Citizens’ group rises up for Vancouver real estate reform
Like a lot of people, Justin Fung is fed up with Vancouver’s housing affordability crisis. So he harnessed that anger into the formation of a non-partisan group called Housing Action for Local Taxpayers.
On Friday afternoon outside the Vancouver Art Gallery he and other HALT members spread the word to the public, that they need to pressure government to address continued offshore demand for real estate. They have started a Facebook page, a petition, and they have plans for a rally.
The group of random strangers came together when they realized they shared a common goal: to raise awareness about the housing crisis, and to push for policy that protects citizens who live and pay taxes in B.C. Mr. Fung is also calling for the collection of data, and for a ban on corporate and union donations to political parties. B.C. is one of the few provinces that allow such contributions.
“The reason I’ve been so adamantly a part of this group is to shine a light on this, to say [to government], ‘What you guys are doing is wrong. It’s corrupt. You’re not looking out for citizens.’ Also to be a voice of a lot of that anger, and to make sure our voices get heard.
“I feel like the frustration has really boiled over. I don’t think there is any sane person not upset, who’s not in the real estate industry.”
A report this week by Royal LePage showed the aggregate house price in the region rose 24.6 per cent year-over-year. It forecasts that by year’s end, prices will increase 27 per cent compared with 2015. Those figures hardly sound alarming any more, not when the average price of a house hovers at around $1.75-million in the region.
The report cites the influence of foreign buyers, defined as people who resided outside of the country for six months or longer.
“According to a survey of Royal LePage real estate advisers working in Greater Vancouver, 74 per cent believed that foreign ownership within the region had increased when compared to the same period last year,” said the report.
It added that only 37 per cent of 161 advisers surveyed believed that foreign buying had an impact of less than 10 per cent. Figures released this past week by the provincial government put the figure at 5 per cent.
HALT blames the government for failing to represent its tax-paying citizens. They say the province doesn’t look at where foreign investment is coming from, and whether the buyers are also living and working in Canada, and paying taxes.
“Look at who’s profiting from this foreign money – it’s not me,” Mr. Fung says. “I didn’t get a 40-per-cent raise last year. The real estate developers are the guys controlling the purse strings to our government, and our governments aren’t acting on behalf of their citizens. That’s what got me upset.”
Fenella Sung, who’s part of another group, Friends of Hong Kong, says she wants to protect the city she’s now devoted to since moving here 26 years ago from Hong Kong.
Like Mr. Fung, she too sees the problem as an overreliance on offshore money. Canadian citizenship has become less about forging bonds with the community than about a business transaction.
“When I came to Canada in the nineties, we all tried to think of how to integrate and how to be a good citizen. It is an entirely different atmosphere right now. We have governments that don’t care whether you stay here or not, whether you integrate or not. It seems like the government just wants your money.
“And if those people buy property here, what’s to complain about? If you look at it from their perspective, we really can’t complain much because the system allows them to do it.”
The emphasis on wealth over community frightens her. In her own South Granville neighbourhood, where she lives in a condo, she has seen many mom-and-pop stores close down and seniors move out of their apartments because they can no longer afford the neighbourhood.
“I’m really passionate about this issue because many of us came here from Hong Kong before, and we saw the same kind of cycle happening there. And now we see the exact same evil forces following us, and it’s not just money, but the mentality, the thinking, the behaviour, all these ways of doing things. The values and everything that comes with the money is really scary.”
Jonathan Lai grew up in Shaughnessy and spent the past 10 years working as a teacher for the Vancouver School Board. Two years ago, he and his wife, an American, purchased a house in Blaine, Wash., because they couldn’t afford a house in the Lower Mainland. They paid $430,000 (U.S.) for a 3,400-square-foot house on four acres. Mr. Lai commuted off and on between Blaine and a rental house in Langley.
When he looks at the neighbourhood where he grew up, he sees a community torn apart.
“In Shaughnessy now, there are walls between these huge monster homes, and empty neighbourhoods and no kids.
“I’m a Vancouverite, and all my friends are living in the Fraser Valley somewhere.”
Now, Mr. Lai is planning to move to Utah, where he also has family, and where it’s more affordable.
“I do think it’s sad [to be leaving] because in order to build a strong sense of culture and community, it’s important to have people who grew up in a city and the community, and who have an emotional and invested interest in being there long term.”
HALT member Raymond Wong is a technologist with a wife and child, who is worried that he’ll also have to leave Vancouver if he wants to expand his family. They currently live in a townhouse in Burnaby. He’d prefer to stay close to his parents, who’ve lived in Vancouver for more than 50 years.
“My parents are worried about not affording their property taxes,” he says. “They are seniors now, they want me around. We’d like to keep our family together.”
Mr. Wong believes the government does not understand the growing outrage. It’s not only young first-time buyers trying to get into the market, or renters trying to keep their homes who are angry. Those who already have housing equity are fed up, because the equity doesn’t mean anything when you’re worried about the future.
“I am a homeowner myself, and my parents are obviously homeowners – my colleagues, too. And we are not happy. Most of them don’t care about equity. They’d rather have their kids grow up and live in Vancouver and have regular normal life, not be forced out to who knows where.”
Jennifer Lloyd, a part-time researcher and mother of two, is a HALT member because she’s “fighting to save her city.” Her family goes back several generations in Vancouver. She and her husband, both PhD graduates, are struggling to raise their family in a cramped condo.
“No generation before me has had a problem staying at home and raising kids, and now it’s become a wealthy person’s right,” she says. “The fact is, the past 10 years has been exceptional in terms of prices. Vancouver hasn’t always been this expensive.”
Ms. Lloyd says other countries have introduced regulations to thwart foreign speculation, and yet when such action is discussed in Vancouver, there are charges of racism. It’s unfair, and “a cruel thing,” she says.
“There has to be an objective way to talk about this without accusing people of racism. It’s incredibly offensive. Why would anybody want to be engaged in local politics if they are going to be branded a racist?”
This past week, Mr. Fung also addressed media reports that said the blaming of offshore buyers for contributing to the crisis was racially motivated.
The idea that people oppose foreign real estate investment because of racism is based on the premise that those who feel they have the most to lose are of European and British descent. But it disregards the diversity of people who’ve invested lifetimes here, who also feel they have a great deal to lose. They see the situation as an imbalance of power, of government catering to the monied class and ignoring its tax-paying constituents.
Also, labelling anyone a racist for suggesting that foreign money might be a culprit can create an irrational climate of fear. South China Morning Post reporter Ian Young leaked a Canada Revenue Agency document this week that revealed a stunning lack of action taken by the agency regarding questionable activity by millionaire immigrants. His source revealed that, “CRA bureaucrats previously feared being labelled racist if they targeted low-income declarers buying real estate ‘because the vast majority of these cases, involving high real estate values, involve Mainland Chinese.’”
The bureaucrats should have simply done their jobs, regardless of the names on the files.
Ms. Sung says people should not be silenced by charges of racism because they take issue with massive inflows of global capital, or question signs of tax evasion or money laundering.
“I’m kind of surprised, because I thought we had gone beyond [the racism issue],” says Ms. Sung. “People are not really understanding the issue, the ones that are bringing this up. They try to silence people and try to use that as a tactic to avoid talking about the real issue. Maybe there are things they don’t want to face. That kind of defeatist attitude bothers me.”
Mr. Wong says the HALT group will help people focus on what matters.
“We need to educate people that our equity does not mean anything. You’re not any richer.”