The house Manyee Lui is showing today is listed at $2.2 million. Although the lot is only 33 feet wide and the house is nothing more than a blandly handsome two-storey, Lui expects it to sell quickly, even though the market's turned a little tepid. With 2,900 square feet, the place is big enough for four bedrooms and an additional self-contained suite. All things considered, she says, "It's not so expensive."
Lui is simply telling it like it is: This house in the Dunbar neighbourhood may not be anyone's idea of a dream home, but it delivers respectable accommodation for a reasonable price, at least by the standards of Vancouver's west side. With a standard city lot trading hands for around $1.4 million and construction costs running at least $200 a square foot, it doesn't take much of a house to hit the $2-million mark. And this summer and fall, as real estate markets wilted in most of the country, vertigo-inducing prices for properties on Vancouver's west side held steady or even edged a little higher.
The question a lot of people were asking is, Who on Earth is buying them?
Lui explains why she's so confident the home will sell: "It will appeal to a buyer from China." She allows there was a time when Chinese buyers' architectural preferences differed significantly from the local norm, but over the last 10 years their tastes have widened and become more westernized. Now long-term Vancouverites and incoming Chinese are seeking almost exactly the same thing-except, Lui says with a laugh, "we can't afford it."
True. When Lui says "we," she's talking about the locals, people who make their living in Vancouver. Now that the forestry industry has been eclipsed and the place has a median household income that is only average by Canadian standards, Vancouver is a city with no visible means of support. The affordability ratio has rocketed upward so quickly that it is now the steepest on the continent: more than double the Canadian average and more onerous than in places like New York and San Francisco. No wonder Vancouver is at the top of the media's suddenly urgent bubble watch, not just in Canada but also in the United States; outlets ranging from Reuters to Businessweek have reported on a housing market they suspect is ripe for the kind of downfall the Americans are only too familiar with.
If "buyers from China" answers the "who" question about Vancouver's unique real-estate market, the follow-up question-"Where is this leading?"-is harder to answer. The torrid affair between eastern Asia and Vancouver real estate, now in its third decade, is actually a love triangle from which each party derives very different things. When wealthy Chinese immigrants buy property in Vancouver-and they utterly dominate the top end of the market-they're actually buying a form of insurance. What the federal and provincial governments get out of these newly minted Canadians turns out to be a modern form of the infamous head tax that was imposed on Chinese migrants in the 19th century. And what Vancouver gets is an economy that boasts a lot of froth, and not much substance. From all three angles, it feels like a relationship that is built not so much on Commitment as on enjoying the good times while they last.
In 2003, renowned Vancouver architect Bing Thom remarked that his city was becoming "the Switzerland of the Pacific." The Hong Kong-born Thom was referring to the way the city offered a safe and comfortable harbour to elites from around the Pacific Rim in search of fresh air, good schools and geopolitical peace of mind. About the same time, Andrea Eng heard a Korean billionaire refer to the city as "the Geneva of the Pacific." Eng, who has spent most of the past two decades brokering deals on both sides of the Pacific for Li Ka-Shing-the world's wealthiest Chinese businessman-picked up on the phrase and began to use it on her website. By 2009, the concept had received academic validation, after University of British Columbia historian Henry Yu invoked it in a journal article about the network of Asian-born and -descended Canadians who link this country to the world's newly dominant economic zone-a place that will increasingly determine Canada's own prosperity. "Vancouver, in particular, is an incredibly sought-after location," he says.
Yu is careful to add a caveat, though. Vancouver is popular as a lifestyle destination for those who can afford it-not as a place to make a living. More ambitious immigrants, Asian and otherwise, are more likely to choose Toronto. In fact, British Columbia (which essentially means Greater Vancouver) receives about 15% of all Canadian immigrants, which, given its population, is only slightly more than its proportional share. On the other hand, it gets about half of the annual 10,000 or so people who can prove they are already wealthy and therefore eligible for easier, if more expensive, rides in the entrepreneur and investor classes. And the rest of Vancouver's 15% share fits a distinctly different profile than do immigrants to places like Toronto and Montreal: more skilled and better educated, and much less likely to arrive as refugees.