What's this all about?
What is Make Vancouver Great Again?
If you live anywhere on the lower mainland you've probably noticed that there's something happening within the real estate market here. Vancouver has become the best place for wealthy foreign investors to park their cash, forcing home prices up (way up), leaving long-time residents in the situation where they can't afford to live here any longer.
This site is an attempt to provide an overview of what's been going on. I am no journalist and do not take credit for any of the reporting, I have provided references to sources as much as possible as well as a resources section at the very bottom. If there's an article source missing or if an image featured is one of yours, please don't hesitate to email me and I will gladly add the credit or remove it.
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Make Vancouver Great Again
OK, so what's the story?
The number of residential real estate transactions in Vancouver last month (April 2016) was the highest ever recorded.
The cost of housing in Vancouver has shot up so far that this is now the #1 most expensive city in the world to buy a home - up by almost 25% from just last year.
The average price of a detached single-family home in the Vancouver metro area is now over $1.8 million dollars.
And prices are still increasing all across the lower mainland.
The entire Canadian housing market would have dropped -1.1% in February this year if it wasn't for record sales in Vancouver.
That the value of homes goes up is usually good but the way it's happening is bad.
These sights might look familar
Multiple houses for sale just on one street, sometimes entire blocks of homes, going from sale-to-sold in a matter of days, sometimes even in just a few hours.
Homes that most would consider modest going for sums that scream 'What the $&#@?!'
Not to mention houses that seem to be in perfectly fine condition but that are torn down then rebuilt in record time.
But what we don't get to see from a walk around on the streets are the people of Vancouver, who live and work here, many who grew up here now with growing families. The people who actually have money to spend, just not the $1.8 million needed to get into the single-family home game.
need photo of family
Of course there are countless other situations where the rising costs of real estate are creating a desperate situation. From low-income housing and SRO buildings to elder-care facilities, there are even schools being shut down in the name of new luxury condo developments.
But isn't this normal for a growing city?
Well let's see. A mortgage for a newly purchased home in Vancouver currently costs the average household almost 76% of its gross annual income. On average the salary required to maintain the average mortgage is around $78,000.
If we just look at the list of jobs that the province relies upon to keep things going, the majority of these don't make anything close to this.
With the current rate of growth, the minimum salary needed to be able to afford housing in the metro Vancouver area in 2020 will be around $100,000. That means that unless you're in one of these jobs below, you won't be living in Vancouver.
Charles Hou, a retired teacher who lives in Dunbar sums up the whole situation in his letter to Barbara Yaffe, a journalist with the Vancouver Sun who has written extensively about what's been happening in Vancouver.
“On my block, there are three empty million-dollar houses, the house behind mine sits empty for 90 per cent of the year. This is having a devastating effect on my neighbourhood. Property values are skyrocketing. It is a disaster for people who want to live in Vancouver. Politicians aren’t paying any attention to this issue. Money is being made at the expense of the vast majority of people who live in the Lower Mainland.”
Why is this happening?
According to the 2015 Vancity report mentioned earlier, between 2001 and 2014, the cost of housing in metro Vancouver increased by 63% while income only rose by 36%.
You might ask the question...how is it possible that the cost of a house can keep going up if there's no one who can actually afford to buy it?
This is possible when housing prices are being driven by wealth, not income.
In Vancouver's case, the 'wealth' is money that's coming into Canada as 'foreign investment' from external sources.
Just as increasing homes values are a good thing, foreign investment should be too. However, what is not good is when it works against us.
It becomes worse when certain groups learn to exploit a situation purely for their own benefit just because they can. This is not entrepreneurialism, but pure greed.
But this didn't just happen overnight did it?
Of course not, a problem this serious could not emerged out of nowhere.
Around the same time of Expo 86', if a non-Canadian had $800,000 to loan the government for 5 years Canada would give out Canadian citizenship in exchange for the borrowed money.
Politicians at the time thought that this would be a great way to "reboot a troubled regional economy through an infusion of activity from the growth region of the Asia Pacific," according to UBC Geographer David Ley who has written extensively on the subject.
Through this 'Immigrant Investor Program', (which we'll talk more about later), as many as 200,000 people decided to make their home in Metro Vancouver.
As you can probably guess, the long-term negative effects of such a generous program came to far outweigh the value of a quick cash influx. The IIP was officially shut down in 2014.
Then Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said:
"For decades, [the investor scheme] has significantly undervalued Canadian permanent residence, providing a pathway to Canadian citizenship in exchange for a guaranteed loan that is significantly less than our peer countries require."
Ok then...so China.
The main benefactors of the IIP which it was still in effect were mostly Hong Kong and Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s with Mainland China making up the bulk of the applicants from 2000 onwards.
It's well known that China's economy has experienced extremely rapid growth starting in the late 1970s. Today, however, while the economy continues to grow it's at a much rate less than official targets planned for.
How much it slows down will depend on several factors but it's no secret they've already produced millionaires faster than any other country.
Millions of millionaires
A report from Bain & Company in May last year said that individuals with assets in excess of 10 million yuan (about $2 million Canadian dollar) exceeded one million last year.
They're also #2 right behind the US for number of billionaires, with 213 according to Wikipedia.
Millionaires who want out of China
A survey by Barclay's capital in 2015 reported that almost 50% of the millionaires they surveyed plan to leave China within the next 5 years (by 2020).
Some sources report that this number is even higher at 60% of millionaires who are planning to emigrate, many buying property overseas as a way of “facilitating emigration.” Other reasons to invest abroad are listed here:
Why do people want to leave?
Signs that the economy is slowing down combined with the massive outflow of cash out of the country has been enough add fuel to the fire.
And it's going to get even worse
As the government begins to panic there's massive risk that they'll clamp down all together so people are trying to get their money out as quickly as possible.
Read more about the strategies and tactics they're using here.
Resulting in even more overseas investment
Juwai.com is the number one Chinese international property portal, offering exclusive access to an audience of high net worth Chinese looking to buy property overseas.
To give you an idea of how big it really is, Juwai.com has twice the page rank and seven times the number of pages indexed by the other leading Chinese property portal, Baidu.com
Inquiries for Canadian homes alone on Juwai.com jumped 134% in Q1 (Jan/Feb/March of 2016) this year compared to a year earlier.
We already know that Vancouver is awesome. There are better educational opportunities for children, a stable economic climate and good health care and access to a variety social services.
But as a Bloomberg article referenced earlier states, Vancouver is also great for things like stashing your cash...
"A Juwai survey of real estate agents who work with mainland Chinese buyers found that 55% expected international property purchases to increase as people seek a safe haven for cash."
Immigration to Canada
The graphic below shows the number of immigrants from the Chinese mainland to Canada over the last 20+ years. We wanted to include data from more recent years but for some reason 2013 seems to be the last year that data is provided on the website.
We did some looking around online and found that we weren't the only ones who came up short on the search for more recent data. Both Ian Young of the SCMP and Tara Carman from The Vancouver Sun both find the same.
by Tara Carman - The Vancouver Sun
by Ian Young - The South China Morning Post
Where's the data to support these claims?
Data has become a critical point of discussion on the issue of foreign investment in real estate in Vancouver. Why? Well for some reason it appears to be largely unavailable. The lack of publicly available data (or data in general) has prompted several 'non-official' individuals and groups to take it upon themselves to investigate.
One of these investigations was initiated by David Eby, MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey whose attention was brought to the issue by numerous concerned constituents.
The investigation was conducted by Andy Yan, a senior urban planner and researcher with Bing Thom Architects. His study was based on the information contained in 172 land-titles of recently purchased homes.
Yan's research had a few simple criteria - each home had to be:
The study brought forward some interesting facts:
One finding that really stood out was this one:
If you've been following the discussion in the news you might already be familiar with Kathy Tomlinson's work. Her story for The Globe & Mail has become a critical turning point in demanding the attention of local, Provincial and Federal leadership.
Through their investigation, The Globe & Mail team discovered that:
In-line with Andy Yan's findings, the most common occupation of listed owners was 'business person' followed by 'homemaker', then 'student'.
In a survey of 250 titles for homes over $2 million, purchased in the last 2-years across key Vancouver neighborhoods, 85% have Chinese names.
Data from a a 2013 report produced by MacDonald Realty, one of Vancouver's largest brokerages also appears to be in-line with what's happening now. That even in 2013 there was a trend, over a third of their sales were being made to buyers in mainland China.
Homemakers, students, they can afford it?
Technically no, they can't. But the reason they appear as the occupations of so many stated owners is not without reason.
To avoid paying capital gains tax when a house is sold
If a home is a full-time residence, when it's sold the seller is not required to pay capital gains tax on the net profit made of the sale.
To avoid paying property transfer tax when the house is sold
If a home is owned by a corporate entity rather than an individual, the seller can avoid paying land transfer taxes (this is currently a loophole in the BC tax code)
It might be an understatement to call this a loophole - check out this video to see how companies are using it to avoid paying millions in tax.
To avoid being found
Another reason for using the names of spouses, children, or companies as holders of property is so that the identity of the real investor(s) can be concealed.
So the benefit of lying about ownership allows foreign investors to not only avoid paying taxes here in Canada but also to continue to cover up whatever activities they might be engaging in to make their money. So what do the Canadians who live, work and pay taxes here get? Well, this might help to explain it.
How do you know this is actually the case?
According to Statscan data, in the Dunbar area that's been so popular with Chinese investors, The Globe & Mail investigation found that:
In 2013, 1 out of 4 families declared an income of less than $35,000 - the lowest tax bracket.
How is it possible for someone who makes less than $35,000 to buy a million dollar home?
So where does the money come from then?
China limits the amount of money an individual can move out of the country to $50,000 per year. But even with this restriction the pace of money leaving China has accelerated to somewhere between $150 billion and $200 billion since the Chinese government devalued the yuan in August last year according to Goldman Sachs.
How exactly does the money get here then?
According to Christine Duhaime, an attorney and internationally accredited expert on money laundering, there are quite a few ways this is happening.
SMURFING - this involves getting several friends and family, or sometimes employees who are forced, to each wire funds at the maximum $50,000 USD out of the country.
THE MAFIA - by using operators working for the Triads (Chinese mafia), they move money to Macau 'to gamble' and from there directly to Canada. Sometimes there's a stopover in a tax haven like the British Virgin Islands or Cayman Islands.
FAKE TRADES - Via trade-based money laundering where fake invoices are created for fake trades.
HUMAN MULES - just like drug mules, 'money mules' can earn up to a 20% commission to physically transport actual cash from China to Canada or the US without declaring it when they enter the country.
BITCOIN - by buying Bitcoin and cashing it out in Canada - price fluctuations in the cryptocurrency are accepted as a small price to pay for the security and anonymity bitcoin offers.
Check out the other ways cash is being moved here
Just recently this June, the price of Bitcoin shot up by approximately 20% in just one day. While the reasons behind the dramatic increase could be a result of one or more different global factors, many experts believe that the situation in China is definitely one of them.
“Capital flight continues as the IMF (International Monetary Fund) is now signalling warnings at the increasing default risk against China’s corporate debt. China’s economy is changing rapidly and debt fueled growth can only be sustained for so long.”
But some just go the old fashioned route of putting it on their AMEX Centurion card like Liu Yiqian did. The Shanghai-based art collector who bought an oil portrait by Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani for $170 million just charged it. Credit card purchases are conveniently exempt from China’s foreign-currency caps.
A recent Department of Finance report suggests that Ottawa is aware that money is being laundered through Canadian bank accounts on a large scale.
Duhaime says that:
“I have seen the bank transaction forms, where $50,000 has been wired out multiple times by several people at one bank in China...There is so much money that is being made out of immigrants coming from China to Canada, I suspect no one wants to rattle that cage too much.”
According to evidence presented in a recent trial involving an ex-CIBC employee who was found guilty of helping a client move money to Canada via her personal account, Canadian banks are most definitely condoning this behavior.
"It was the practice of CIBC to support clients dodging China’s US $50,000 export limit. This was done by the client arranging for multiple individuals to make wire transfers of up to US$50,000 on their behalf, with the funds eventually reunited in Canada."
We don't want to make assumptions but it might be safe to assume here that if the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce is doing it, others must be too.
Is money laundering the only issue?
Unfortunately no. Let's talk about the Immigrant Investor Programs.
Wikipedia defines Investor Immigrant Programs as follows:
"Programs designed to attract foreign capital and business people by providing the right of residence and citizenship in return. They are generally established by highly developed, first-world countries whose citizenship is therefore desirable."
While good and fair in concept, Canada's immigrant investor program fell way short of expectations. The Federal program was actually suspended in 2015 for the reasons the Government of Canada website states as follows:
"The current IIP provides limited economic benefit to Canada. Research shows that immigrant investors pay less in taxes than other economic immigrants, are less likely to stay in Canada over the medium- to long- term and often lack the skills, including official language proficiency, to integrate as well as other immigrants from the same countries."
But while the federal program was shut-down, a controversial Quebec-based program is still in operation and continues to have implications for B.C.
What is the QIIP?
The QIIP is the Quebec Immigrant Investor Program. The QIIP four main requirements that need to be satisfied in order to obtain Canadian Citizenship:
What does it have to do with B.C.?
The reason the QIIP has such serious implications for B.C. is related to the 4th requirements of the program. While applicants are accepted under the expectation they will reside in Quebec, more than half actually end up moving to B.C.
Aside from the influx of new residents that were unexpected and not accounted for in city/urban planning which means B.C. foots the bill for health care and education while Quebec takes the investment rewards.
Between 2002 and 2014, the number of B.C.-bound millionaire immigrants is over 60,000.
You might hear from certain officials that 'there's not data to prove that' or 'that's not what the data they have says'. To these remarks it is very important to understand that BC Stats arrival data only includes those who activate residency in B.C. and omits those who activate residency in Quebec, then move to B.C.
Ian Young at the SCMP has written extensively on this data and we strongly recommend checking out these two articles if you want to see the sources and do the math yourself.
CTV Vancouver's Mi-Jung Lee reports on this year's QIIP
Ok well at least they're paying their fair share of taxes right?
Well not exactly.
10 years after admission...
The average annual income tax paid by millionaire migrants’ was $1,400 dollars. The true average is even lower since one-third did not even file tax returns.
Compare that to the $10,900 CAN paid by skilled worker immigrants, or the $7,500 CAN paid by Canadians on average.
If you'd like to learn more about how 25,000 households across the lower mainland are declaring less income tax than what they spend on just housing alone, check out Ian Young's article, In Bizarro Vancouver, 25,000 households declare less income than they spend on housing alone.
John McComb at CKNW's interview with Candice Malcolm, a columnist at The Toronto Sun on the immigrant investor programs shares some additional facts that you might find very surprising - definitely worth a listen.
It can't get worse...can it?
Unfortunately it can.
Contract reassignment, or 'shadow flipping' as it's come to be known, is a practice where a broker can resell a property multiple times before a deal closes and profit from each transfer.
The Globe & Mail's Kathy Tomlinson explains to CKNW's Lynda Steele what's been happening:
For a more visual explanation, this graphic from the The Globe & Mail illustrates how it works.
To be clear here, contract assignment in itself is legal. However, what's happening now is considered a gross misuse and a way for the 'middle man' (aka broker) to make more money through multiple reassignments. The seller of the property don't see any of this money and usually doesn't even know it's happening.
Perhaps the evil step-child of shadow flipping is what's referred to as unlicensed 'wholesaling'. Because it's something that newly emerged out of the frenzied demand, it's an unlicensed activity and has never been regulated.
Wholesaling is the act of approaching homeowners and making them unsolicited offers to buy their homes for private cash deals. It's literally door-to-door sales and requires absolutely no licensing or qualifications at all.
A recent article from the National Post describes how it works:
Cash up front and 0 realtor fees is often attractive enough in itself and gets owners signing on the spot, only to realize later that they were duped into accepting a price way below market value. And unfortunately like many other scams out there, seniors have been a prime target.
While there's no data or official record of this activity, Kathy Tomlinson says that:
“...anecdotally there is a particular subset of the industry where their primary pool of buyers are foreign, or relatives of or agents of foreigners, and it has become a business model for some of the lesser known brokerage firms and for many realtors who deal with clients in those high end properties they’re looking for.”
MacDonald Realty (who we mentioned earlier) can even sell your home to someone in China directly and this is totally legal.
Bonuses aren't necessarily a bad thing, that is unless they're rewarding unlawful, unethical and just plain bad behavior.
In markets and times when there's more supply than demand, providing some incentive in the form of a bonus to an agent is not uncommon. But if and when a bonus is in play, both agent and buyer must be made aware of it. The situation here in Vancouver is quite different.
More than a few agencies are using bonuses (ones that are kept secret from buyers) to incentivize agents to sell a property to a buyer for highest price they can get. This includes not just a fixed bonus amount for the sale but additional commissions for higher price tiers. The higher price paid by the customer, the higher the bonus commission to the agent/broker.
We found this hard to believe that an agent hired by a buyer would do anything other than get the best price for their customer. Then we came across some of the examples in Joanne Lee-Young's article in The Vancouver Sun.
Lee-Young followed-up with the broker on the Eagles Drive home and Miletich (the agent making the sale) confirmed that she in fact did get the $20,000 bonus IN ADDITION to the $14,000 commission.
Who are these people?
Nothing we've mentioned already is limited to just one company or group but a company called New Coast Realty is the first to receive media attention due to their exceptionally aggressively approach. You may not have heard of them but you may have seen their flyer.
Breaking just about every rule in the book and perhaps even some that don't even exist yet, New Coast Realty is the first agency to come under scrutiny by provincial real estate regulatory agencies.
The stories in the article are frightening, you won't want to believe it - read it for yourself here.
And without real regulation in the real estate industry, when one shop closes another will just arise to fill its place. According to their website's 'English' page, in 5 months of being in business, Nu Stream Realty has nearly 100 local agents, 189 active listings and 285+ deal completions totaling more than $400 million CAD. They project to hit $1 billion CAD sales within the year.
In a recent trade mission to Asia at the end of May, Nu Stream is one of the companies that joined Christy Clark on her trip. A Nu Stream VP in charge of commercial property said "This trip is mainly the commercial purpose. So we don't do any promotion for the residential side."
(At this point is there really a difference?)
Another real estate company, Sutton West Coast Realty, also joined the trip which the government has emphasized did NOT GO TO CHINA OK, only Korea, Japan and the Philippines.
The government did not respond to CBC inquires on how the companies who join the trip are selected. Christy Clark herself however took to twitter to say...
Full stop indeed.
So is foreign investment the only cause?
Well it takes two to tango as they say.
The study by Andy Yan mentioned earlier found that of the 82% of homes that have mortgages, 70% are issued by three Canadian banks: CIBC, BMO and HSBC Canada.
While The Vancouver Sun which published the article with Yan's findings did reach out to each of the banks separately, CIBC did not respond HSBC and BMO were 'not available to comment'.
So how homemakers and students were able to qualify for mortgages on $2-3 millions dollar homes is still the question no one wants to answer.
In some coincidence of timing, soon after these headlining stories made their debut, Ontario-based mortgage lender Home Capital Group (Canada's largest alternative mortgage lender), announced it was cutting ties with 45 of its mortgage brokers. It was discovered that these 45 brokers were responsible for issuing $1.9 billion CAD in mortgages based on incomes that were not verified and in many cases fabricated.
Last we heard they were performing “income verification” on suspect loans and taking “corrective action” according to an article in The Province.
Isn't the government supposed to stop this?
You would think so.
At the Federal level, there is an organization called FINTRAC, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada.
FINTRAC is Canada's financial intelligence unit. Its mandate is to facilitate the detection, prevention and deterrence of money laundering and the financing of terrorist activities, while ensuring the protection of personal information under its control.
Based on the above description (from their website) one would think they are exactly the group to be handling this but their mandate is actually to 'gather and analyze reports'.
In August 2015 The Province reported that the results of a a six-month report review by FINTRAC confirmed suspicions that the market is getting flooded with dirty cash.
They audited 80 real estate firms in Vancouver and found that 55 had "significant deficiencies" in the way they report the identities and money sources of investors.
If almost 70% of companies reviewed have "significant" problems, is it safe to assume that the other 30% weren't exactly squeaky clean?
What this appears to prove is that no one's really been paying attention.
FINTRAC spokesman Darren Gibb tells the CBC that Vancouver's real estate market "is at risk for being used for money laundering." In the past Gibb said the agency has uncovered poor record-keeping in Vancouver-area real estate firms, but the latest results mark a "significant increase from previous years."
Since they got the memo, FINTRAC has for the first time in history, fined a Canadian bank $1.1 million dollars (the equivalent of a parking ticket) for failing to follow basic compliance policies. Read about the details here.
In an interesting twist, FINTRAC has refused to release the name of the bank.
Because what if you found out your bank was being sloppy with your money? Would you immediately drive to the bank, withdraw everything and move your money elsewhere? If you answered 'probably', this would surely be the beginning of the end.
It's good to know that the bank in question paid their fine in full according to FINTRAC's press release.
Since when does a bank ever pay anything in full? When they know they're really on the hook it seems.
FINTRAC admits that it's official policy is to publish the names of offenders and that it has breached its own standards by not identifying the Canadian bank.
This Huffington Post article reports that FINTRAC spokesman Darren Gibb (mentioned earlier) says that their policy specifies they have the authority to exercise discretion when it comes to naming companies.
"FINTRAC's public website makes it very clear that entities subject to an administrative monetary policy may be named. In this particular case, we are exercising our discretion to withhold the name."
Would it be strange to hear that "there's a serial killer on the loose out there but we don't want to scare anyone so we're not releasing their picture."
Isn't there a federal agency responsible?
Also under pressure to live up to everything they say they do for Canadians in their 'About CMHC' statement, they released their latest Housing Market Insights (HMI) report on the topic of foreign investment in real estate in Canada. In the press release they mention some random stats they seem to know don't amount to much of an answer and conclude that...
"At this time, no existing tool can provide a definitive measure of the level of foreign investment in Canada’s housing markets."
If you thought the #PanamaPapers was bad, we might be next.
What about at the Provincial & Federal level?
We thought about going into more details here but this video of the Real Estate Board of BC and Real Estate Association responding to questions from the Vancouver Sun and Province editorial board meeting pretty much sums up how accountable they've been.
And about those interest rates
The Bank of Canada recently announced that it's keeping the interest rate at the ridiculously low rate of 0.5%. From the housing situation perspective, raising them would create a big problem for anyone [who is not rich] who has borrowed to buy a home. They also don't want to scare away all the foreign investors from the real estate market, since as we mentioned earlier, this is the only sector giving Canada's economic growth a pulse.
Vancouver's strict zoning regulations have only helped to intensify an already dire situation. According to the 2016 Q1 Residential Sales Summary Report by Landcor, Will Dunning says that while supply is definitely a factor,
"The tidal wave of foreign money is definitely exacerbating the shortages."
The equation ends up looking a bit like this:
Limited supply (not enough homes) +
Endless demand (endless foreign wealth) x
No regulation on foreign wealth =
Too bad for you
Surely there's more urgency locally?
This issue of foreign investment in real estate here is hardly a new topic - it's just been mostly ignored.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson's Task Force on Housing Affordability got started back in early 2012 and even concluded then that more detailed study is needed prior to any action.
The Christy Clark government's response calls for additional research or new taxes to be levied were met with resistence. While the premiere wants to find solutions, she continued to rest on analysis conducted by the Ministry of Finance and the B.C. Real Estate Association that concluded that the real estate market conditions now have little to do with rich investors or speculators.
“There is a perception that foreign investors and speculators are driving an affordability crisis in residential real estate — particularly in Greater Vancouver. The data we have does not support this perception. However, industry experts estimate that foreign buyers likely make up less than five per cent of home sales activity in Greater Vancouver.”
What the statement above tells us is that there is not enough data to do something but there is enough to support doing nothing.
[SIDE BAR: a quick note on the lack of data claim]
The City of Vancouver has an amazing open data catalogue that features over 145 different data sets for everything ranging from homeless shelter locations to parking meters. See the full list of data sets available online here.
We downloaded a couple of these data sets just to check them out. Here's what's available for 'Street Trees' and has over 5000 spreadsheet rows:
Are they trying to say they know things like the location, age, size, height, genus name, species name - even what side of the street a tree lives on but they don't have information about the actual people who live in the city?
Are they trying to say that while they have a 'Map ID' for every water fountain that includes the exact longitude and latitude of its location and even a schedule for seasonal operational status but nothing for how many houses were purchased and by whom with what money?
What even this small example seems to say is that Vancouver has capable operations and infrastructure teams who can collect, manage and keep this information updated but for some reason, we cannot (or don't want to) apply it in the same way to collect other information like:
In the end what happens here impacts everyone who lives here.
IS THIS THE SMOKING GUN?
The finance ministry report says if the government were to drastically reduce foreign investment, it would have little impact on general housing prices but would cause the loss of about $1 billion in residential real estate sales and 3,800 jobs in construction and real estate sectors, and knock $350 million in nominal GDP out of the economy.
And so we stay status quo. After all, an election is coming up. No one wants to derail short-term 'economic growth' in the name of long-term economic and stability for Canadians and long-time resident taxpayers.
But not swept under the rug just yet.
Perhaps there are many issues that can be swept under the rug, this was not one of them. Almost immediately following the Tomlinson article in The Globe & Mail, B.C. Premiere Christy Clark seems to have had a change of heart and announced that:
“We are going to work with the City of Vancouver and other cities on issues with respect to vacancy, and speculation and supply...So all of those issues are on the table. Nothing is off the table for discussion.”
British Columbia Finance Minister Mike de Jong, in delivering the province’s budget, said the government would start asking property buyers whether they were a citizen or a permanent resident and, if not, where they were from.
Yes, you would think this would be included in minimum reporting requirements but it's not.
The Globe & Mail in this article spoke to Richard Kurland, a Vancouver immigration lawyer who works with wealthy clients from China. He says that the tracking in itself is flawed and will not accurately gauge the true level of foreign participation in the local housing market.
He says that the tens of thousands of wealthy 'investor immigrants' from China who have come to B.C. over the years and continue to do so on government programs are categorized formally as permanent residents under the current system.
This means that they won't register as 'foreign' in any government study or analysis so the true numbers are remain hidden.
In response to government promises to improve their tracking, Mr. Kurland tells The Globe:
“There’s a huge gap. … They get a big F. The only on-the-ground effect is the continuous flow of millionaires into the region. That’s not abating in any way.”
And this is coming from someone who is actually in the business of facilitating this kind of immigration.
Maybe we need a SWAT team?
Not a bad idea.
And this is them, the 'Independent Advisory Group'.
"The Advisory Group will examine the ways the Council identifies and responds to licensee conduct that could pose a risk to consumers or that fails to meet the standards expected by the public. As part of its work, the group will review the licensee conduct requirements that are in place, whether those requirements are adequate, and whether they are being effectively enforced."
The Advisory Group just released their interim report on April 8th but it basically says the real report will be ready at the beginning of June.
The Council has also issued new 'license conditions' to New Coast Realty, the agency doing all the really bad stuff mentioned earlier. You can read what the conditions are specifically but if we were to summarize it's basically looking at every transaction and piece of paper that goes through the place.
So what do we do?
The one positive thing is that we're not the only city to experience this situation so we can look to other cities, specifically London and Sydney.
In England, London has experienced the very same situation as in Vancouver, where ownership of real estate assets are often hidden behind corporations based in offshore tax havens. The situation became so bad that last year they introduced an annual tax for any UK residential property owned under the name of a corporation valued above a certain amount. According to The Guardian, in the first quarter of this year the Treasury had made £142m (approx $260 million CAD) from the annual tax.
To learn more about what's happening in London and a visual map of offshore-owned homes per London borough (government districts), check out this site for a visual overview of how money laundering is happening in (and impacting) the UK.
In Australia, Taxation Office has been put in charge of overseeing foreign residential property investment with 50 compliance officers responsible for investigating breaches. Australia has limited foreign investment in real estate to new construction only and buyers must be approved in advance. They've also introduced stricter new rules around foreign property investment that include significant financial penalties and jail time.
Existing criminal penalties have been increased to $135,000 AUD (from $90k) or three years in jail or both for individuals. Companies violating the rules will now face fines of up to $675,000.
Foreign applicants wanting to buy a residential property will now also have to pay an application fee.
Property value < $1 million = $5000 application fee
Property value > $1 million = $10,000 application fee
And for each million dollars in price, the application fee increases by $10,000 - so a property listed at $4 million dollars would have an application fee for $40,000.
Any 3rd parties involved including agents and developers who participate in breaking any of these rules are also accountable to these new rules and have equivalent penalties.
Fact: Did you know that Shanghai, among other requirements, limits home buying eligibility to those who have paid income taxes and social insurance for at least five years consecutively?
How do we fix this problem?
We know enough to know that some of the things happening in our neighborhoods just isn't right.
The scope of this site focuses mostly on unregulated foreign investment from China as this where the data from specific studies conducted to date (all referenced above) point to. However, any problem this big can't be chalked up to just one source, cause or country. Foreign investment, more specifically unregulated foreign investment in Vancouver real estate, is just one piece in a much bigger puzzle.
Our main goal is to bring attention to is the fact that there is a very large problem that we need everyone's help and attention to solve. A huge part of this is taking on the responsibility to make sure our leadership, at ALL LEVELS of government are paying attention and taking appropriate action.
The good news is that some people have been aware of the problem for much longer and have taken steps to develop proposals for real solutions that take into account micro and macroeconomic factors that could benefit the people here in the city. We've referenced these in the 'Resources' section below. If you agree, get the word out so other people know. If you don't agree, tell them why.
At at high level, we can see these as some of the critical next steps:
The BC and Federal governments need to recognize that there is a problem. Unregulated and unmanaged foreign investment is only an illusion of economic growth. The long-run costs of a short-term economic strategy has serious implications.
#1 - Accept there is problem
Immediately implement new legislation that puts in place serious penalties (eg. agent/broker life-time bans, return any profit from secret contract reassignments etc. ) that will act to deter unlawful and unethical tactics. Pass laws to close know tax loopholes immediately so THIS can't keep happening.
#2 - Real penalties, close loopholes
Immediately implement new legislation that requires all foreign investors across Canada to provide required and accurate data regarding themselves and the source of their funds. Collect data for any real estate purchases retroactively as much as possible.
#3 - Update and pass new laws
Create a dedicated audit team (by reducing bloat from provincial agencies) like Australia has, who are dedicated to screening new investor home buyer applications and following up on existing owners. Update existing data to accurately reflect their true residency statuses etc. so that any due taxes and other obligations paid and/or fulfilled.
#5 - Dedicate resources
Based on findings from investigations (such as the upcoming IAG report), draft and implement new legislation that will clarify not only new laws and regulations for the industry but also laws and regulations that detail accountability of the industry groups at the federal and provincial levels responsible for enforcement of new rules.
#6 - Demand accountability
Where can I learn more? [additional resources]
Here are just a few ways to stay up to date on what is going on. This is by no means an exhaustive list but a good place to get started.
Ian Young / Twitter: @ianjamesyoung70
The South China Morning Post's former International Editor and now the SCMP's Vancouver correspondent, living here and writing extensively on foreign investment in real estate in this city.
His work has uncovered some awful and scary truths about what's going and has played a critical role in bringing public attention to the issues. Definitely check out his work, especially now that SCMP has removed their paywall (thanks SCMP!) Check them out here. And if you haven't read his latest story yet, you should - here it is.
Kathy Tomlinson / Twitter: @kathytglobe
Kathy Tomlinson is an award winning investigative reporter 'dedicated to finding and revealing what Canadians want to know and holding the powers that be accountable'. I think this is an understatement given her most recent work on the role of foreign cash in the Vancouver real estate market. You can find all of her articles on The Globe & Mail website here.
Kerry Gold / Twitter: @Goldiein604
Kerry Gold is a Vancouver-based real estate journalist and writes on a range of topics, including the business of real estate. Most recently her story, 'The Highest Bidder' featured in The Walrus is a must-read.
She also writes a blog called Surviving Vancouver: How to get by in an unaffordable city
Sam Cooper / Twitter: @scoopercooper
Sam Cooper is an investigative journalist for The Vancouver Sun/Province (Postmedia) who has done extensive coverage of the Vancouver housing bubble. His most recent piece, a year-long investigation in the making in collaboration with the IPSA has been the latest installment in a saga that proves foreign money is indeed, the driver behind the real estate mania.
Read the story here: Mysterious wheeler-dealer is at centre of a web of B.C. real estate deals
Christine Duhaime / Twitter: @cduhaime
Lawyer and Certified Financial Crime and Anti-Money Laundering Specialist, she speaks actively across Canada and internationally and writes extensively on money and finance - and is a leading expert on FinTech and the blockchain among other things. We've referenced her work above but there are many more articles highly worth taking a look at on her website here.
The Experts & Academics
Dr. David Ley
It's probably an understatement to call Dr. Ley an expert. Currently Professor of Geography at The University of British Columbia, he has studied five cities with housing bubbles of their own. You can check out his website here. Professor Ley appears to be very well liked by his students.
Andy Yan / Twitter: @ayan604
Andrew Yan is a native Vancouverite and senior urban planner and researcher with Bing Thom Architects. He is also Acting Director of the SFU City Program (@SFUcity) and Adjunct Professor at the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning (@ubcSCARP). Andy apparently doesn't need much sleep.
His case study on 'Ownership Patterns of Single Family Homes Sales on the West Side Neighborhoods of the City of Vancouver' we referenced is on Slideshare here.
Tom Davidoff / Twitter: @TomDavidoff
Tom Davidoff is Director of the Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate at the Sauder School of Business at UBC. He has developed and put forth actionable solutions in his proposal for a B.C. Housing Affordability Fund (BCHAF). It's actually not that long but for the rest of us he's kindly put together a FAQ that summarizes the key points. You can read his bio and find additional resources related to the housing affordability crisis on his website here.
UPDATE: All three of these experts were present during meetings to discuss housing affordability with Justin Trudeau held in Vancouver on June 17th. Here are some of the latest articles on these meetings:
Justin Trudeau to get sobering view of Vancouver’s housing market via The Globe & Mail
Trudeau warns housing solution in Vancouver could hurt other cities via The Toronto Sun
Josh Gordon is Assistant Professor at the SFU School of Public Policy. He's written a very strong paper on the housing crisis, "Vancouver’s Housing Affordability Crisis: Causes, Consequences and Solutions" that outlines key arguments and data from the debate surrounding the #VanRE situation. Written in a matter-of-fact tone and leaving the usual academic jargon at the door, Josh's paper is a must-read for anyone seeking to really understand the crisis. You can read the Executive Summary here.
UPDATE: These petitions have now been closed
Petition to the Government of Canada -- e-281 (Foreign ownership)
We were going to start our own Facebook page but these guys are doing a great job so we recommend you follow their page and join the conversations going on there.
The Globe and Mail has just launched something called the Housing Hub which they describe as including coverage of housing trends, mortgages, local market news and recent deals, plus housing worksheets and calculators. It links to a library of videos, featuring tours of opulent recently-sold properties, interviews and tips for buyers and sellers.
They've also just released the House Price Data Centre – a tool that allows homeowners to track national and city-level home prices for Canada’s 11 largest cities. According the Globe it's the only national consumer source for regularly updated house-price data at the neighbourhood level in Canada.
Suggest a resource to be added here
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