The ongoing issue of housing affordability in Metro Vancouver has made headlines across the country, with upwards of seven-figure price tags on many detached homes in the region.
What those headlines often miss, however, is the human aspect of the affordability crisis.
Filmmaker Charles Wilkinson is hoping to address that with his new documentary Vancouver: No Fixed Address, which aims to show both the ground-level effects and the root causes of the crisis.
Wilkinson spoke to Jon McComb on Monday about the film, and what the filmmaker found out about the crisis through the course of covering it.
Wilkinson says that many Vancouverites form their opinions based on anecdotal evidence, which is often uninformed.
Most importantly, he says the issue of race makes the housing crisis a tricky topic to cover, with many of the problems therein being blamed on Chinese buyers.
He says that while international buying is an important aspect of the crisis, he and his crew wanted to break down commonly-held stereotypes.
“If you want to talk about race, let’s talk about race, and see what role – if any – race plays in the issue.”
In fact, Wilkinson says the high amount of international speculation is only a symptom of issues dating all the way back to Vancouver’s Expo 86.
He says while the Expo did kick start investment in Vancouver by putting the city on the map, more details needed to be ironed out about what the long-term effects would be.
“It was very successful from an economic point of view, but what wasn’t discussed was what the other unintended consequences might be.”
Back when the Expo was being planned, Vancouver needed a new direction after shedding jobs in the resource sector.
Wilkinson says while there were many routes city officials could have gone down, they ended up taking the easy one – selling real estate.
That, in turn, led to an explosion of Chinese immigration.
“The Chinese have a saying,” Wilkinson says. “They say ‘where the big fish go, the little fish follow.’ And we had some very big fish come to Vancouver in the wake of Expo 86.”
That wave of immigration declined into the new millennium, only to be started again thanks to the 2010 Winter Olympics.
With that increased demand, many have suggested that increasing the housing supply in Vancouver to match would ease the market.
But Wilkinson feels it wouldn’t help – he says as demand has increased, so has the number of people looking to profit off the hot market.
He says that through the making of his film he heard many statistics about housing in Vancouver, but one stood out in particular.
According to a former member of the City of Vancouver’s planning department, around 90 per cent of condos being built in the city are bought for speculative purposes.
That means those residences aren’t being bought by families, but by investors looking to get a payoff as prices keep going up.
“That means these towers going up are not really homes,” Wilkinson says. “Many of them are safety deposit boxes in the sky.”
He says that while increasing supply would certainly help, there’s no one solution to making Vancouver more affordable.
Many of the solutions currently available aren’t being implemented, Wilkinson says, and the public isn’t pressuring the government to do so.
He says with taxes Canada-wide that favour international speculation, it’s not in the government’s best interest to change anything.
“We could stop that in a heartbeat, but we have a goose here that’s laying some pretty golden eggs.”
What people need to do, according to Wilkinson, is make the government want to change things.
He points to the public reaction around the HST as a proof-of-concept for how people should be responding to the crisis.
Comparatively, Wilkinson says the reaction to the affordability crisis hasn’t been strong enough.
“The real estate boom in Vancouver has caused people who rent to have to pay 30, 40 and sometimes 100 per cent more, which really amounts to an un-voted-upon tax. And yet the response has been relatively muted.”
But a sustained public outcry against the crisis, Wilkinson says, could lead to some lasting changes.