With files from Shannon Waters
If the sight of empty homes in your Vancouver neighbourhood is leaving you frustrated, you may soon be able to do something about it.
The city’s chief housing officer, Mukhtar Latif, is working on a website where people will be able to report what look to be vacant homes.
In a memo from April 20, Latif suggests “a review of existing studies and potential data sources” to determine the extent and character of Vancouver’s vacant houses.
Latif notes that, while there is significant public interest in the issue, research and data are scare, particularly when it comes to detached houses.
” We have had difficulty in identifying data sources that can provide the exact numbers of vacant single family homes, length of time properties are being left vacant and reasons for why they are vacant.”
A persistent problem
While vacancy numbers for single family homes may be difficult to come by, Vancouver’s condo market has been scrutinized more closely. Andy Yan, a researcher and adjunct professor at UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning, has been looking into Vancouver’s ‘dark’ condos since 2009. His research that year,based on BC Hydro data and conducted as an urban planner for Bing Thom Arthitects, found that 5.8% of Vancouver’s condominiums were unoccupied. In 2011, Urban Futures found that 6.7% of Vancouver’s condos and purpose-built rental units were empty. In 2013, using data gathered from the province among other sources, Yan found that 50-60% of Vancouver’s downtown condos are not being occupied by their owners.
Yan believes the majority of these condos are owned by foreign investors banking on their purchases continuing to climb in value. For those who can afford it, Vancouver’s real estate market has been and continues to be a good bet.
Higher and higher
Increasing unaffordability is a hot topic in the city. Recently, Vancouver Savings Credit Union predicted that by 2030, the average price for a Metro Vancouver Home will top $2.1 million. In January, Demographia ranked the city second-least affordable in a rating of 378 cities from around the world. This is the fourth time Vancouver has received the dubious honour.
The City of Vancouver is well aware of the local affordability issue. It plans to spend $125 million from the capital budget in the next three years in an attempt to ease housing pressures felt by low and middle-income Vancouverites. The Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency has also issued a request for proposals from consultants to help study ” the vacant housing unit issue.”
Although it says it needs more data, the City also has a long list of reasons why Vancouver properties are lying empty. These include:
- Properties in the process of being sold or rented;
- Properties waiting for development permits and renovations;
- “Flipped” properties, which are bought, renovated and sold in a short period of time;
- Domestic and international investments properties;
- Properties in probate;
- Residences owned by snowbirds and professionals on sabbatical; and
- Homes whose owners are in hospital or care facilities.
Foreign investment fears
Of the reasons listed by the City, foreign investment is by far the most discussed and the most controversial. In the last few years, countless column inches have been dedicated to the issue, with some pointing fingers at large numbers of wealthy Chinese investors and immigrants who have flocked to Vancouver. Some say federal programs, including the now-curtailed immigrant investor program, have made it too easy for foreign millionaires to buy-up high-end real estate, much of it in Vancouver.
Others insist that such theories are xenophobic or racist. Yan disagrees.
““Whispers of racism should never be used to silence a desperately needed dialogue on the necessary actions to create a sustainable, livable, and just city.”
There seems to be a significant amount of anecdotal evidence that many of Vancouver’s homes are owned by foreign buyers. Last year, Macdonald Realty opened a Shanghai office after finding that more than 30% of the single-family homes it sold in 2013 went to buyers with “mainland Chinese names.” Ian Young, a reporter for South China Morning Post, estimates that, in terms of dollars spent, nearly half of detached homes sold in Vancouver in 2014 “probably” went to Mainland Chinese buyers.
What to do
While the city has proposed to study the situation, no solutions are yet forthcoming. In the municipal election in November 2014, COPE mayoral hopeful Meena Wong proposed a tax on absentee property owners, saying those who do not occupy or rent their property should pay additional fees to help develop affordable housing solutions in the city.
New York City is considering such a tax. Mayor Bill de Blasio and city councillors are said to be considering an additional property tax to be applied to homes worth more than $5 million are not primary residences. The tax would start at 0.5% and rise to a maximum of 4% on properties worth more than $25 million.
Critics say the tax will be difficult to enforce and could put a damper on luxury high rise construction as well as the high end housing market.