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Vancouver vigilantes take housing matters into their own hands

Alec Smecher and his daughter Luciana Smecher, 5, pose for a photograph near their home off Commercial Drive in Vancouver on Thursday Jan. 18, 2018.


Alec Smecher had put a deposit down on the rental apartment near Commercial Drive, but the landlady called the next day to say she'd rented to someone else. She said she'd tear up his cheque.

They had an agreement, and what she did might be actionable, he thought. Later, when he saw the woman was renting another suite in her five-bedroom house on Airbnb, it pushed him over the edge. Now, Mr. Smecher has become something of a housing vigilante, joining a growing number of Vancouverites, frustrated by an unaffordable city and a lack of solutions.

Mr. Smecher has narrowed his focus to Vancouver landlords renting out laneway houses because, being self-contained, they are easy to spot. If it is a regular Airbnb rental and it has hundreds of reviews, it would be obvious that the owner is renting it illegally. Because Mr. Smecher is a software developer, he's able to do some programming to search for words on the Airbnb site, such as "cottage," "laneway" or "coach house." He found a total of 75 laneway houses he is certain are being used as Airbnb rentals instead of housing for locals. (Renting laneway homes for short-term rental is prohibited and homeowners can face fines, according to new rules announced by the City of Vancouver last year).

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"I view laneway-type housing fairly ideal for raising a family," he explains. "I have found enough that it makes a compelling story – 75 full-time Vancouver rentals are available now on a single site and these are homes intended as housing stock. Some are three-bedroom – they are beautiful places," he says, showing me pictures of newly finished kitchens with granite counters and living rooms with fireplaces. "There are plenty of people here who are part of the problem."

Mr. Smecher is on a mission to return the homes to the housing stock, to help turn around a near-zero vacancy rate. He has reported his findings to the city and he intends to do a Freedom of Information request to determine what enforcement is being taken.

Mr. Smecher's is only one type of activism. Others vigilantes seek to spread information about fraudulent behaviour, map out empty houses or petition government. They share a common sense that things have gone wrong in Vancouver and government inaction means they've got to act.

Mr. Smecher wonders whether politicians fully comprehend the situation. Unless you've searched for housing in the past couple of years, he says, you wouldn't really see how dire it is.

"I've been living in a one-bedroom with my five-year-old daughter, looking for years now for suitable long-term housing. I want to play in my band, show my art, I want to set down long-term roots and I'm constantly bounced around units, with a feeling of uncertainty about where I'm going to live next year," he says. "Everyone is in the same boat, unless you happened to hit the lottery two decades ago. My kind of activism is what people have to do, but in their own way.

"People are feeling a frustration, an inability to act, and really, a bottled up anger that they aren't finding an outlet for. And that's got to go somewhere. I really fear for the election coming up, if people aren't given a sense that things are changing."

Mr. Smecher, who's in his 30s, lives in his one-bedroom apartment near Commercial Drive, an area he's lived in his entire adult life – although it's becoming increasingly difficult. His daughter's bed is a nook in the living room, partitioned off with a curtain. As she grows older, he knows he'll need a bigger space and he worries he won't be able to find one. His previous rental was a nice $2,250-a-month basement unit that was sold after he'd lived in it for 10 months. He's been on a co-op waiting list for several years.

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He's got his challenges, he says but he sees others who are worse off, such as people living in cars and vans around a nearby industrial area. They're the ones getting bumped out entirely.

Raymond Wong, a 42-year-old technologist who lives in Burnaby, launched a petition demanding the provincial government set up a 2-per-cent speculation tax, create a special task force on corruption, work with Canada Revenue Agency to tackle tax evasion and money laundering and ban developers from marketing overseas, among several other measures. Mr. Wong is a member of citizen group Housing Action for Local Taxpayers.

He has about 900 signatures on his petition so far, which he plans to present prior to the February provincial budget. A lot of people have high expectations for the budget, he says.

"It's not right, it's almost like the whole system is rigged against local taxpayers … I don't know how it even came to this," says Mr. Wong, who'd just come from a radio interview. "It motivated me even more … You hear one story and think, 'This is bad.' But then there are more.

"I believe because they hear these stories, there are more people taking action. That being said, a lot of people have given up on government because government policies have failed us. They have turned a blind eye. They've accepted the money laundering, the speculation. They wanted to collect more taxes and didn't care."

Brad Barrett took over the Vancouver Is Falling Facebook page a year-and-a-half ago, when there were around 80 members. Now with 2,300 members, it's the go-to group for the Vancouver housing conversation, a more civil respite from Twitter, where the conversation often erupts into a melee. Today, the membership includes citizens of every occupation, including members of the media, politicians and bureaucrats.

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Mr. Barrett skims about two dozen housing-related articles a day in his quest to post the latest news to the group. He works full-time in a job unrelated to housing and real estate and he can spend anywhere from a couple of hours a day to an entire weekend on his pet project. The only thing in it for him is the solace in knowing that he's doing his part.

"I was not political at all before this," says Mr. Barrett, who's 40. "It wasn't something I paid close attention to … but some of the information that has come from random sources is just mind-blowing. It really opens your eyes to how big the problem is.

"One of the things that drives me and makes me frustrated is that in Canada we shouldn't be suffering the way that we suffer here – where you have the gaps between the wealthy and the middle class so great now that people are struggling just to pay the bills."

Mr. Barrett says he's one of the lucky ones, with a good landlord and secure rental. He and his girlfriend have good jobs. His motivation is seeing his friends and colleagues overleveraging themselves as they buy into expensive real estate or seeing people in his Kitsilano neighbourhood living in vans because they've been displaced. As well, he is concerned that government failure to do something about foreign buying, mostly from China, will lead to resentment and racism. Mr. Barrett routinely shuts down racist or disrespectful comments on his Facebook page. He makes a point of elevating the conversation.

"I try to maintain the focus on the foreign capital rather than a specific ethnicity. That doesn't help the conversation at all," he says.

A typical conversation in the Vancouver Is Falling Facebook group involves a hot topic of the day, such as recent comments by Premier John Horgan that he'd be opposed to a ban on foreigners buying property because his own family members were immigrants to Canada. Social-media commenters were angry the Premier would conflate the problem of wealthy foreign buyers speculating on local housing with immigrants who are in B.C. to live and work.

"We are beyond that, that's why people are so outraged by it," Mr. Barrett says.

Mr. Barrett would like to see a complete shutdown of immigrant-investor programs that allow wealthy foreign investors to obtain citizenship without having to become income tax-paying citizens. He'd also like to see more affordable housing.

"Most people I discuss housing with, they are pro proper supply, not this luxury crap that is getting built that is totally unaffordable to average Vancouverites," he says.

Some citizen activists stay anonymous because they fear legal action from their targets, such as the developers they criticize for selling presale condos overseas.

"It's hard to fight these guys who are big," Mr. Barrett says. "And that's one reason people hide behind anonymity. Because my name is out there, I do need to be more careful. I have friends that are lawyers, too. I run things by them."

A Twitter regular named FIVRE604, who did not want to be identified, has found about 40 projects that have been sold offshore, either directly by a local developer or by a foreign marketer. That's just one aspect of the Vancouver housing mess that fires up so many citizen activists.

"It all takes up quite a lot of time and it's not paid time," Mr. Barrett says. "But hopefully, there is light at the end of the tunnel and we can all relax eventually."

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