Trafalgar, they used to call it. A patch of urban plain between West 16th Avenue and King Edward in Arbutus Ridge on Vancouvers West Side. Prime real estate in a beautiful city. And ground zero of the investor invasion.
A stroll through Trafalgar begins innocently. Rows of parallel streets. White sidewalks. Green lawns. Blue sky, if youre lucky. Far enough from downtown, the neighbourhood rests in quiet. Too quiet. You soon notice you're alone among rows of big-box homes, all peaks and eaves, with ornamental hedges stirring in the wind. Its like a giant film set for a Hollywood blockbuster about a deadly strain of bacteria. Only the goldfish survived.
According to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, last year the average price of a detached home on the West Side rose 20.7 per cent to $1.99 million, continuing a trend of yearly spikes.
Several factors contribute to the boom including foreign investment from China. Unlike other precincts around the world, British Columbia has no restrictions on foreign ownership of real estate. Anyone from anywhere can buy on your street and mothball their investment in perpetuity.
Look no further than the Trafalgar area, perhaps the most striking example of investor decay in the city. It's no longer a community, it's a commodity. A pocket of land bought and tilled by speculators. Down went the old stucco bungalows, once the neighbourhood's signature home, up went dozens of developer specials — two and three-storey monstrosities that often sit empty, windows shuttered, for months. Sometimes years.
It didn't used to be this way.
Colin grew up in the neighbourhood, at Trafalgar elementary and Prince of Wales secondary. He remembers streets bustling with life. Kids on bikes. Barbecues and burning leaves. Now a 38-year-old investment adviser, he lives in a rented bungalow not far from his childhood home. While the street names remain the same, the neighbourhood is unrecognizable. It's really unbelievable. It's eerie, I just shake my head.
Last Friday, Colin took me on a Trafalgar tour. Street after street with many vacant homes. He pointed as we walked. That's empty. That one. That one. The whole side of this street almost.
Colin, not his real name, wishes to remain anonymous, fearing backlash and smears.
You see, as illustrated two weeks ago in the Courier, if you dare note the ethnicity intrinsic to foreign real estate investment in Vancouver, you court charges of bigotry from industry benefactors.
Of course, local realtors and developers have no problem racially profiling potential buyers. For example. Sutton West Coast Realty orchestrates Vancouver home auctions in Shanghai and West Side bus tours for Chinese investors.
Yet Larry Beasley, retired Vancouver city planner and former vice-president of Aquilini Developments, a major industry player, says it's racist to suggest Chinese foreign buyers drive up prices. Politically correct moralizing from Beasley, who also served as special planning adviser for royal dictators in the United Arab Emirates, a country that jails homosexuals for being gay.
Back in Trafalgar, bilingual For Sale signs in English and Mandarin dot front lawns. During our afternoon stroll, we happened upon a grey, two-storey with white-trimmed peaks. The front door was wide open. A young Asian man appeared in the foyer.
"Is this an open house?"
"No," he said, in limited English. "We show to private buyers."
"How much? What's the price?"
"Three point eight nine million."
That's typical of Trafalgar and other sections of Arbutus Ridge, probably the most overpriced neighbourhood in the city. It's a market within a market with baffling trends. According to Colin, several Trafalgar homes seem to exist solely for sale yet never get occupied. These three places in a row, he says, near West 21st and Yew. No one's ever lived there but [For Sale] signs go up for a few weeks then go away for few weeks. It just doesn't make any sense.
Its a murky Monopoly game. Thanks to strict regulation in China, Chinese real estate investors look off-shore for capital gains. Our wild open market attracts investors from everywhere, warping the local supply and demand equation, helping push middle class residents out to the suburbs or into crushing debt.
Christy "Families First" Clark, a committed globalist, won't restrict foreign ownership in B.C. Mayor Gregor Robertson, who slobbered over Beijing during a 2010 trade mission to China, won't reform the tax code to accommodate the new normal. Which means foreign real estate investors pay the same rate (4.2 per cent) as local homeowners, not the business rate (18 per cent) they should.
Two weeks ago, Eugen Klein, president of the Vancouver Real Estate Board, told the Courier that off-shore buyers account for only three per cent of house sales. Rubbish. Because foreigners often use local addresses (their lawyer's office, for example) when registering with the provincial land title office, no one knows how many off-shore investors own homes in Vancouver. Yet Klein's three per cent defence raises questions he'd likely rather avoid.
What percentage. Mr. Klein, of foreign investment is acceptable in Vancouvers real estate market? Ten per cent? Twenty per cent? If 50 per cent of Vancouver was owned by foreigners, would that be OK with you? Where do the interests of your global industry and our city diverge? How deep doth thy zeal for globalization run?
No, they want this conversation to go away. Shut it up before folks get wise. If you're troubled by dead neighbourhoods shuttered by foreign investment, you're a racist dog stuck in 1923. Get back to your rented bungalow. You'll be hearing from us soon.