Van­cou­ver’s Off­shore Prob­lem

As homes be­come un­af­ford­able, po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness is par­a­lyz­ing the left

The Walrus - - ARTS & CULTURE - By jonathan kay

The me­dian sale price for a house in Van­cou­ver is about $750,000 — mak­ing the city Canada’s most ex­pen­sive real-es­tate mar­ket by far. How do mid­dle-class fire­fight­ers, teach­ers, and business own­ers pay that sum off on an av­er­age in­di­vid­ual in­come of $43,000?

The an­swer is, they don’t. They rent. Or bunk up in some­one’s base­ment. Or move to a dis­tant sub­urb.

If they do buy in, it’s of­ten with their par­ents’ money. Which means the sys­tem shuts out ex­tended fam­i­lies lack­ing ac­cu­mu­lated wealth — thereby lock­ing in the so­cio-eco­nomic sta­tus quo. This is not how a healthy real-es­tate mar­ket works. This is not how a healthy so­ci­ety works.

Why Van­cou­ver? Why not Toronto, Mon­treal, Cal­gary, or Hal­i­fax? As Kerry Gold ex­plains in our cover story, the an­swer isn’t com­pli­cated: the city’s real-es­tate mar­ket has be­come a spec­u­la­tive play­ground for wealthy Chi­nese im­mi­grants look­ing for a safe place to park their cap­i­tal while still liv­ing on the other side of the Pa­cific. As a re­sult, some neigh­bour­hoods have be­come ghost towns, largely stripped of street life. Again: not how a healthy so­ci­ety works.

“Global money is boost­ing Van­cou­ver’s prices, and lo­cal dol­lars can’t com­pete,” Gold writes. Much of the cash, she notes, ap­pears con­nected to the move­ment of il­le­gal cur­rency. “Most trou­bling is that home­own­ers are now sell­ing di­rectly to buy­ers in China, list­ing their homes in real- es­tate ex­hi­bi­tions in Bei­jing and Shang­hai....av­er­age- earn­ing buy­ers are be­ing en­tirely cut out of the pur­chas­ing loop.”

Canada has a shame­ful legacy of anti-asian racism. This helps ex­plain why Andy Yan’s ground­break­ing 2015 re­port on for­eign buy­ers in Van­cou­ver — the sta­tis­ti­cal ba­sis for Gold’s anal­y­sis — was greeted with head­lines such as “For­eign own­er­ship re­search prompts cries of racism.” Mayor Gre­gor Robert­son sug­gested Yan was turn­ing his find­ings into a “race is­sue.” (The city, mean­while, has done noth­ing to ad­dress the prob­lem.) An ur­ban plan­ner ex­pressed worry that Yan’s re­search would in­cite “racism” and “in­tol­er­ance.”

But Yan’s re­search isn’t racist. He fo­cuses not on the colour of home­buy­ers’ skin but on the mas­sive eco­nomic dis­tor­tion that re­sults when bil­lions of dol­lars get main­lined into a ge­o­graph­i­cally con­cen­trated real-es­tate mar­ket. The scope of dis­tor­tion would be iden­ti­cal if these buy­ers hailed from Kuwait, Nor­way, or Seat­tle.

It’s trou­bling that a prom­i­nent left-wing politi­cian such as Robert­son — a for­mer NDP mem­ber of the pro­vin­cial leg­is­la­ture who has a strong so­cial-jus­tice re­sumé — would pre­fer to stare at his shoes and of­fer bro­mides about tol­er­ance rather than mean­ing­fully en­gage with a phe­nom­e­non that af­fects ev­ery one of the 2.1 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in the Greater Van­cou­ver Area. His over­rid­ing con­cern, shared by the me­dia, is to avoid any hint of po­lit­i­cal in­cor­rect­ness.

In this way, Robert­son ex­em­pli­fies a larger trend: a nar­row fix­a­tion on iden­tity politics has com­pro­mised the left’s tra­di­tional fo­cus on wide-an­gle is­sues of so­cio-eco­nomic strat­i­fi­ca­tion, poverty, and in­come in­equal­ity.

This is a crit­i­cal pe­riod in the his­tory of the Cana­dian so­cial con­tract. The labour move­ment con­tin­ues to dis­in­te­grate. The shar­ing econ­omy threat­ens the liveli­hoods of taxi driv­ers and ho­tel staffers. Driver­less cars and other ro­botic tech­nolo­gies will soon ex­tin­guish whole fields of work. Full-time em­ploy­ment is be­ing re­placed by con­tract po­si­tions. Entry-level jour­nal­ists laugh mirth­lessly when I ask if they ever plan to buy a house. Most of them can’t even af­ford to ante up for RRSPS.

The left now has a golden op­por­tu­nity to push for bold poli­cies that would go to the heart of in­come in­equal­ity in our class­based so­ci­ety: guar­an­teed in­come, uni­ver­sal ac­cess to care for those suf­fer­ing from men­tal ill­ness, and, yes, tax and reg­u­la­tory poli­cies that dis­cour­age hot money from over­in­flat­ing lo­cal real-es­tate mar­kets. But from what I’ve read on so­cial me­dia and in Wal­rus ed­i­to­rial sub­mis­sions, many ac­tivists and pun­dits seem far more com­fort­able strik­ing po­si­tions on highly com­part­men­tal­ized iden­tity-politics is­sues that can be re­duced to suc­cinct, tweet-able mes­sages. Ac­cu­sa­tions of racism, sex­ism, and ho­mo­pho­bia, in par­tic­u­lar, can en­cour­age a pack men­tal­ity — and so politi­cians such as Robert­son are (un­der­stand­ably) ter­ri­fied of arous­ing ac­cu­sa­tions that they har­bour im­pure thoughts.

Con­sider this lon­gi­tu­di­nal case study: a gen­er­a­tion ago, op­po­si­tion to the Canada– United States free-trade deal and NA FTA were the dom­i­nant ob­ses­sions of the Cana­dian left. And rightly so. Glob­al­iza­tion has rev­o­lu­tion­ized our econ­omy, cre­at­ing whole new classes of win­ners and losers. By con­trast, news of last year’s Trans-pa­cific Part­ner­ship — the largest trade deal in his­tory — was treated for the most part as an ob­scu­rity. Pro­gres­sive me­dia were far more in­ter­ested in cul­ture-war skir­mishes over the likes of #Os­carssowhite, niqabs , and Don­ald Trump. Im­por­tant Cana­dian sto­ries with enor­mous eco­nomic im­pact con­tinue to get short shrift.

That in­cludes the story of how a flood of over­seas money has made Van­cou­ver all but un­liv­able. And I hope Kerry Gold’s re­port­ing fi­nally spurs poli­cies that help poor and mid­dle-class Van­cou­verites find a last­ing place in their city.

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