The federal government utterly ruined Vancouver. That's the conclusion of three former British Columbia politicians who, together, represent the breadth of mainstream politics - a Liberal, a New Democrat, and a Social Credit (conservative), all three of whom served as Lower Mainland mayors, two of them eventually becoming premiers of British Columbia. They are, respectively, Art Phillips, Mike Harcourt and our very own Bill Vander Zalm.
The federal governments responsible go back to Pierre Trudeau's and continue to this day, including Pierre's lacklustre son, Justin.
Four decades ago, even when the gap between local wages and housing prices was not nearly as severe as it is today, economist Gordon Soules published an eye-opening book titled The Housing Crisis: Causes, Effects, Solutions.
In it, Art Phillips, Bill Vander Zalm and Mike Harcourt detail a fist-full of reasons that house prices were so high in Metro Vancouver, including lack of zoning density and inadequate social housing.
The politicians did not shy away from how high immigration rates and foreign capital were among the biggest contributors to the city’s rising prices — phenomenons re-confirmed this year by UBC geographers David Ley, Dan Hiebert and other scholars.
What follows is an historical perspective on how Metro Vancouver came to 2016, which has been arguably the most dramatic year in the city’s ongoing housing crunch. It also offers a look at the future.
Then-alderman Mike Harcourt, who would go on to become Vancouver mayor and NDP premier, listed several causes of high prices, but also focused on rapid in-migration.
“First, it is essential that we relate both the local and the national housing problems to our immigration laws. Are we in fact merely trying to create new housing, as well as new employment opportunities, just to keep pace with the yearly average of 200,000 immigrants that Canada is admitting every year?” Harcourt said.
“Perhaps we should seriously consider whether we can continue to admit so many immigrants. Further, maybe we should make it less desirable for people to migrate to Vancouver from other areas of Canada by making it more attractive for them to remain where they are.”
“I maintain that the primary approach to solving the housing problem in the Greater Vancouver area lies in the immediate reduction and future control of immigration.”
A decade before Expo ’86, when Canadian politicians began concerted wooing of East Asian investment and migrants, Phillips said, “We can and should control that proportion of our population pressure that is represented by the influx of foreigners.”
Bill Vander Zalm:
Despite declaring he was “not a socialist,” Vander Zalm said the “ideal” response to the housing crisis would be one in which “most land would be owned by the government and leased to the people.”
Known for his frankness, Vander Zalm later, as premier in the late-1980s, zeroed in on immigration, taxes and rising prices by instituting the property-transfer tax.
“Foreign investors, many speculatively, are driving up home prices beyond the reach of British Columbians. These people paid no tax and most have never paid a B.C. tax of any kind,” Vander Zalm said.
In the 1970s, when The Housing Crisis was published, “unaffordability” — which can be measured by the ratio of real-estate prices to local earnings — was about 3 to 1.
By 2016, it had expanded to 13 to one.
According to Demographia, Ottawa's immigration malfeasance has now transformed Vancouver into the third least affordable English-speaking city on the planet.
Closing the Barn Door:
The B.C. government’s 15-per-cent tax on foreign buyers was the first big surprise of 2016, proving popular.
The City of Vancouver, meanwhile, began imposing a tax in 2016 on empty houses, and most suburbs increased zoning density.
But the opposite happened. The last prime minister to lower immigration rates was Pierre Trudeau.
After Brian Mulroney was elected in 1984 — expanding free trade and creating more open borders — politicians began suggesting anyone who wanted to lower immigration levels was xenophobic.
Justin Trudeau says he has no intention of following his father’s lead. This year, he bumped up the country’s immigration rate to the highest it’s ever been, more than 300,000.
“Far be it for me to question a decision my father might have made in the late-1970s,” Trudeau told the Vancouver Sun and Province editorial board on Dec 20, “but we’re on a track to welcome more immigrants over time as our population ages.”
The prime minister recognized 45 per cent of the population of Metro Vancouver, and almost 50 per cent of Toronto, is foreign-born, adding that B.C.’s major urban centre is facing a more “extreme” housing crisis than the Ontario hub.
“We are going to continue to monitor and make sure that as a fundamental core principle people can afford places to live, whether it be in great cities like Vancouver or in smaller communities across the country,” Trudeau said.
Remember, this is coming from the same hustler who maintains that the path of a green economy for Canada is to export ever more bitumen to Asia. That's someone who'll say anything.
Harcourt has many ideas about how Metro Vancouver could move ahead.
The former premier said governments need to respond to how “international capital, a lot of it Chinese,” is flooding into Metro Vancouver, Toronto and other gateway immigration cities.
“Foreign capital regards housing like bricks of gold. It’s considered a safe investment. But it’s massively inflating the markets at the higher end. It’s also impacting other parts of the market, because local people who are professionals and reasonably higher income can’t afford single-family ownership.”
Harcourt believes the B.C. government’s 15-per-cent tax on foreign buyers, and the City of Vancouver’s one-per-cent tax on empty homes, “are bringing down the overheated market in terms of international demand.”
But Harcourt cautioned that Metro’s housing supply, as well as health and educational services, are being over-stretched because 90 per cent of immigrants to the province move to Metro municipalities, which have limited abilities to levy taxes.
It infuriates me that my children and my friends' kids will never be able to afford to live in the same neighbourhoods where they were born and raised, especially because that was ordained by my own federal government. This is Ottawa's doing.
Under Mulroney, Canadian residence and citizenship was fire-saled for a short-term investment of $300,000. What we learned in British Columbia was that the newcomers were moving here but that investment was mainly going to Ontario and Quebec. We got to pick up all the costs - municipal services, education, healthcare and such - while what meagre benefit did accrue went to other provinces that didn't bear those costs. At the same time we saw our housing market explode and there wasn't a goddamned thing we could do about it. That was Ottawa's doing.
Vancouver, today, is a complete mess. It's municipal utilities and roadways are grossly overburdened. I remember a day when I could drive from my first home, just off Arbutus, to my downtown office at Alberni and Butte in just over ten minutes on a good day. Now, I'm told, congestion is so bad you can spend half an hour just getting across the Burrard bridge.
A friend had a helluva time getting a doctor. Her previous family physician finally closed shop at age 80. For years he had been doing whatever he could to recruit a new doctor to take over his practice, even offering thousands of dollars in cash as an incentive. No takers. This same friend has been waiting more than three years for knee surgery.
By contrast, I recently had to see a thoracic surgeon only not in Vancouver, in Nanaimo. It turns out she was a fresh faced young woman who had received her medical degree from UBC and her internship at Vancouver General. I didn't have to wait at all. When I asked her why she chose Nanaimo when she could have a thriving practice in Vancouver her response took me by surprise. She said she looked around, realized how hard she would have to work for so many years just to afford an ordinary house in Vancouver while she could easily afford a new "view" home in Nanaimo and still have a life. She let on that the choice was not at all hard to make.
It can take years, even decades, but eventually we have to realize that, when it comes to Ottawa, Vancouver and, for that matter, British Columbia are expendable. Ottawa, on behalf of the "rest of Canada," is not to be trusted to act in our best interests.
This might explain why we're not buying Harper/Trudeau's bullshit stories about how safe they're going to make their pipelines and the armada of supertankers that will soon be plying our coastal waters. What's that line that Bush screwed up? Oh yeah, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Well we've been fooled, more than once, by Ottawa and we've paid dearly for it.
It's time to drive the Liberals and their Tory alter-egos out of British Columbia for good. And, if we can't do that, I and a lot of other British Columbians seem willing enough to consider just leaving this rotten federation.