Thursday, March 22, 2018

Twas ever thus? Vancouver real estate headlines 30 years ago Vancouver Courier

   In his later years my father was a librarian and prone to cutting out newspaper clippings on topics related to me, and other things which he thought would interest me. I too developed the habit, and since 1981 have kept a scrapbook of newspaper stories with which I was somehow involved.
     I made the mistake of mentioning some of the newspaper headlines at a GVHBA forum a few weeks ago and Joannah Connolly asked if she could see some of the Real Estate Weekly (which she edits) and other newspaper stories. Today she posted the following on-line. Thanks Joannah.
By / Vancouver Courier March 12, 2018 
  It’s easy to think that the problems facing Vancouver’s housing market are relatively new. But if you take a look back at headlines from 20 or 30 years ago, you’ll see a different story.
Thanks to an extensive collection of real estate news clippings from Vancouver Courier columnist and local developer Michael Geller, obtained by the Courier, we can get a glimpse into how people were feeling about the market three decades ago.

Some issues are surprisingly the same as they are today – foreign buyers, rental housing crisis and developers citing lack of supply among them. Others – such as what was considered a “great” interest rate – are eye-openingly different.
Check out our pick of Geller’s cuttings from around 30 years ago.

Same: Affordability crisis
In these May 20, 1988 clippings from the Province, one article quotes Geller warning of an imminent housing affordability crisis spreading west from Toronto, while the other cites Helmut Pastrick, now of Central 1 Credit Union, claiming that such a crisis was not likely. Guess we'll be taking Pastrick's market predictions with a grain of salt from now on.
Same: Overseas buyer threat

In this Financial Post story from March 22, 1989, veteran reporter Frank O'Brien highlights the issue of overseas buyers snapping up Metro Vancouver real estate, along with developers' concerns about what would happen to local development if this were to stop.
Same: Rental housing squeeze

 Just like today, there was a rental housing crisis nearly 30 years ago, according to this Vancouver Sun story from January 1990. It examines the issue of rent control, which had been axed in 1983, and whether it should be reinstated (which it later was).
 Same: Developers cite lack of supply

Same quotes, different millennium... It turns out that not only have people been talking about the affordability crisis for decades, but developers have also been citing the supply/demand equation, and Metro Vancouver's lack of supply, for just as long. The above article is from Toronto Commercial News, February 1990.
Same: Budget offers no quick fix
Did you think that the B.C. Budget tackled housing any better 29 years ago than it did three weeks ago? Apparently not, according to this Province story from March 31, 1989.
 Same: Development a dirty word
Something else that doesn't seem to change is how frequently developers are vilified by the public. This Vancouver Sun story from May 27, 1989 interviews local developers (who are still going strong today) about development being seen as a dirty word.
Same: Populist policies as vote grabs
 Housing policy has always been a way to gain votes, but at least in the old days politicians would admit to it. This Province story from March 8, 1989 reveals how then-B.C. Premier Bill Vander Zalm confessed that his plan to get developers to built more rental housing was a vote-grab, as it was a major issue in his Point Grey riding, in which his seat was coming up for re-election.
 Same: “Locals first” policy

The City of Vancouver's recently announced "locals-first-for-condos" policy may be considered innovative, but a similar initiative was launched in 1989, according to this Sun story from January of that year.
Different: Prime interest rate

Despite all the above, some things are very different than several decades ago. Check out the above Sun clipping from way back in April 1985, the oldest of our headlines. It cites Geller saying that the reduction in the prime rate will be "great" for housing affordability. The rate fell to its lowest level in six years, to 10.75 per cent. Considering that today's rate is 3.45 per cent, that "great" 1985 rate would be considered astronomical for today's mortgage payers.
Different: Condo sales centres
One other thing we discovered has changed radically is how presale condos are sold. In this article from June 1989, the Vancouver Sun reports on the first local developments to be sold out of sales centres using floor plans and renderings. Prior to that, the developer had to complete a show suite for potential buyers to look at. Using a sales centre, show suite costs can be avoided and buyers can get in earlier, explains the article.
Do you remember what the local real estate market was like 20, 30 or more years ago? Tell us in the comments below.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Opinion: A wealth of reasons why B.C.’s Speculation Tax misses the mark: Vancouver Courier March 12, 2018

“I seriously can’t imagine anybody in human existence I feel less sympathetic toward.”

This was just one of hundreds of Twitter responses I received this past week following my tweet expressing concern about the plight of a midwife who owned a home on Salt Spring Island and an apartment in Vancouver.
article continues below
      Initially, she was upset having to pay a one per cent Empty Home Tax on the Vancouver apartment.
      Now she would also have to pay an additional two per cent provincial Speculation Tax, even though her homes were neither empty nor speculative investments.
      As Courier readers may recall, when the provincial budget was first released, I wrote it was a good start to tackling the housing affordability crisis.
       It increased and expanded geographically the Foreign Buyers Tax and proposed to catch tax cheats by putting an end to hidden ownership of residential properties. The new Speculation Tax was going to be charged on properties left vacant by foreigners who did not pay income tax in B.C.
      An increased Property Transfer Tax (PTT) and School Tax on properties valued over $3 million would generate funds for affordable housing.
      However, at the time neither I nor other analysts appreciated the additional PTT tax would increase the cost of all housing in British Columbia since it would apply to the acquisition of most development sites.
      Similarly, we didn’t fully appreciate the impact of the additional School Tax. When I shared my calculations for various West Side properties with one seasoned real estate professional, he told me I had mistakenly added a zero. I had not.
       As for the so-called Speculation Tax, like Vancouver’s so-called Empty Home Tax, it would not only impact foreign owners of empty homes, but many B.C. residents owning a second home or cottage.
      This prompted my follow-up column in which I opined this was really a Robin Hood-styled budget, designed to take from the rich and give to the poor. On social media I suggested it may be time for another tax revolt.
      I was subsequently lambasted for my public comments. How could I be concerned about the plight of people owning two homes when so many cannot afford one?
      Fortunately, Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer and others realized that what the finance minister told us, and what her officials were planning, were two very different things.
      The so-called Speculation Tax would have to be paid by all B.C. residents owning a second home in Metro Vancouver or a vacation property in the Gulf Islands or B.C. Interior. Some would later receive a tax credit based on the amount of provincial income tax paid.
      This was not at all a speculation tax; it was a wealth tax.
      Many of the 2018 provincial budget taxation provisions were inspired by UBC and SFU academics who argued the best way to fund affordable housing and catch foreign investors who didn’t pay taxes in B.C. was to restructure our taxation system through increased property taxes and decreased income taxes.
      Unfortunately, as was the case with Vancouver’s Empty Home Tax, neither the academics nor the provincial government fully considered the unintended consequences of their greedy tax proposals.
Last week, in a press release, the city reported the interim results of its Empty Home Tax: 8,481 Vancouver homeowners declared their properties to be empty or underutilized for much of last year or failed to make any declaration.
      This number was significantly lower than previous vacant home estimates, which had so often be seen by many as the cause of our housing affordability crisis.
In fact, we will not know to what extent foreigners are using Vancouver real estate as a safety deposit box, nor how much money the city will raise from the tax until a more detailed breakdown is provided.
      However, two things are certain. The Empty Home Tax program will not free up as many as 25,000 empty units for rent, as Mayor Gregor Robertson told a November 2017 news conference. Moreover, it will also cost many times the $2- to $2.5-million estimate reported by the mayor in November 2016.

While Vancouver refused to modify its Empty Home Tax despite the unintended consequences, let’s hope the provincial government revises its ill-considered tax programs. Otherwise there should be a tax revolt.


Six False Creek affordable housing lots still empty after three decades: Vancouver Sun front page story March 10, 2018

      While I didn't write this story, I feel partially responsible for it.
     During the recent debate about the forthcoming North-east False Creek development, much was made of the city's promise to include significant affordable housing. This prompted me to comment that this was a noble goal, but before getting too excited about these units, what about the 6 empty social housing parcels lying fallow along the North Shore of False Creek?
     I knew about these parcels because I was given a tour of them by Concord Pacific during the 2008 municipal election. Furthermore, I was involved as an expert witness in a lawsuit over them a few years ago. Following my comments, Lori Cuthbert contacted me. I happily put her in touch with Cameron Gray, who was the City's Housing Director, and while not directly involved in the acquisition of these sites, knew why they remained undeveloped.
     I told Lori that I thought it was outrageous that these sites remained undeveloped, not as a criticism of Concord Pacific, but rather of the city, province and feds who could have come up with a strategy to see these parcels developed with affordable housing, even in the absence of deep government subsidies. Enough said.

Lock-off suites can act as handy mortgage helpers: Vancouver Sun March 3, 2018

This Vancouver Westcoast Homes column was published with two different headlines: Mortgage helpers in the sky is catchy, but really applies only to suites within suites in apartments. However, lock-off suites can also be included in townhouses, so the second headline is probably more appropriate.
     But whatever you call them, I think this is an idea worthy of replication around the region and across the country. Here's the story:

     As Lower Mainland municipalities struggle to provide more affordable housing choices, they might explore the top of a nearby mountain.
     Throughout B.C., the most affordable form of housing is often the basement suite. Sometimes it is legal; more often, it is not. While it may provide rental housing in perpetuity, it can also be taken over by homeowners as their family size increases or financial situation improves.
     In areas of a city near a university, these basement suites are particularly popular with students, and can serve as ‘mortgage helpers’ for homeowners.
     It was within this context that the idea of legalized secondary suites within multi-family housing developments was conceived 16 years ago at UniverCity, the model sustainable community next to SFU on Burnaby Mountain.
     Both the university and Burnaby wanted to provide affordable housing for students within the community. So in 2002, Burnaby’s forward-looking planners and council agreed to a request from the SFU Community Trust to approve zoning changes to allow secondary suites within suites in up to 50 per cent of the apartments in multi-storey buildings and townhouses, subject to certain conditions.
the total suite size. They could have their own entry from the corridor, as well as bathroom and cooking facilities, but could not be subdivided as a strata lot or sold separately.     Small suites may often not be affordable if they must include their own parking space, so to address this, Burnaby agreed to significantly reduce the parking requirement.
     To further improve affordability, the units were designed without in-suite washers and dryers. The bylaw therefore required a minimum of 10 suites in any one building to support common laundry facilities.
     From the onset, there was uncertainty whether developers would build such an innovative form of housing. The city therefore agreed that units could be designed with only a closet with the ‘rough-in’ for the future kitchen; the appliances and cupboards did not need to be provided at initial occupancy.
The additional cost of creating the suites — as opposed to just an additional bedroom — is difficult to estimate since it depends on the building type and location. However, the rough-in includes additional wiring, fireproofing, venting, a door to the corridor door and mailbox. (We nearly forgot the mailbox!) Kitchen fixtures and appliances can be added later.
Lock-off suites were built within Novo 1 and 2, and One University Crescent
     As is the case with any innovative idea, there were unforeseen challenges. These included how best to allocate parking. At UniverCity, some purchasers of units with a secondary suite acquired an additional space; however, the majority did not. In future, where there is adequate transit and car-sharing, I would hope municipalities would not require any parking for these units.
     This concept only works if the local government does not count the secondary suite as another unit when determining allowable density or applicable development cost charges or levies. Both the municipality and Metro Vancouver were accommodating in this regard.
     When I initially proposed this idea, it was anticipated the suites would be included in three-bedroom units, possibly separated from the other bedrooms by the living/dining area. However, many Vancouver-area developers are reluctant to build three-bedroom suites because of the increased size and sales price.
     Consequently, most of the first units were in two-bedroom-and-den apartments.
Another project at UniverCity included secondary suites in ground-floor townhouse-style units with separate entries to an outside walkway.
     In future, I believe developers would be more likely to build three-bedroom apartments with separate suites if mortgage lenders would recognize their rental income when qualifying purchasers for a mortgage. Since this happens when someone buys a single-family home with a ‘mortgage helper’, it would seem to make sense for buyers of apartments and townhouses with separate suites, provided they are permitted by zoning.
     Some developers may be reluctant to build accessory suites in apartments because they prefer not to include common laundry facilities. However, as we attempt to reduce the cost of new housing, perhaps it is time to rethink whether every apartment needs to have its own washer and dryer. (After all, many of us met our life partners in apartment building laundry rooms.)
     In 2009, the City of Vancouver agreed to amend some of its zoning bylaws to allow secondary suites in apartments and townhouses in certain neighbourhoods. At first, few were built, since most developers were not aware of this zoning provision. However, city planners are now encouraging them in locations such as the Cambie Corridor, where a number of lock-off suites have been built in townhouse units.
     The need for family-sized apartments and affordable rental housing is not restricted to Vancouver or Burnaby. For this reason, North Vancouver has recently allowed secondary lock-off suites in some new townhouse developments.
     Last year I tested the concept with some West Vancouver residents, where the need for new housing choices and rental housing is becoming critical. Based on the positive response, I will shortly be presenting staff and council with plans for a new Ambleside community that includes apartments and townhouses with lock-off suites.
     Hopefully, if Vancouver, Burnaby, the city of North Vancouver and West Vancouver can all support this concept, other municipalities will soon follow and make the necessary zoning changes.
While lock-off suites can provide more affordable rental housing and a mortgage helper for a growing family, they could also be perfect for an aging parent, caregiver or teenager.
     It’s an idea whose time should come.
Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based architect, planner, developer and educator. From 1999 to 2006, he served as president and CEO of the SFU Community Trust, overseeing development of UniverCity. He is currently an adjunct professor at SFU’s Centre for Sustainable Development. He can be reached at

Monday, March 5, 2018

Opinion: Robin Hood budget designed to take from rich and give to poor Vancouver Courier February 27, 2018

On Budget Day, as evidenced by my initial posts (see below), I was supportive of many aspects of the budget proposals to catch tax cheaters and help those in need. However, a week later, I discovered that many of the measures to pay for the affordable housing were ill-considered and going after the wrong people.

Like Vancouver's so-called Empty Home Tax, it would penalize many owners of second homes, and add to the tax bill of house-rich seniors and others living in more expensive homes. In other words, it seemed like the budget would tax the so-called rich to pay for the poor. Like Robin Hood....hence this follow up column.

“To ensure information security… smartphones… will not be permitted in the briefing area and must be checked in at the media registration desk.”
It was with this understanding that I arrived at the Canada Place provincial cabinet offices for last week’s media lock-up budget briefing.
As instructed, I handed over my smartphone, but half way through reading Homes for B.C.: A 30-Point Plan for Housing Affordability in British Columbia, I wished I could have it back. There was so much to tweet about.
Earlier that morning, I had written a Courier column reviewing the NDP and Green Party election promises, government announcements and throne speech related to housing affordability.
Following the briefing, and Finance Minister Carole James’ presentation, I wrote a follow up Courier column headlined “B.C Budget: A good start to tackling housing affordability crisis.”
My concluding paragraph summarized my sentiments. “Given the severity of the problem, it is going to take a long time before we will see any significant improvement in the level of housing affordability in the Lower Mainland. However, this budget is a good start, especially for those in greatest need.”
My reasons were as follows:
  • Between $6 and $7 billion would fund delivery of 114,000 affordable homes over the next 10 years through partnerships.
  • A $378 million investment over three years would support 14,000 rental housing units for middle income seniors and families.
  • An additional 2,500 new homes with 24/7 care would be built for the homeless or those at risk of homelessness.
  • Rental assistance payments for low-income families would increase $800 a year and Shelter-Aid for Elderly Renters (SAFER) payments would increase $930.
These seemed like good initiatives.
However, as I added up the budget promises to address housing affordability and other social program costs, a question crept into my mind. How was the government going to pay for all of this?
According to the Budget and Fiscal Plan, it would crack down on tax cheaters and speculators who kept homes vacant. It would increase the foreign buyers tax from 15 per cent to 20 per cent and expand its geographic application. It would also take actions to end hidden ownership and move to stop tax evasion in pre-sale condo assignments.
There would also be a two per cent increase in the Property Transfer Tax for that portion of a new home price above $3 million and increases in the school tax rate on the value of homes over $3 million.
Again, these all seemed like good initiatives.
While I was concerned the budget did not include any real measures to improve municipal approval procedures and the delivery of new housing, I now have new concerns.
The additional Property Transfer Tax will apply not only to $3-million homes, but to most development sites, adding to the cost of all housing
It appears the Speculation Tax will mimick Vancouver’s unfair Empty Home Tax and have similar negative consequences by imposing punishing taxes on those who invest in parts of the province by keeping second homes. Imagine if all the second homes in Whistler or Saltspring Island are taxed as “speculative vacant properties.”
The impact of the school tax increase is much greater than first appreciated. West Side seniors owning properties worth more than $3 million will see their tax bill rise. Already some are complaining.
As a result, there is a growing “empathy gap” between those who cannot afford to rent or buy anything and those complaining about tax increases on their multi-million-dollar homes.
Some analysts now worry that if the culminative effect of the new taxes has the desired effect, the province will not receive the revenues needed to fund the affordable housing.
I worry how the province will fund a likely dramatic increase in deferred property and school taxes.
As children we delighted in the story of Robin Hood, who supposedly took from the rich to give to the poor. Years later, we discovered many parts of that story were fictional.
Budget 2018 also appears designed to take from the rich and give to the poor. Let’s hope it too doesn’t turn out to be fictional with little impact on B.C.’s housing affordability.