‘It feels hopeless:’ Housing an afterthought in election campaign

Resolving a housing crisis that has priced many people out of their own communities means facing some uncomfortable truths
Photo: George Rex
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Whether it’s an influx of mysterious overseas buyers or the need to shelter people living on the streets, housing is a perennially hot topic in Vancouver.

The city is home to skilled workers like Rohana Rezel, who earns six figures a year but has a slim chance of purchasing a home for his family.

“Unless I want to get into an unstable mortgage, there’s nothing I can buy here,” he said. A house is too expensive, and apartment choices are limited because most newly built units are studios and one-bedrooms, more like “shoeboxes” than the size his family needs. Rental options are also limited.

“Vancouver is a place where some people cannot even find a place to live, while another population is treating that place to live as a part of their stock portfolios,” said Andy Yan, a long-time real estate researcher and media critic.

Developers don’t care about housing people, they only care about maximizing profit. And the government is letting developers do whatever they want.

He said he is not interested in comparing the major parties’ housing plans during the federal election campaign.

Instead, he said they all have gaps when it comes to people who may never be able to afford a home in their lifetime. “Housing is a human need, and a human right,” he said, yet growing inequality and a loss of trust in government is making housing even more unaffordable.

The average Canadian home price is now seven times greater than the average household’s income. In Vancouver, it’s closer to 12 times. Anything over four times greater than average household income is considered “seriously unaffordable.”

Housing is a highly complex issue and interventions need to be done through a specific set of pathways, according to Yan.

But both Yan and Rezel wonder how the public can trust a government that serves the interests of the privileged, rather than openly and effectively using the data at its disposal to enact policies that will make the housing market healthier.

A city that only welcomes rich people

After immigrating to Canada in 2008, Rezel spent his first year in Calgary, where he owned his own house. In 2013, he moved to Vancouver. Since then, he has hesitated to buy a home for his family of three.

The housing markets in Vancouver and Calgary are very different. Eight years have passed since Rezel moved, and the price of his former home has not risen much. “Even right now, you can buy a house in Calgary for under $400,000, but it’s impossible to buy a two-bedroom condo in Vancouver with that money.”

A software engineer, Rezel used his free time and data analysis skills to track the housing market in Vancouver and made a discovery: developers don’t care about housing people, they only care about maximizing profit. And the government is letting developers do whatever they want.

Rezel found that some corporations buy up houses and condos, creating an artificial shortage that leads to higher prices in both the purchase and rental markets. Then they put a fresh coat of paint on the houses to make them look luxurious and sell them for double or triple the previous price.

Those companies sometimes buy entire rental apartment blocks for this type of flipping, forcing hundreds of residents out at once.

A lot of the emphasis has been on market housing without acknowledging that a market system will not be able to serve a growing population.

“It feels hopeless for me,” said Rezel. He sometimes wonders how low-income people even survive in this city. “It’s so brutal. I think most people are just one renoviction away from homelessness.”

“People have told me to stop complaining, move out of Vancouver and move to the valley as most other people do. I’m like, no, I want to live close to where I work, I don’t want to spend two hours commuting every day,” Rezel said.

He thinks a city needs people of every socioeconomic status to remain functional. Especially during the pandemic, essential workers like nurses, teachers and grocery store workers keep the city running. “You don’t make a world-class city by making it just exclusively for the rich.”

“It is cruel and unfair to find certain people are less desirable in the city,” said Rezel. “In Vancouver, it is like if you’re a teacher, too bad. You’re going to travel from Langley every day, an hour on the road and come and teach my kid because I’m special, you’re not.”

Affordable housing

When it comes to housing policy, Yan said all parties need to look at the types of demand for housing and how to prioritize them. Housing policies need modernization to adapt to the new realities of global capital, and to acknowledge modern changes like Airbnb. Politicians also need to consider the relationship of housing to issues like retirement and wealth generation.

And the financial well-being of people who may never be able to afford a home should not be ignored.

“I think they haven’t talked about developing non-market housing on a scale that is impactful,” he said. A lot of the emphasis has been on market housing without acknowledging that a market system will not be able to serve a growing population.

A recent CBC report found that “average affordable rents” in some government-funded housing projects can be more than $2,000. A third of these government projects have average rents of over $1,500, which is not affordable even for the middle class.

Yan said it is wrong to think it’s just a supply issue. Simply increasing the number of properties does not fulfill family needs but results in speculation, flipping, Airbnb or vacancy.

The problem is even more acute in hot housing cities like Vancouver, Yan said, where people’s incomes have been relatively flat, and housing prices are so far outside their earning potential that more people depend on inherited wealth from their parents, and others on foreign wealth. He noted that parents who give money to their children for housing are undermining their retirements.

“It’s an odd idea that if you can’t make enough money locally to find a place, and you have policies which allow and encourage people to bring money from abroad, this pattern occurs. It doesn’t get these people doing anything wrong. It’s not to penalize, just to regulate,” said Yan.

“The crisis of trust in government is probably even bigger than our housing crisis”

“Overseas buyers were a force in the market in 2014-2016,” said Thomas Davidoff, associate professor at UBC’s Sauder School of Business. It’s “less clear that is a strong effect now.” He does not think banning or taxing overseas buyers will be very effective as existing taxes have limited their participation in the market to a very small share of all transactions.

Yan said Canada is catching up with other countries when it comes to policies for overseas buyers. Countries like Singapore, Malaysia and China all have very clear policies for foreign buying.

Also, Yan thinks federal policies in terms of mortgages, interest rates, taxes, even immigration and immigration support systems have an impact on housing.

“Generally speaking, Canada undertaxes housing and overtaxes income and sales. That system invites people to invest in housing here without making a living here, including both Canadians and foreigners,” said Davidoff. Higher property taxes (e.g., federal capital gains tax on owner gains above a certain threshold) and lower income and sales taxes would lessen the incentive to hold vacation or empty homes.

Inflation due to low-interest rates after COVID-19 is making things worse. “The concerns about inflation on Zhouses are very different than on food prices. For food, you have substitutes so that you can move into other cheap choices. But for housing, there’s a point at which you will be living in the street,” said Yan.

Rezel said when the housing crisis occurred in Singapore in the 1970s, the Singaporean government decided that the only solution was for the government to be involved, so it invested a lot of money in housing. “But the Canadian government just leaves this to everyone else.”

“To improve affordability, either you need to increase the salaries or reduce the home prices,” Rezel said. The former means tripling salaries for many people in Vancouver, which is impossible. And no party in this federal election wants to introduce any measure that will reduce home prices because that will upset voters who are homeowners.

Over 60 per cent of Canadian households own homes, and recent data shows that 20 per cent of homeowners in Vancouver own more than one property, a number that is rising.

Housing should have been addressed a decade ago, said Rezel. But no government wants to take on this “political suicide mission,” so the problem continues to grow.

Some homeowners he knows are looking forward to changes, because they don’t want their children or grandchildren to have to move out of Vancouver.

Distrust of government

During the election campaign, some recent news in Vancouver has made people even more anxious about the housing crisis.

“When you define ‘housing crisis’ in Vancouver, whether it is caused by lacking supply or foreign buyers or speculations or circulation, you cannot quantify that unless you have accurate data. I feel that the biggest obstacle to getting the data is the government,” Rezel says.

A secret study conducted by Revenue Canada in 1996 was recently revealed by the South China Morning Post. It showed wealthy migrants purchased 90 per cent of luxury homes in Metro Vancouver while declaring extremely low incomes. The study had been ignored or even intentionally covered up by the government, and the reporter went through a long ordeal to find it, using access to information legislation to finally access it.

Yan asked why the government doesn’t keep the public informed by disclosing the latest data. “I think there’s certainly a role of federal agencies in terms of ensuring our housing system is transparent and accountable.”

But judging by how the government has behaved so far, it is hard for the public to trust them.

“The crisis of trust in government is probably even bigger than our housing crisis,” Yan said.

The Liberal candidate for Vancouver Granville, Taleeb Noormohamed, was found to have flipped dozens of houses and made a significant profit on the transactions in recent years. This not only conflicts with the Liberal Party’s plan for an anti-flipping tax, but raises concerns about the opacity of data. According to a media report, the federal NDP spent in excess of $800 in fees to access Noormohamed’s property portfolio through the B.C. Land Title and Survey Authority.

“I think the researchers and journalists should have access to the data for free. There’s no reason why not.” Rezel suspects the government doesn’t want people to know what’s going on.

He says housing and transparency advocates have asked the B.C. NDP to waive those fees for journalists and researchers. Instead, Horgan's government even added fees for the newly minted Land Owner Transparency Registry.

In dealing with the ravages of illegal money laundering in B.C., several experts have called on the government to give the public free access to public registries of beneficial ownership for land and companies, in order to provide the benefit of identifying possible illegal or unethical activity.

A 2019 report called “Combatting Money-Laundering in BC Real Estate” says money laundering in the urban real estate markets of B.C. has contributed to the problem of housing affordability, and has increased housing prices by about 5 per cent.

Yan said this is only the tip of the iceberg. The number is much higher in Vancouver, and lots of money laundering still cannot be detected.

The ability to combat money laundering is limited by the lack of accessible government data. According to the report a great deal of government data is not public, or is subject to a complex set of data-sharing arrangements and limitations, some of which may be unnecessarily restrictive.

Correction, 12:15 p.m. PT: Quote from Rohana Rezel clarified to say most people are just “one renoviction” away from homelessness.
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