The Van Mag Q&A: Ian Young on racism and real estate (part II)

We continue our conversation with one of the city's most outspoken critics of foreign investment in the real estate market

January 27, 2016

By Max Fawcett / Photo: Clayton Perry / Tourism Vancouver

Last week, we published the first part of our interview with Ian Young, the Vancouver correspondent for the South China Morning Post and perhaps the most outspoken commentator on the influence of foreign money in (and on) this city’s real estate market. Today, the second half of our conversation.

Is the media complicit in that lack of understanding? You seem to be one of the few voices out there that’s willing to really sink your teeth into it.

I think maybe unintentionally complicit. Some journalists haven’t been approaching it with sufficient rigor, and some journalists may have relied too much on a certain perspective that’s being provided by people in the housing industry. In general, I think that most people want to understand this, but they have a hard time getting their head around the facts. There is a lot of data about this subject, but how much of it is aired?

The other thing that drives me crazy is this idea that we’ve got two narratives, and that each narrative needs to be considered equally. To me, that’s on par with saying that creation science is a narrative in the same way that evolution is. If the people on the other side of the narrative, who try to dismiss the idea that foreign money has a big role in Vancouver, are capable of putting forward peer-reviewed research, why don’t they? They don’t because it doesn’t exist, and no academic worth their salt would try to get something published. We’ve got all these forces—huge, powerful forces—that would be very keen to see this data. Why doesn’t it exist? Because it’s simply not true.

It seems to me—and this is just my theory—that everyone who’s in a position to do something about this is in a de-facto conflict of interest because they all own homes, they all have equity, and they all want to protect that equity.

Absolutely. That even may be subconscious. I think you’re right, but at what point are someone’s otherwise good intentions coloured by self-interest. I consider myself a left-leaning social democrat kind of guy, and I’ve written extensively about racism. I’ve investigated the bigots and naer-do-wells who stick their head up every now and then in Vancouver and Canada—extensively investigated them, and written lots on them. So when I have property developers accusing me of racism, you wouldn’t believe how that sticks in my craw.

The people who are making decisions in Vancouver need to wake up, because the chickens are going to come home to roost. And people are waking up to the idea that there’s something seriously askew about the housing market in Vancouver. And things can be done about it. But there’s still this current of denialism that has tainted the entire conversion—for years, it’s tainted the conversation. And it drives me nuts.

At the end of the day, is this about a choice between protecting capital gains and protecting affordability in this city?

Yes. You cannot protect equity at the same time as you’re seriously and substantively challenging unaffordability in the city. It is simply not possible.  That’s what worries me when, for example, Prime Minister Trudeau says we need more data because he wants to be sure that in targeting foreign investment we’re not also going to reduce people’s equity. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t protect these multi-million dollar gains that some people have had on their homes at the same time as trying to protect the affordability of the city. I think it’s a valid decision to say that, and to come out and say, “Look, we can’t do anything about this because we need to protect the equity in people’s homes, and that’s a more important issue.” If they want to make that value judgment? That’s fine. But don’t try to dress it up like it’s a race issue or it’s a not-enough-data issue. Bullshit.

The impact of a crash would be catastrophic for a lot of people who own. I think that’s a valid argument. But for me, personally, it isn’t just a question of whether or not there would be more winners or more losers on one side. I think it’s an issue of social justice. I think that it is an issue of fairness. Is it fair that people be prioritized because they are home owners and they feel like they need to protect their capital gains over people who feel that they are entitled to an affordable city, and have done absolutely nothing to deserve being priced out of it in the way that they have. I think that’s a fundamental social justice issue—the biggest social justice issue in this city. And a lot of the other social justice issues in this city flow from it.

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What’s it going to take to get people to wake up to this? Are we any closer to a kind of Eureka moment?

I think we’re seeing more voices, and I think it is important that a lot of those voices are ethnically Chinese. That allows people to comfortably set aside the notion that this is a racist issue. But I think we need leadership, and people at all levels of government need to at least say something. Ultimately, the levers that have been driving this phenomenon—and it is a phenomenon—are in the hands of the federal government. The Quebec Immigrant Investor Program still operates, and it still pumps thousands of millionaires in to Vancouver’s market every year to no great benefit of Vancouver other than to boost house prices. The Quebec Immigration Program was the world’s biggest wealth-migration scheme. Who knew about that? Who in Vancouver knew that they were beholden to the world’s biggest wealth migration scheme, and that it was being run out of Quebec? We’re not talking small numbers here, either. By David Ley’s estimation, he thought that there was well north of 100,000 rich migrants who had come into Vancouver [through the Federal Immigrant Investor Program and Quebec Immigrant Investor Programs combined] and more than 60,000 between 2002 and 2014 or something. Big numbers. And Vancouver is a relatively small town, and this buying behavior is concentrated in the west side and Richmond.

It trickles down through every market in the Lower Mainland. When some household on Cambie sells their dumpy bungalow for $3 million bucks, that money doesn’t just disappear. They buy a townhouse in Kits, and they give their kids a couple hundred grand to buy condos. When a doctor and a lawyer, who can’t afford a house on the west side, find themselves priced out of those neighbourhoods, they buy a house in Mount Pleasant instead. When the accountant and the schoolteacher find they can’t afford a house in Mount Pleasant any more, where do they go? They go to the east side. The money filters through the market, in sometimes obvious and sometimes not-so-obvious ways.

If you were advising the Prime Minister, what would be the one policy you’d want him to implement to do something about this?

Shut down the Quebec Immigrant Investor program, or talk to Quebec about shutting it down. It’s an absurd program. Selling passports is a stupid idea, and that’s what we’re doing. Not only that, it’s Quebec that’s acting as a toll collector for millionaire migrants on the road to Vancouver.

I’d like to point out that this is not the fault of the individual millionaire migrants. They’re simply acting as all people do, and that’s according to self-interest.  They’re not doing anything illegal, and they’re not doing any more or less than a sensible person would have expected of them. The problem is with policy, and when people come to grips with that—that this is not an inevitability, and it’s not a function of a globalized market that we have no control over—then I think we’ll all be better off. I think then we might be on the path to some sort of understanding of the issue, and maybe even a recovery.

Is it too late to fix this?

Oh, gosh. The sad fact, I think, is that we may already have reached this critical mass of foreign-earning millionaires in Vancouver that it doesn’t matter how many come in each year now. Quite simply, those who are already here or who already have interests here will continue to buy, and will continue not to earn in Vancouver. There’s official government data which shows that, long-term, these millionaire migrants never go on to earn substantial incomes in Canada, by and large. Even 15 years after arrival, the principal applicants—generally, we’re talking the husbands—are still earning refugee-level incomes in Canada. Even the children of these millionaire migrants do not go on to be high-income earners in Canada. They earn below-average incomes. The very premise of these economic immigration programs was that they were going to be to the economic benefit of Canada, and clearly they are not.

I think immigration must serve one of or both of two purposes. It should either be of demonstrable benefit to Canada and existing Canadians, or it should serve a compassionate purpose—refugee programs, for instance, or family reunification programs. Clearly, these millionaire migration schemes have been shown to perform no economic benefit to Canada, when you’ve got those migrants declaring refugee-style incomes for years and years and years. And what compassionate obligation does Canada owe to the world’s one percenters? What compassionate obligation do Vancouverites owe to millionaires in China? Clearly, the answer is none.

 

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