After a crazy ride these past few years, home sales in Vancouver are finally plummeting, with prices starting to follow.
The fall started with detached houses and has now moved into the condo category. The Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver says August residential sales were down 36.6 per cent from August 2017. There was a near 40-per-cent drop in downtown condo sales in the same period, according to SnapStats.
A price correction has been the dream for many, but will it solve our affordability crisis? David Madden, associate professor in sociology at the London School of Economics and co-author of the 2016 book In Defense of Housing, doesn’t think it’s the panacea we’ve been craving.
“Prices have increased so dramatically that, with a 20-per-cent drop in prices – how evenly will that be spread, and how will it really change people’s prospects?” he asks. “Part of the new model of housing is that when there are downturns, it doesn’t really mean that housing gets distributed in more equal ways. There are just different types of real estate firms and investors that add to the market in different ways. Even if prices fall, it doesn’t mean there’s a better outcome socially.”
Mr. Madden is a buster of housing myths that have long been a part of the Vancouver housing crisis narrative – with varying versions in London, Sydney, New York, and other cities that have been transformed by high prices. His book, co-authored by Columbia University emeritus professor of urban planning Peter Marcuse, explains the history of housing as a commodity, and how it is possible to find alternatives to it, such as a lot more public and not-for-profit housing.
What’s really needed is an overhaul of a system that’s failed its citizenry, Mr. Madden asserts. He acknowledges that global flows of wealth have made their impact, but we’d be wrong to entirely blame foreign buying. He also calls out politicians and groups that continue to argue that more supply of any type of housing – including luxury condos – will create affordable housing.
“I think the argument that says ‘we’ll just build our way out of the housing crisis’ is quite naive about the politics of housing," Mr. Madden said. "It could be the case that a city will build more housing and the local elites will just control more housing and use more housing as a means of financial accumulation. Alternately, cities could build more housing that people need, more social housing, more housing that is not going to be commodified, and that would help.”
The culprit, he said, are political leaders who’ve allowed housing to become increasingly treated as a commodity, and whose policies have led to the demolition of affordable housing and the gentrification and displacement of communities.
Mr. Madden may be an American who lives in London, but his wife’s family is from Vancouver, so he’s in the city frequently and knows something of its problems. He finds it a fascinating region, but is concerned with the extent that real estate has become such a “dominant force.”
“Every time I go there," he said in a phone interview from London, "from the moment I land to the moment I leave, people are talking about housing and housing struggles and housing problems. It does seem to be the issue on everyone’s minds, and a major source of anxiety and stress and struggle for so many people.
“I’m sure that some people continue to see rising home prices in Vancouver as great news for them, but it’s a really short-sighted approach to urban life. In some ways [Vancouver] is like an extreme example of the lack of relationship between housing prices and local wages. It boggles the mind how expensive housing is, certainly in absolute terms but especially compared to what people are living on there.”
He criticized the idea that if a neighbourhood is gentrified, the positive aspects of gentrification will trickle down to all income groups. That position ignores the fact that those with power will likely influence government to change land use to suit their own needs, which doesn’t usually go well for those without power.
Cities gentrify neighbourhoods on the grounds that they are dying areas, in need of revitalization (we’ve seen this attempt in Vancouver’s Chinatown more than once over the past several decades).
But it’s a myth, and it’s highly misleading, to say that there are only two choices; gentrification or urban decay, Mr. Madden said.
Another common refrain is that it’s only natural and right that desirable cities should be unaffordable, as if cities are now the domains of the wealthy and those without enough money should accept displacement as the natural consequence.
“I think this picture of London as an exclusively wealthy city is not really right. It’s a very unequal city.”
What we need, he said, is a more democratic, egalitarian city, where we are building better social housing, where those in the community have more control and say over their own neighbourhoods, and where regulations protect the rights of residents.
There was a time after the Second World War when cities embarked on massive social housing and social welfare programs. In 1950s Vancouver, for example, the federal government built the Little Mountain complex, which housed 700 low-income tenants. The site was transferred to B.C., and a decade ago the province sold it off to Trump Tower developer, Holborn, to be redeveloped. The provincial government justified the move by building social housing units throughout the province instead. The tenants were evicted from the 224 homes, the buildings bulldozed, and the site has remained undeveloped since.
In London, council housing, or social housing, grew out of the Working Classes Act of 1890. In the postwar period, Conservative and Labour governments built massive numbers of council housing units and provided housing for a large part of the population. It was never ideal. Mr. Madden insisted that we shouldn’t romanticize this period of large-scale public housing. Inequality always existed, even if there was more of an awareness that the state needed to house people. But in the new landscape, with the “hyper commodification” of housing, the purpose of home becomes secondary to its value. As a result, Londoners are seeing council estates sold off and demolished, with high-priced market housing built in its place. It has created massive upheaval for low-income tenants who’ve had no say in the matter. Their only choice is to move elsewhere, often far from where they’ve lived for decades.
Mr. Madden called it a shift away from “urban social democracy” when government decided to absolve itself from the responsibility of having to house people, and found ways to justify it. In Canada, we saw the federal government cancel its national housing program more than 20 years ago. It offloaded the responsibility to provincial and municipal governments without providing the funding. In the 1970s and 1980s, we saw a lot of not-for-profit co-operative housing get built, largely subsidized by the federal government. The shift away from the development of this type of livable, central, subsidized housing has had huge implications. We now see growing inequality between those who have livable urban housing and those who don’t. The opposite of gentrification isn’t urban decay, Mr. Madden said, but rather, it’s the democratization of urban space.
“I think city dwellers need to get rid of inequalities, to make life more democratic and less oppressive in general.”
He said we need to shed this idea that cities are only for the wealthy, and that urban housing is for the special few, because the current situation is fostering “insecurity, precarity, anxiety, mental health problems and physical health problems.”
“There is a longer term change where real estate and housing and urban space is becoming a much bigger part of the economy than it had been before, and certainly it is becoming more important relative to various forms of productive capital.
“So it is, in some ways, reflecting this longer term and larger scale transformation. … Is this a good way to organize our urban political economies? I don’t think so. But there are plenty of powerful people benefiting from it.
“I think in Vancouver all these problems are concentrated there, partly because there’s not that much else in Vancouver. I mean, real estate has become Vancouver’s main thing – London has a much more complex economy in many ways, and it’s also a lot bigger. But it is quite similar in these two cities, and they are both some of the top hot spots for the commodification of housing, and the globalization of housing, and the role of the money travelling around the planet searching for some place to be invested in housing and urban space.
“I think it’s important to understand that it doesn’t have to be this way. Again, making cities these unequal and elitist spaces is a political project, and really reflects essentially a choice that politicians and other power holders make.
“Certainly, it does not have to be the case that cities are only for rich people.”