In one of West Vancouver’s nicest neighbourhoods, nobody’s home except dust bunnies and raccoons
VANCOUVER — In one of Canada’s most expensive neighbourhoods, in hilly West Vancouver, sits a row of seemingly abandoned mansions.
Not a single person can be found on the upper north side of Highview Place on a weekday midafternoon.
The homes were developed by British Pacific Properties, starting in 2013. The company builds “exceptional master-planned communities,” according to its website. The houses are valued at between six and eight million dollars.
The only sign of life is a robin flitting in six-foot-tall weeds.
In the front yard of one house, a handful of goldfish swim in a pond lined with spiderwebs.
In another, blinds, still in boxes, sit in an unfurnished room waiting to be installed on the bare windows.
In front of yet another, dead leaves have settled on a bulky parcel resting against the front door.
The Star knocked on the doors of the seven houses, but didn’t find anyone at home. Land titles for the homes list mailing addresses in Vancouver, West Vancouver and Richmond, B.C., while others list addresses in China.
A visit to two of the Vancouver mailing addresses on a Friday afternoon — a house on Vancouver’s west side and a Coal Harbour condo — failed to find the owners of the West Vancouver properties.
The Star also sought comment from the developer, British Pacific Properties. Renu Bakshi, a spokesperson for the company, said the president, Geoff Croll, could not be reached by deadline.
According to Statistics Canada’s 2016 Census, West Vancouver has the highest rate of unoccupied homes of all the municipalities that make up Metro Vancouver, at 9.2 per cent. Vancouver has the next highest rate, at 8.2 per cent.
Single-detached house prices in West Vancouver rose 37 per cent between 2015 and 2016, as a wave of real-estate speculation swept the region, and the affluent suburb became known as a hot spot for luxury homes.
Mary-Ann Booth, a West Vancouver city councillor and mayoralty candidate, said she began hearing concerns about empty homes about three years ago, at a time when property prices began to rise dramatically. Booth believes many of the houses are being used as investments rather than homes to live in full-time.
Prices are now declining following provincial measures to tax foreign ownership and speculation, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, but houses in West Vancouver still cost an average of $3 million, and the municipality is now facing a decreasing population, according to StatsCan. There are few affordable housing choices in the municipality, Booth says.
On a practical level, the district has also been left with a glut of empty homes. When something goes wrong, finding the owner can be difficult.
And to some, the houses represent an incredible waste in a region where many are struggling to find a place to live.
Not far away from the row of empty homes on Highview Place, stonemason Breton Crellin has been helping build similar mansions he believes have contributed to him and others locals getting priced out of Vancouver, his hometown. Crellin now lives in Pitt Meadows, a 45-minute drive away.
“This is my industry that has built part of these homes,” Crellin said.
“My trade has become little more than a way for people to increase the value of their investment,” said the 31-year-old, who helps install stone around fireplaces and builds rock retaining walls and stone pillars.
Crellin said it’s heartbreaking to see the “level of neglect and abandonment” of the homes like the ones he has helped build recently in West Vancouver and Richmond. To the former landscaper, the dead and dying plants “look like money wasted on the ground.”
A few doors south, a neighbour, who was not comfortable giving her name, said that in the three years she’s lived on her street, there’s never been anyone living in the row of empty Highview mansions.
A week ago she said her husband approached the properties and took photos. He plans to take them to the city of West Vancouver to complain.
“It’s very unsightly. There are six-foot weeds in front of the property,” she said. “It takes away from the vibrancy of the neighbourhood.”
Booth has also encountered empty homes in her neighbourhood of Ambleside. She recently encountered a vacant home with water pouring out of a flooded basement.
“You could see the water was seeping out and clearly something was going on in the basement of that house,” she said, but she wasn’t sure who to report the damage to.
Another house on her street was bought by a developer, but remains empty.
It’s providing a home to someone, though: “I heard (from neighbours) the back door was open and raccoons were going in there,” Booth said.
West Vancouver has a good neighbour bylaw that allows for residents to complain about unkempt yards and badly maintained homes. If the problem is bad enough, city staff can do repairs and add the cost to the homeowner’s property taxes.
But while Vancouver recently became the first Canadian city to levy an empty-homes tax — and expects to collect $30 million this year — West Vancouver is still looking for a way to tackle the problem.
In February, West Vancouver councillors passed a motion to ask the province for the power to try a different policy: the ability to charge different property tax rates if houses are vacant or are not being used as principal residences.
The province has not yet agreed to allow the tax changes.
Jenny Peng is a Vancouver-based reporter covering business. Follow her on Twitter: @JennyPengNow
Jen St. Denis is a Vancouver-based reporter covering affordability and city hall. Follow her on Twitter: @jenstden