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Empty condos not the problem downtown — it’s lack of room for families

May 24th, 2009 · 48 Comments

An interesting new piece of research from BTAworks, a foundation connected with Bing Thom’s architecture firm, has finally got hold of the famous BC Hydro data on electrical use to find out how many apartments downtown show signs of no habitation. That has been seen as the smoking gun to prove the truth of Vancouver’s most famous story about itself — that all of our downtown condos are dark at night because there’s no one living there. They’re all owned by offshore investors just speculating in our real estate.

Those who read my blog regularly will recall there was a cascade of blogging and stories last fall about “18,000 empty condos” in the city — a cascade that was powerful enough to prompt then-mayoral candidate Gregor Robertson to muse about the need for a possible speculator tax to prevent investors from allowing condos to sit empty.

The research, done by Andrew Yan, found that there is not a plague of empty condos. Instead, his examination showed other problems being created by current patterns of condo-building and ownership downtown. You can read my story here. I don’t expect this study will end the debate, but it will certainly put a dent in the urban myth of the empty condos, one that I’ve been hearing repeatedly for the last two decades.

That myth is so prevalent that I find myself staring at downtown towers everytime I drive through the central city at night, trying to figure out if they have a reasonable number of lights on. It’s funny, because it’s not something we ever thinkg of doing with three-storey walk-up apartments or houses in single-family neighbourhoods. You never hear people walking through Kitsilano or Champlain Heights going, “Aha — no lights. It must be speculators!” And yet there are a lot of dark apartments and houses in those areas too.

Personally, I’ve always felt it was more an expression of our fears about Vancouver, that we are really just a Miguel de Allende of the north, a little peasant town being taken over by outsiders who think we’re cute and then drive the prices sky-high.

The BTWworks full study is available on their website at, where all of you astute critics can scrutinize it yourselves. I’m sure Andrew will be happy to answer questions, if there are any.

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