Foreign buyers, shadow flipping, interest-free loans, and empty homes dominated Vancouver housing news in 2016

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      This was a very memorable year in the history of Vancouver’s housing market. Here are some highlights and lowlights of 2016:

      February 8 On Family Day, NDP housing critic David Eby invites reporters to his West Broadway constituency office to talk about the real-estate market. After they arrive, he lists a litany of improprieties, even alleging that the province could be losing hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue because of “shadow flipping”. This involves assignments of contracts to buy being resold at a profit multiple times to third parties before a closing date. According to Eby, home sellers aren’t aware of this skulduggery by their agents. “If they’re selling to somebody else, then they would collect two, three, and sometimes four or more commissions on a single sale,” Eby alleges. “There are a number of concerns that this realtor had about this—in particular, the purchasers were not paying, as would be expected, the property transfer tax each time the property was sold.” At the news conference, Eby also claims that false addresses are being given to the federal agency that monitors money-laundering to conceal foreign buying of Vancouver real estate.

      February 9 The Real Estate Council of B.C. announces that the chair of the Financial Institutions Commission of B.C., Carolyn Rogers, will chair an independent advisory group to look into Eby’s allegations.

      March 8 The City of Vancouver releases a report concluding there were 10,800 empty housing units within its boundaries in 2014.

      March 18  At a news conference in Stanley Park, Premier Christy Clark promises a crackdown on "shady operators" who take advantage of people. "So when it comes to shadow flipping, we are going to require that every seller provide not just consent, but informed consent, for an assignment," Clark promised.

      NDP housing critic David Eby appeared in the news more often than any other Opposition politician in 2016.

      June 2 Real-estate marketer Bob Rennie tells the Urban Development Institute that 193,000 Metro Vancouver homes are owned clear-title by people over 55 years of age. According to Rennie, the value of these residences is $197 billion—up from the $66 billion owned clear-title by the region’s baby boomers a decade earlier. He says that this equity is fuelling record demand for housing as older homeowners make money available to their kids and grandkids for down payments. “A foreign ownership tax of 10 percent on a $5-million home will not stop a sale or create any affordability,” Rennie claims. “And after six months when a foreign-ownership tax fails, it will only cause racially charged conversations to go beyond where they are now.”

      June 20  Media outlets cite a report by Moody's Investors Service, which suggests a housing crisis like that in the United States in 2008 would cause a 35-percent drop in B.C. housing prices. If that were to occur, the report states that large banks would lose up to $12 billion and mortgage insurers could suffer a $6-billion loss.

      June 28 The independent advisory group recommends raising the maximum fine from $10,000 to $250,000 for licensed real-estate agents who break the rules. It also calls for maximum fines of $500,000 for brokerages, up from the previous maximum of $20,000.

      June 29 One day after the independent advisory group submits its report, Premier Clark announces that her government will eliminate the self-regulation of real-estate agents. She says that the Real Estate Council of B.C.’s authority will be transferred to a new independent superintendent of real estate.

      Bob Rennie spoke about enormous wealth accumulated by homeowning baby boomers.
      Vincent Lee

      July 7 Finance Minister Mike de Jong announces that fewer than five percent of B.C. housing purchases over a 19-day period went to foreign buyers. De Jong is thoroughly denounced on Twitter.

      July 9 Vancouver Sun columnist Pete McMartin declares in his column that racism is underlying the public’s reaction to the superheated real-estate market. He is thoroughly denounced on Twitter.

      July 9 Georgia Straight editor Charlie Smith writes a column reflecting on how racism permeated the Vancouver housing debate in the late 1980s. Smith is thoroughly denounced on Twitter.

      July 11 Georgia Straight writer Travis Lupick writes a lengthy article titled “History shows racism has always been a part of Vancouver real estate”. Lupick is thoroughly denounced on Twitter.

      July 12 Veteran Vancouver urban affairs writer Frances Bula is on the receiving end of an ageist attack on Twitter (see below) for also raising the issue of race in a media interview. Over the year, she experiences tremendous harassment over social media, particularly after she interviews Chinese immigrants who bought houses in the Lower Mainland.

      July 13 Lupick writes a follow-up titled “Revisiting real estate, race, and how the foreign-buyers narrative came to dominate Vancouver media”. He quotes UBC journalism prof and social-media expert Alfred Hermida, who cited Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s assertion that there is often an eagerness to blame “the other” for societal problems. Hermida also points out that people share stories that confirm their existing beliefs, which is why articles on foreign buyers are passed around more readily than those on zoning regulations. After the article appears, Lupick is again thoroughly denounced on Twitter.

      July 13 Vancouver councillors complain to Carolyn Rogers about aggressive real-estate agents pestering homeowners. This came after Rogers, then superintendent of real estate and Financial Institutions Commission CEO, gave a presentation to council.

      Frances Bula and Travis Lupick were each singled out like this over Twitter by people who objected to them raising the spectre of racism in connection with housing.

      July 25 Premier Clark imposes a 15-percent tax on foreign buyers of residential real estate in Metro Vancouver, generating outrage from the real-estate industry. The tax takes effect on August 2.

      July 28 Trade lawyer Barry Appleton calls the foreign-buyers tax a “glaring violation of our trade treaties”, including the North American Free Trade Agreement. The following day, he tells the Straight that there are explicit exemptions under NAFTA for real-estate owned by nonresidents of Prince Edward Island and near the Mexican coast, but not for those who own property in B.C.

      July 29 An Angus Reid Institute online poll reveals that 90 percent of Metro Vancouver respondents support the premier's tax on foreigners buying residential real estate.

      August 2 Mayor Gregor Robertson commits to a social-housing project at 58 West Hastings that will offer 100 percent of the rents at the shelter-assistance rate for recipients of social assistance.

      September 22 The B.C. government reports a sharp drop in foreign buying of Metro Vancouver homes in the wake of its new 15-percent tax. In the 53 days before the tax took effect, 13.2 percent of B.C. purchases were by foreigners. In the 30 days following the imposition of the tax, only 0.9 percent of B.C. homes were bought by people who were foreign nationals. 

      September 28 Vancouver mayor Robertson announces that the city wants to "strike a balance" between regulating the short-term rental market and protecting rental dwellings for long-term tenants. It means that people who rent rooms on Airbnb will require a business licence, but it could lead to the closure of 1,000 listings.

      Mayor Gregor Robertson signed his name to a message promising low rents for future residents of a housing project at 58 West Hastings Street.
      Carnegie Community Action Project

      October 4 The Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver reports that home sales in September fell below the 10-year monthly average for the first time since May 2014. Sales of detached homes were down 47.6 percent on a year-to-year basis, whereas apartment sales were off by 20.3 percent. The benchmark price of $931,900 for all residential properties is 28.9 percent higher than the price in September 2015.

      October 20 Globe and Mail reporter Kathy Tomlinson wins the Jack Webster Award for Best News Reporting of the Year (print) for "Wild West", which exposed serious weaknesses in the regulation of B.C. real-estate agents who engaged in shadow flipping.

      November 16 Mayor Robertson and seven councillors vote in favour of a staff recommendation for a new one-percent tax on homes left vacant for at least six months of the year. The measure is opposed by the three NPA councillors,

      December 15 Premier Clark announces that first-time buyers can borrow up to $37,500 interest-free for five years for home down payments. This offer is only open to Canadian citizens and permanent residents who have lived in Canada for five years. The announcement is cheered by the real-estate industry but opposed by the NDP, which warns of the long-term impact of first-time buyers "holding two mortgages".

      December 20 TransLink reveals it will collect $440 million by 2022 for the sale of its 5.6-hectare Oakridge Transit Centre lands to Intergulf–Modern Green Development.