Frances Bula header image 2

My advice to the development industry: Show you’re really part of the community by taking a stand on bad behaviour; share your data

December 1st, 2016 · 1 Comment

I’ve spoken on dozens of panels in my 34-year career as a journalist — panels for other journalists, for PR people, for non-profit groups, for students, for housing advocates, for business groups, for resident associations, for government employees — but none has generated quite the tizzy in a teacup as the one I was on this week.

That was partly attributable to the title: Real estate and the media: crafting the narrative. The other factor was the make-up of the panel, which was me and two people who work with the development industry on communications. And the third part was who I was speaking to: the Urban Development Institute’s under-40 group.

My usual little band of hardy critics, some of them suspiciously bot-like, took this to mean that I must have sold out completely (undoubtedly because I’m being paid off by the industry).

Many thanks to my loyal colleagues who took a stand and reminded them of what kind of journalist I actually am and always have been. Less impressed by those so quick to jump to conclusions — and express them in forums where they thought I didn’t have access.

I had agreed to talk on the panel because I thought it was about media influence and coverage of the development industry, with a mix of people on it. One journalist who was invited was out of town for the date, but didn’t express any concern about the topic, I’m told; not sure about others.

It was a bit of a surprise when I saw the title and format of the panel in the publicity that came out a couple of weeks ago. But I saw this as a great opportunity to talk to people in the industry frankly about why their reputation has taken a hit in the public. That’s what I did.

For those interested in the details, I am posting a recording I made of the session. It’s not great quality. I just made it in case someone tried to misrepresent what I had said, but it seems to be audible enough on headphones.

I also transcribed the first part of it, then ran out of time to do the rest. But I’ll post my transcript fragment, as well, for those without the patience to listen to 45 minutes of bad tape.

On the topic of bad tape, some people asked questions at the end that you probably can’t hear because they were at the back of the room. One was a guy from Wesgroup, who talked about the concerns the company has about posting information on the percentage of foreign buyers.

The speaker said they decided not to put it up information about a particular project because 1. they figured no one would believe it (their data showed local buyers were greater than 95 per cent) and 2. they were worried about releasing information that would make their buyers worry their privacy was being invaded.

Another was from someone asking if it wouldn’t create a bad political situation in Burnaby if developers offered to build rental when the council has said it’s not their responsibility.


Nov. 29, 2016

Anne McMullin, CEO of Urban Development Institute, moderator


Frances Bula, journalist

Bob Ransford, development consultant, former real-estate columnist Vancouver Sun

Renu Bakshi, owner of a communications business, some of whose clients are in development, former journalist

Anne McMullin: Thank everybody for coming today. So we hope to talk about today how the media works, what makes a good story, and particularly as it relates to the real-estate industry, and we can talk a little bit about the media coverage of the last six to eight months and what it might be in the future. Real estate has been the centre of attention in this market for a couple of decades, but what we’ve seen the last number of months, it’s been heightened, in both social media and mainstream media. And what we’ve really seen is it’s become more and more polarized. So I’ll start with you, Frances, and I’ll ask each of you this question and hopefully we’ll have more of a dialogue. We talk very much about the polarized debate, very polarized. Frances, could you give us your sense of the industry’s role in this debate, particularly in the last nine months.

Frances Bula: There has been change at various times. The real-estate industry hasn’t been that scrutinized. There has been a lot of scrutiny of the real-estate industry more than at other times in the past. I think you’ve all seen there’s been these periods in the past, there were big long puff pieces in the Sun or other places about various projects, not a lot of news coverage of particular challenging issues.

Obviously, people have become really concerned about the real-estate prices and and so that obviously had prompted a lot of scrutiny, and they’re concerned about the level of change that they see. And in the municipalities where there’s more change, there’s more angst. So Vancouver gets a lot because there’s a lot of building going on here, in spite of what the premier says. Actually, I think Vancouver’s at an all-time high in terms of housing starts. Burnaby, you’re obviously seeing a lot of change, and people are looking at the development industry and the real-estate industry and going, “What exactly are you guys doing?”

I realize some of the criticism that’s been levelled, a lot of it actually hasn’t involved the new-building people, it’s the re-sale people, and were they reporting accurately what the level of foreign investment was, were they obfuscating and so on. But this side of the industry has also come in for some scrutiny because of the level of donations to the B.C. Liberals, having one of the top real-estate marketers in the industry also the top fundraiser in the industry. And also, as I said, some of the changes where new construction is going in and really changing communities.

And I know from covering the industry for years, people here take pride in building communities. I’ve heard you guys say that before. “We build communities. We provide homes for people. We feel we’re real contributors.” The problem right now is the public doesn’t feel that way about you necessarily. Maybe the people who buy your new product do feel that way, but a lot of people around don’t. And they expect the development industry to be more of a partner and more of a community member these days.

And there are certain things where the industry has been silent. And I think the public has some questions about that. One of them is, for example, the pretty drastic demolition of older low-cost apartment buildings in Burnaby that are being replaced by new condos. There’s a lot of concern about that from a wide spectrum of groups that I talk to. And it’s something the industry has been silent on. In fact, when I ask people about Burnaby, they usually praise Burnaby and Derek Corrigan, which comes across – you may mean it as, ‘They’re very efficient and they process things well” – but how people are interpreting it as, you like mayors who will wholesale rezone areas and toss out low-income people and let condos be built.

That’s a place where the development industry doesn’t earn itself many credits by being silent about that.

Also, this is an industry that has a lot of information about who’s buying. I did a story recently that the pre-sale market is pretty strong, it isn’t showing the same pattern as the re-sale market, and everyone I phoned knew down to the last unit and bathroom tap how many foreign investors were buying in their buildings. You have a lot of information but you’ve been very quiet about it, you haven’t put it out.

And I know that someone told me they tried to get the real-estate board to include those stats and the board just shrugged their shoulders or I don’t know what they did. But you could have been more pro-active about who’s buying your product, whether you think that has a value. There’s a rule in journalism, if you don’t provide the information, other people will rush in to do it. When you’re not talking, other people fill the void and we’ll talk about who is filling that void later on.

One other point I was going to make. There has been this meme going around Vancouver for 20 years or 25 about empty condos. Again, you have information on that. You know who’s buying, you know for what purpose, you probably could track this better than some of the other agencies.

And the industry really just kind of stayed quiet, hoping it was all going to go away. And it did a couple of times. It sort of erupted in the ‘90s, it erupted in 2008, it did kind of go away on its own. This time it didn’t. Again, I think that by providing more information to the public, by going in showing you really are community partners, that you’re trying to help people understand the situation, you could have earned more credits for yourself.

Anyway, I’ve gone on too long here, so I’m going to stop. I hope we get to have questions from the audience, by the way

Anne McMullin: Yes, that’s great, Frances. I’m going to turn to Bob and we chatted a bit yesterday a little bit about this. In my own role, it often is a struggle to get information. We often track it as individual companies, but it’s hard to get an aggregate.

Bob Ransford: I would tend to agree with a lot of what Frances said. She mentioned that UDI is always trying to position the industry as partners with the community. And I think we haven’t been equal partners in the community’s discussion over the last couple of years that have been affecting people because they see change happening around them. And let’s take, for example, how the discussion seemed to centre around demand and price so much that really when the public discussion reached a crescendo was when prices reached a certain level and when we saw unbelievable demand in the market that we hadn’t seen before.

The industry had an opportunity to jump in at that point to jump in and talk about supply. We have the ability to talk about supply. We could talk about supply in the context of the communities that were trying to develop and the decisions that have to be made in those communities by people, the citizens who live there, the trade-offs they need to make, we haven’t been able to connect on those issues.

I think about the various components of what we call the real-estate industry that Frances talks about. There’s people who sell real estate, the realtors, there’s different kinds of real estate, there’s re-sale real estate and new development. There’s people that in the development business do their own in-house marketing, they track the relationships of all the buyers and sellers. There’s the development industry itself that strictly builds the product. There’s the construction industry. They are all separate.

The UDI is one of the few organizations that tends to bring them all together but they don’t speak with one voice. When we hear stories about real shoddy real-estate practices in the re-sale market that has nothing to do with what’s happening in the new-home market and it’s by a group of people, many of whom have entered the real-estate market as agents because of the frenzy in the market, and the ability to get into that low-barrier industry, I think the barrier to entrance is terribly low, the development industry hasn’t commented on that.

We’re the ones that take the heat on it. We have the ability to affect the professional standards that affect our business and we haven’t been in that discussion. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the demand was there. The market has been very active and when the market is active, we’re all busy in the business trying to meet the demand is there and things are viewed as positive by the people who are making money in the industry.

I can tell you if the market was the exact opposite, if we were at the lowest point in the market and there was no demand, I can tell you this industry would be reacting to that. I think we need to think about what our responsibility is to be a partner. To be a partner, you have to be engaged in the conversation. As Frances said, if we’re not engaged, then someone’s going to fill that void and they’re going to jump to conclusions, make assumptions, and develop their own messages that might be messages that are not realistic, that reflect reality in any way. So I think we need to think about how we can be there in the public discussion, not just in the market in the future.

Anne: So Frances, you touched on the difficulty, it’s really change, people feeling a lot of pressure of change. Bob, you said we really need to talk about more supply. But with that sentiment that people don’t want change, is that message of we need more supply something that can resonate. How can you be there, be part of that conversation, when what we’re offering is not what people want.

Renu Bakshi: To speak to what my colleagues have just said, if you’re not telling your story, somebody else is. This industry has always relied on UDI and other groups to be the voice of the industry and have sat back because you are selling, you are making money, your bottom line is just fine, you don’t really need to enter that fray.

But I think that it’s been a lost opportunity and I think that right now the development industry is playing catch-up in figuring out how best to tell the story so you’re telling it and not the people on Facebook, Twitter, or whomever is winning this debate. Obviously, it’s not the development industry. The public is. The opportunity to have your voice in the story, the opportunity to correct misinformation, the opportunity to at least to be able to control your message.

Once the development industry understands that, there’s more than just a sales and marketing story. Those two story streams are not at all credible. The only credibility you have is your public relations/communications story and you need to be honing on that story as part of your bigger-picture plan rather than just let’s get some sales adjectives and marketing adjectives in place and let’s buy ads and tell that story.

Frances is not telling those stories. The Vancouver Sun is not telling those stories. Only advertising tells those stories. Once you understand that, you have a lot of potential to earn credibility with the public. So when a debate like this reaches the point that it reached a few months ago, you’re not necessarily viewed as the bad guy.

You’re viewed as the people who are creating jobs, who are creating homes, the economic spin-offs, the daycare spaces, the CACs and all of that. Those stories that aren’t really being told. People don’t know who you are. They just think you’re money-makers. So if you position yourself as people contributing so much to a community, to a family that’s struggling, in terms of they have a community centre they can go to with their kids or a daycare space, you’d be viewed as way more credible when things reach a height that they have now.

Categories: Uncategorized