It’s no secret that the rich investor class is buying up properties in cities around the world, including Vancouver.
In Manhattan, the super rich foreign class is driving a boom in luxury condo towers that is widening the gap. Places such as London, and Sydney are feeling the hard pinch of high real estate prices as well. But in those cities, considerable effort has been made to control rising prices and debt and deal with declining ownership.
In Vancouver, there’s an astonishing apathy to the very serious issue of inequality and affordability, says David Ley, a geography professor at the University of British Columbia who’s studying housing bubbles in various cities.
“I was in Sydney, Australia, about six weeks ago, and it’s bad there, but it’s quite a public issue there, too,” said Prof. Ley, author of the book Millionaire Migrants. “There’s a large number of government reports, special committees, and so on, that have been looking at the affordability question. It has a prominence in national debate, which doesn’t seem to happen here.
“Here, there is a flutter of interest every time the Royal Bank comes up with its update on affordability. There isn’t behind it that kind of public mobilization that would lead to government to do more.”
The theory has been brewing for some time that the Vancouver condo market is catering to this global investor class who park their money in cities that are desirable and safe.
We should be reaping the rewards of Vancouver’s status on the bestseller list of cities for global investment. So why doesn’t it feel as if we are? Vancouver has the feel of a city where only a few are at the top of the mountain while the rest are working hard on the climb.
Across the board, experts agree we lack data, such as records of foreign ownership, that we need to determine what is truly going on in Vancouver.
But if we look at the numbers we do have, things just don’t add up. For example, we have the highest average house price in the country, and yet average income is lower than most major Canadian centres.
If you look at the numbers, Vancouverites are simply too poor to afford real estate. In some areas, it’s astonishing that we even try.
The average income in Metro Vancouver in 2009, was only $41,176, according to Canada Revenue Agency statistics. In Vancouver proper, we are getting by on $43,911. However, Richmond residents are barely scraping by at $33,350 a year — the lowest average income in the region, followed by Burnaby, with an average of $34,961.
Only 0.56 per cent of British Columbians declared incomes higher than $250,000, says Andrew Romlo, executive director of Urban Futures, which studies demographics. That’s less than the proverbial 1 per cent that owns everything.
With the average selling price of a detached house in Vancouver at $1.116-million, the incomes do not jibe – even if we are the most indebted province, according to a recent TD Bank report. B.C.’s income-to-debt ratio is the highest, with Albertans a close second. But they’ve got lower house prices and high-paying jobs.
Judging from all the growth, the payoff should be money flowing into infrastructure, such as new transit and, especially, into job creation.
“It doesn’t make sense when you look at income numbers,” says researcher Andy Yan, who works for Bing Thom Architects. “We are not a wealthy city.”
But are we a poor city? We are a city in debt, and at the top end, money is obviously coming from elsewhere. The wealth is visible, but the means to it isn’t. We simply don’t have the tools to measure the flow of money, either.
Like several other experts, Mr. Yan doesn’t believe we are getting the proper return on the cost of all this growth.
“Isn’t this an opportunity to tap into the fact that we have a certain monopoly on climate, livability and civility, and we can take advantage of that?” he asks. “Yes, their $3-million condo is admission to the club, but shouldn’t we be modifying the locker fees?
“Why should we give that wealth out for free? There is a terrible economic history in this province where we give our wealth away. It’s tragic. Should we not rethink our city, given the economic change that’s going on?”
So far, the growth isn’t paying for itself. We are a city without an economic underpinning. We have no stock market, no head offices, the financial centre is elsewhere. Not so long ago, there was a Bank of British Columbia, recalls Thomas Hutton, a UBC professor who studied geography at Oxford University.
“It may well be that our niche is not as a head office or banking city,” says Prof. Hutton, who studies urban growth and development. “We’ll have foreign capital for the real estate market and some start-ups, and that will be it.”
It would seem a precarious balance, banking on the whims of the super rich, never mind the ever-looming prospect of an interest-rate hike. As to whether Vancouver is in a bubble, Prof. Ley doesn’t think that will be the situation any time soon. If a bubble is prices that are out of whack with incomes and labour-market trends, then we might have one, Prof. Ley says.
But the weirdness of Vancouver is that we are driven by investor capital flow, and have been for more than two decades.
“A case could be made that we do not have a bubble. However, should the conditions change, prices may not be sustainable,” he cautions.
Those conditions are cheap mortgages and that capital flow from foreign investors. And the capital flow probably won’t dry up, Prof. Ley says.
“The evidence is that Vancouver will continue to be a popular destination for this market, though there will be year-to-year variations.”
Meanwhile, there remains the question of jobs. People between 18 and 24 are already among the most indebted in Canada, according to the TD Bank report, released in February. Without jobs and affordable housing, why would they stay?
Prof. Ley says there are signs that they aren’t.
“We are seeing a number of people moving out. In the past 20 or 25 years, there has been a net loss of migrants from Metro Vancouver to other parts of Canada.
“A number of Vancouver residents are simply moving away. Obviously, there are different reasons for this. For some, it’s retirement driven, and for some it’s jobs driven. But for a number, it is housing.”
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