What happened was, I got on an airplane, unexpectedly finished my book, and discovered there wasn’t much else downloaded on that device. So I started re-reading what was there, namely Game of Thrones. It’s hard to stop doing that once you start, and what’s worse, I can’t help thinking about Vancouver Real Estate.
You may not have thought that our local home-selling business featured royal incest, bloody slaughter, and the frequent display of bare breasts. And well, you’d be right, it doesn’t. But bear with me.
Sidebar: The Ice and Fire Books · If you haven’t read these — in particular if you’ve been watching GoT on HBO and haven’t — you really ought to. They’re a rich, polished tough-to-put-down body of work and given their thickness, at thirty bucks and change pretty cost-effective entertainment. We started watching the HBO series but gave up on it — our video time is limited, and GoT is OK but it’s neither Joss Whedon nor Orphan Black. Anyhow, I’m enjoying re-reading the books.
Back to Vancouver · Real estate here is ridiculously, ludicrously ovepriced; both absolutely, and measured by the personal-income-to-housing-cost ratio. It’s a real problem. Families with kids are being priced out of the kinds of neighborhoods they really belong. And at work, Amazon’s ability to hire senior employees is limited to local people, and to those from similarly-insane markets such as San Francisco, London, New York, and Hong Kong. People from anywhere else can’t afford to buy a family-suitable house, even on high-tech salaries.
Two of the reasons are easy to understand. Most obviously, Vancouver is one of Canada’s nicest places to live, regularly scoring in the world’s top three in one ratings guide or another. Also we’re boxed in by the mountains and the Pacific and the USA so we can’t sprawl; which contributes on the nice-place-to-live front.
The legend · It turns out that a great many people in Vancouver totally believe there’s a third dimension to the real-estate madness:
Specifically, Asian foreigners.
Chinese, to be precise.
Not just any Chinese, but wealthy mainland Chinese.
That wealth being of sketchy provenance.
The purchases often left standing empty.
Or perhaps inhabited by students or Mom and the kids, while Dad works on more wealth back home.
And finally, that these inhabitants report no income, pay little or no tax, but use lots of the social services.
Is this true? Totally? Mostly? A little bit? At all? The thing is, nobody really knows. Reliable statistics seem unavailable — to the point that gathering some was an issue in our recent election.
Anecdotal evidence is thick on the ground. Time after time I hear people talk about their neighborhoods; about the dark windows at night, about the solo student in the mansion, about the mansion being torn down to build a bigger mansion.
What’s the elephant in the room? Racism. Not overt, of course, partly because if you have a group of more than about four people here, one or two of them will look Asian. But actually Western Canada has a 120-year history of anti-Chinese racism . Also, Canada’s population has been built on wave after wave of immigration, and there’s a long tradition of each wave wanting to slam the door shut behind it.
What I think · I bet the reality isn’t as simple as the legend, and I don’t see that stuff happening in my neighborhood. But I’m pretty sure that when real statistics arrive, they’ll show that some of the things on that list are happening, to some degree.
For straightforward reportage on what people think is happening, see Kathy Tomlinson’s Vancouver house-buying frenzy leaves half-empty neighbourhoods. For a more nuanced take with good journalistic values, read Frances Bula’s What data is it really that we’re looking for in Vancouver’s housing market? It’s easy to believe that, as Ms Bula argues, even if our real-estate market dosn’t have a Chinese-money problem, we quite likely do have a global-capital issue. She also points out the glaring absence of hard data, in Why you should be wary of stories saying “census proves rich Asians live in mansions and pay no taxes”.
Why? · Let’s assume that buckets of overseas money are flowing into Vancouver. The conventional explanation — which I find believable — is that the local real-estate is being used mostly just like a bank account; a safer place to put money than under your mattress. Why here?
At this point I’d ask you to step aside and read a wonderful blog piece from last year: The Rule of Law is Vastly Under-Priced, by “Cassandra”. The piece echoes its title but is rich and entertaining.
And that’s why; global money sloshes in here seeking the Rule of Law. Which is to say, looking for places that are maximally unlike Game of Thrones. I was reading one of the episodes where Arya Stark trudges with temporary allies through a war-torn landscape, seeking safety at all costs; and thinking that that’s how people in many parts of the world feel about trying to protect their life’s savings.
There is nothing people won’t do to protect their families. I grew up in the Middle East and have seen the awful landscapes the desperate Syrians are trudging through to get to the high-risk boat-ride to Greece. Trying to stop people fleeing war is not only despicable, it’s futile.
Trying to stop the wealthy from putting their capital out of reach of an Anti-Corruption Campaign may be not be despicable, but it’s not easy either.
The differences between one rule-of-law jurisdiction and another are qualitative and significant. But once you’ve stepped outside that Rule of Law, it can start to smell like Westeros very damn fast. And these days, you don’t need crossbowmen in the musician’s loft, or swordsmen on horseback, to create a climate of fear. And drive up housing costs on the other side of the world.