Skip to main content

The Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver said the median price for detached homes sold on Vancouver’s west side reached $2.91-million last month.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Former NDP cabinet minister Darlene Marzari is not one to indulge in anti-Chinese rants.

Ms. Marzari, who worked with community activist Shirley Chan in the 1960s to block Vancouver city council's plan to drive a freeway through Chinatown, understands how an ethnic group can be targeted and demonized.

But she is now one of those on Vancouver's west side who are anguished about the radical changes global capital appears to be wreaking on the area they live in and love: houses being torn down for gaudy new mansions, a sense that neighbourhoods are being emptied out, skyrocketing prices that mean people like Ms. Marzari will make a fortune when they sell, but their children will never be able to buy anywhere near this leafy area with its ocean views.

In Vancouver, "global capital" has become a euphemism for "money from mainland China." Ms. Marzari applauds research that at least makes an attempt to get some solid numbers on what is happening.

That includes research such as the study released on Monday by UBC researcher Andy Yan, which looked at how many people with non-Anglicized Chinese names bought properties in three areas of the west side between September, 2014, and February, 2015, whether they got mortgages, and what they listed as their occupations. David Eby, the MLA who helped get the data for Mr. Yan, said the results add weight to concerns that foreign Chinese buyers are purchasing houses in Vancouver and not living in them, leaving neighbourhoods empty.

On Tuesday, the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver said the median price for detached homes sold on Vancouver's west side reached $2.91-million last month. That is up 15.9 per cent over the past year and a 42-per-cent jump from October, 2013.

On the city's east side, where houses have historically been more affordable, prices have jumped 47.7 per cent over the past two years. Those kinds of numbers have provoked increasing anxiety about the cause and an intense interest in the role of mainland Chinese buyers.

"The study was fabulous," Ms. Marzari said. "Andy Yan is a hero for actually putting numbers on the ground."

But Mayor Gregor Robertson objected to the "racist tones" of the study, saying research should focus on the issues of speculation, flipping and luxury homes that are taxed too low, not people's last names.

The story prompted an all-day Twitter argument in Vancouver, with people debating, not always politely, whether it was helpful or harmful.

Some pointed out that it lumped a lot of Chinese people in together, a group that accounted for 30 per cent of Vancouver's 600,000 population in the last census, and made assumptions about them on the basis of their names.

It is not a given that anyone who has not changed their name is a recent immigrant, critics note. For example, Councillor Kerry Jang's relatives, long-time Vancouverites, still have non-Anglicized names on their legal documents.

Others pointed out that many buyers, of all ethnic backgrounds in any neighbourhood, might put a house in the name of the "home-maker," but Mr. Yan's study did not look at other areas to see if that is common elsewhere. For example, men with businesses that could be sued might want to keep assets in the name of their wife or a child.

Researchers who study these kinds of issues cite two problems with reports on housing and the impact of global capital that immigrants or foreign investors bring to Vancouver.

One is the absence of data that pinpoint exactly what researchers are looking for, forcing them to use proxies to triangulate information. Mr. Yan's study said it was a primary assumption that a non-Anglicized Chinese name is an indication an owner may be a recent immigrant.

The second problematic factor in any research on housing connected to ethnicity is Vancouver's long history with anti-Chinese movements.

UBC law professor Margot Young said information about foreign capital is useful, but the ethnicity connected to that capital is not useful or relevant to Vancouver's problems with housing affordability.

"It captures this discomfort some Canadians have with their Chinese neighbours. And there's a kind of hysteria, honestly, around the whole issue of housing prices."

UBC geography professor David Ley has done extensive work in the city on the impact of "millionaire migrants" on Vancouver and its real estate, and he agrees.

He said the circumstances in Vancouver make it seem like the issue is all about China. It makes him extra-cautious when writing about the situation.

"In Toronto, it would be a much more plural set of sources. In London, it's the Gulf, Ukraine, Africa, and now there is Chinese money coming in," he said.

"It makes the conversation more manageable if it is not related to one group. The key issue is wealth rather than national background. I would not like to see [national background] obscure the discussion about how wealth is skewing the local market."

He also is concerned about the focus on the immigrant buyers as though they alone are responsible for what is going on. The government created policy to entice wealthy immigrants here in the 1980s, when B.C.'s economy was not doing so well.

"Those who are here are here because we invited them."

Mr. Yan, whose study set off the latest round in a century of debate in Vancouver over the Chinese, said the uproar shows the deep need the city has for dialogue on the whole issue.

"The reaction shows the stresses many people are feeling. But it's better to talk about it than remain in silence."

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct