Editorial: Deeply Disappointed by coverage of latest foreign buyer study

Some mainstream media reports on latest Chinese real estate buyer study are “questionable” in themselves

Note: This editorial first appeared in rew.ca/news. To see the original post click here.

There’s nothing that stirs up media frenzy in this city quite as much as a new study on foreign (particularly Chinese) buyers snapping up Vancouver real estate — and this week has been no exception. But what has deeply disturbed me this week has been the way the findings have been reported by some outlets.

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The latest study to stir the debate is that of UBC adjunct professor Andy Yan, who with the help of NDP MLA David Eby, examined three West Side neighbourhoods to see who was buying homes in these desirable spots. Yan looked at the purchases of 172 single-family homes between August 2014 and February 2015 and counted how many were made by people with non-anglicized Chinese names. The answer, he found, was around two-thirds of those homes.

So far, no great surprises there. After all, we’re talking about West Point Grey, Dunbar and the University Endowment Lands. Three of the most desirable single-family home neighbourhoods in one of the most desirable cities in the world. Naturally the wealthiest buyers (which in Vancouver’s case tend to be Chinese buyers) are going to gravitate to those areas. That’s where the fabulous homes are.

And it’s not even new information. Although this is the first time such a study has been done under the banner of an academic institution, other studies from individual brokerages, like Macdonald Realty, have given us the same kind of results in the past year or so.

So it was with some surprise that I saw how incredibly hyped this story was earlier this week, splashed as top story across the mainstream TV, radio and newspaper outlets. I was interviewed for my response and appeared on TV and radio talking about it a dozen times over two days.

But, I get it. People are passionate about this subject because it is generally perceived that foreign buyers of Vancouver real estate are pushing up prices, and they want to know more. So go ahead, Vancouver media — do your worst.

And the worst, it seems, is what several did. Reading some of the coverage of this study truly made my blood boil. In some cases, the so-called “reporting” was, to my mind, tantamount to inciting racism.

The study, although so small a sample size as to be meaningless (172 home sales out of more than 24,000 in Greater Vancouver in that six-month period), is not in itself racist. After all, it is simply reporting some facts, and even describes itself as merely a “case study”. But it’s not very helpful to look at one particular ethnic group and their real estate buying behaviour in a very small segment of the overall market. And it’s certainly not accurate to imply that this necessarily has a profound effect on the prices of all the other 24,000 homes sold in the region in that time. It may have some trickle-down effect – but we don’t know how much.

So the study itself was deeply flawed. But that’s not what makes me angry.

What really upsets me is when trusted news outlets (either knowingly or unknowingly) sensationalize and misreport research findings in order to attract viewers and readers, manipulating the presentation of headline figures to their own ends. Some don’t even seem to realize they are doing it, which demonstrates a level of journalistic ignorance (or laziness) that is unacceptable.

It’s quite possible that when one news anchor said “We now have concrete proof of the profound influence of Chinese buyers on the Vancouver real estate market,” the reporter who wrote the script really believed this to be true. After all, it is very easy for a lazy or inexperienced journalist to think so, if all they do is look at the study's headline figures. Whereas any half-decent reporter would have done some research, looked at the bigger picture and understood there is much more to the story.

But what’s even more disturbing is that several newspaper reports on the study linked their coverage with previous media reports containing accusations of corrupt money from China being laundered through Vancouver real estate. This may (or may not) be something that is happening, and some of the homes examined in the study may or may not have been used to do this. But there is absolutely no evidence that any of these homes were bought for any such nefarious purpose, and to suggest they were is outrageous.

One local newspaper said, of the 18 per cent of Chinese-name-purchased homes found to be bought with no mortgage, “That’s $100 million of questionable cash being poured into the West Side.” As if all that cash is “questionable” just because it’s from Chinese-named people. If anything is going to encourage prejudice by Vancouver’s non-Chinese population against its Chinese immigrants, it’s that kind of talk. There’s no excuse for it.

On the flip side, I commend City’s Breakfast Television show and CBC’s World at Six radio program for well-rounded coverage that looked at all sides of the debate and at the bigger picture. That’s the kind of balanced journalism we need.

Newspapers, TV news and radio outlets are trusted by the people as truth-tellers. They have a serious responsibility when covering hot-button issues, as what they say has a direct influence on what people really believe. As an immigrant buyer myself, it saddens me greatly, but I frequently see many non-Chinese locals pointing the finger accusingly at Chinese immigrants, blaming this group for high house prices. I believe that a major reason for this problem is the way the topic is portrayed by mainstream media, and it’s time this changed.

So come on, Vancouver media. We’re not trying to win any Pulitzers here — just a bit of thoughtful, informed, helpful journalism is what’s needed.

As for Mr Yan and his research: maybe next time, a study on home buyers with European-origin last names, in the neighbourhoods of… Greater Vancouver? I believe that demographic group has really been influencing local house prices.

Joannah Connolly is the editor and content manager of REW.ca and Real Estate Weekly newspaper, and editor-in-chief of Western Investor and West Coast Condominium. She also moonlights as the Real Estate Therapist on Roundhouse Radio 98.3FM every Saturday, 9-10am. A dual Canadian-British citizen, Joannah has nearly 20 years of media experience in Vancouver and London, with a background in construction, architecture and business media. Like many of the residents of her newly adopted town, Joannah has a decidedly unhealthy passion for Vancouver real estate and is often to be found scouring property listings well above her pay grade.

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