Vancouver’s housing “conversation”: The missing voices
By Ng Weng Hoong, November 12 2016, Saturday
Why were there no Chinese or Asian speakers and so few Asian delegates at what was touted as Vancouver’s first “global” summit on housing issues? The question seemed to surprise Kathleen Llewellyn-Thomas, the city’s general manager for community services, who organised the “Re:Address” series of events with the University of British Columbia and VanCity from October 24 to 29.
There were speakers from Austria and New Zealand — fringe countries with small populations and ample geography — but none from Asia which is undergoing history’s greatest urbanisation transition. Vancouver could have picked up useful lessons, good and bad, from the housing policies and programmes of the truly global, densified cities of Hong Kong and Singapore. What have been their respective experiences from imposing a 15% tax on foreign buyers of their housing that so inspired British Columbia to follow suit on August 2? We didn’t get to find out.
Llewellyn-Thomas’s unconvincing reply was that invitations were sent to government officials in Hong Kong and Singapore but they were unable to participate.
“We canvassed a lot of people around the world including Asian countries. We ambitiously started planning this in August for October, and found that many people weren’t able to make it on such short notice,” she said in an interview.
“If we had to do this again, we would give a year’s notice to ensure we have a broad spectrum of views and experiences.”
Re:Address was also notable for not having Vancouver-based Asian experts or investors counter the populist narrative that blames foreign money for Vancouver’s housing challenges. Promoted by a handful of journalists and academics, this narrow storyline has partly won over the BC establishment.
Thankfully, several speakers offered the push back. Scottish housing economist Duncan Maclennan rebuked Canada for laying it all on Chinese investment for its failure to meet the growing domestic demand for affordable housing.
“I have read some of the discussion of Chinese investment in Vancouver and I think it’s a classic example of othering, i.e. blaming someone else for what is actually a systemic problem within the Canadian housing system,” said the University of St. Andrews Professor, according to MetroNews.
Vicki Been, New York City’s housing commissioner, was also surprised to hear that Vancouverites have taken to blaming Chinese investors.
To her, major cities throughout North America, including Vancouver, are not creating enough affordable housing units.
“Supply is hindered by regulations and NIMBY (not in my backyard) behaviour of people who don’t want to give up their right to their own single-family houses and low-rises. They want densification in other neighbourhoods but not theirs,” she said in an interview.
As with Vancouver, she told the audience that New York faces the same set of challenges on the housing front: increasing urbanisation, insufficient supply, stagnant wages, and growing financial instability with many families on the verge of homelessness due to job insecurity and lack of savings.
Having been to Singapore, Been knows the city-state operates one of the world’s most successful public programmes that houses 80% of its citizens. But the system cannot be transplanted to the US and Canada as Singapore’s public housing is owned and managed by the national government.
“You need a strong central government to deliver that kind of housing,” she said, recounting how grassroots politicians in New York have been able to stop proposed major redevelopment and densification projects. As a result, the city has been slow to replace small ageing buildings with high-rise apartment blocks on poorly used land. Homelessness has reached an all-time high, with more than 60,000 living on the streets today.
But unlike Vancouver, New York is not blaming Chinese or foreign buying for its housing problems, even though the Big Apple is a far bigger magnet for wealthy global investors.
Ignored: Lauster’s groundbreaking finding
UBC Associate Professor Nathanael Lauster has delivered one of the most original and useful research findings of recent years in his conclusion that the single-family house (SFH) is a major contributor to Vancouver’s housing supply shortage.
He faults the city for continuing with an archaic decades-old policy of reserving over 80% of Vancouver’s residential land for SFH and duplexes when more high rise developments are needed. His speech, extracted from his book, provided evidence and insights into how the city is largely responsible for its own housing mess. But given the city’s anti-foreign mood, Lauster’s excellent work has been ignored by the influential voices in the mainstream media and the Housing Action for Local Taxpayers (HALT) lobby group.
Vancouver’s real housing crisis
If Vancouver’s mayor, Gregor Robertson, wasn’t moved by the criticisms, a group of protestors made sure he did. In an ironic piece of theatre, the Alliance Against Displacement stormed the stage to evict Robertson and his panel of international guests.
For about 20 minutes, the tables were turned as the displaced lectured the elite to stop “the war on the poor” and “make the rich pay” to build “homes not jails, windows, not bars”. The homeless and working poor are the original claimants to Vancouver’s housing crisis long before the mainstream media appropriated the term to exaggerate the cost of middle-class homes. They have done so by focusing on the out-of-reach $1.6-million cost of the city’s single-family house while ignoring the ample supply of more affordable apartments and townhouses in the $400,000 to $700,000 range.
One of the protestors called the conference organisers “hypocritical” for not inviting Vancouver’s poor and homeless to speak on a topic that they, not the elite or the middle class, are most familiar with.
The protest’s most significant aspect was that it framed Vancouver’s housing crisis in class terms: the rich versus the poor, not Canadians against foreigners. From the time the city started clearing the east-side to prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the protestors have stayed faithful to the message that the rich, not migrants or the Chinese, are the cause of the city’s housing problems.
Nathan Crompton, a Vancouver social activist, articulated the class nature of the housing crisis in several eloquent essays in 2012, 2013 and 2015 at the same time calling out the xenophobes for their racist message.
“Why is the ‘foreigner thesis’ so popular among Vancouver’s political elite? One answer is that it allows the government to get away with its anti-affordable housing policies,” he wrote. It hardly surprises that the mainstream media has not interviewed him, preferring instead to publicise those who continue to blame foreign money.
The “foreign money” theme was affirmed at a HALT gathering at Robson Square on September 17. Among its speakers was Josh Gordon, a Simon Fraser University associate professor, who published a “research” paper in May based largely on selected newspaper reports that support his view of the issue. His simplistic conclusion: “This report puts a lot of the blame for the housing crisis on foreign buyers, and buyers from China in particular.”
Another speaker, Christine Duhaime, a lawyer specialising in capital flight from China, gave a detailed account of how questionable wealth has been coming into Canada.
Paul Kershaw, who spoke at both the HALT and Re:Address events, said he doesn’t share the foreign-bashing sentiments as people “are constantly looking for the easiest villain to blame.”
“Foreign investment is one of the driving factors of the housing market, but we also need to have a broader conversation here in BC,” he said in an interview.
“In 1976, there were 24 million Canadians, and they were less likely to live in the urban centres. Today, there are 36 million of us and most are living in urban centres,” he said. “That alone is a major change in demand for housing in urban centres.”
The founder of Generation Squeeze is also focusing on the generational gap where the sharp run-up in property prices has enriched those who bought four decades ago but has also locked out today’s young from the same level of home ownership.
“We need to look in the mirror,” he said.
Contrasting the angry confrontational attitude adopted by HALT and the mainstream media, Kershaw wants an inclusive — and more realistic approach — to solve the housing challenge by working with foreign investors.
“It’s important to acknowledge the role of foreign buyers and that great cities are always trying to attract foreign investments and migrants. Let’s recognise that,” he said. He is currently mulling over ideas to have foreign investors become part of the solution to provide purpose-built rentals in the city.
“If we can do that, we will be turning this foreign capital into something good. It becomes a solution instead of causing public harm.”
In the wake of Ottawa’s target to attract $21-trillion worth of investments, why not classify affordable housing in Canada’s major cities as part of our infrastructure requirements? With the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves of more than US$3 trillion, China is one of its few remaining major sources for funding while Canada, along with most other countries, badly needs capital to plug its worsening budget and spending deficits. Therein lies a mutual meeting of needs: Canada should explore ways to tap that source to fund its need for housing along with roads and airports at the same time that China is seeking to productively invest its surpluses. But, first, it’s time to tone down the voices that have trapped our housing “conversation” in an unproductive witchhunt pitching “poor helpless Canadians” against foreigners.
Memo to Re:Address organisers. For next year’s conference, please invite Chinese and foreign investors, Singapore and Hong Kong urban planners, and Vancouver’s housing campaigners for the poor and homeless. Vancouver needs a real inclusive conversation to solve its housing challenges.