Vancouver real estate study embroiled in racism debate

Dec 19 2017, 6:19 pm

The city’s only real set of data on foreign investment in real estate has come under fire for being racist.

A case study published by Bing Thom Architects’ city planner Andy Yan revealed that over a six month period, 66 per cent of 172 homes sold on the Westside went to purchasers with non-Anglicized Chinese names, equating their names with the likelihood they are also foreign investors. The report also found that some 94 per cent of homes priced between $4 million and $5 million were sold to Chinese buyers in the neighbourhoods of Dunbar, West Point Grey and the University Endowment Lands.

It’s the only information we have on how offshore buyers have been impacting the city’s absurd real estate boom, and though it is a minor sampling of one small region in the city, the numbers are very telling.

But some, including Mayor Gregor Robertson, are calling out the study for focusing on only one ethnic group.

“What we don’t need, however, is the blaming of any one group of people – or any one kind of last name – for the challenge of housing affordability,” Robertson wrote in a statement posted on his Facebook page Monday afternoon.

“This is a public policy issue, not a race issue – and any confusion to the contrary only risks dividing our city and distracting Vancouver and our region from seeking the urgent action that is needed from the Provincial and Federal governments.”

His detractors say the Mayor was attacking the research and labelling its purpose as racist, without much consideration into how the data might be useful.

Mayor Gregor Robertson’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Kevin Quinlan defended the Mayor’s remarks on Twitter, saying he wasn’t making the “this is racist” argument, but in fact was encouraging people not to believe that having a Chinese name means being a foreign investor.

Patrick Weeks, a Vancouver real estate agent who’s been in business in the city since 2003 says the study hits on people’s emotions, but it’s not new information.

“My take on it is that this is something that has been happening, buyers coming from Mainland China and buying real estate, since at least 2003. Why is this some sort of epiphany all of a sudden?”

Weeks says that even though it’s been going on for some time, few have been willing to talk about it for fear that they’ll be called a racist.

“If you talk about the fact that Chinese people are coming from Mainland China to buy real estate here in droves, does that make you racist?” he asked. The answer is of course subjective, but comparing the issue to a potentially more local problem could help make things more clear.

“If people came here from Alberta, let’s say, and those people were consistently not declaring income and trying to mislead the property tax system or the income system by stating that they’re students or homemakers when they’re actually owners of major companies, then you’d have problems with those Albertans as well,” said Weeks.

As for the data’s accuracy, Weeks deals with Asians of all ethnicities and backgrounds, which he says is a part of Vancouver’s make up, but he has noticed strong trends particularly on the Westside. Certain micro-areas like Cambie, Main Street and the Fraser Street corridors are mostly made up of local buyers, but areas like Dunbar, Point Grey and Kerrisdale, he says “are almost exclusively buyers of Asian descent”, including Canadian-born Asians.

“But many more of them seem to be non-English speakers,” he adds, hinting that they are likely Chinese nationals buying on speculation.

Weeks was somewhat careful with his words while speaking with Vancity Buzz, saying that an issue like this is very emotional for many and is largely a conflict-of-interest for him.

“We’re so careful not to be racist people in this world, but almost everything you can say is not politically correct. I’m trying to be careful because Mainland Chinese, local Chinese and many different types of Asians make up a big percentage of my business.”

A Shaughnessey home listed for $11.9 million - Image: Sotheby's Vancouver

A Shaughnessey home listed for $11.9 million – Image: Sotheby’s Vancouver

David Eby, the MLA for Vancouver Point Grey, helped Yan collect the data needed for his case study and says he is frustrated by the reaction it has received.

“Mr. Yan scraped together any data that he could find to try to get information on this issue, and then he’s attacked for it. We have a provincial government and a municipal and federal government that has access to data and yet they do nothing,” Eby told Vancity Buzz.

“But of course there are racists out there who will crawl out of their caves and use anything they can to fuel their agenda. Unfortunately that distracts itself from the larger question which is what is the impact of international capital on real estate markets in any part of the world?”

Eby cites similar cases of Russian money in London and Chinese money in Hong Kong as examples of how Vancouver could improve.

“Both those countries have programs and luxury taxes to ensure there is affordability for the people that live there. But we have nothing.”

There are critics who argue that a targeted analysis of Chinese foreign investment in Vancouver is so-called “race-baiting” – the unfair use of statements about race to try to influence the actions or attitudes of a particular group of people, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary – but Eby disagrees.

“The most obvious theory for Vancouver’s real estate unaffordability, and one which I haven’t seen refuted, is that there’s a large influx of foreign money coming into the Lower Mainland driving up the real estate prices, but the Mayor is right, it isn’t a race issue. Next week it could be international capital from Russia or the Middle East. This isn’t the issue of any one group, but it’s the failure of all levels of government to come to terms with that.”

Until there is enough data to empirically say one way or another what impact foreign investment is having in Vancouver, assumptions and blame will be bumped around like a volleyball. But perhaps one commenter on our original story on the study said it best:

“It’s tough to blame them when they’re just playing the game that the international laws are allowing… like someone else has already said: don’t hate the player, hate the game.”

A $23.9 million "tear down" on Point Grey's Golden Mile waterfront - Image: Sotheby's Vancouver

A $23.9 million “tear down” on Point Grey’s Golden Mile waterfront – Image: Sotheby’s Vancouver

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