensive, Unit 912, sold for $729,900, now assessed at $1,021,000.

Helen Lee, from the Chinatown Historic Area Planning Committee, has put out some information on Twitter about the number of Airbnb listings in the area:

Top 3 Airbnb in #ChinatownYVR: 188 Keefer (13 units); 189 Keefer – Keefer Block (9) & 219 East Georgia – The Flats (7) #vanre #vanpoli

I interviewed a couple of the condo owner-occupiers as part of my research, a random effort that depended mostly on being able to track people down through social media.

I was curious about whether they actually shop in the area, a point of contention in much of the debate around whether there’s too much/the right kind of development in Chinatown.

It’s a tough one to quantify. The anti-#105keefer people insist that condo buyers are not shopping at all in Chinatown and not supporting the local community; business-association representatives like Albert Fok say that local businesses say they are getting some new customers.

No one has done any research to come up with any credible evidence either way. So here’s my anecdotal two cents.

Victor Toh said he and his wife, who works at the casino, try to support the little guys in Chinatown and they eat frequently at the food court, as well as shopping at local produce stores etc. Gary Saville, who teaches at a private ESL school, lived in China and Taiwan for 10 years, and speaks Mandarin, said he goes to some traditional Chinese places (Boss Bakery) and more of the newer additions (Fat Mao, Bao Bei), but in general finds the Chinese-food quality in Richmond or even Kerrisdale to be better. And, as for other shops, they’re just “tacky.”

 

It would be interesting is someone would do a more rigorous study of shopping patterns in the neighbourhood. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is the number of people who drive up in shiny new SUVs and Mercedes-Benzes and disgorge a group of women at the produce stores. Where are they coming from and why? Can that shopping crowd be expanded?

I’d be curious, too, about how many people from Strathcona, the supporting residential neighbourhood to Chinatown, shop there. It used to be the landing place for Chinese and Italian immigrants, but it’s been so gentrified the last three decades by artistic types, millennials and adventurous west-siders cashing out that no immigrant could possibly afford to live there any more. So do those new residents shop in Chinatown?

There needs to be a lot better understanding of Chinatown’s dynamics if it is truly going to be “saved,” whatever that means to the different groups trying to save it. That might be a place to start.

 

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  • grayelf

    SIL lives in Strathcona and does most shopping at Costco and No Frills. Some produce only from Chinatown, though it is easy walking distance.

  • mamabaceda

    No one has asked this: if these Chinatown buildings matter so much then why don’t Chinese businessmen buy them and preserve or renovate them for the benefit of Chinese. Well, one answer is that Chinese comprise different groups and generations. The new Chinese money from China have no interest, relation or empathy for old Chinatown. They think that represents the day when Chinese were hapless victims of the white man and old Chinatown was a Chinese ghetto. Mainland Chinese want to own, develop, shop in the same shiny luxury malls they have in Asia. I wonder why rich local Canadian-Chinese going back for a few generations haven’t stepped up. Indeed, for example, what about Robert Lee, founder of Prospero and former chancellor of UBC? I thought he was rich. Or his daughter Carol Lee who owns a successful cosmetic company. She is always preaching about Chinatown conservation. She’s from a rich family; she should be able to buy the Keefer project. You see, the very problem is the Vancouver Chinese, those who own those buildings have failed to work together to save their heritage. It is unrealistic to think Beedle should take a loss for Chinatown.

  • Gulley

    i live on the eastern edge of chinatown and shop regularly at Sunrise market. But also Costco, No Frills. The other chinatown-ish businesses I frequent are Tosi’s, Ramen Butcher, and Hons, and occasionally Rice World. Boss for a treat (love the Portuguese egg tarts) . I’m sad Kay’s closed down. Went once to Kissa Tanto, which was very tasty. I also like Propaganda coffee.

  • Kenji

    Well, how much of preserving Chinatown is really to preserve its ethnic character, vs. keeping it cheap? Heritage is an add-on quality for many, who will admit if you ask them that the real problem is that they are going to get displaced. In a region which has little affordable rental, that is an enormous issue – so why not use heritage/design/history concerns to stall the process out. Who knows, if the process is stalled long enough then the real estate bubble bursts.

  • mamabaceda

    Where are the rich Chinese of the previous generations who have made enough money to truly save Chinatown by acquiring and rehabilitating the old buildings? They, like Carol and Robert Lee aren’t stepping up to save Chinatown. While Carol campaigns for saving Chinatown’s heritage she is hypocritical- what is a rich person doing asking for public tax dollars to save heritage buildings. I only use them as an example. The other side of the problem are the owners of those Chinese heritage buildings. Greedy and short sighted, they are only interested in money so the result is they will be sold to the highest bidding developer. All talk. No money. The new China rich have no interest in old Chinatown.

  • Everyman

    The question about teh ibestors (local ro otherwise) is are they speculators? That is, did they buy solely with the expectation prices would rise fast enought to flip the unit in a year or two.

    If nothing else, your research also illustrates the corrosive effect on AirBnB on affordability.

  • Simo

    I think it’s rather unfair to paint both parties while of same ethnicity with a broad stroke brush. IMHO the generation that currently lives in Chinatown have been there since and aren’t rich or well off, most tend to stay there because of their involvement in the Chinatown ecosystem. The Chinese that are well off, never lived in Chinatown nor do they have association to the cultural history of that community and are quite disconnected from it.

    I live in one of the mentioned buildings and was even mentioned by name on this article, I’m born and raised in Vancouver and have spent my life in this city including a big part of in Chinatown. From the people I grew up knowing and meeting, most of the people in Chinatown live there because that’s all they really have. I’m not convinced enough people actually care enough about preserving the history or culture of the community as many of the long-term residents have either died, moved into assisted housing, or with their kin out of necessity and the people moving in are capitalizing on the vacancy (myself included).

    While I care about the history and culture of Chinatown, I think what the current community needs more is lower-income and assisted housing for the elderly and long-term residents of the area. I have a lot of respect for the local businesses that still try to support each other including SUCCESS for their involvement in the community and in the opinion that they have the biggest say and impact on the future of Chinatown.

    Simon Li