In Vancouver, race undercuts the discussion on real estate affordability

posted on July 31, 2014

By Ian Young, the Globe and Mail | Link to Article

By Ian Young, the Globe and Mail | Link to Article

It helps to have a thick skin when reporting on the nexus between Chinese money and Vancouver’s sky-high property market. It also might help if that skin, like mine, isn’t white.

Accusations of racism flow thick and fast whenever an attempt is made to connect wealth-based immigration, primarily by rich Chinese, and housing prices here. Since influential condo marketer Bob Rennie delivered a speech to the Urban Development Institute in May, in which he said “sensational” stories making that link were “bordering on racism,” an array of industry figures have lined up to support his proposition.

But now, some in the Chinese community are pushing back. “Guys like Bob Rennie, they are trying to stop full conversation and intelligent conversation by using words like ‘racism,’” said long-time Chinatown activist David Wong. “People are afraid to speak when people start throwing that word around.”

Mr. Wong, an architect who has campaigned on behalf of impoverished Chinese immigrants, said it was vital to have a frank discussion about the impact of rich immigrants on greater Vancouver, where average detached house prices top $1.2-million. “Every time people want to talk about this, they get labelled a racist, especially if they are non-Asian,” said Wong. “That’s nonsense. We’ve got to talk about it. The politicians are gutless because they are afraid they are going to lose the so-called ethnic vote.”

Mr. Rennie’s May 15 speech was swiftly followed by a range of commentary that hewed closely to his line. On June 3, pro-development political consultant Bob Ransford warned in The Vancouver Sun that addressing unaffordability by restricting foreign ownership would “tread very close” to the historical discrimination of the anti-Chinese head tax.

Two days later, University of British Columbia professor Tsur Somerville – whose Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate is sponsored by developers Grosvenor and Henderson Development, as well as the Commercial Real Estate Development Association – told CKNW Radio that although ignoring the issue would be “foolish,” the debate risked descending into “prejudice, stereotypes and racism.” Cameron Muir, chief economist for the B.C. Real Estate Association, meanwhile told The Vancouver Observer on June 5 that linking immigration to property prices “is beginning to sound suspiciously awkward.”

The debate is certainly getting awkward, though perhaps not in the way Mr. Muir suggests. Brandon Yan, a Vancouver city planning commissioner, summed it up in a Twitter critique of Mr. Rennie’s speech: “Let’s leave it to the rich white dudes to decide what’s racist, right?”

Mr. Wong, a spokesman for Chinatown’s Ming Sun Benevolent Society, said he took particular issue with those comparing possible property market curbs to the head tax, imposed in 1885 to deter Chinese immigration. Such comparisons were “complete bull,” said Mr. Wong, who added that Singapore recently imposed restrictions on foreign buyers without being accused of racism. “People over here will say and do whatever they can to stop any efforts that would prevent them from making more money,” said Mr. Wong. “It’s wrong. They use the term ‘head tax’ without even understanding the history behind it. It really appalls me.”

Messers. Rennie, Ransford, Muir and Somerville have all said that evidence tying Vancouver prices to immigration is anecdotal. But there is a range of statistical support for the case.

UBC’s Prof. David Ley, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Geography, has long studied links between international immigration to Vancouver and home prices there. In his 2010 book, Millionaire Migrants, the Oxford-educated researcher found an “unusually decisive” +0.94 correlation between the two factors (in which +1 represents movement in perfect correlation, -1 represents movement in exactly opposite directions, and 0 total randomness). This correlation far exceeded that between prices and interest rates (-0.12), rental vacancies (-0.03), unemployment (0.16) and other conventional correlates.

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