Surreal Estate

I’ve been trying to give this Vice series a chance – the creators of it do seem genuinely interested in research and getting to the bottom of things.

Having just watched the second (and most recent) instalment, it frustrates me how a lot of people interviewed make it so very clear that the real estate pricing issue is “not a race question but a money question,” implying that wealthy property owners are doing damage in the market (which is a mostly plausible argument). But then they all go on to conclude that foreign owners are the problem anyway. Why is the problem not “people with lots of money”? Why do we continue to use “rich foreigners” as a scapegoat when we have so many rich domestic people too?

As someone who’s called out xenophobia in this debate many times, I also specifically take issue with Dr. Ley’s assertion that “people who play the race card want the discussion to end, they do not want a serious discussion.” Besides taking offense of being accused of “playing the race card,” I find it upsetting to have the entire thing diminished in such a way. Personally, I have problems with the foreigner-scapegoating because it’s clear that the problem is investors in general, and especially investors who leave homes unoccupied (there are other problems, too, but that’s undoubtedly one of them). We can use anecdata to create a proxy between foreigners and empty-house-investors, but to me the xenophobia attached to that (labelling all foreigners as “bad investors”, and all domestic people as inherently okay) is obvious.

The fact that I see a problem with using weak stereotype-based proxies like this does NOT mean I think there isn’t a problem, or that I “want the discussion to end.” In fact, I’d like the discussion to go beyond just the shallow surface “too many Chinese people” discussion, and go deeper to the root behaviours and activities that are causing the problem. If there are too many wealthy investors leaving empty homes in the city, let’s do something serious about it – regardless of their nationality.

Ultimately, the thing that bugs me most about the foreigner-blaming is that it lets badly-behaving-investors who are Canadian off the hook. It assumes that all Canadians have the best interests of all other Canadians at heart, and would never play games with our real estate markets. Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I think that’s a very unrealistic assumption.

I also want to bring up a second, and more unnerving point.  There is a remarkable amount of ignorance around Canada’s tax laws and it terrifies me that even realtors are unaware of some of the basic rules. This episode interviewed a realtor who was working with a buyer in Hong Kong.  She was asked “‘What do I have to do as an overseas buyer, what do I have to be careful of or what tax implications are– do I have to be aware of?’ and I [the realtor] said ‘nothing!'”

This is not even close to true! Non-residents who lease out Canadian real estate (it’s unclear if this was the buyer’s plan) are subject to withholding taxes on the rent they receive, and there’s an entire regime built around assessing taxes on rent earned by non-residents.

And when they ultimately sell, any income or capital gain earned as a result of the sale is subject to taxes as well – a lengthy and complex clearance process is required before they are even allowed to receive all the proceeds from their sale, and they are generally required to file a Canadian non-resident tax return to report the disposition and claim back any excess withholding taxes or pay additional taxes if applicable.

The fact that a realtor, whose job it is to advise her client about the risks and implications of the property they’re buying, doesn’t even know this is a really, really, big problem. This is important information for the foreign buyer, but besides that the tax system relies heavily on realtors (and the paralegals they work with, if they work with them) to know what tax laws apply to ensure that proceeds aren’t distributed to the non-resident before the appropriate taxes are withheld.  No wonder so many people think foreigners get away with paying no taxes!

I really appreciate that Vice is bringing forward these perspectives – I just wish it wouldn’t leave unsupportable or in many cases completely inaccurate statements unchallenged.

Why are my property taxes so low?

This might be a little naïve, but I have to ask – why is increasing property taxes never very seriously considered in the Lower Mainland as a way to both raise badly-needed revenues and calm property values? I just got my 2016 property tax bill emailed to me and, after the provincial home owner grant is applied, my total bill for the year came to $484.17.
When I punch in my property value on the City of Toronto’s property tax calculator, it comes up with $2,290.95. This means I’m literally paying just over one fifth of what I would pay on a similarly-priced property in Toronto.
Compare to cities closer to Vancouver’s size by population (603,502): in Winnipeg (population 663,617) I would pay $3,901.51, in Brampton (population 523,911) it’d be $3,679.92, and in Hamilton (population 519,949) I’d pay $4,564. Even in tax-averse Alberta, property taxes in Edmonton (population 812,201) on a property of the same value as mine would be $2,641.32. If we want to compare to other “big cities” (ignoring municipality size), Montreal’s taxes (taking Outremont as an example) are comparable to Toronto’s, yielding around $2,438.70 on a property value equal to my condo in Vancouver.
Despite that, and despite a lot of hype about a 2.3% increase to 2016 property taxes, in fact our property tax rates have gone down every year for the last several. This is especially remarkable given that the biggest rate cuts are for funds allocated to TransLink and the school boards, both of which are experiencing severe budget crises.
Given that property values are in part derived on assumptions of expected future cash flows, and adding cash outflows to that equation would (should) naturally drive down prices, that’s all the more argument for increasing, not decreasing our taxes.
We could literally double (or quadruple, for that matter) our property taxes in this city and achieve so much more while hurting virtually no one (sorry, but I have no sympathy for the people sitting on million-dollar homes that claim they can’t afford a few hundred dollars more for property taxes).  When I look at the disparity between my laughably-low property tax bill and the inability of the city, TransLink, and the school boards to pay for anything, the solution to me seems obvious. I’m disappointed in the lack of willingness on the part of our politicians to do something about it.

My X-Files Conspiracy Theory: The Mushroom Cave.


I recently rewatched the entire series of The X-Files. I had intended to watch it all in advance of the start of the new season that launched at the end of January, but I fell behind and only finished just in time to watch the entire new series over the span of a week.  I also watched the last several seasons in a bit of a rush – I was up to 5 episodes a night at one point. A lot of fans, myself included, look back with not so much adoration on the last few season of the series.  But in rewatching, I actually quite enjoyed parts of the last few seasons, even though some were rather odd.

But season 7 in particular was… odd. The first half was especially bad.  And through the last few seasons, many of the Monsters of the Week were inexplicable – in most cases, literally. Where earlier seasons came up with some sort of report for the FBI, in the last few seasons many of the episodes ended in a great big ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

And while The X-Files always required viewers to suspend disbelief a little bit, the implausibility of things increased consistently over the last three seasons.  It occasionally made for fantastic television, but piecing it all together (especially when the whole super soldier thing kicked in) was… difficult.  The season 9 finale did its best to pull it all together, which it did remarkably well (save the one big plot hole of Jeffrey Spender claiming to have grown up with CGB Spender (The Smoking Man) despite him clearly being a total stranger the first time they meet on the show).

All that said, why expect seasons 7-9 to make any sense if you realise what was truly going on: that it was all a great hallucination on the parts of Mulder and Scully.

Continue reading

Vancouver’s real estate story is not about houses – it can’t be.

I promised I would start blogging again this year, so I’m finally doing it!

Vancouver has long been notorious for having expensive and unaffordable real estate.  I’m not going to try to convince anyone that’s not the case, since affordability here is demonstrably a very real problem.  We need to speak out more about the problems the city has with homelessness, underhousing, and the ability of younger generations to have access to the housing market.  These are all real problems, and some people are discussing them very sensibly and urgently.

But over the last year I’ve found myself throwing my arms up in frustration at an endless barrage of reports and infographics portraying a Vancouver that I don’t recognize at all as the one I live in.  Everything from the #DontHave1Million campaign, to this HuffPost infographic, to this $2.4 million teardown. All the reports from this crazy place portray Vancouver’s real estate story, its housing story, as one of million-dollar single-family homes that naturally no one can afford.  I find most tend to be dishonest (or silent) about one fact or another to yield more-sensational-than-reality results – frequently things like geography (how you define “Vancouver”), home type, calculation type, sales period, and others are misrepresented.

There has been some more nuanced coverage, for sure, but it seems like all anyone wants to talk about is houses and why young middle-class people can’t afford them. Most people would have you believe there is a crisis of epic proportions resulting from the fact that only a small minority of people can afford single-family homes in a dense urban area.

When I hear things like “Don’t have 1 million” (and its many variations – I don’t mean to single out any one campaign), what I hear is people insisting that the houses that are selling for a million dollars right now are the kinds of homes that should be affordable to middle-class people (however you define that).  That kind of thinking – that single-family houses are the crisis point – is distracting from the (very real) problems that we actually have.

Single-family houses are not where the crisis lies.  In fact, single-family houses are simply not a realistic urban dwelling – at least not in Vancouver.  This isn’t because I want to take away everyone’s suburban American dream, or because I think younger generations are less deserving of single-family home-ownership than our parents’ generations.  There are simply more of us – some basic math can show why it’s not practical to expect anyone to live in a single-family home in Vancouver. There’s simply not enough space.

I ran a search on of homes in the City of Vancouver listed around the $1 million mark, that magic number everyone likes to scream about.  I selected all homes (which by no small coincidence were all single-family houses, exclusively in East Vancouver) listed between $990,000 and $1,010,000 – there were six of them.  From the listing I summarised the street addresses, prices, and square footage of the land:


This yields an average lot size of 3,266.46 square feet (apologies for using imperial measures, but it seems to be standard in real estate). Dividing into Vancouver’s total surface area of 44.39 square miles (1,237,522,176 square feet), this means that if everyone lived in a million dollar home, and the city had no parkland, commercial or industrial space, or even streets or roads, we would have room for 378,857 single-family homes.  If we subtract only the 2,997 hectares [11.57 sq mi] of roads (this [page 17] is the best link I can find – the number is cited several places but the original source is a dead link), that leaves us with 32.82 sq. mi, or 914,969,088 sq. ft. Doing the math, we get space for 280,110 lots.

Even with the ludicrous assumption of turning the entire City of Vancouver into one huge jobless and parkless suburb (remember, those numbers above don’t account for any land use other than single-family homes and roads), that’s not a lot of homes for our 532K+ people, especially giving shrinking family sizes.  As of the last census, the City of Vancouver had 264,575 households, an increase of 4.4% from 2006. Assuming a similar increase to this census year (2016), that gives us 276,216 households today – just barely shy of the 280,110 number above.

So, the way I see it, we have a few options. We can continue to demand single-family houses for every single household, and use some combination of reducing the population of the city and converting parkland, commercial, and industrial lots to residential in order to achieve it. Or, we can start addressing the real issues, and tackle the issues of affordability at the other end of the spectrum, and give up the expectation of average people (or any people, for that matter) owning single-family houses in the City of Vancouver.

I choose the latter. I know I’m very privileged to own the modest condo I own. I know that many others are less fortunate, and I do believe they should be entitled to participate in home ownership.  Houses will become consistently more expensive as their supply goes down and demand (via population growth) goes up.  It will mean that houses become unaffordable for more and more people – this is an unavoidable reality.

So, let’s focus on the real issues. Let’s look at the price of family-sized apartments and question whether those are affordable for average families (generally, they’re not). Let’s look at the ability of young people to afford starter homes (not the average house, but the low-end condo). And let’s look at how renters are affected. Let’s look at near-zero vacancy rates for rental housing in Vancouver. Let’s look at the impact of how rental housing is structured (a complex mishmash of rented-condos, build-to-let buildings, partial-house rentals, co-ops, and social housing). Let’s look at the shortage of social housing across the city. Let’s look at the large numbers of homeless people in the city who can’t even afford to rent any home.

But please, let’s give up on the urban single-family house.

Open email to Cllr De Genova on bike licensing… and public engagement

I wrote this email to Cllr Melissa DeGenova just now, in response to a Twitter conversation I attempted to have with her (full conversation starts after the email).

[UPDATE: Response is also below]

Continue reading

Compass Fares are lower than we expected…

Did I miss an announcement? It’s totally possible, I’ve been absent from this discussion for awhile.

When I previously wrote about the Compass Fare Hikes (as I’ve called them) in 2013, TransLink had announced that Compass Card would provide “a discount of up to 14 per cent over cash fares.”  On a $2.75 one-zone cash fare, this meant a maximum discount of 38.5 cents, or a one-zone Compass fare of $2.36.

I see nothing else on the Buzzer blog between then and now about a change.

And, yet, on the latest version of the Compass fare page on TransLink’s site, we see this table:


Did TransLink get cold feet on giving us a fare hike? Or is their leadership finally listening to the public?  Either way, this is an encouraging development.

A revolution of joy – 10 years since “The Phoenix Show”

I was recently reminded this was coming up, and thought I’d contribute some thoughts on it.

Almost eleven years ago, I became part of an online community. It wasn’t the first online community I was part of, but after all these years it’s still been one of the best.

It all revolved around Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Slean, and one of her biggest releases, Day One.  But let me start at the beginning.

In my first year of university (2001), Sarah Harmer was doing a tour of Southern Ontario (and some nearby places), and Sarah Slean was an opening act for her.  I knew very little about either Sarah, having heard a couple of Sarah Harmer’s songs on the radio and knowing literally nothing about Sarah Slean, but tickets were affordable and they were conveniently playing right there on my university campus.  I liked Sarah Slean immediately, but didn’t think much more of her after that.

About a month or so later, I heard Sarah Slean’s song “Sweet Ones” on the radio, and liked it even more than the first time I’d heard it.  I eventually bought the album, and all her other albums, and started going to her shows whenever I could.  She had already developed quite a fanbase, who were all connected through a listserv/Yahoo!Group sort of mailing list. I joined, but never got overly active in it.  I still made a point of going to as many shows as I could though, as she puts on an excellent live show!

Fast forward to 2004.  Sarah has been recording a new album in LA for awhile (many of the songs of which we’d gotten a sneak preview of at concerts).  Completely unrelated to this (I don’t think I even knew at the time she was recording there), I booked a trip to Los Angeles in late July/early August of 2004.  It was my last summer with no classes, and I figured I’d never have such a long period of time to myself again, so I planned a road trip.  The plan was to drive from Hamilton, ON to Los Angeles, CA, then up to Vancouver, BC and back across Canada.  As a way of making myself go, I timed it around an Alanis Morissette (someone else that I was a huge, huge, huge fan of at the time) concert at the Greek Theatre in LA.  At the time, Alanis had two concerts announced in LA and none anywhere else… though these two shows ended up getting sandwiched into the middle of the Au Naturale Tour with the Barenaked Ladies.  I ended up buying tickets to both, on July 29 and 30.

As the date approached for me to leave, Sarah Slean started posting some concert dates in LA around the same time. And then, there it was – her last show in LA was at Genghis Cohen on July 28.  I made a couple quick plan changes, and scheduled myself to arrive in LA that night.  This was no easy task as it turned out – being the music-obsessed person I was at the time (I still am a little, to be honest, but have less access to this level of show in Vancouver), I also had tickets to Madonna in Toronto right before I left.  I had to rush through most of the drive down to LA, though my only real regret was not spending more time in Las Vegas, where I’ve since returned to make up for it.  (Side note: I also had to rush the end of the trip, as I ended up with tickets to see Alanis Morissette again at the Casino Fallsview when I returned).

The show itself was amazing – Genghis Cohen is the most bizarre little Chinese restaurant / bar / music hall you could imagine. The music seating area is arranged in church pews with small tables where you can order (really delicious) Chinese food.  Anyway, long story short the show was amazing, and with some patience I was able to get an advance copy of the CD (two months before its release!) from her manager who was attending all the shows.  I never got to thank the person who pointed him out to me, but remain thankful to him to this day!

At the same time, I connected with another fan on the listserv who lived in Vancouver, and we arranged to meet up while I was there.  What was supposed to be a brief meeting for her to give me some bootleg tracks (on a CD-R) ended up being a several-hour long conversation at the Granville and Broadway Blenz.  This fan and I ended up becoming good friends after she moved to Toronto.

This, it turned out, was only the beginning.  Day One was released September 28, 2004, and in the lead-up to its release Sarah’s management launched a new website, complete with a message board meant to build on the existing fanbase that was currently using the listserv.  I’m not sure if, when they launched it, they anticipated what it would become. rapidly became a community.  It soon attracted dozens, then hundreds, of her fans from around the world (though, admittedly, most were from Sarah’s home of Southern Ontario).  The latest version I can find on the Wayback archive shows 721 members, but I’m pretty sure we exceeded 1,000 by its end.  I was probably the most prolific poster on the boards, but a large number of people posted regularly – many of us checked in at least daily.  We became the Passioneers (after a line in the song Day One).

We talked about everything – the album, the lyrics, the extensive tours that followed the album, and often even just life in general, too.  We started to recognize each other at concerts, whether by coincidentally running into one another or by arranging meetings.  I even met classmates I didn’t know I had, because we happened to be on the boards together.

I imagine that there probably were trolls, but if there were I don’t remember them being around very long.  At times Sarah’s management got a little aggressive with their moderation, though they were eventually replaced.  There were a few people who were a little… let’s say eccentric… and they were treated with compassion and friendliness.  The diversity was unparalleled – a real cross-section of humanity.  In short, it was about as close to a utopic online community as you could imagine.  A revolution of joy.

In the first six or seven months of that board, and the tours that were running at the same time, I met around a dozen people in real life that I still consider my friends today, a decade later.  We started intentionally finding one another at shows, and often even arranging rides together.  I’m guessing based on her tour archive, but I probably went to six shows of hers in as many months.

This all culminated ten years ago today, in advance of her concert at The Phoenix in Toronto. Since Toronto was pretty central for quite a few of us, and some fans were flying into town for the show (which was also the final show of the tour), we decided to have a great big meetup before the show.  We also decided that since Sarah had been giving of her art over the last six months (in addition to the new album, and concerts, she regularly posted new written and visual material on her website), we would create a (secret, but not really that secret) project ourselves.  We launched a “scrapbook” project, where people from the boards each created a page (of equal dimensions of course) and sent them all in to someone who coordinated them centrally.  The whole thing was then assembled and we brought it to the show.  A number of us gathered at Salad King (in its old location, on Gould Street) for late lunch / early dinner (we wanted to be first to the show so we could be right up by the stage, of course).  Many of us met for the first time that day.  The show was amazing (and bloody… she cut herself on the keyboard), and we presented Sarah with the scrapbook after the show.

This was one of several pinnacles in this community, but for many of us it was a highlight.  What followed was several years of getting together for shows – we often travelled together, or met up at shows, saving spots for people who had to work late or buying tickets together.  We got together at festivals, and went to other artists’ concerts too. And we kept meeting – some of these people remained cyber-friends only, and I’ve met some in real life for the first time as recently as 2011.

For several years, Sarah held a pair of concerts at Harbourfront Centre every December, which became a reunion of sorts for us fans.  Starting with the first year, we decided that instead of giving art again, we would give back to our communities.  We created a “Passioneer Holiday Card” project, where people from the message board would give back, either by donating to an organization or by volunteering, and we compiled electronic submissions (with descriptions of what we did, and our usernames) into a card.  While in theory this was one of those “fans giving a gift to the artist who probably doesn’t need it” things, this was such a great way to get together with people around the world doing good.  Even though that tradition has discontinued (along with the annual concerts), I still make a point of making a donation to an unsuspecting charity around that time each year.

There have been so many highlights over the years, but these are some of mine.  Thank you Passioneers for being part of my life.  This community lives on without the message board, and is still the most positive online community I’ve ever been a part of.