On a cloudy afternoon in May, a few hundred people gathered in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery to raise awareness about the city's notorious lack of affordable housing.
The movement began after Vancouver-raised Eveline Xia started the hashtag #DontHave1Million to rally local residents who believe rising rental rates and home prices are damaging the fabric of city life. Xia is 29, holds a master's degree in environmental studies and, like many young professionals in the city, doesn't have $1 million to afford an average Vancouver house.
"Housing is not like having a Ferrari. Housing is a necessity," Xia said. "Not to say a house is a necessity, but appropriate, adequate housing is."
At the edge of the crowd, Brad Saltzberg leaned against a fence. Saltzberg has some answers of his own to Vancouver's affordable housing crisis: blame it on the sale of real estate, facilitated by local companies and developers, to Mainland Chinese buyers.*
"I have never, and would never, blame anything on a particular race or ethnicity," Saltzberg said in a note to The Tyee clarifying his views. "In terms of responsibility for the lack of affordability within Vancouver's housing market, the number one culprit is the BC Real Estate Association, who through a lack of regulation has allowed our residential real estate market to transition into a playground for the world's wealthy. Buyers from Mainland China are a major component of this, as facilitated by local real estate companies and realtors."
Over the past decade, newspapers have occasionally published Saltzberg's comments on anti-immigration. He was in the media more frequently this past year, campaigning against bus ads by a social services agency that posted its messages only in Chinese, not English. Saltzberg's campaign led to their removal.
"I'm proud to say I've never believed in multiculturalism for even one minute of my life," said Saltzberg in a July 2014 interview with the North Shore News.
But views like Saltzberg's go unchecked in Vancouver's highly racialized housing debate -- one that blames real estate investors identified to have roots in mainland China for pushing the housing market out of reasonable reach. Stories of Chinese investors buying multiple luxury homes, and recent reports of fugitives "hiding" stolen money turn the heat up even higher.
Metro Vancouver's ethnically Chinese residents are feeling that heat, including Vancouver city councillor Kerry Jang.
Jang once received an email from a resident who claimed an empty house in his neighbourhood was probably owned by a foreign investor. When Jang investigated further, it turned out the house in question was his own, which he had moved out of at the time while it was being renovated.
Jang is a third-generation Canadian, yet his neighbour's complaint points to a xenophobic undercurrent that paints Vancouverites of Chinese heritage with the same wealthy, foreign, money-laundering brush. As activists like Xia now call for more data on foreign housing investment, experts warn racism concerns must also be addressed.
"People have been asking me... as a Chinese-Canadian, how do I feel about this," said Xia. "I feel terrible for people who are being stereotyped. Not all Chinese are wealthy, and not all of them are foreigners. There is a strong Chinese history here in B.C."
Fenella Sung, spokesperson for a group called Friends of Hong Kong, put it more bluntly. She said it's racist to associate "dirty money" with Chinese culture.
The blame game
A UBC history class taught by Prof. Henry Yu documented the phenomenon of "blaming the mainlander" in a video filmed in Vancouver, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
"There is racialization going on right now, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't talk about it," Yu said. "By saying you can't talk about race, that's actually a real problem."
Yu, an expert on Asian-Canadian history, said conflating Vancouver's housing debate with race is nothing new. The surge of Hong Kong citizens migrating to Vancouver in the 1980s and '90s sparked a similar fear of foreign investors inflating real estate prices.
Those decades also saw Vancouver's "monster house" debate take off. When new residents from Hong Kong built large homes in establishment neighbourhoods -- Kerrisdale and Shaughnessy -- predominantly white residents complained the new homes were architecturally jarring and in bad taste. The Hong Kong expats took offence to the term, as it suggested they were monsters by association.
Michael Goldberg, professor emeritus of UBC's Sauder School of Business, did research on foreign investment at the time. In 1990, Vancouver's top foreign investors were not from Hong Kong. They were revealed to be mostly American, British, Dutch, and then German, according to the Canadian Yearbook.
And yet the public eye was still set on East Asians, framing them as the foreigners doing the most harm to Vancouver's real estate landscape.
"The 'Yellow Peril' comes out quite often," said Goldberg of the return of these fears. "Once again, the hysteria is way over blown."
Buying luxury homes isn't the only thing immigrants and Chinese people are blamed and shamed for. In the past year, student protest deemed a new college for international students at UBC "a slap in the face"; a Richmond overpass demonstration blamed immigrants for bad traffic; and businesses in West Vancouver and Richmond face ongoing backlash for posting Chinese-only signage.
Friends of Hong Kong's Sung noted many Metro Vancouver residents encounter "very visible and daily" tensions with individuals believed to be from mainland China. They include arguments about parking, budging in line, or shouting at the mall.
"It's very visible and immediate and people can feel it," Sung said, "not just the Hong Kong community [in Vancouver], but everyone else."
'We are at step zero'
Anyone who lives here knows Vancouver real estate prices are skyrocketing beyond the reach of average incomes. In June 2005, the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver suggested that a "typical" detached Vancouver home costs about $725,000. The same type of Vancouver home in June 2010, five years later, was $1.2 million.
Today, the typical house price sits at $1.8 million, more than double the 2005 number just a decade ago.
Cameron Muir, chief economist for the B.C. Real Estate Association (BCREA), finds one oft-quoted stat regarding Chinese ownership "amusing."
Macdonald Realty, one of the province's largest real estate companies, said that about one-third of its single-family home sales in Vancouver went to Chinese buyers, both recent immigrants and Canadian citizens of Chinese heritage. Muir said this statistic shouldn't be surprising, considering Vancouver's large Chinese population. The 2011 National Household Survey counted that approximately 29 per cent of Vancouver is ethnically Chinese.
"You tend to have people trying to look for easy reasons why prices are high as they are," said Muir, who believes individuals considered to be foreign are an easy scapegoat.
Advocate Xia hopes concrete data on foreign ownership and vacancy will lend some clarity to what has become a murky, racialized affordable housing debate. "The public has a right to know," she said. "We are at step zero compared to the rest of the world."
So far leaders have resisted "give us data" demands. Rich Coleman, B.C.'s minister responsible for housing, said the province has no plans to collect information on foreign ownership and that the B.C. Property Law Act doesn't discriminate against foreign ownership.
"I don't believe we should be in the marketplace," Coleman said in legislature. "We have not had any requests to go and do this work."
Coleman repeated his stance to The Tyee in a July story: the province has no need to collect foreign ownership data, nor would such data provide any answers to the housing crisis.
In a surprise response to The Globe and Mail, Vancouver's Chinese consul-general in Vancouver said Chinese buyers shouldn't be blamed; governments should regulate the housing market more strictly if they believe there's a problem.
There is also evidence that Chinese buyers aren't significantly impacting the market.
To confront the long-held belief of foreign property owners purchasing condos in downtown Vancouver and leaving them empty, Andy Yan led a 2009 study for Bing Thom Architects's R&D division and discovered that only about 5.5 to eight per cent of downtown Vancouver condos were empty in their sample of 2,400 condos. Yan used BC Hydro data to track energy use; those condos that only seemed to be running a refrigerator were considered empty.
On the widely held notion that foreign investment causes local housing unaffordability, UBC geography professor David Ley tracked an almost one-to-one correlation between real estate prices and international immigration to Metro Vancouver 1977 to 2002 (+0.94, if you really want to be exact). During those years, Ley said his data connecting immigration with house prices is "unusually decisive," even rising and dipping during key events like the Hong Kong handover in 1997, due to the number of Hong Kong investors in Vancouver.
While there is no definite number on foreign buyers in Metro Vancouver's housing market, BCREA estimates that foreign ownership in the region is about five per cent. This number is based on data including censuses and the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
Economist Muir sees domestic investors having far more impact on the rising price of detached homes. Local investors make three to four times more purchases than foreign ones, according to the BCREA.
"If you eliminated foreign investment completely from Vancouver," Muir said, "the average homeowner wouldn't notice a change at all."
Muir also pointed to Vancouver's growing population and the geographical limits of the region. Mountains and ocean hem us in; there is limited space to build more detached houses.
"There is an exceptional consumer demand for housing in the province," Muir said, "but this is driven by people who live and work in these communities."
Who are foreigners, anyway?
While foreign money seems to be a popular hypothesis for Vancouver's real estate prices, there is a lack of concrete data that measures the connection.
There is also the tricky matter of defining what is considered "foreign" in potential data, as there are many recent Chinese migrants who are now permanent residents -- like the 37,000 mainland Chinese millionaires that arrived in B.C. between 2005 and 2012 under the now-terminated wealth-based Immigrant Investor Program (IIP).
The BCREA does not consider landed immigrants, permanent residents and Canadians citizens foreign. This means millionaire IIP migrants were excluded from BCREA's estimate of five per cent foreign investment.
There has also been a 150 year history of Chinese migration in British Columbia. Yu said there is a possibility some might consider Canadian citizens of Chinese heritage to be "foreign" -- despite their local roots. There is a perception that individuals, who are in their minds local, are allowed to make money and invest, whereas those considered to be foreign are not, Yu said.
As Vancouver continues to grow -- the Lower Mainland is welcoming 30,000* new residents each year -- the housing crunch will endure. Yu said residents' understanding of what is foreign and local is inherently based on assumptions about race -- and that urgently needs to be addressed.
"Denial doesn't engage the realities of many Vancouverites," agreed researcher Andy Yan. "It misses an honest dialogue about race and ethnicity in the city."
*Story clarified Aug. 10 at 8 a.m.
**Story corrected Friday, August 7 at 8:35 a.m.