Oh no! More talk about real estate. What will it take to end this madness? Have we reached critical mass yet? Nope. Things are just beginning …
In late May, a group of articulate, well-intentioned millennials announced the beginning of a new push for their right to an affordable, comfortable, middle-class Vancouver existence at a rally on the steps of the VAG. It was inspired by the creator of the internet hashtag #donthaveonemillion in reference to the (now eclipsed) average selling price of a detached, single family home in Vancouver. The event was particularly geared for those “under 49” (there was even a sign with the age ceiling made clear), who likely have a degree or are tech entrepreneurs. Yes, “Generation Squeeze” seems to have finally found a cause to get politically active about: their own house ownership prospects. There was much talk of how foreign investment has driven housing prices out of reach of those who perceive themselves as the drivers of our future. But frankly, I found the demonstration (by many who were clearly not veterans of demonstrations of any kind) rather alienating. I’m over their age line, un-credentialed in the manner they choose to recognize and have no family. And I’d have suggested an alternate hashtag, something like: #donthavehalfamilolionforshoddy650sqftcondo. But one sign was bang on, something everybody should get behind. It was posted under the stone lion, stage right: GIVE US DATA!
Yes! Surely there must be someone who can present a clear overall picture of the real estate game and all its through lines into our daily lives because as it stands, most of us are pissing in the dark at the moment. Who are the players? What are their holdings? What is the nature of those holdings? How do the players’ actions affect us and what does it mean for our communities, democracy, the economy and so forth. A main complaint seems to be the lack of formal provincial and municipal information on foreign ownership . Demanding that the government begin generating data on foreign ownership is not going to cure the many ills of this city’s housing problems. The demand to “give us data” is a good one, but it should be broadened considerably in scope. And instead of insisting on focusing on just one or two factors, we should be insisting on a very broad presentation reflecting the many factors at play here. There is a wealth of information out there – find it and use it.
The affordability crisis hits everyone in different ways. The real problem is not just foreign ownership or empty condos. It is one of total collective failure to address the issue of the region’s over reliance on real estate over decades. The failure to have a civil, society-wide discussion concerning the moral and ethical problems surrounding the extent to which housing is seen as an investment tool is down to all of us. But particularly egregious is the silence on the subject from the media and conscious inaction from politicians, largely due to their complicity and the personal financial gain at stake for many. It all feels like some kind of frontier town, loosey goosey con game run by a bunch of shysters. Because it is. And it’s been turbo charged by the whims of global capital. But you don’t need to look far to see the ‘disconnect’ in the fundamentals. Scan the job offerings and the salaries around here. Shocking. Read the articles about household debt levels in Canada. Also shocking. Note that Deutsche Bank recently found Canadian real estate to be overvalued by 60% (which my own casual polling of friends and associates finds to be exactly right). So who’s in on the game and who’s out?
All of this will certainly make for some uncomfortable dinner conversations. Perhaps a friend or relative is a contractor, a renovator, a property flipper or condo fluffer. Maybe you’re hoping to inherit a family house that will see you through retirement because your creative ambitions wont be rewarded. Maybe you’re no longer interested in old friends because they’d rather go on about their property plans than take five seconds to ask you about your own creative endeavors. Perhaps a spouse is planning to try to rewrite the nature and history of your relationship in order to walk away with a cool million after secretly planning to leave the country. Maybe you’ll have to ditch plans to move in with a lover because of the potential troubles over property division if things go south. Or, like me, you’ve produced promotional videos for Chinese residential property developers (25 years ago!) and “news” items for national media organizations about spectacular sales of beautiful west side homes that are likely to be torn down (one year ago!). When the stakes get high, people behave badly. Always. And we’re all in this together in ways we may not even realize. People may publicly wring their hands but privately many wish for it to continue. I guess, like most difficult things between people, especially when it comes to money, it’s time to talk about it, for real. Except that once someone’s said “We have to talk…” in any kind of relationship, you know it’s usually time to pack.
So here we are in a profoundly divided city in a society that is rapidly dividing even further in terms of income disparity. There is much fear, resentment, rancor and, ultimately, ignorance over this issue. That is a guaranteed result when something as fundamental as basic housing needs have been entirely handed over to chancers and profiteers who are deeply entangled with our political and media establishment. We have a long history of electing developer mayors and on the provincial level we generally prefer “free market” ideologues who refer to us as “taxpayers” rather than citizens. And on the left? Over the years, many senior NDP figures have favoured roomy west side houses over east side density and character and have built healthy property portfolios thank you very much. I define a true leader as one who identifies a problem ahead of the pack, articulates it to his or her constituents, and brings people together to solve it before a situation becomes divisive and intractable. On this very important and fundamental issue, there has never been a leader in BC.
“Silence is a source of great strength”
– Lao Tzu
We know that knowledge is power and the fact that so many in the real estate racket are quick to throw their hands up and plead “we just don’t know!” tells you that they don’t want you to know. This pleading of ignorance is a long standing convenience in Vancouver. And there is absolutely no excuse that in 2015 we still do not have a clear view of the situation.
In 2014 I was asked to be a judge of the visual category for the New York based Core 77 Design Awards. There were a notable number of entries that employed new infographics strategies. This is a hot area of design because of both improvements in visual graphics technology and the emergence of broad and accessable platforms for dissemination. Two pieces really stuck out. First, we had a book titled The Infographic History of the World (Firefly, 2014) . This basically used clear and entertaining visual strategies to explain everything from geological phenomena to the effects of the industrial revolution and following through to societal upheavals and trends of all kinds. The other was an astonishingly clear and visually engaging print pamphlet designed to alert new immigrants to NY of their rights in an often confusing and occasionally abusive residential tenancy market. The infographics book won overall and the pamphlet was in the winners circle. Visual data is hot, and used well it’s a potent aid in communicating information and ideas to a large number of people.
People tend to like easy to understand graphics and maps. Better still if they are animated or involve some level of interaction. With a city full of animation and design grads surely it’s only a matter of time before someone gets the data all in one place, links it and shows it to us in a clear and engaging way. I’m not saying we need to exclusively go on a witch hunt with this. It would help to know of all the benefits too. It can be a collaborative, open source project. The city could solicit proposals. But in any event I’m sure there will need to be a special side infographic explaining how numbered companies operate!
Without a doubt it’s time Vancouver had a clear picture of how the real estate economy is structured, how it affects every aspect of living and working in the city and who all the players are. This shouldn’t be rocket science. And we shouldn’t be dividing into sub groups of protesters. That will ensure that once one group finds itself at the table it will just weaken calls for structural change from the rest. There will be no useful discussion until we have a clearly laid out, big picture view available to all affected. Until we do, we will remain stuck with the foxes governing the henhouse. And that doesn’t end well. Let the discussions begin. It will be tough. You’ll probably see a dinner guest or two leave the table. But once things shake out, think of what else we can start talking about!