In British Columbia, a real-estate rage gets real

As an election looms, the B.C. NDP are bringing data to the angry debate over foreign buying in the housing market

A mansion currently under construction in a Vancouver neighbourhood popular with Chinese buyers. (Julie Gordon/Reuters)

A mansion currently under construction in a Vancouver neighbourhood popular with Chinese buyers. (Julie Gordon/Reuters)

Starting next month, if you want to do business with Belcarra, B.C., you’ll be able to do it in one language only, if a proposed bylaw goes ahead. A third and final reading of the law, which will require “Canadian English” in all written and verbal dealings with staff in the Metro Vancouver village of 700, north of Port Moody, is slated for March 29. But it seems that one language, in particular, is being singled out:

“A person will come in, they can speak no English, [they’re speaking] Mandarin or whatever, and expect the municipality to provide translation,” Mayor Ralph Drew told the Vancouver Province on Wednesday. “Or they want to sign a document and they give contact information and it’s all written in Mandarin,” the mayor added.

Larger Lower Mainland communities, like Richmond, have staff on hand to field questions in Cantonese and Mandarin. But Drew says Belcarra, with its six municipal employees, simply doesn’t have the resources.

Belcarra’s new bylaw is just the latest sign of rising tensions over the region’s overheated real estate market, which many blame on wealthy Chinese buyers looking for a safe place to park their money. The debate intensified earlier this week, with news that the benchmark price for a detached home in Greater Vancouver topped $1.3 million in February, up 27 per cent from a year earlier.

Related:What Canada’s average house price gets you in the U.S.

A sky train is pictured in downtown Vancouver, Saturday, March 14, 2015. A unprecedented plebiscite will be asking Metro Vancouver residents if they will be willing to foot the bill for a mega public transportation overhaul. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A sky train is pictured in downtown Vancouver, Saturday, March 14, 2015. A unprecedented plebiscite will be asking Metro Vancouver residents if they will be willing to foot the bill for a mega public transportation overhaul. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

On Wednesday night, in tony Kerrisdale, a crowd of 800 packed the Hellenic Community Hall—intense public interest forced a move to the larger venue—for an emergency town hall meeting to address the “out-of-control real estate market.” It was chaired by rookie MLA David Eby, a former Downtown Eastside poverty lawyer with a knack for publicity.

In the last six months, Eby, who unseated Premier Christy Clark in the last election—the kind of brass-knuckled political play rarely seen outside B.C.—has become B.C.’s most-watched opposition figure by skilfully assuming control of the housing debate.

Last November, the 38-year-old Vancouver–Point Grey MLA and former head of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association helped a city researcher undertake a study showing that more than 70 per cent of homes sold in Vancouver’s West Side went to Mainland China buyers over a six-month period; remarkably, this was some of the first hard data illustrating the extent of foreign ownership in the local market.

For years, the debate relied mostly on anecdotal evidence. And anyone who dared suggest Chinese buyers were flooding the market was branded a racist—primarily by those with skin in the game, the city’s leading developers and condo marketers whose earnings soared as the market has climbed and climbed and climbed, unchecked. Screaming racism was an effective means to shutter the debate. Until now.

Related: What’s the point of Vancouver?

This could yet get ugly. Belcarra, and its “English-only” bylaw, is just the beginning. But in channelling rage over foreign buyers, wild speculative activity, shadow flipping, and realtor misconduct, Eby—rake-thin, young and passionate—has found a way to break the logjam, and tap into something deep and powerful in the psyche of residents of B.C.’s Lower Mainland, where the bulk of the province’s seats are found. There are few more powerful emotions in politics than anger. And for the first time in years, the NDP have found an issue with widespread appeal.

“People are really upset,” Eby said Wednesday night. “Their wages have no connection to the amount of money that is being charged for rent and for housing. People think their kids aren’t going to be able to afford to live here, they see the communities they love really no longer belonging to the community.”

“My younger child is sleeping in my bathroom,” said Jennifer Lloyd, a UBC researcher, who spoke after Eby. Lloyd and her husband, who both have Ph.D.s and can only afford a tiny, rented condo for their family of four.

“This is not a generational issue, this is not a class issue,” said Lloyd. “I want to know that the virtues that I hold dear—hard work, educating ourselves, trying to better our lives—mean something in this city.”

It’s still far from clear that this surging anger risks unseating Clark, in an election slated for next spring. But right now, few are talking about the premier. And no one can seem to get enough of David Eby. One year before an expected election, that’s a dangerous place for the premier to be.


In British Columbia, a real-estate rage gets real

  1. How stupid does housing have to get in this city before any action is taken? Any political party that proposes even semi-viable steps to bring prices back to reality will win the lower mainland with a landslide.

    My favourite solution is to increase the cost of a demolition permit to equal the sale price of the house. It would generate a lot of income for the city, protect character homes, prevent (or massively reduce) shopping from overseas, re-institute a correlation between house quality and price, make houses a less desirable investment and best of all – it doesn’t need to wait years on data gathering.

    Admittedly, that would do nothing for apartment prices, and a lot of construction firms would have to diversify into renovating – but it’s a lot better than anything that’s been proposed thus far.

    • Ban foreign ownership – period. They aren’t citizens and have no rights to ownership here. If it was small scale, no problem, but it’s utterly distorting our market. 0.1% of China’s wealthiest represents 1,300,000 people! Even a small percentage of them coming to Vancouver is massively damaging to our market. Certainly low interest rates are emboldening locals to take on massive levels of debt, but they feel emboldened because the absurd rises in the high end makes everyone believe that prices can only go up.

      • Assuming it can be shown that foreign ownership is in fact having an effect on housing affordability, I agree 100% – ban it.

  2. Give credit where credit is due. David Eby has found an issue that this Liberal government is very vulnerable too. When developers give massive donations to the Liberals and with the government raking in billions in property transfer tax, why would the Liberals change anything.
    Our son is trying to buy his first house at this time. He has worked hard and saved up a sizeable down payment. He is getting outbid several times and has discovered some very sleazy and unethical realtors in the process.
    In one case only 3 bids were offered and the listing agent never showed the owner any of them because he didn’t they were high enough over the asking price! Even in Mission, which is 75 minutes from Vancouver there are bidding wars. Prices here are now over 1/2 million for a decent house/area.
    All our friends only concern is how our kids will be able to afford a house.
    The Liberals simply don’t give a damn. The finance minister is totally out to lunch. His recent budget only helped developers as it expanded the property tax exemption only to new housing. I am very tired of this government and their attitude towards the younger generation. Our children are being sold out by the Liberals!

    • You hit the nail on the head – what on earth are the high-school kids going to do? None but the top 1% can even dream of owning a single family home (and no, that doesn’t make them “entitled” as so many think) in which to raise a family.

      The housing market shouldn’t be a casino with tax free wins. It’s there to allocate houses to all working citizens based on their incomes. Wealthy live in the fancy west-side houses, and the ordinary folks buy SFH’s in the suburbs. Now houses in the burbs start at $1m – what!!!!!!

      I speak with kids regularly and most of course have no idea that they’ll never own a home in their own neighbourhood. Ignorance is bliss i suppose. When they figure it out en masse, the anger may boil over in a very unCanadian way….

  3. It’s not about Liberals or Conservatives. The Chinese what Canada needs: Money, and get what they need: Free Living (free of apparent dictatorship I mean. Otherwise, nothing is truly free in Canada). You don’t like their money? Find a way to make money in a national level. Canada used to be an exporting innovative market before the Conservatives. Now the whole nation is broke due to oil price drop. Te whole country is a service based economy where people try to create money and value out of thin air. It’s impossible body. Economy grows by innovation and hard work, non of which the Canadians are willing for.

  4. The offshore and recent immigrant buyers are being duped by the real estate agents.
    These buyers are blindly relying on the agents to buy their houses and really don’t know the
    local markets. So these buyers are being taken advantage of and paying over inflated prices.
    But the reality is, there are 1.3 billion people in China and assuming the top 1% are
    multi-millionaires, that would be 13 million very rich potential buyers and immigrants to Canada.
    Canada is very attractive and I would prefer to accept very rich immigrants than very poor immigrants.

    • Oh yes, let’s discourage poor and working class immigrants from coming here, since they could actually work and contribute to the economy and community of the city. Instead, let’s encourage the offshore super-rich to buy up all our housing instead. By the way, they don’t even need to live here to do that, nor will they need to work and therefore contribute to the economy and community of Vancouver since they are already super-rich. And you say the skyrocketing housing prices have nothing to do with the offshore super-rich who are voraciously buying up all the property, it is all the fault of real estate agents who are overcharging them. So what you are really saying is that the offshore super-rich should be able to buy up all our housing at a lower price.

      Your “reasoning” leaves much to be desired.

  5. I think you can do things to limit foreign ownership and things to preserve heritage housing and neighbourhood character. Unfortunately, I think the 1st would mostly slow down the *rate* of price increases, and the 2nd would probably make housing even less affordable.

    We aren’t easily going to expand the supply of single-family detached homes in Vancouver. Some further growth is possible if the agricultural land reserve were eliminated, but that’ll exacerbate all of the problems related to sprawl and would at most provide another 20 years of building. Density is probably the way we have to go to provide more housing, but people don’t really like it. Density also isn’t cheap, thanks to real estate prices and the cost of construction. The typical high rise condo runs about half a million dollars. Most of that is actually the cost of the land and the cost of building it in this market.

    Almost anything government does to intervene in the market will have unintended consequences. Rent controls and restrictions on development are a boon for those already living in an area, but a bane of everybody coming afterwards. Loosening restrictions on development to increase supply will be unpopular with existing residents; restricting development hurts newcomers. I understand the frustration related to the cost of housing, but sometimes the existence of a problem doesn’t mean that there’s a solution.

    • In the short to medium term, increasing density (condos and T/Hs) actually increases the
      value of surrounding single detached homes for the potential of rezoning for higher density.
      Also, the Canada line and Skytrain transit systems have further increased the value of
      single detached houses surrounding the individual stations.

  6. Vancouver has joined the club of cities for the global 1%. Vancouver residents have only themselves to blame for buying into the dialectic of bubblenomics and watermelonomics. A real economy is messy and “dirty”. Enjoy your “serfdom” serving the richest of the global rich.

    You built your city for global oligarchs and elites. Serve them or leave. You thought you were building paradise. You were, but for someone else. Be careful what you wish for.

    • The irony is it only takes the global 0.1%, not even the 1%. 0.1% of the Chinese population is STILL 1,300,000 people. One can assume that these people are all wealthy if they are in the top 0.1%. It only takes a small proportion of them to sneak their money illegally out of China and into Vancouver for it to massively distort a city of population 600,000.

  7. the impact of this foreign ownership and as a consequence a high percentage of unoccupied houses is felt by: the local stores, they don’t have the customers: the education system with declining enrolment; the parks and public amenities, low user rates; restaurants, fewer customers; clubs and organizations, fewer members and volunteers; and workers generally, except for gardeners and realtors there are fewer jobs for supporting city dwellers. so its not just about driving up the prices. it is also about killing the city as a place to live.

  8. As someone who comes from a country where passions run violently high (Northern Ireland), I’ve always been struck by Canadians’ passivity. The citizens of Vancouver’s Lower Mainland have passively watched wealthy non-citizens buy up their city en masse and drive home ownership either beyond the means of locals on their low BC incomes, or to the point where it requires absurd levels of sacrifice to afford even a basic home.

    My generation and the generation before me have a responsibility to pass along to the younger generation a functioning housing market that can provide a basic home for all hard-working citizens. The government regulates almost all aspects of Canadians’ lives, so why doesn’t the government do its duty and regulate an out-of-control real estate market? It’s hard to see how any student graduating high school this June will ever be able to afford a house in which to raise a family. The government has many tools they could use to reduce speculation and house prices, but they are terrified of upsetting those who’ve already made their lottery-sized, tax-free wins in the real estate casino.

    • Very well said, Ulsterman. I wish I could copy and paste this on other sites. I moved to Vancouver from the U.S. four years ago and I’ve noticed the same thing — Canadians are profoundly apathetic about issues that would cause riots where I am from.

      As for the BC government, the current leaders are in bed with the realtors and developers and they have done nothing but encourage the out-of-control speculation to serve their own interests. It is well known that BC realtors have overseas offices hawking Vancouver real estate to the highest bidder. The government has helped create a monster that is now destroying the city, but you can bet those in power will continue to hide behind the excuse of “protecting equity for existing homeowners” in order to keep this thing going. After all, they have a personal stake as well — their own equity has gone way up as a result of this ongoing fiasco. They need to be voted out en masse for any significant change to occur, but the damage is already done.

  9. Ban foreign ownership, period! It’s not rocket science. Canadian land for Canadians who reside here. This is the same problem in major cities around the globe where foreign ownership is permitted. London, Vancouver, Toronto, NYC, et al. are now all owned by foreigners solely as investment vehicles.

    Who the hell is going to run these cities if people can’t afford to live in them? If I’m making less than a living wage I can do that anywhere so why am I going to waste my time and money commuting into the city? No, I’ll move somewhere I can afford to buy a house and live on the cheap. And all these cities are starting to feel that. In NYC they’re screaming about no one wants to work in restaurants and shops anymore. Not when they can’t afford to live there and all you pay are slave wages and no benefits they sure don’t.

    The unmitigated greed of the elites is finally starting to come back around and bite them in the ass. We’re going to see politics get a lot more extreme in the coming years and average citizens getting a lot angrier and finally doing something about it – because they’re finally being forced to. People are waking up to the fact that democracy doesn’t work if you don’t participate and the politicians – representatives of the elites – need to be replaced with ones that actually work for the people. It’s why Trump and Sanders are having such success. Sure they won’t win, but they’re indicative of whats coming on a much larger scale. Business as usual has to end. Time for a new paradigm, of the people, for the people, and bu the people.

    • Well said. Why do we put the desires on non-citizens above the needs of locals? Free trade / unfettered free movement of global capital is just an economic philosophy, not some law passed along from God. In our case, it doesn’t bloody work! It’s destroying the functioning of the local housing market.

  10. It’s funny how the 2nd largest country in the world with a population
    of only 36 million is complaining about high real estate prices.
    It shows how inefficiently we are using our vast land.
    As a comparison, more than seven Englands could fit into the province
    of BC, and England has the population of 53 million (1.5X all of Canada).
    The City of London has about the same population density of Vancouver
    at 5,400 people per square kilometer. Interesting facts to ponder.

  11. Anytime governments try to get involved to regulate human behaviour, it usually doesn’t turn out well. What you have is a bunch of greedy people – greedy sellers, greedy buyers. Let them duke it out and whoever is left can claim victory.

    The bigger problem in the city of Vancouver (which by the way is NOT the entire lower mainland) is that city regulations has made it very expensive to build lower cost units. So there is a limited number of houses which is being chased by high demand. Go figure that it will cause problems.

  12. The fact that non-residents are buying up homes in the older sections of Vancouver doesn’t explain why real estate prices are also climbing in newer suburban areas well outside of Vancouver. I think the underlying problem is that the population of the metropolitan Vancouver area has greatly increased and is continuing to increase. Does continued population growth make sense? While a larger population may result in more economic growth how does that help the existing population? Higher housing costs and more time spent commuting would seem to be a real downside to ongoing population growth.

  13. Since 2005 property developers and real estate companies have “donated” over $6,750,000 to the BC Liberals. One property developer has made over $1,000,000 in “donations” to the BC Liberals in the last 10 years. Since 2005, real estate companies and real estate associations/boards have “donated” over $635,000 to the BC Liberals.
    What are real estate boards doing making political donations?

    Four of Vision Vancouver’s top five corporate donations in the last round of municipal elections came from property developers. At the same time, five of NPA’s top ten corporate donations in the last round of municipal elections came from property developers. One corporation “donated” $360,000 to the NPA.

    There has not been the political will to tackle this issue because it puts so much money in the political parties campaign funds.

  14. Christie needs to lecture Alberta some more to distract from this. Perhaps she can implore Albertans to further diversify their economy in a BC-like fashion by getting into the foreign money laundering and pot growing businesses. Clear cutting half the province is also a good idea, since the reduction in the carbon sink from doing so is of no consequence to climate change warriors whose laser focus is on pipelines.

  15. Dirty practices like shadow flipping by realtors, money laundry use of buying great number of properties, and thousands of empty homes owned by foreign investors have contributed hugely to skyrocketing prices and huge shortage of homes in Lower Mainland, Metro Vancouver and even in the Island. The BC and Federal governments have kept ignoring these issues which have apparently caused big affordability problems and housing crisis in BC.

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