Matt Hern: Vancouver's core real-estate problem is profiteering and not whether buyers are of Chinese ancestry

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      By Matt Hern

      This past week news followers across the Lower Mainland were greeted with the results of a study looking at the ethnicity of home buyers in Vancouver's West Side. Breathless media indulgences ringing with Trumpian echoes followed, suggesting this was the evidence we had all been waiting for, the evidence that confirmed suspicions that 'our' Vancouver is being overrun by rapaciously-rich Chinese hordes. In this spirit, for example, The Province wrote: "Vancouver Real Estate is a Mainland Chinese Buyers' market."

      The catalyst for all of this is a case study authored by urban researcher Andy Yan and publicized by Vancouver–Point Grey MLA David Eby. The study, in Eby's words, "bears out the anecdotal feelings that people have about Mainland China buyers.... We're still at the point where we won't even admit we have an issue, while other jurisdictions have studied this or taken action. It's my hope this data shows that this money has a profound influence."

      What does this case study actually show? The report studied 172 recent sales of detached homes in the UBC Endowment Lands, Dunbar, and West Point Grey, looking for "non-anglicized Chinese" names on title for these properties and found that 66 percent of these owners had non-anglicized Chinese names, which Yan said "implies they're new arrivals".

      But does it? At best, this case study shows simply that, in a small time slot, for a very particular and contained piece of Vancouver's geography, roughly 100 homes may be owned by people of Chinese ancestry. So what?  Presumably, there are some homeowners in that area of Scottish, Iranian, German, and/or Greek ancestry also.

      To be blunt: this is regrettable research and analysis and needs to be repudiated firmly. I know both David and Andy and consider both fine colleagues, but there are dangerous currents at play here.

      This city has a long and highly shameful history of singling out racialized populations and heaping blame on them for real and perceived civic ills—often precipitating long, painful periods of explicit discrimination, violence, and racism. This research and the media rounds it has inspired are uncareful and irresponsible as to this tradition.

      If you worry about the number of Chinese people in Vancouver, this is relevant research. If you are interested in propagating a fear of 'foreigners', this research has some purchase.

      But, if you think, as most do, that the problem here is endemic unaffordability driven by a wildly speculative housing environment, where wealth rules and residential property has more value as investment than as homes, there is significant other research that needs to be done; home ownership affordability for detached, West Side homes will not be the best focus for that research.

      The low vacancy rate and the lack of affordable, adequate rental housing are Vancouver's emergency concerns. From this perspective, focus should be on the poor and working-class people of every background, those marginalized by current regimes of housing, and property allocation.

      Clear policy prescriptions to address these concerns are obvious and available. Increasing affordable and family-friendly rental stock, ensuring a robust nonmarket housing sector, and government investments in social housing, in combination with market containment policies like speculation taxes, rent control, and land-value taxes will confront the problem effectively.

      The issue is not 'Chinese' money: the core problem facing our housing market is that it is a market, turning land and homes into property on which to speculate and profit. It makes no difference at all whether a particular investment in Vancouver's housing market comes from Chengdu or Calgary, Kerala or Kerrisdale.

      The causes of our current crisis are speculation, profiteering off of shelter, governments in default of obligations to ensure affordable rental housing, and a policy regime that consistently privileges the most wealthy among us. Those are the issues that we need to talk about, not the imagined or real ethnic background of buyers.

      The conversation needs to move quickly beyond racializations and a fear of others. Eby and Yan are both good, decent people who have made important contributions to the city. I suspect they know the weakness and peril of this research too; I very much hope they rethink their approach and ask some substantively different questions.

      Matt Hern is codirector of 2+10 Industries and teaches at UBC and SFU.

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