Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Greater Vancouver Homebuilders Association annual 'Legends of Housing' dinner January 31, 2018

   While few ever accuse me of being bashful or overly modest, I must say I was a bit embarrassed when I learned tonight's GVHBA event to which I agreed to participate many months ago is in fact its annual 'Legends of Housing' dinner.
     And while I am proud of my 5 decades in the housing industry, dating back to days at CMHC in the early 1970s, my accomplishments pale in comparison with those of tonight's fellow Legends Eric Carlson (whose Anthem Properties last year purchased two of the most expensive development sites in Metro Vancouver) and Rob Macdonald whose business and financial successes are such that he could afford to donate almost $ one million to the NPA for a past election.
     Anyone who has attended a UDI event when the outspoken Carlson and Macdonald have participated knows they are both very clever, witty, and extremely outspoken guys. For once, I'll be the quiet one in the corner.
    The moderator is Kirk LaPointe, no wallflower himself, who many would like to see run for mayor on the NPA ticket; so tonight could be a very interesting and entertaining and potentially politically-charged event.
     For the occasion, I'll be wearing the brand new  CKNW socks which Lynda Steele gave me when I recently participated in an on-air housing debate with Tom Davidoff on her show.  And who knows, if Davidoff's proposal to transform Canada's income tax and property tax systems is every realized, maybe one day he'll be a GVHBA legend!
     Some information about this event can be found on the UDI website which also features a photo of a UDI panel that includes some real legends: Joe Segal, Bob Lee, and Joe Housain.  (Bob Rennie is too young to be a legend, but he will be one day!)
     Thank you GVHBA for honouring me with this invitation. I'm very much looking forward to the evening.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Opinion: Vancouver’s well-intentioned but flawed Empty Home Tax won’t help Vancouver Courier January 30, 2018

      Attention Vancouver property owners!
      Friday, Feb. 2 is the deadline by which you must submit a property status declaration so that city officials can determine if your property is subject to the Empty Homes Tax. Failure to declare will result in your property being deemed vacant and subject to a tax of one per cent of its assessed taxable value. For most West Side single-family properties, that’s $30,000 or more. Every year.
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       Every Vancouver homeowner must make a declaration, even those who have lived in their homes for decades and assumed the tax only applied to the vacant house down the street or empty apartment next door.
       While the city’s desire to transform what it claims are 25,495 empty or “under-utilized” dwellings into new rental units was well-intentioned, as regular readers of this column know, I have long opposed how the city has introduced this tax bylaw.
       From the onset, city lawyers knew from the experience in London and other global jurisdictions that it is extremely difficult and expensive to enforce a tax on vacant dwellings.
Consequently, Vancouver’s legal department drafted what many regarded to be a very heavy-handed bylaw, which not only taxed owners of truly empty dwellings, but also the owners of most second homes.
      When a few of these second home owners, including a former Vancouver doctor who had moved to Bowen Island but came into the city to work part-time, complained about the impact of this tax, they were told by city staff they had a choice. They could rent their homes or sell.
      Since any intelligent person could appreciate these second homes could not be rented out for a minimum 30 days at a time, this response prompted me and others to suggest that, in effect, the tax was like a jealousy tax, to appease voters who could not afford one home, let alone two.
      Nonetheless, the city refused to amend the bylaw. As a result, many of these homeowners, including a former MLA and B.C. mayor, have offered their properties for sale since they are not prepared to pay such a punitive tax.
      These homes will not suddenly become rental properties, and I am willing to bet my house that this tax will not result in anywhere near the tens of thousands of rental properties that the mayor, and other misguided souls, predict will come onto the market.
      The unreasonableness of this tax was recently illustrated by the case of a vacant lot owner who was told she too would have to pay the tax. This despite the fact the lot had always been vacant.
When she complained to city staff, she was told to apply for a permit and build a house on the property. Who knew it was also an empty lot tax?
      As this column was about to go to press, the mayor held a press conference to provide an update on the tax. At the conference, media were told that 11 per cent or 21,000 Vancouver homeowners have not yet submitted their declarations.
      When the mayor and city chief financial officer were asked how many of the 89 per cent of homeowners who had responded said their properties were vacant, we were somewhat amused when the CFO claimed the city did not yet have this information. Really?
      While I remain opposed to aspects of the Empty Home Tax, especially its application to second homes, I decided to offer two suggestions to help the city recoup some of the $7.4 million it says the program is now estimated to cost to administer.
      Since I suspect many owners of truly vacant properties are going to lie about their status, I suggested the city implement something akin to the Crime Stoppers program to encourage the public to anonymously provide tips about vacant properties, especially those that could serve as rental housing.
      I subsequently learned there already is a smartphone app to report vacant dwellings.
      I also suggested city staff liaise with the garbage collection department since if anyone knows which single-family houses are empty, it’s the waste collectors.
      The CFO acknowledged they hadn’t thought of this, but agreed it was a good idea.
      I am pleased to help.

Resort Living Napa style: Silverado!

     Last week I left my office for a few days with Claire and Sally to join my other daughter Georgia in Napa Valley. She had been in San Francisco for a conference and suggested a family vacation away from the Vancouver rain. It was an excellent idea.
      On Georgia's suggestion we booked into the Silverado Resort .  She suggested it since it is close to Napa and has two golf courses. One is used each year for the PGA Safeway Open event.
While we were not aware of this when we booked, the property was damaged in last year's fires. we were told that ever since, reservations have been down
      While there are much fancier resorts in the area, this one was very comfortable and good value. We had a two bedroom 'cottage' which was really the lower level of a two level townhouse. Parking was right in front. Somewhat surprisingly, we had to drive from the main building to our unit since Silverado is a very, very large property.
At first I thought these turkeys on the grounds were public art, until they started to move!
I think this local resident was a bit embarrassed when she say me start to take a photo of her walking the a golf cart
    Located just an hour north of San Francisco, in addition to the golf courses it offers a spa, 13 lighted tennis courts, and biking and hiking trails. It's also close to more than 400 wineries, but don't expect a lot of good cheap wine. For that you have to go to Europe!.
This was the Duty Free price!
  When my daughter offered to get me a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from the general store, she returned to the car after 5 minutes to see if a Merlot would be ok, since the least expensive Cab in the shop was over $40 US! 
We were delighted to discover Quixote Winery designed by Hundertwasser
    A glass of Educated Guess in the restaurant was $14, much more than one pays in Vancouver restaurants, but I must say it was very good. However when we visited the winery to buy a bottle, they didn't have the same vintage, and even I could tell the difference!
     If you haven't been to Napa, it can be a wonderful experience. While it's fabulous in the summer, I can also recommend an off-season January or February trip, since it's not so busy and you can take your time in the wineries. 
    We discovered to our delight that we arrived just as they were celebrating the equivalent of a 'dine-out Vancouver' festival, which allowed us to enjoy some very good 3-course dinners for $46 and an exceptional 2-course lunch at the Michelin Star Auberge du Soleil for....are you ready? $20!
    While we were subsequently told that it was impossible for mere mortals to get a reservation for this experience, Georgia figured out how to do it!
     For what it's worth..."The Restaurant at Auberge du Soleil offers a fine dining experience from one of the best vantage points in the valley. With 11 consecutive Michelin Stars, Executive Chef Robert Curry’s Mediterranean-inspired cuisine reflects the natural diversity and rich seasonal produce available in the Napa Valley. Ingredients are sourced largely from local and regional purveyors and featured on inspiring menus complemented by one of most extensive wine cellars in the valley, boasting more than 15,000 bottles of domestic and international wines hand-selected by our Director of Wine."
One of the many public art installations in Yountville
We didn't eat in the 3-star Michelin restaurant French Laundry which has its own farm across the street and a kitchen in a converted container
    Other restaurants that we enjoyed and which we can recommend included Torc where you could enjoy a 2 oz glass of Chateau d'Yquem for $53 (although I was disappointed that the wines accompanying the dine out menu included Austrian and French selections, not local) and Angele where we had a very good French meal with particularly good service. While we passed on our friends Jim and Doria Moodie's suggestion to go to Morimoto Napa, we did also enjoy Basalt
When I asked whether this brochure was in Japanese or Chinese, I was told it was Mongolian. Mongolian? I asked. Is the owner Mongolian? No she said, but we get a lot of people from China. Oh, I said. I think you mean Mandarin. Yes she said!
We are in California, after all!
It's not as old as it looks!
What's a castle without a moat?
   One final suggestion. if you do decide to celebrate 'winter in the wineries' buy a Calistoga Wines Passport. It costs $60 but offers access to a considerable number of tastings (some of which are $25 to $35 on their own)  including Sterling Vineyard where you take aerial  tram from the parking lot to the very impressive winery, and Castello di Amorosa, a 136,000 sq.ft. 13th-century Tuscan-styled castle, 
This is a must see destination.
and the 1882 Chateau Montelena Winery whose chardonnay won the famous 1976 Paris tasting, which many believe put Californian wines on the world map. (A Stag's Leap Cabernet also won a medal that year).
     One of the reasons I was happy to do this trip and experience resort living was to prepare for a design workshop at Furry Creek the following weekend. That is now over, and I'll report on it in due course. But the fact is, many of the lifestyle experiences that made California so famous will soon be available in British Columbia. And if climate change happens the way many predict, our wines will also beat the French wines in blind tastings in years to come.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

A poem for Robbie Burns Day (from Monty Python)

Much to his dad and mum's dismay 
Horace ate himself one day 
He didn't stop to say his grace 
He just sat down and ate his face 
"We can't have this!" his dad declared 
"If that lad's ate he should be shared" 
But even as he spoke they saw 
Horace eating more and more: 
First his legs and then his thighs, 
His arms, his nose, his hair, his eyes 
"Stop him someone!" Mother cried 
"Those eyeballs would be better fried!" 
But all too late for they were gone, 
And he had started on his dong... 
"Oh foolish child!" the father mourned 
"You could have deep-fried those with prawns, 
Some parsely and some tartar sauce..." 
But H was on his second course; 
His liver and his lights and lung, 
His ears, his neck, his chin, his tongue 
"To think I raised himn from the cot 
And now he's gone to scoff the lot!" 
His mother cried what shall we do? 
What's left won't even make a stew..." 
And as she wept her son was seen 
To eat his head his heart his spleen 
And there he lay, a boy no more 
Just a stomach on the floor... 
None the less since it was his 
They ate it - and that's what haggis is 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Opinion: Housing affordability? It’s time for province to offer both long-term promises and short-term solutions Vancouver Sun January 17, 2018

     What should the B.C. government be doing to create more affordable housing in Vancouver? This is a question I, and many other so-called housing experts, are being asked daily as we await next month’s provincial budget.
     Given that the Liberal government lost the last election because it paid insufficient attention to housing affordability, British Columbians are hoping for many housing announcements in the budget. But really, what can, or should the B.C. government, be doing to make housing more affordable for residents throughout the Vancouver region, and elsewhere in the province?
     During the election campaign, the NDP promised to introduce an annual, two-per-cent tax on foreigners who buy B.C. property but don’t pay tax here. They estimated this would generate $200 million a year to fund affordable housing. While I don’t disagree with the proposal, here are two other ways to free-up more funds for affordable housing: Overhaul the Homeowner Grant and Property Tax Deferral programs.
     While I’m told it’s political suicide to end grants to 92 per cent of B.C. homeowners, I think it’s time to phase out the Homeowner Grant Program and redirect the money to those in greater need. To begin, why not establish different price thresholds for regions around the province? Surely it makes sense to differentiate between Kerrisdale and Castlegar, where $1.65 million buys one of the nicest houses in town.
     Secondly, why is this program not means-tested? This could be accomplished in part by making the grant a taxable benefit, rather than tax-free.
     While the Property Tax Deferral Program may be necessary for low-income seniors wanting to stay in their homes, it too should become income-tested. Far too many, who can afford to pay property taxes, take advantage of cheap provincial loans, currently at less than one per cent.
     While directing funds saved from these programs into rent subsidies for the needy, and low-interest loans for non-profit housing would be beneficial, there is much more the province can do.
     Ten years ago, during Vancouver’s municipal election campaign, I first promoted the idea of setting up temporary modular housing for the homeless on public and privately owned vacant land. Thankfully, the government is now promoting this idea through a provincewide program. However, relocatable modular housing could accommodate a much broader range of households seeking affordable homes.
     The province could encourage this housing by offering property-tax relief to owners of vacant lots, just as it now does for those creating community gardens. Instead of growing expensive tomatoes, these properties could accommodate one-, two- and three-bedroom homes for millennials who might otherwise leave the province.
     We often hear that one way to create more affordable housing is to increase supply. While I agree with those who argue we also need the right supply, a major challenge facing private and non-profit developers is obtaining zoning, development and building-permit approvals. They really do take too long, and cost too much.
     While the responsibility for approvals generally rests with municipal government, except for the City of Vancouver, municipalities are legislated by the Municipal Act. Why should it often take a year or more to approve a single-family house or three years to approve rental apartments?
     To speed up approvals, there is an urgent need to review and overhaul our current planning and approval procedures through Municipal Act amendments, wherever necessary.
     One way to accelerate approvals would be for the province to encourage a greater role for Independent Certified Professionals in the issuance of development and building permits. Regular audits could be carried out to ensure zoning bylaws and codes are being met.
     Another factor contributing to the high cost of new housing is the Community Amenity Contributions (CACs), which are usually charged by municipalities whenever a property is rezoned.
Four years ago, the provincial Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, in consultation with local governments, the development and building sectors, and legal and academic communities, prepared a document titled, Community Amenity Contributions: Balancing Community Planning, Public Benefits and Housing Affordability. It was well-researched and thoughtful, and put forward many sound recommendations. Sadly, it appears to have been all but ignored or forgotten.
     As CACs, combined with other municipal fees and charges often exceed the cost of land, it’s time for the province to play a role in insisting that municipalities abide by the recommendations set out in this document.
     Sadly, even if all these suggestions were implemented, the cost of renting or buying a home in B.C. will continue to be out reach for too many. However, by combining long-term promises with practical, short-term solutions, B.C. can play an important role in increasing affordable housing in years to come.
Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based architect planner, property consultant and developer with five decades of experience in the public and private sectors. He also serves on the adjunct faculty at SFU. His blog is found at and he can be reached at

Opinion: What the next mayor of Vancouver can learn from past civic leaders Vancouver Courier January 16, 2018

      Last week, Gregor Robertson announced his decision not to run for mayor in the forthcoming municipal election.
      I first met Mayor Robertson over breakfast 10 years ago following his election as the Vision Vancouver mayoral candidate, and my election (by acclamation) as an NPA council candidate. Some might say the rest is history.
      Over 10 years, I found the mayor to be likeable, but oftentimes na├»ve. While many blamed him for his government’s actions, I tended to blame the people behind him and around him, especially the cunning Mike Magee and bullying Penny Ballem.
While my colleague Mike Klassen has written a scathing review of the mayor’s three terms, rather than offer my list of accomplishments and failings, I prefer to examine the qualities we should seek in our next mayor.
      But before doing so, let’s look back at the city’s previous seven mayors.
When I first arrived in Vancouver in 1974, Art Phillips was mayor. Founder of a new reform-minded political party TEAM, Phillips introduced an entirely new approach to city governance and planning following six years of Mayor Tom Campbell’s pro-expressways, pro-development reign.
      Phillips was an investment banker who valued fiscal prudence. A natural leader, along with new planning director Ray Spaxman, he reshaped Vancouver through numerous initiatives including redevelopment of the south shore of False Creek, creation of the Property Endowment Fund, and an effective local-area planning program.
      Phillips was followed by Jack Volrich, with whom I had little contact since I returned to Toronto and Ottawa during his term. However, when I came back to Vancouver in 1981, Mike Harcourt was mayor.
      Harcourt, a community activist and lawyer, was a born politician and leader. President of his high school student council, he went on to become a city alderman and mayor, and eventually premier. Harcourt had a keen interest in housing, and while he initially opposed the transformative Expo 86, he eventually became one of its biggest boosters.
      Harcourt was followed by Gordon Campbell who served three terms from 1986 to 1993. Once Mayor Art Phillips’ executive assistant and former Marathon Realty employee, he understood politics and real estate development. He too went on to be premier.
      During his tenure, new communities were started around False Creek, Coal Harbour and at Collingwood Village. The city also partnered with Jack Poole’s VLC Properties in the construction of rental housing on city-owned lands.
      Campbell was followed by Philip Owen in 1993 who was twice re-elected. A small businessman from a prominent Vancouver family, Owen was first and foremost a gentleman who proudly maintained the city’s Triple-A credit rating.
      While he was mayor, the engineering department introduced a program of upgrading two per cent of the city’s infrastructure each year, so that the total sewer and water systems would be replaced every 50 years.
      Owen would pick up a stray piece of paper off the sidewalk and engendered a strong sense of civic pride.
      In 2002, Larry Campbell was elected COPE’s first mayor. A former RCMP officer and coroner, many believe he was elected because people confused him with the titular character of TV’s Da Vinci’s Inquest. As mayor, this Campbell was a disappointment. Although he had a broad appeal, and could have done much to address the problems of the Downtown Eastside, he didn’t.
      Campbell was followed by Sam Sullivan, Vancouver’s most unlikely mayor. A quadriplegic who once suffered depression while living in social housing, Sullivan is best known for his flag-waving role at the closing of the 2006 Olympics and introducing “EcoDensity” to the city.
As an external advisor on his EcoDensity initiative, I recall urging him to include housing affordability as a key benefit, since I didn’t believe most Vancouverites shared his passion for saving the planet. On this, my view hasn’t changed.
      So what qualities should we seek in our next mayor?
      I would like Vancouver’s next mayor to have Art Phillips’ leadership and fiscal prudence, Mike Harcourt’s activism and housing knowledge, Gordon Campbell’s intelligence and real estate acumen, Philip Owen’s desire for a beautiful, clean city, Larry Campbell’s populist appeal, Sam Sullivan’s big ideas and language skills and Gregor Robertson’s relationship with the city’s millennials.
Although Vancouver’s first 39 mayors were all men, the 40th mayor need not be.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

January 14th. Happy Birthday Dad

Today would have been my father's 106th birthday. While I never expected him to live to 106, he never expected to survive a Second World War German prisoner-of-war camp, let alone live to 92!

Those who met my dad knew him to be a true gentleman, with a great sense of humour. He was the sort of person who always kept his word, and couldn't understand why someone would expect a reward for returning something that wasn't theirs.

He was a fan of Edward de Bono, and enjoyed creative thinkers.

He always wanted to be a journalist but for much of his life was a barber, before becoming a librarian in York University's Scott Library, thanks to the initiative of my sister Estelle Paget

While I miss him, I'm glad he didn't live long enough to see Donald Trump as president. He'd be so disgusted! Happy Birthday dad!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Opinion: Benefits of tax relief should be extended to commercial properties Vancouver Courier January 4, 2018

Note: Until recently, I was not aware of the details of Section 19(8) of the Assessment Act which allows certain property owners experiencing dramatic assessment and tax increased due to rezoning/OCP changes to reduce their assessments . Unfortunately, many other residential property owners who might benefit from this provision of the act are not aware of it either. But that's just half the story. Read on!
Assessing the latest property assessment numbers
   This week, owners of more than 522,000 properties throughout Greater Vancouver can expect to receive their 2018 assessment notices.The new assessments can also be found on-line at All you need do is type in your address or, for that matter, your neighbour’s, relative’s or ex-spouse’s address to see what their homes may be worth. related

      I say “may be worth” since many property values have changed since July 1, 2017 when valuations were carried out.
      Unlike last year, when assessment increases of 30 to 50 per cent were typical for single-family homes in Vancouver, North and West Vancouver, Burnaby, Tri-Cities and New Westminster, and typical condominium increases throughout these areas were in the 15 to 30 per cent range, this year’s adjustments are generally much more modest.
      According to BC Assessment, within Greater Vancouver new single-family assessments ranged from a five per cent drop to a 15 per cent increase. Condominiums generally increased between five per cent and 35 per cent. In Vancouver, the overall increase was 5.63 per cent.
This still translated into an increase of more than $1,000 a day for many West Side Vancouver homeowners.
      Other property owners witnessed even more dramatic increases if their property was within a neighbourhood rezoned for higher density development or so designated in a community plan. Vancouver examples include Grandview-Woodlands, Cambie Corridor and Marpole, to name just three.
      It is important to remember that assessment increases do not automatically translate into property tax increases. Rather, changes in property tax are determined by the overall municipal tax increase — in Vancouver, council approved a last-minute 4.24 per cent increase — and a homeowner’s change in a property assessment compared to the municipal average.
      As regular readers of this column are aware, many households who cannot afford to pay their taxes, or do not want to pay can defer payment.
      While some may worry the city will struggle to provide services if taxes are deferred, they need not. The province pays the taxes on behalf of the property owner.
      It is important to note this program is not means tested, although it should be. I defer my taxes every year since the interest rate charged is less than one per cent.
What is not generally known is that households facing dramatic tax increases due to Community Plan or zoning changes can not only defer their taxes, in many instances they often qualify for much lower taxes.
      This is because Section 19(8) of the Assessment Act allows residential land to be assessed at less than market value where the owneroccupied the property as their principal residence continuously for 10 years effective Oct. 31 of the year preceding the tax year, and provided the property has redevelopment potential for a more valuable use than its current use.
      In the case of some Marpole or Cambie Corridor bungalows, the reduced assessment and taxes may be less than half the assessed value and taxes of the property next door.
      To qualify for this tax relief, the owner should submit a completed application form to BC Assessment each year by Nov. 30 to receive the benefit in the following assessment/taxation year.
If a property owner cannot, or did not apply by Nov. 30, they should contact their local BC Assessment area office, as applications received between Nov. 30 and the following March 15 may qualify for processing through the assessment review process.
      Application forms and additional information on the special valuation treatment provided under section 19(8) may be obtained by calling BC Assessment at 1-866-825-8322.
      For many reasons, I believe this is a very good provision of the Act. However, it may be time to introduce a similar provision for commercial properties.
      Increasingly, due to redevelopment pressures, small, longstanding family-owned businesses are facing municipal property tax bills greater than the rent being charged by the landlords.
      This is one of the reasons we are seeing an increased number of “for lease” signs in many of our favourite neighbourhood shopping areas. While the city does allow tax averaging and other measures to reduce the impact of higher taxes, more needs to be done.
      But that’s another story for another day.