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Vancouver official says city’s presale condo plan addresses lack of public trust

A new condo building is shown under construction in downtown Vancouver, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A senior official in the office of Mayor Gregor Robertson has privately acknowledged Vancouver's plan to give locals a first crack at buying presale condos won't do anything for affordability, but was meant to reduce public mistrust as the city embarks on a push to add new housing.

Kevin Quinlan, the mayor's chief of staff, made the point in an e-mail to the local developers' association.

"You're right. It does nothing for affordability and we have never said so," Mr. Quinlan said in an Oct. 10 note to Anne McMullin, the chief executive of the Urban Development Institute, after she objected, on behalf of industry members, that the announcement was sprung on them.

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"The issue is there's a real lack of trust in the public when it comes to new development and who it is aimed at, and if the city is going to move forward with a very substantial increase in supply, we need to address that," said the e-mail, obtained by The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Quinlan was unavailable for comment by press time.

The correspondence underlines the pressure many municipal, provincial and federal politicians are facing to do something about housing affordability. Some in the public are blaming the city's real estate problems on foreign investment.

Others say foreign investors are being unfairly blamed. Meanwhile, homeowners are concerned about losing equity and aspiring buyers are desperate to get into the market.

Among the issues that bolstered the electoral gains of the provincial NDP this year was public disaffection with the way the former provincial Liberal government handled the housing crisis. The NDP ran a campaign promising action.

On Thursday, Premier John Horgan said his government will take some measures to deal with speculation in B.C. property.

On the campaign trail, the NDP said it would impose a 2-per-cent tax on property speculators who don't pay income tax in the province. The NDP's campaign platform said revenue from the "absentee speculators' tax" would be directed into a housing-affordability fund that would support relevant housing initiatives for British Columbians.

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The governing agreement that commits the BC Green Party to supporting the NDP in the legislature pledges to increase the supply of affordable housing and take action to deal with speculation and fraud driving up prices.

There was nothing on the speculation tax in the government's first budget, tabled last month.

But the Premier said the government remains committed to measures to deal with speculation that will be outlined in the next budget, due in February.

"We're looking at a whole range of issues on the demand side, on the housing front and on the supply side and discouraging speculation, discouraging money laundering is critical to that," Mr. Horgan told a news conference in Surrey on Thursday. "We've been seeing over the past number of days exposure to the extent of money laundering in some of our gaming institutions, well known by the previous government; not addressed."

Mr. Horgan said he stuck by his promise of a speculation tax.

But Mr. Quinlan's e-mail seeks to make the case that the city isn't necessarily targeting offshore buyers.

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"The news release also stated very clearly that the motion is not targeted to foreign buyers versus citizens but rather people who live and work in Vancouver versus those who are outside, regardless of citizenship," he writes.

As well, the correspondence suggests that developers should put some effort into shaping the new policy.

"Those developers who do have an issue with the concept are welcome to make the case around what kind of policy the city should look at, how it can be structured and what unintended consequences it could have that the city should avoid."

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