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Oversight of British Columbia’s housing market is a sham

If you needed any further evidence of how badly broken and dysfunctional the real estate industry is in B.C., look no further than the case of Keith Roy.

Until last month, Mr. Roy was a member of the professional standards committee of the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver. He has said he was dumped because he pressed for greater accountability. One board member was upset enough over it to quit in protest. Mr. Roy told The Globe and Mail that it was divulged to him a board member said he "had it coming" because of his views.

Given the rogue nature of the industry in this province, I'm not surprised someone calling for more transparency and professionalism would be considered a threat. In a sector that often seems unregulated, it has never been easier to make gobs of cash – legally or illegally. Few want to jeopardize the dynamics that are allowing many to get filthy rich very quickly.

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You might be wondering what radical suggestions Mr. Roy was proposing the board adopt. Glad you asked. In a letter to its president, Dan Morrison, the long-time real estate agent laid out his concerns. Among them: He said realtors who practice in Metro Vancouver should be proficient in English to serve their clients better. (Many new realtors speak Mandarin only.) He suggested the board end its relentless pursuit of new members and instead toughen standards and "start to focus on bringing in members who grow to become trusted advisors and consumer protection advocates."

In his correspondence, Mr. Roy also advocated making public the board's decisions on professional conduct – currently everything is conducted in secret. Consequently, people have no idea if the realtor they have just hired has been fined several times for infractions. (This scenario is not uncommon, according to Mr. Roy). He also suggested making it safe for whistle-blowers inside the business to express concerns. Right now, anyone who makes an internal complaint is subject to being investigated himself.

He made other recommendations of a similar commonsense variety, the kind of proposals that would be considered standard practice in many other lines of work. But that is not how the real estate industry in this province operates. At least, certainly not the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, an old boys' club if there ever was one.

Mr. Morrison told The Globe and Mail that Mr. Roy's dismissal from the board's professional standards committee had nothing to do with his advocacy for more openness and stricter standards. No, rather it was because Mr. Roy worked for Re/Max and too many people from that firm were on the board. Strictly a numbers game. Nothing more.

What a complete and utter sham this whole industry is. We have three separate real estate associations in the province, all over-lapping. We have real estate boards and the provincial real estate council, all with the power to discipline real estate agents. In practice, all are lame, ineffective overseers of an industry that has failed repeatedly to put the consumer first.

At the heart of the problem are real estate boards (B.C. has 11) that derive their power from the local MLS systems, which they control.

Why boards are allowed to control these listings fails me. The Competition Bureau of Canada takes a similar view. The bureau argues that realtor boards limit competition and artificially keep costs high by preventing the public from having access to data on the Multiple Listing Service, which is used for the preponderance of real estate transactions in this country.

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In fact, the country's competition tribunal (an appeal body) recently upheld the bureau's position on this matter in an ongoing dispute with the Toronto Real Estate board. The board had argued it owned the MLS data and needed to restrict access to it for privacy reasons. It is unclear as yet just what the ramifications of the tribunal's decision could be nationally. Let's hope it ends the monopoly boards currently enjoy over this information.

Meantime in B.C., we await the results of an advisory group headed by Carolyn Rogers, the province's superintendent of real estate, which is looking at bringing regulatory change to the industry. Ms. Rogers is making the right sounds about what she would like to see done, including having the real estate council, not the boards, handle complaints from the public.

Ultimately, the provincial government will make the final call. And given all the donations the industry has given to the governing Liberals, I would think it has to be feeling pretty good about the future.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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