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Andy Yan poses for a photograph in Coal Harbour in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday April 10, 2013. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)
Andy Yan poses for a photograph in Coal Harbour in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday April 10, 2013. (DARRYL DYCK For The Globe and Mail)

It’s a problem when Vancouver condos sell, but the lights stay off Add to ...

Anyone who has walked around Coal Harbour at night already knows that empty, investor-owned condos are the antithesis of community.

If the data released during a panel discussion at Simon Fraser University two weeks ago revealed anything, it’s that empty condos point to a city of speculators and investors. And it doesn’t matter if those investors are from Mainland China, Iran or Ladner.

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They’re pushing up property prices by using Vancouver real estate to store their money as if it were one giant “safety deposit box,” to quote one of the panelists.

“The issue is speculation; that was the heart of my presentation,” says Andy Yan, an urban planner and statistics junkie who works for Bing Thom Architects. Mr. Yan gave a presentation that showed a substantial number of condos in downtown Vancouver are empty, and his new report made headlines.

The issue isn’t just foreign investment. It’s the fact that so many developments are investor-owned – and with the revelation that about 25 per cent of them are empty in Coal Harbour, we know a lot of them are not being used as rental stock.

“The empty condo thing is a bit of urban mythology busting, but does it really matter?” asks Mr. Yan, over coffee a few days later. Mr. Yan, who’s a third-generation Vancouverite, received his masters in urban planning at the University of California. He’s spent the last several years digging deep into Vancouver’s real estate market.

“How about the fact that, oh, 50 to 60 per cent of condos are investor owned? And what the economic situation of that does for a real estate market?”

At the panel discussion, Sandy Garossino, a former crown prosecutor and community advocate, brought up the impact of unaffordability on low-income groups, such as seniors. Investor behaviour pushes prices up. Their impact trickles down.

In an interview, she talked about the inevitable class divide that is the consequence of operating as a playground for rich people. There are the people in the expensive houses. And then there are the people making the coffee, cleaning the houses, caring for children and the elderly, and working at 7-Eleven. Where do they live?

We’re a city filled with people relying on real estate appreciation. That couldn’t be good. The median household income based on census figures and adjusted for the rate of inflation is $53,736 in Vancouver proper. We are not a wealthy city. But our two-storey houses cost more than double the national average price of $407,044. Ms. Garossino made the point at the panel discussion.

“While there is a great deal of sober and moderate opinion saying we have always had this problem, actually it’s quite a bit worse than it was before,” she says. “Now I think it’s a real drag on the rest of our economy. We are marginalizing huge sectors of our population who should be living in relative security.”

Her biggest concern is the idea that towers – comprised mostly of studios and one-bedroom apartments, and sold as presales – ease affordability.

“I think we are creating a form of housing that is perfectly suited to speculation. It couldn’t be more suited to speculation.

“They are completely interchangeable, one suite is like another suite. This is the kind of thing that drives easy trading. It’s not completely liquid, but it is a lot more liquid than say a house on a lot. So, from a policy standpoint, what we should be doing is looking at the kind of housing that speculators don’t like.

“The public policy from my perspective should be to cool that market, because it’s driving market confidence. Market confidence should match market conditions.”

I recently toured a gorgeous six-year-old Yaletown loft with huge patio that sold for less than what the owner paid three years ago. Sales have clearly evened out this past year. But there are cranes dotting the skyline throughout the Lower Mainland. Thousands of new units are under way. The towers continue to go up. So, there’s confidence in new construction.

We may not have hard data, but we all know what’s happening. The speculators are creating empty-feeling, overpriced neighbourhoods, the opposite of settling down and getting to know the neighbours.

“I feel that there are a lot of people who came to Canada and made their money outside the city and they are bringing that capital into Vancouver’s real estate market,” Mr. Yan said. “I am absolutely sure that is happening. Because when you look at the income numbers, it doesn’t make sense otherwise. We are not a wealthy city.”

Simply put, there are two things happening. People are taking on an incredible amount of debt, and there is another group from around the world that is buying. They don’t need mortgages, and they pay cash for multiple units.

And we don’t know the numbers because nobody is keeping track.

“We don’t have the tools to measure it,” explains Mr. Yan.

Michael Ferreira, an analyst who works for developers, agrees it would be nice to know where the buyers are coming from. He has no solutions for stopping the speculation, although he thinks it has eased off in the last couple years.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to put restrictions on foreign investment,” he says. “I think it sends the wrong message for the economy as a whole. It impacts how foreign investment might perceive this market.”

We could, however, establish regulatory incentives and disincentives in the housing market, suggest Mr. Yan and Ms. Garossino.

Mr. Yan has another statistic. Only 33 per cent of Vancouver residents were born in B.C. We’ve become a mobile city. Our growth has been swift.

“What does that mean for city building?” he asks. “That is the big picture challenge ahead of us, and the frustrating thing about Vancouver. It’s an easy city to live for maybe five years, but to really set up roots? I think that’s becoming increasingly difficult.”

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