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What data is it really that we’re looking for in Vancouver’s housing market?

November 4th, 2015 · 30 Comments

It’s been a remarkable couple of days this week, for those who are interested in the hot topic of Vancouver housing and how much foreign money is flowing into it.

A study by UBC adjunct prof and planner Andy Yan was the latest to set off the fireworks, with his stats on 172 sales in the Point Grey area of town during six months last fall and winter. He looked at buyers with non-Anglicized names, the stated occupations of buyers on land titles, and whether they had mortgages.

There’s been a frenzy of debate about whether this was racist (with some opining that because Andy is Chinese, it couldn’t possibly be) or the clincher stats needed to understand what is happening with real estate in this crazy town or what.

I did a story for the Globe on some of the different opinions out there, with former NDP cabinet minister Darlene Marzari saying she welcomes the information with hard numbers and UBC law prof Margot Young talking about the need for more focus on the actual problem (global capital) instead of ethnicity.

And UBC prof David Ley, who has done the most work on trying to understand this phenomenon since it first started to appear in the 1980s, said he also worries that the debate over nationality of money is obscuring the essential problem: the way the Canadian and B.C. governments crafted policy in the ’80s that opened the door for wealthy people from around the world to park their money here, with programs designed to allow them to avoid taxes and with no requirement that they participate fully in Canadian life, taxes, and the social system.

The heart of this debate is about what information we think we need to have to understand this issue and to push for policy changes.

It seems to me that people in this city care about three essentials.

  1. What impact is global capital having on Vancouver’s property market as a whole? How much is it increasing housing prices overall, making the city unaffordable for the people working in businesses and raising families here?
  2. What impact is global capital having on individual neighbourhoods, because of houses being left vacant, houses that represent the history of the city being demolished, and the sense of community being eroded?
  3. What federal or provincial policies are facilitating destructive global capital?

Unfortunately, Andy’s study from this week didn’t really answer the key questions. I know he’s got some other good work on the way that tries to tackle some of these questions. And his study Monday was interesting in its documentation of the fact that 82 per cent of the buyers of these expensive homes on the west side got mortgages, i.e. no bags of cash.

But what else did we learn and what is missing?

We learned that 66 per cent of the buyers of those expensive west-side homes had non-Anglicized Chinese names. We learned that 32 per cent of the purchases (52 homes) had “homemaker” on the land title and six per cent (8 homes) had students listed. I can’t find anything on Andy’s published study to indicate whether all those homemaker and student homes were among the Chinese-name group or whether some were Chinese and others were not.

What we didn’t learn: We don’t know if they were foreign investors, temporary residents, permanent resident, non-resident dads parking their wives and children here, or families who moved here wanting desperately to get out of China with its smog and suffocating education system — families who are fully planning to create a new life rooted in Vancouver. If I may remind people, it’s possible there are still some of them.

We didn’t learn how many homes that were purchased are sitting vacant or have been demolished and are being rebuilt and how many are being occupied by people trying to integrate into a new life.

We learned nothing about whether capital is being parked, whether there is flipping going on, what role speculation is playing, how many houses are being bought by someone who continues to work in China as a non-resident while leaving family here.

(One story that at least tried to get at part of that recently was Kathy Tomlinson’s in the Globe, where, in part of the story, she looked at the sales histories of more than 200 properties and showed which ones had changed hands rapidly and how the prices had increased.)

What we got was a small slice of sales history in one part of town that said pretty much what we’ve heard elsewhere for the last couple of years: People with Chinese names are buying property on the west side.

Andy did try to qualify his study with all kinds of caveats about what his data meant.

As he wrote: “The purpose of this study is not to necessarily solely focus on a single ethnic group, but in understanding how residential real estate might be consumed in the City of Vancouver with a focus on the enabling financial practices and structures in Canada.”

But that definitely got lost in the shuffle, especially because of the exclusive focus on the non-Anglicized Chinese names. It would be interesting if someone at least glanced at the Korean or other immigrant buyers on the west side, who are showing up as a small but steady stream.

Calling the study racist is really a stretch. But there are studies that seem to encourage conversations that are more about race (easy to ignite in this city with its long history of anti-Chinese sentiments) and other studies that seem to encourage conversations that are more about the role of global capital and government policy. It would be good to see academics discuss how to ensure the latter, if that’s really what they are aiming for.


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