In British Columbia, a real-estate rage gets real - Macleans.ca

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

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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.