By November 2015, long-time locals’ anger about a runaway market had been building for years. A growing number of people believed that wealthy foreigners were pricing locals out of their own city. Then a study of residential sales based on non-anglicized Chinese names was released early that month and met with fierce debate.
The dustup illustrated the sort of heightened emotions that had come to characterize dialogue around foreign investment in Vancouver real estate and money from Mainland China.
It prompted the city’s mayor to weigh in with a request for calm.
“What we don't need…is the blaming of any one group of people—or any one kind of last name—for the challenge of housing affordability,” Gregor Robertson said on November 2.
The very same day, Premier Christy Clark was in Beijing with a group of real-estate agents promoting business interests in China.
According to documents obtained by the Straight under freedom-of-information legislation, there were three real-estate firms among dozens of companies that sent representatives to China with the premier last year for a trade mission that ran from October 30 to November 7.
Those were Royal LePage, SSC Properties, and Shanghai Landmark Investment Canada. A fourth, Macdonald Real Estate Group, filed application papers but then did not send anyone on the trip. The companies’ participation in the mission was reported last May, but until now the government had refused to release any information about their activities, citing privacy concerns.
David Eby is the Opposition critic for housing and NDP MLA for for Vancouver-Point Grey. Reached via phone, he described the premier’s actions as “mind boggling”.
“What I see are real-estate firms that are telling the government, quite clearly, that they are going to encourage international speculation and investment in agricultural and residential lands in British Columbia,” Eby told the Straight. “I can only think of the bizarre nature of a government that would bring along real-estate firms on a trade mission when they know we have an issue with international speculators in our housing market.”
He pointed out that the government-led trip was paid for with tax dollars. (Participants from the private sector who participate in such trips pay their own way but the provincial government covers costs for the premier and staff.)
“The idea of a trade mission is that taxpayers are facilitating the government to go over and do trade deals that benefit British Columbians,” Eby said. “I don’t think there are many people out there who think that increased speculation in our residential and agricultural real-estate sectors is a net benefit to British Columbians.”
In a brief telephone interview, Shannon Hagerman, a spokesperson for the Ministry of International Trade, maintained that real estate was not a “priority on this or other past missions”.
“Any questions related to business intentions or plans pertaining to a specific company would best be directed to that company,” she added, emphasizing that any business can apply to participate in the provincial government’s international trade missions and that those businesses pay their own way.
Information in the documents obtained by the Straight is vague but suggests that at least two of the real-estate companies that travelled with the premier were involved in residential and agricultural property sales.
According to papers filed by Royal LePage, the company sent owner/broker Rod McLeod to China as part of the trade mission. It’s unclear what he did while he was there. McLeod—who works in residential sales—and LePage did not respond to several emails and voicemail messages left by the Straight.
On the application form that McLeod completed in advance of the trip, a question asks for a description of “the nature of your business in China”. McLeod’s response is redacted in accordance with Section 21 of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act, which concerns “disclosure harmful to business interests”.
The form indicates that McLeod intended to travel with the premier’s delegation to Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen.
Though nobody from Macdonald Real Estate Group ended up going on the trip, the company’s vice president, Dan Scarrow, appears to have intended to focus on commercial and agricultural land sales.
In response to the form’s question about Macdonald Real Estate’s business in China, Scarrow wrote: “We promote BC and sell both commercial and residential real estate in China. Currently, we have a number of listings in the food/agri sector that we are promoting here in China, including wineries, ranches, and a food processing plant.”
It is stated there that he planned to travel to Beijing.
The information filed by Shanghai Landmark Investment Canada is equivocal. It states that the company’s CEO, Shu Ling Dai, would travel to Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen for the purpose of “real estate development and management”.
Emails and messages left for Dai were not returned.
The fourth company named in the documents is Sechelt-based SSC Properties. In a phone interview, company director and former Sechelt mayor John Henderson told the Straight that at the time of the trip, his company had no business in residential real estate.
Henderson said he travelled to China looking for investment partners for a 162-hectare piece of land on which SCC Properties has plans to construct an international high school, a hotel, and seniors housing.
The company’s paperwork filed for the trade mission supports those claims. It describes the company’s objectives for the trip as: “Sourcing of students for the school in the future, meeting with parties that have already visited Sechelt to follow on their interests in investing (in our business) and in other opportunities.”
The question of whether it was appropriate for the premier to take real-estate agents on her government’s regular trade missions abroad was raised last May when CBC News reported that two firms had participated in such a trip to the Philippines.
Yesterday (September 16), the Straight reported that another set of documents obtained via a freedom-of-information request suggested that those companies—Nu Stream Realty and Sutton WestCoast Realty— did not promote the sale of residential properties while on that government trip.
During the past three years, the benchmark price for a single-family detached home in Metro Vancouver increased 70 percent.
Last February, the B.C. Ministry of Finance announced it would begin collecting data on the citizenship of people who purchase residential real-estate in Metro Vancouver. The first batch of data came on July 7 and revealed that during a 19-day period in June, 5.1 percent of sales in Metro Vancouver were to foreign nationals.
On July 26, a second round of statistics showed that from June 30 to July 14, foreign buyers accounted for 14.9 percent of deals across the region. One day earlier, the province announced a new 15-percent tax on residential sales to foreign nationals.
Despite that tax measure, several groups of Vancouver residents continue to organize and promote additional measures that they maintain are needed to level the playing field for long-time residents of Vancouver.
One of those groups, Housing Action for Local Taxpayers (HALT), is holding a rally today (September 17) on the south side of the Vancouver Art Gallery beginning at 2 p.m.
In a phone interview, the event’s lead organizer, Justin Fung, reacted to the news that real-estate firms had accompanied the premier on last year's China trade mission by saying he doesn’t blame the private sector for trying to make money. But Fung called the province’s actions into question.
“I think, at the end of the day, you’ve got to look at the government,” he said. “Are they doing the right things for citizens and for society at large? I don’t think that has been the case for several years now,” he said. “It comes down to regulation and whether government is doing the right thing for us.”
Fung noted that the issue of money from Mainland China in Vancouver real-estate has been a contentious topic for some time, long before October 2015.
“I think this speaks to the government ignoring the pleas—and not just ignoring, but going against the pleas—of a lot of local citizens here,” he said. “it is obviously pretty bad form.”