Racism, rogues, real estate: key players and cameos in Vancouver’s year of living unaffordably
2015 was a big year for anyone with a stake in Vancouver’s unaffordability debate - which is pretty much everyone in the city, for better or worse, as well as a fair number of folk in Hong Kong and mainland China.
And so the Hongcouver blog gratefully snatches the opportunity to indulge in a great New Year journalistic tradition: skiving off from the challenge of original work by rehashing a bunch of old columns and going to the pub.
Herewith, some of the key performers and bit players who helped keep the drama of Vancouver’s housing market and the unaffordability crisis in the spotlight. Enjoy, and may 2016 be a happy, healthy and affordable New Year.
[UPDATE: Property assessments arrived in the mail for Vancouver residents this week, confirming a banner year for home price increases - and unaffordability. More than 50 metro neighbourhoods reportedly joined the club of those with average detached house prices above the C$1 million mark. And by the estimate of the Knight Frank real estate consultancy, those increases gave Vancouver the world's biggest price increases for 2015. In the words of University of Waterloo professor Markus Moos on Twitter: "Good news to some, for most just another reminder of unaffordable housing".]
For years, Dr Tsur Somerville was the go-to guy when one wanted an impartial academic opinion on Vancouver’s real estate market.
Armed with a PhD in economics from Harvard, Somerville used to be quoted literally hundreds of times, sticking close to his favoured lines that prices in Vancouver were not particularly bubbly, and that fixing affordability was best achieved on the supply side by building more homes. As for the demand side of the equation, worrying about the impact of foreign money was akin to Yellow Perilism in Somerville’s estimation.
The problem with all this? Somerville’s supposedly impartial views came through a certain prism – his C$243,198 per year job at UBC teaching real estate development and churning out junior property developers; his Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate having been sponsored by the real estate industry; and his failure to have published a single piece of peer-reviewed research on the subject of unaffordability in Vancouver.
Who? Chen Mailin - a Jiangsu-province tycoon who got his start as a duck farmer but ended up heading a skyscraper-building conglomerate - isn’t exactly a high-profile figure.
But he strayed into sight of the Hongcouver blog when he paid an eye-watering C$51.8 million for the former home of computer games mogul Don Mattrick, at 4787 Drummond Drive in Point Grey. That may be the most ever paid for a single residential property in Canadian history.
For his money, Chen got a 17,000 sq ft Italianiate mansion with an indoor pool and two-level library, built on a huge 1.1 hectare lot that was once three separate properties.
In the eye of the seller’s realtor, Malcolm Hasman, Chen also got “tremendous value”. “The dirt value alone, I’d put at C$42 million, C$43 million,” Hasman told me back in March. A bargain, then.
When 29-year-old Chinese-Canadian Eveline Xia created the hashtag #DontHave1Million, she set off a social movement for affordable housing that resonated with millennials like her who felt shut out of Vancouver’s market. She would go on to front a rally for affordable housing in Downtown Vancouver in May. And the Hongcouver blog that introduced her to my readers would become the SCMP's most-read piece of commentary for 2015.
Herself a Chinese immigrant, Xia wasn’t shy expressing her concerns about the influx of foreign money into Vancouver’s real estate scene, telling political leaders in her rally speech: “You need to start protecting us from the international capital against which we stand no chance. Let me ask you, how can we be expected to compete for homes with the globe’s billionaires and millionaires?”
Which leads us (as is oft the case in Vancouver) to Bob Rennie.
There’s no show without Punch, and condo king Bob Rennie was front and centre in the affordability debate in 2015. He may be the greatest real estate saleman Vancouver has ever known, but Rennie did his marketing skills no favours when he referred to the Don’t Have 1 Million crowd as “these girls … wanting affordability to be a party game”.
A prominent financial backer of both Mayor Gregor Robertson and BC Premier Christy Clark, Rennie proposed a speculation tax as “a measurable metric, so the racism can calm down and people can see that it [affordability] is being dealt with”. That sounds more like salesmanship than substance.
And Rennie wasn’t exactly envisaging deeply punitive measures: “If it’s sold in the first six months or one year, let’s take five or 10 per cent of that profit.”
Did any Vancouverites really think this piddling measure might deter any speculator worth their salt, let alone the foreign-earning millionaires who care more about finding a place to park their cash and their families? Did any judge this tiny tiddler of a red herring to be an appropriate response to the great whale of a problem posed by the influx of foreign money that so worries Eveline Xia and others?
At least one Vancouverite did. Mayor Robertson jumped aboard Rennie’s plan with unseemly haste (a matter of hours, in fact).
One of the more unusual cameos in the affordability debate came from Australian Philip Soos, touted as an expert economist at esteemed Deakin University. Soos was introduced to Vancouver by a Globe and Mail story that presented Soos debunking fears about foreign investment in Australia as Yellow Perilism (yes, that again), and suggested this as a model for understanding Vancouver’s market.
Soos’ was swiftly cited by other Vancouver media, as well as none other than Bob Rennie himself. With a dearth of research to counter the peer-reviewed work that points squarely to the role of immigration and foreign-earned money in Vancouver’s housing market, I guess the views of a supposed economist halfway round the world were better than nothing.
Unfortunately, it turned out that Soos wasn’t an economist at all, and nor was he studying for a PhD in economics, or political economy, or any such thing. He’s just an IT graduate, and a student seeking a masters in commerce. Oh, and he sells his “research” to the public, now for A$29 a pop.
Praise Andy Yan for his efforts to add more numerical flesh to the logical bones of our understanding of the mechanisms guiding Vancouver’s nutty real estate market.
Yan, who is an urban planner at Bing Thom Architects and is acting director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, was front-page news thanks to his November study which found that two-thirds of all recent house buyers in some of Vancouver’s most expensive neighbourhoods had “non-Anglicised Chinese names”
But pity Yan, too. For what can we say about the standard of debate in Vancouver, when a respected ethnic Chinese housing researcher finds his work criticised for supposed “racist tones” by the city’s white, developer-friendly mayor? Yes, absurd.
The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.