A new report has popped the bubble on the prevailing myth that Vancouver's real-estate problems are the result of a wave of non-local investors buying homes and leaving them empty.
But the report, commissioned by the City of Vancouver and presented to councillors on Tuesday, has prompted another intense round of counter-arguments and debates on what to do about spiralling housing costs.
Consultant Ecotagious examined BC Hydro electricity data for the city's 225,000 homes from 2002 to 2014, and said in its report that by 2014, 10,800 (just under 5 per cent) were empty for one year or more.
However, it added that 90 per cent of the empty homes were condos and apartments. Of all the city's condos, 12.5 per cent were vacant.
The overall vacancy rate in the city was less than five per cent – a rate that had barely shifted over the years, even as real estate prices increased rapidly. The vacancy rate is also comparable to those of other large cities in Canada, Ecotagious said in the report.
As well, there was no sign of a spike in vacancies of single-family homes, a belief that has led to many media stories and anecdotes about deserted neighbourhoods for several years.
Many city councillors said the report drives a stake through the hearts of some theories about the cause of the city's extraordinary real-estate prices.
"This really makes you think the myth of foreign buyers is just a myth," Councillor Kerry Jang said.
Mayor Gregor Roberton said the city needs to look for ways to reduce the 11,000 vacancies.
"The economy is booming and this could be a great new supply of housing," the mayor said.
The next step for the city is convening a group of housing experts this week to talk about mechanisms the city could use to encourage owners to rent out or occupy their units.
But within hours of the report release, others outside council chambers were expressing doubts about what the data really showed and what measures will work.
University of British Columbia business professor Tom Davidoff said it did kill off the idea that vacancy alone is the problem.
"If the study had said total vacancy is 30 per cent, that's the smoking gun," he said. "This was a little bit of a surprise. It means there's a little bit less weight on outside capital being a factor."
But, he said, the study also did not show how many homes were being "lightly occupied," meaning that the owners are there for only one or two months a year.
He said it was hard to tell the extent of that situation because the report did not indicate how many homes were vacant for 10 or 11 months a year.
In addition to looking at homes vacant for 12 months, the report listed homes vacant for two months (10 per cent), and four months (6 per cent).
"It seems like it's not foreign capital driving vacancy. It's more the astronaut family or the pied à terre."
The number of temporary visas Canada has issued to Chinese residents has soared from about 82,000 in 2012 to 337,000 in 2014. Some have speculated that this indicates many Vancouver homes may be occupied for just a few weeks a year.
The former president of the residents' association in Dunbar, an area that has been one of the centres of complaints about vacant houses, said his neighbours are not likely to accept the report.
"A lot of people feel there are more vacancies. I think people are going to be very disappointed. They thought it would stand for their theory about speculation," Jonathan Weisman said.
An extra piece of information that emerged during the council discussions of the report was that 70 per cent of all the single-family homes deemed vacant in 2014 and 2015 were undergoing renovations and awaiting permits.
"That is absolutely true," Mr. Weisman said, adding that it's not uncommon for houses to sit empty for two years during renovations.