I recently read a tongue in cheek column about the death of facts in modern journalism in the United States. Living next door to a country that's still debating evolution and debunking climate change (not that we're any better in that regard), I'm not surprised. But Mark Hasiuk's columns about foreign real estate investment in Vancouver are a stark reminder that, as with most things, we're in lock-step with our American cousins.
A few weeks ago, Courier columnist, Allen Garr wrote a column suggesting that blaming offshore Chinese for house prices being driven up in Vancouver is bull pucky. Mr. Hasiuk cried foul and responded with factfree anecdotes.
Unlike Mr. Hasiuk, Mr. Garr relied on facts and informed opinions to make his case e.g. the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver (REBGV) and other industry professionals. In response, Mr. Hasiuk relied on a West Side resident who wished to remain anonymous along with a liberal dose of hearsay and innuendo.
He suggested that the REBGV is not in possession of the facts because foreign investors often use local addresses and local lawyers when registering with the land title office. The REBGV collects survey data from its members every single month-not from the land title office.
The information compiled from those surveys indicates that the percentage of foreign buyers in Vancouver has been running between three and four per cent for years. B.C. Assessment numbers show much lower levels of foreign ownership, although those particular statistics could be skewed by foreign investors using local addresses. Given the information that's come from REALTOR® surveys, I'm guessing that accounting for local addresses might bring B.C. Assessment numbers up to oh, say, three or four per cent.
Recently, though, there have been hundreds of actual sales that reveal foreign ownership numbers closer to the B.C. Assessment levels. Telus Gardens, a hot development in downtown Vancouver recently sold out within a month and the developer reported that only four of the 428 buyers were foreign. Less than one per cent.
That information came from the FINTRAC Individual Identification Information Records that buyers' and sellers' agents are legally required to provide in all real estate transactions. The form states that the "record must be completed by the REALTOR® whenever they act in respect to the purchase or sale of real estate." It's required by the Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act.
So facts exist. Anecdotally though, another much larger development coming on stream in Vancouver anticipates that two per cent or less of its buyers will be foreign.
The blogosphere is full of urban legends about mainland Chinese investors being toured through Kerrisdale while eager realtors have them sign sales agreements for 10 or 20 condos, each, over coffee at McDonalds on West 41st Avenue. I'm sure that there have been some-over-the-top purchases made by foreign investors, but those are the exception, not the rule.
We live in a city where the majority of us are visible minorities, many of Chinese descent, so it shouldn't be surprising if the family that bought the house next door is Asian. When I was born in Vancouver in 1954, everyone in my family had come from the United States and was of Danish or Irish descent. Like many in our city, our extended family now represents First Nations, several regions of China, the Caribbean and the list goes on.
And that's a result of something that's been "trending" since Confederation-immigration. As in times past, people from crowded, intolerant or unsafe places who are looking for a safe haven are moving to Canada.
In a column in Business in Vancouver last year, Peter Ladner, former city councillor, said that people in Vancouver are afraid to speak out about foreign ownership because they're afraid of being called racist or socialist.
They're over that now. A bit of race baiting and people are quite happy to speak their minds and write blog posts about any old rumours they've heard at the grocery store or the bus stop.
My favourite is a local real estate blog where someone posted that "a friend of a friend overheard a grocery clerk who is also a mortgage broker mention that she'd been talking to someone in Shanghai about a mortgage." Ha! Foreign investors!
And then there are the reports of shuttered neighbourhoods with no kids on bikes. When we built our house in Kitsilano in 1990, our kids became part of a rat pack that ran, biked, had lemonade stands, delivered the Vancouver Courier and got up to all sorts of nonsense. By the time we downsized in 2007, there wasn't anybody home. You could roll a bowling ball down our sidewalk. Ha! Foreign investors. Nope. Demographics. Retired baby boomers who regularly run off to Palm Springs for the winter or Toronto to visit the grandkids.
As a real estate agent, I don't get it. Are there foreign investors buying property in Vancouver? Of course there are. Ask any realtor in the city and they'll tell you the same story. Foreign investors make up two or three or maybe even four per cent of buyers.
Fortunately, most Vancouverites are fair-minded folks who lament the loss of affordable housing but understand that there are many factors at play in any "market-based" economy. Economic growth, interest rates and unemployment top the list, but location, immigration, demographic trends and yes, foreign investment, are contributing factors as well.
Affordable housing should not be a market issue. It is a public policy issue, one that must be addressed if we want a vibrant, liveable city. One that our city council and mayor are trying to address. One that our provincial government needs to address.
Deb Abbey is a real estate agent at Royal LePage City Centre in Vancouver. She is the author of two best-selling books on Sustainable Investment. You can contact Abbey through her website abbeypartners.ca or email any questions or comments to email@example.com.