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What Vancouverites Don't Know Is Hurting Our Housing Hopes

We know the data we need. Time to demand it, critics say. Second in a series.

By David P. Ball 16 Jul 2015 | Tyee Solutions Society

David P. Ball reports on affordable housing for Tyee Solutions Society. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous reporting published on The Tyee here.

This series is produced by Tyee Solutions Society. It was made possible through the support of the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., the Catherine Donnelly Foundation, Vancity Credit Union, the Aboriginal Housing Management Association, the Vancouver Foundation, and in partnership with Columbia Institute. TSS funders neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other TSS produced articles, please visit www.tyeesolutions.org for contacts and information.

You could tell that famously leisure-obsessed Vancouver's heated housing debate had taken a bizarre turn when 150 people bearing protest placards gathered outside the city's library on June 24 to demand: "Give Us Data."

The rally's organizer, Eveline Xia, admitted it was all a bit "nerdy to be at the library talking about data." Nonetheless, "by denying us the data" about who's buying what in the city's housing market, she said, "they're denying us the truth" about why home prices are more out of line with incomes in Vancouver than almost anywhere else on Earth.

And without that information, Xia adds, the city's accommodation affordability crisis will only get worse by the day.

The 29-year-old Xia came to prominence this spring when her Twitter hashtag #DontHave1Million -- a reference to the average price of a detached Vancouver house -- went viral. It captured growing concerns among many in her generation that owning a home may be forever out of reach. In the days leading up to last month's rally, she started a second Twitter slogan to rally people around her new cause: #GiveUsData.

The demand reflects a growing public awareness that the "X" factor driving up home prices in Vancouver is non-resident investment from outside the city in residential properties. Few experts dispute that such "invisible" or "dark" money is the most likely explanation for a mysterious $300,000 premium on the price of Vancouver homes (including detached and condominium homes) compared with similar U.S. cities.

Where that money may be coming from, how much of it is flowing into the city, what kind of properties it's purchasing and why (as residences or merely as investments), and whether those properties are occupied -- are all unanswered questions, however.

'We are data-poor'

Absent factual information, the subject is open to uninformed speculation -- much of it turning bitter as pundits accuse each other of racism, xenophobia, class resentment, and being in developers' pockets.

Xia has a point: it's hard to figure out what could be done about Vancouver's dark money problem when its sources, size and activities are all unknowns. It's also an old trope in society that the fear of such unknown threats often leads to unjustified scapegoating -- typically of people perceived as outsiders.

While some call Xia's Twitter-based movement naive or misguided in its aims, and others question whether home owning should even be a realistic expectation for her generation, the fact that her rallies have drawn hundreds indicates growing public impatience with the lack of apparent response to an issue that is intensely personal for many.

Both rallies featured fiery speeches by opposition politicians and academic experts on housing.

"I never imagined I would see the day when in Canada we actually had to demand data," Professor Penny Gurstein, director of the University of British Columbia's community and regional planning department, told the crowd outside the Vancouver library.

"Not only are many of you house-poor," Gurstein continued, "but you're data-poor. We are data-poor because of the refusal of all levels of government to collect and provide the data needed to have a serious conversation about the drivers of escalating housing prices."

So: if getting good data is the necessary first step to bringing housing prices in Vancouver back within reach of its residents, what is it, exactly, that the City and its public need to know?

"Why don't we have data on the percentage of international investment in our housing market?" Gurstein asked. "Why don't we know how much of our unaffordability is due to speculation? Why don't we even know how much investment is being made in B.C. from other provinces?"

Xia expanded on Gurstein's list with four further data demands.

First, she wants to see what percentage of houses are being bought by non-residents of Canada, information that could be determined by comparing property-owners' rolls with Canadian federal income taxpayers, or by requiring residency disclosure in real estate transactions.

Secondly, she'd like to see how often and how fast properties are being flipped after purchase. The ownership information that could provide that information resides in B.C.'s Land Title and Survey Authority.

Xia would also like to know how many Vancouver homes are left vacant for a significant time after purchase. That's something Mayor Gregor Robertson has identified as a problem in the past. But exactly how many Vancouver addresses are unoccupied has been the subject of indirect guesswork, seeking hints in indicators like Hydro usage, night-time lighting, where property-tax assessments are mailed, and more.

More provocatively, Xia wants figures on "how much real estate is purchased through illegal methods that can be considered money laundering," although it's difficult to see how that could be reliably estimated. The question arises from recent revelations that Chinese police are investigating illegal funds flowing into Vancouver properties.

Speculation from within?

University of B.C. geographer David Ley is one of the many expert observers who have concluded that Vancouver's relatively low wages cannot alone explain its soaring real-estate prices. If it's not coming from Vancouver's own residents, then the money pushing average single-family home prices above $1.1 million must be coming from beyond the city and metro region's limits. But from where?

Without better data, Ley agrees, it's hard to go further -- and impossible to pin the blame, as some are doing, mainly on cash flowing from China.

Certainly one possibility, Ley suggests, is that there's a "considerable amount of speculation" investment coming from elsewhere within Canada. "It's not all from overseas. In the absence of data we certainly should not rule that out."

582px version of Vancouver data rally
Photo by David P. Ball.

To know better, Ley said he would need to see where buyers and sellers are actually paying their income taxes: whether in Canada or abroad, and if in Canada, then in which province. If a buyer were paying income tax overseas, it would indicate that Vancouver was merely an investment capital destination, as several commenters have claimed.

Robertson, the mayor of a multi-ethnic city with a large Asian and specifically Chinese-descended population, downplays foreign ownership as a factor, emphasizing instead real estate speculation and absent owners of empty homes.

In a phone interview with Tyee Solutions Society, Robertson said the City needs "more detail" on how many empty condos and houses exist, and how often properties are re-sold within months after purchase, to understand the extent of activity and the profits involved.

"The province used to collect good data on all this," the mayor said. He'd like to see it shared with his staff and the public. "Put all the data on the table and let's make some decisions on the actual tools and changes that need to be made so there's more affordability."

Robertson's complete interview will appear later in this series.

Be careful what you ask for

Ley warns, however, that even if Vancouverites get the information the activists at #GiveUsData are demanding, it may not cool the increasingly scalding argument over outside investment. "The data is certainly not the be-all and end-all here."

Analysts would need to be "quite sophisticated" in interpreting any data released, the UBC prof cautioned. International investors "have found ways to make capital seem like it's local," he said. "Ultimately that may be offshore capital. It is very hard to trace."

Families abroad front the money for children studying in Canada to buy local investment properties, without the intention of living here, he said. Foreign "investment consortiums" finding local proxies to buy and hold properties on their behalf in Vancouver. "Even if we had the data," Ley added, "those units would be shown as being bought by a local buyer, when in fact the capital is coming from offshore."

While demands grow for more public data in B.C.'s largest city, its deputy premier and minister responsible for housing insists the province already knows all it needs to know. Rich Coleman said the province doesn't need to collect the statistics demanded by Vancouver, nor would the information it already gathers address the city's concerns around property speculation and empty homes.

"We've worked with the real estate guys for years and have got data on sales," Coleman said. Asked twice why not at least share the data, he redirected the topic to dangers of restricting foreign investment, claiming that "throws an ethnic group out there and says they're the problem."

For its critics in academia and rallying around the #GiveUsData hashtag, Coleman's response -- raising the spectre of race-baiting -- provided no explanation for why the province won't simply release existing basic property transfer data, even if it avoids collecting buyers' citizenship or residency status as too politically unpalatable.

Speaking at a recent event titled "The Elephant in the Room," Fenella Sung, a spokeswoman for Friends of Hong Kong who helped organize the event, accused politicians reticent to hand over the facts on home-buyers of cowardice: "Governments say, 'No data, no action.' That's the easy way out."

Ley won't go that far -- or accept the lack of data as an excuse for inactivity. "We've got to keep returning to the bottom line: local incomes cannot support this local housing market," he argued. "Data is important, but the bottom line is housing affordability."

Xia doesn't disagree. No single datum or policy will offer a "magic solution" to Vancouver's sizzling housing crisis, Xia admitted to her library doorstep audience. On the other hand, she added, "Ignorance is not bliss."

It certainly won't silence the debate over why Vancouver's citizens can't afford to live there.  [Tyee]

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