The Hongcouver
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Vancouver’s mayor never dreamed foreign-funded housing crisis would get so bad. If only he’d been warned…

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 November, 2016, 1:58am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 November, 2016, 3:54pm

Vancouver’s Mayor Gregor Robertson never thought the city’s housing affordability crisis, driven by foreign money, would get so bad.

If only someone had warned him. It’s downright tragic.

Robertson is right that things have got very, very ugly since he moved in to City Hall in 2008, though it’s not all (or even mostly), his fault. Prices have exploded. More than 90 per cent of Vancouver’s detached homes cost beyond C$1 million, even though the city’s household incomes are among the lowest in Canada. The benchmark price for all housing kinds across the wider Metro Vancouver region is C$919,300, by far the highest in the country. The average detached price in the City of Vancouver itself? An astonishing C$2.6 million.

In an interview with the Guardian published this week, Robertson says he “wouldn’t have dreamed the crisis would get this intense” over the past six years, blaming “global capital”, as well as the federal and provincial governments not doing enough. He almost comes off as an heroic figure in the battle for housing affordability, joining a “global cadre of mayors squaring off against superheated housing markets to ensure that middle- and low-income earners have a place to call home”.

Robertson describes city-level governments “dealing with chaos on our streets and people struggling to find a place to live”.

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The inconvenient truth, of course, is that alarm bells have been ringing about foreign money and Vancouver’s housing crisis for ages. And it was a lot more recently than six years ago that Robertson had been ignoring the claxon.

Not just ignoring it, but throwing a blanket over it, trying to kick out the plug and calling it a racist.

It was only one year ago that the mayor tried to swat away housing researcher Andy Yan - who highlighted the massive role of foreign and recent immigrant buyers from China in some segments of the market - for his work’s supposed “racist tones”. In an environment like Vancouver - which deservedly prides itself on diversity and inclusivity and has a major ethnic Chinese population - such an assertion was like Kryptonite. Yan, himself an ethnic Chinese Vancouverite whose grandfather paid the racist anti-Chinese head tax, was infuriated by the slander.

But nowadays, the mayor is all about the pernicious impact of foreign money, or “global capital” as he prefers to call it. How times have changed.

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Robertson started talking about how “unregulated, speculative global capital” had detached housing prices from local Vancouver incomes only as recently as June this year, or thereabouts. He has since used the “global capital” line in a series of op-eds and interviews.

If only someone had warned him sooner.

But what you hear depends which way you turn your head.

The very first Hongcouver blog, published almost exactly three years ago, took Robertson to task for branding concerns about mainland Chinese money ‘ridiculous’

I wonder where Vancouver would be if Robertson had swivelled his ears not towards the real estate development industry that helped fund his political ambitions, but instead towards the likes of Professor David Ley. Perhaps the most renowned geographer in Canada, Ley has been cranking the foreign-money siren for years, most notably with his 2010 book “Millionaire Migrants”, in which he described a 94 per cent correlation between immigration and home prices in Vancouver over a 30-year period.

Robertson blames “global capital” now, but what if he had been so inclined six years ago, back when detached prices were a bit more than half what they are today? What if Robertson had caught wind of the peer-reviewed work of Markus Moos and Andrejs Skaburskis, who in 2010 described how wealthy and foreign-earning immigrants were de-coupling Vancouver’s housing market from the local economy?

It’s not as if the real estate industry itself, in its more candid moments, was ignorant of the forces at play either. In its Q1 2011 sales summary, the Landcor Data Corporation, the most respected private number-cruncher in the industry, concluded that 74 per cent of luxury sales in Westside Vancouver and Richmond likely went to buyers hailing from mainland China.

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In 2014, MacDonald Realty concluded that 33.5 per cent of all houses it sold in the City of Vancouver the previous year went to buyers with “mainland Chinese names”.

Maybe Robertson would have been quicker to note data like this, had it not been for the pro-development Iagos dripping poison in his ears

Because they were such big spenders, they represented almost half the dollar value of the detached market. MacDonald would later report that 70 per cent of all C$3million-plus sales in 2014 went to such buyers, mirroring Landcor’s data.

Maybe Robertson would have been quicker to note data like this, had it not been for the pro-development Iagos dripping poison in his ears about the supposed racist intent and lack of evidence behind assertions about foreign money.

But if only someone had warned him sooner, right?

None of this lets provincial and federal authorities off the hook. But as the mayor of a city at the epicentre of a globally remarkable phenomenon, Robertson was uniquely placed to raise the alarm himself. Instead, a development lobby desperate to downplay the role of foreign money had the run of the city, peddling the insidious case that it was all in Vancouverites’ bigoted imagination.

The great, sad, irony is that the housing crisis has gotten so bad that the risk of a genuine racist backlash is very real.

I take no great satisfaction from the fact that the very first Hongcouver blog, published almost exactly three years ago, took Robertson to task for branding concerns about mainland Chinese money “ridiculous”.

Robertson did not have to dream about Vancouver’s housing crisis, nor the catastrophic role of foreign money. The crisis and its causes were unfolding in plain sight for years, even as he and others squeezed their eyes wide shut.

If only someone had warned him.

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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 ian.young@scmp.com or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.