Sunday, October 20, 2019

In advance of Election Day, a preview of this week's Vancouver Courier column on housing promises

The redevelopment of the South Shore False Creek, with it's 1/3 low-income, 1/3 mid-income and 1/3 higher income housing was the result of a significant federal government investment in housing

     I write this as Canadians are about to go to the polls. Not all Canadians, since approximately four million have already voted at advance polls and sadly, millions of others will not vote at all.
     This has been an awful election campaign. The stump speeches and debates were often unforgivably cringe-worthy, as was Andrew Scheer’s response when accused of being linked to an ugly smear campaign against Maxime Bernier.
     While many voters won’t vote for Trudeau because of his handling of the SNC Lavalin matter, I can’t help but observe many of these voters think nothing of paying a contractor or cleaning lady in cash, knowing full well they won’t be declaring the income or filing GST. After all, everyone is doing it.
     Like many observers, I won’t be surprised to see a minority Liberal government, supported by the NDP, but not necessarily by Jody Wilson-Raybould, who I also expect to be elected.
     During the campaign, the parties often tried to bribe us with our own money. Many promises were made that were not costed and unlikely to be implemented. However, given Vancouver’s need for much more affordable housing, let’s look at some housing-related promises from the three major parties.
     The Liberals say they will keep their new first-time buyer incentive. This is essentially a shared-equity mortgage program like those implemented in UK and elsewhere. While these programs helped some first-time buyers buy a home, they also resulted in people buying more expensive homes. If Liberals form government, I expect this promise to be kept.
     Liberals also promised to create a national tax on vacant residential properties owned by non-Canadians who don’t live in Canada. As someone very concerned about the unintended consequences of Vancouver’s and B.C.’s so-called empty and vacant home taxes, I worry about this.
     What will be the definition of a vacant residential property? Is it a dwelling that’s never occupied, or a furnished second home occupied less than six months a year? If it is the latter, I hope this promise is not kept.
     The Liberals will also work with others to crack down on financial crime in the real estate sector. This is long overdue and let’s hope this campaign promise is kept, regardless of who forms government.
     The Liberals also promise to build new, purpose-built, accessible and affordable housing for veterans and others. There is no doubt housing affordability across Canada was exacerbated when the Conservative government cancelled many federal programs in the early 1990s.
     More federal money is desperately required, especially since many of Vancouver’s homeless, and others seeking subsidized housing have come to our city from elsewhere across Canada.
     The NDP has promised an additional $5 billion to fund new affordable housing during its first 18 months in office. It has also promised to create half a million quality, affordable housing units over the next 10 years. That’s 50,000 units a year.
     To put this in perspective, in 2017, housing starts hit a ten-year high at 221,000, and the 2019 estimate is less than 200,000.
     While it is not clear what the NDP means when it says “it will create” this housing, or how it will be funded, some industry experts question whether governments, the non-profit sector and construction industry even have the capacity to build all this housing, in addition to market housing.
     The NDP also says it would waive the federal portion of the GST/HST for new affordable rental units. This is something I support since currently developers must pay GST on the construction of a rental unit, but not a condominium unit, since GST is paid by the buyer.
     The Conservatives want to change the federal government’s ‘stress test’ and like the NDP, increase amortization periods on CMHC-insured mortgages to 30 years. CMHC’s CEO Evan Siddall has referred to these promises as “reckless myopia”.
     The Conservatives have also promised to make surplus federal real estate available for development to increase the supply of housing. I recall a similar promise in an annual 1970s Budget Speech when I worked for CMHC. Following the announcement, staff were asked to identify sites that could be made available. There were a lot less than anticipated.
    Promises, promises. Let’s hope this time some good ones are kept.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Opinion: Vancouver real estate advisor urges conference goers to ‘Jurock’ this way Vancouver Courier September 23, 2019

Ozzie Jurock’s annual conference full of investment advice, life philosophy and predictions

“If you have a living room, start living in it.”
“Enjoy your own reality show. Don’t watch somebody else’s”
“Over 65 with all your assets in a

$2-million home? Sell it and live.”
“Over 70? These are crazy times. Protect what you have. Keep half your portfolio in cash.”
“To survive in 2020 and beyond, become a student for the rest of your life.”
 “Don’t eat kale. Eat steak. Die from something tasty.”
These are just a few of the brainchilds offered by Ozzie Jurock at his 27th annual Real Estate Outlook 2020 conference held at the Sheraton Wall Centre this past Saturday. (Full disclosure: Glacier Media was a sponsor of the event.)
     German-born, 75-year-old Jurock is a legend for many in the real estate industry, and regular listeners to Michael Campbell’s Money Talks program on CKNW. Once the national president of Canada’s largest real estate brokerage firm, today he is an entrepreneur, real estate advisor, author and highly sought-after public speaker.
      At his annual spring and fall conferences, he dispenses his own brand of real estate advice, life philosophy and oftentimes surprisingly accurate predictions to hundreds of people who pay good money to attend.
     In 2012, he told attendees to expect Christy Clark’s government to win the forthcoming provincial election and plan accordingly. In 2016, he correctly predicted Trump’s victory and expects him to be reelected.
     Given the political events unfolding in our federal election, he is no longer certain whether Trudeau or Scheer will win. But he does predict a minority government. He is quite certain the NDP will win the next provincial election.
     Over the years, Jurock has helped a lot of ordinary people make money by investing in real estate. When asked what is now going to happen to the Vancouver housing market, he responds there is no Vancouver housing market. There are many markets.
     There is a single-family market that performs differently from the multi-family market. There is a rental market and condominium market.
     Downtown Vancouver is not the same as Maple Ridge, Port Coquitlam or West Vancouver.
Jurock's presentation addressed what he says are the negative impacts new government programs are having on housing affordability and housing. Photo Michael Geller
     For the past decade, Jurock has told investors to buy in Phoenix. Today, he maintains it is still a good place to invest, along with other American cities such as Dallas, Houston and, more recently, Seattle.
     Closer to home, while prices have softened considerably over the past 18 months, Jurock remains bullish on Vancouver and many British Columbia regions. He expects a third of the 300,000 Canadian Chinese in Hong Kong to eventually come back to Canada.
     He observes that 70 per cent of Canadians say they would like to retire in British Columbia, and this bodes well for many retirement communities on Vancouver Island, the Sunshine Coast, the Kootenays and Okanagan.
     Approximately 60,000 people move to B.C. every year, and this is expected to increase to 75,000 and higher.
     Jurock was joined by a variety of experts, including an engaging Englishman who travels across America buying distressed properties, tax deeds and liens at auctions. His recent purchases included a $10,000 eight-unit multifamily project in Indiana that he fixed up and now rents for $850 per month per unit.
     Another speaker, who owns an Edmonton property management firm, asked landlords in the audience how many of them give their tenants an annual Christmas gift. Quite a few did.
     For 15 years, Jurock has been urging business owners to buy their own offices, and invest in industrial space, mobile home parks, mini-storage and prime recreational property.
     Don’t buy hotel condos, time-shares or ski resorts that do not have golf and other year-round activities.
     Over the years, he has urged his audiences to buy rental properties, but only if they offer positive cash flow.
     He agreed with apartment realtor David Goodman that we can expect more apartment buildings to come to market since long-time owners are fed up with new government regulations that don’t allow rent increases to cover costs, or tenant removal to carry out renovations.
     Observing how the retail industry is changing, Jurock advised investors to avoid traditional retail centres, but invest in inner-city warehouses to store all that “next-day-delivery” product.
     Jurock concluded the day by observing that real estate markets have come and gone for thousands of years, but we only have one life to live. So, live it to the full, and take the occasional bubble bath. Oh yes, and drink beer. He is German after all.

Opinion CBC Hosted Forum offers sobering discussion on Downtown Eastside Vancouver Courier September 9, 2019

If you are sitting in the bathtub with the hot water running, how do you know when to shout? Or in other words, when is enough, enough? This was the underlying theme of a town hall forum on despair, addiction and poverty in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, organized by CBC British Columbia this past Saturday at the Woodward’s building courtyard.
Hosted by the Early Edition’s Stephen Quinn, the event attracted hundreds of neighbourhood residents, politicians, community activists, media and interested citizens concerned about the worsening conditions in the Downtown Eastside. The forum followed increasing media coverage about the Downtown Eastside community over the past month and a half, which included a mid-July story by the Courier’s Mike Howell about the Patricia Hotel.
It reported on how an increase in public disorder outside the doors of this family-run tourist hotel was negatively affecting business. The manager had taken the unusual step of appearing before the Vancouver Police Board asking the police and city officials to do something about it.
Forum attendees, and those listening and watching on a live podcast, heard how overdose deaths, homelessness and mental illness affect all communities in British Columbia. However, in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, these problems are extremely concentrated.
While for decades, there have been serious problems in the Downtown Eastside, long-time residents told the audience that recently there has been a rise in crime, a worsening of the addictions crisis and greater homelessness than in the past. Not surprisingly, most speakers called upon all levels of government to dramatically increase the supply of affordable housing. There were also repeated calls for the federal government to change its drug policies and laws to allow for a safe, legal, drug supply, noting that illegal contaminated drugs are killing too many and causing thefts and petty crime around the city as addicts seek money to pay for their habits.
Some argued that if the federal government won’t change its policies, the city should do something on its own to address these problems. While Mayor Kennedy Stewart did not attend the forum, he was subsequently interviewed by Quinn who asked if he had been surprised by hearing anything new. The mayor’s response surprised me. He said it was the first time he had heard the neighbourhood referred to as a ghetto.
During the interview, the mayor again committed to continue working with the federal government to obtain more housing funding and indicated he would discuss with Ottawa whether Vancouver could get an exemption from federal laws to allow for a safer supply of drugs.
He confided that he had had a private conversation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on this matter and was hopeful something might happen after the federal election. I presume that Stewart presumes the Liberals are going to win. Since writing my two previous Courier columns about the worsening conditions in the DTES, I have had numerous conversations with others much more knowledgeable than me about the challenges facing the neighbourhood and possible solutions. Here is some of what I have heard:
Hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent by governments and social service agencies in the community. However, little cost-benefit analysis has been carried out to determine which programs may be working, and which are not. 

It is essential to collect more data, along the lines of that set out by former Vancouver Sun columnist Pete McMartin in a sobering 2016 article titled “The high cost of misery in the DTES.
Decriminalization of all drugs may be the only real answer for this community. Given the many dealers who openly prey on the helpless, what is needed is to replace the “war on drugs” with a “war on thugs.”
The concentration of low-income, homeless, drug-addicted and mentally ill people is leading to greater disease and drug addiction in the community. We need to disperse some of the population and social services to other parts of the region to make the DTES a more normalized part of the city.
Sadly, some believe that for many, it may be too late to find solutions. However, society must start to do more to prevent future homelessness and drug addiction while many are still young.

An evening with Malcolm Gladwell at the Orpheum

On Thursday October 3 the Vancouver Writers Fest presented an evening with Malcolm Gladwell, in conversation with Lisa Christiansen. Since reading "The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference", published in 2000, I have been a great fan of Gladwell and often referred to his ideas when talking to friends and family. As a result, one of my daughters arranged to take me to see him as a birthday present. In preparation for his talk, I read his latest book "Talking to Strangers: What we should know about the people we don't know".

While at times I thought I was rereading "Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking", "Talking to Strangers" is an excellent book, offering many intriguing ideas about human nature and why people are often not the way they may seem.

While at times I found the Writers Festival conversation between Lisa Christiansen and Gladwell a bit awkward, (he claimed to be an introvert; she most definitely isn't and got the majority of the laughs), it was a most entertaining and thought-provoking evening. Since I knew I couldn't tweet during the event, I took a notebook. Here are a few excerpts from my notes for the benefit of those who weren't there.
Although Gladwell grew up in Canada and has travelled the world, I was surprised to hear him say he has only previously been to Vancouver a few times.

The conversation began with Lisa joking about the book he has written. "You did write it, right?"
Gladwell confirmed he did write the book, adding that he doesn't understand why some authors might outsource the research and writing of a book. He loves it. However, he wouldn't mind outsourcing the mandatory book tour that follows the writing. (Apparently, he has been on quite a lengthy tour and this was offered as an explanation as to why he would not be available after the talk to autograph copies of his book. Autographed copies were on sale in the lobby.)

His latest book was inspired by the tragic story of Sandra Bland, a black woman from Chicago who set off for Texas to start a new life in 2015. She was stopped by a white policeman in a little town near Houston for not signalling a lane change when the policeman drove up behind her. She was ultimately arrested and jailed and within three days committed suicide. The book is about how we so often misinterpret behaviour and conversations, with oftentimes disastrous consequences.

Since some of the book deals with police behaviour (Gladwell, whose mother is from Jamaica, claims he was inspired to write Blink in part because he once allowed his hair to grow into an 'Afro' only to have the police pull him over more often when driving) some of the early conversation touched on  police department slogans.

Toronto's slogan is "To Serve and Protect". Vancouver's is "Beyond the Call". Gladwell particularly liked "People helping People".

Gladwell told Lisa that his book addresses how perilous face-to-face encounters can be. He illustrated this with a story about  Neville Chamberlain's one on one meetings with Hitler from which he concluded Hitler had no interest in invading other countries, other than Sudenland, the German speaking portion of Czechoslovakia.

He discussed how we are too often influenced and fooled by appearances. He studied the characteristics of most recent American presidents and concluded they tended to be tall, white, and Protestant, even though these characteristics were only shared by 10% of the American population.

He claimed that too often we draw conclusions that are unwarranted based on looking at people.  It got me thinking how different election campaigns might be if we never actually saw the candidates, but could only listen to what they had to say.

He noted that much of his book is about the consequences of trusting people we shouldn't trust. "Evolution taught us to be trusting."

Gladwell told a particularly delightful story about being an unattached young man in Miami and while working away in a cafe a young lady came over to chat. He was busy and somewhat rude to her so she went off and chatted to someone else. He then realized that she was very attractive and looked somewhat familiar. Eventually he realized it was Jennifer Aniston but it was too late, she had left. It seems she was between boyfriends and he claimed to have regretted the incident every since.

Lisa responded that in preparation for the evening's conversation she had done some internet research about Gladwell and one of the items she came across was a New York Times story about Aniston, who was about to play a new role. She had been doing some research for her role and on set, Aniston handpicked her character's books ("100 Years of Bauhaus" on her coffee table, Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" in her work bag.)

Gladwell erupted into laughter. Driving home, my daughter and I discussed whether it might have been a set up. If it was, he pulled it off very well. (NOTE: Since writing this, Lisa Christiansen has tweeted to assure me it wasn't a set up.)

Prior to the event, attendees were invited to submit questions. The following is a short summary of some of the Q&A.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in life?

Not surprisingly, Gladwell took a few moments to think about this. Eventually he responded to ignore the advice "Don't go to bed angry". Instead, he suggested you should go to bed angry, and then sort things out in the morning, when you are fresh!

What is your favourite question to ask others?

His response probably surprised, no shocked everyone in the audience. It was "Can you drive a stick shift car?" While his explanation was somewhat lengthy (and a bit confusing), it had to do with someone having the ability to do things that aren't absolutely necessary. He added that he often asked this during job interviews and has hired some remarkable people as a result.

(NOTE: In drafting this post, I decided to see if there was anything online about Gladwell and driving gear shift. I discovered that he is a self-proclaimed car nut, and has some good advice for people buying a car.

I also found this:

"The number of things that are now exotic to a digital generation is kind of incredible," Gladwell continues, via email. "That touch should have physical dimension and require effort, that content should have weight, that navigation should require engagement, that entertainment should be finite. The fact that the new 3-series doesn't come with a manual [transmission] may be the official death knell for the analog age."

Can you please elaborate on your 10,000 hour rule?

Gladwell noted that he has often been criticized for this concept adding "you lose control of an idea when you put it in a book". Many have accused him of his adopted theory that enough practice make perfect. In fact, he says that's not exactly what he wrote. You do have to have a certain talent to start. However, he has gone on to write if you can drive a car, any American of average intelligence could become a cardiac surgeon!

The final question was most appropriate:

What is one important lesson from your book "Talking to Strangers"?

This time his answer was not surprising. We all need to appreciate how bad we are at judging people just by looking at them or being with them. We need to be more cautious and humble. Of course the axe murderer always seems like a nice guy. At the same time, being implicitly trusting makes empathy possible.

"Talking to Strangers" is a wonderful book. When you finish it, I can also highly recommend his series of podcasts . I once spent most of a 14 hour flight to Rostov-on-Don listening to them.

Thanks Vancouver Writers Fest for presenting Gladwell in person to those of us who have read, and reread every word of every book he's written.