Files shed light on real-estate companies' participation in B.C. premier Christy Clark's 2016 trade mission to Asia

Documents obtained under FOI legislation provide some clarity on the question of whether the B.C. premier facilitated deals between real-estate companies and foreign nationals

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      Last May, news broke that two Vancouver real-estate companies had accompanied the B.C. premier on a trade mission to Asia.

      It sparked a media firestorm and a wave of criticism levied against the provincial government.

      The premier herself was helping real-estate agents sell Vancouver homes to foreign buyers, many assumed, while hard-working long-time locals were priced out of the city in which they grew up.

      Such trade missions are an almost routine affair, and this one didn’t even stop in China, the country that some studies had identified as the major source of foreign buyers purchasing Vancouver homes. (The mission travelled to the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea.)

      Furthermore, the two companies in question—Nu Stream Realty and Sutton WestCoast Realty—were quick to clarify that their objectives in joining the trip had nothing to do with residential real estate. But the public remained skeptical.

      A Nu Stream employee insisted that their participation in the trade mission concerned the company’s commercial division. Sutton WestCoast, for its part, said it had gone on the government trip to help Canadian citizens purchase real estate in the Philippines.

      Now documents obtained by the Straight under freedom-of-information legislation provide some clarity on the matter.

      In advance of the trip, both companies filed application forms with the B.C. Ministry of International Trade.

      The first, filled out by the president of Nu Stream Realty’s commercial division, Mercedes Wong, appears to confirm—or at least does not in any way contradict—what company employees told reporters last May.

      The form stated, perhaps ambiguously, that Nu Stream’s objective in the trade mission was “real estate investment”. But the only Nu Stream employee listed as participating in the trade mission was Wong, who appears to work only in commercial-property sales.

      Reached by telephone, Wong said she did not have Nu Stream’s permission to grant an interview. However, she did confirm that everything in the document was accurate and stated repeatedly that no activity on the trip concerned the sale of Canadian residential properties. Wong also confirmed that she was the only NuStream employee to take part in the trip.

      A reading of Wong’s online biography and coverage of past activities supports those claims. Wong has a verifiable history of work in commercial sales with no obvious experience in residential real estate.

      A summer 2016 article published in the Scrivener, a trade publication, provides further information on how Wong spent her time while in the Philippines with the premier. It describes charity work; in 2013, Wong’s family hometown of Leyte, on an island in the central Philippines, received heavy damage from Typhoon Yolanda. “Mercedes Wong and Builders Without Borders Canada initiated the reconstruction of the Bulante Elementary School Stage and Relocation Centre located on the hectare of land donated 60 years ago by Mercedes’ father.”

      The article also states that Wong presented the construction of two water-well projects paid for by the Rotary Club of Richmond Sunrise and delivered two firetrucks donated, in part, by the Rotary Club of Langley.

      Information included in the application form filed by Sutton WestCoast Realty is vague but again does not contradict the company’s claim that it did not participate in the trip to sell Canadian residential real estate.

      It states that Tennyson Haughton, who’s described as a real-estate team leader for Sutton WestCoast Realty, took part in the trade mission in order to “connect with potential buyers of products/services/technologies” and to “find joint venture partner(s)”.

      Haughton and Sutton WestCoast Realty did not respond to repeated emails, voicemail messages, or messages left with an office assistance.

      A third company named in the package of documents, Ayala Land Development Canada, also did not respond to repeated emails and messages left by the Straight.

      According to its application form, Josh Ferrer, the company’s director, went on the trade mission to “Connect with potential buyers of products/services/technologies”.

      Ayala Land is one of the Philippines’ largest development corporations. Its website mostly focuses on large-scale commercial properties.

      According to provincial data covering a three-week period in June 2016, sales to Chinese nationals accounted for 2.54 percent of all residential real-estate sales across Metro Vancouver. The Philippines did not rank among the list of 24 nationalities listed there, suggesting sales of Metro Vancouver residential properties to Filipinos accounted for less than 0.01 percent of the total for that period. (The B.C. Ministry of Finance said it could not provide a country-by-country breakdown for the longer, five-week period of data on foreign buyers that was released last July.)

      Over the last two years, the belief that money from Mainland China is flooding Vancouver’s real-estate market became so entrenched that in July, the provincial government caved to public pressure and implemented a 15 percent tax on residential real-estate sales to foreign nationals.

      In a telephone interview, three-term Vancouver city councillor Kerry Jang questioned why there was so much attention on real-estate companies doing business in the Philippines. He suggested it has something to do with the intense scrutiny conversations about Vancouver housing have focused on foreign money from Mainland China.

      “As soon as you ‘foreign’ and as soon as you say ‘real estate’, people immediate think of the big bad boogeyman of Mainland China,” he said. “And then I get the backlash on that because people this guy with black hair and brown eyes walking down the street.

      “It’s east to blame the big bad boogeyman, and that’s what it boiled down to,” he added.