Should Vancouver address the issue of overseas buyers of our real estate?

Should we be dampening the foreign demand for residential real estate in Vancouver? That’s a question that everyone in the city is asking – except people running for office.

“We need to make housing more affordable” is a sentence that will be spoken by every candidate. They will talk about increasing supply, expediting approvals, streamlining burdensome regulations, increasing density around transit hubs and other vital measures. These all matter.

But what if there’s an insatiable demand for Vancouver real-estate investment from outside our country? What if new supply is mostly scooped up by cash-flush buyers who have no intention of living here, or working here? The new places sit empty, or maybe they’re available for temporary rentals.

As a homeowner who loves the increasing value of my home, I appreciate how this offshore demand enriches so many of us – including, notably, the real-estate businesses that write the biggest cheques for municipal election campaigns.

But at some point we have to ask out loud: Is the harm from virtually unlimited offshore investment in real estate greater than its benefits? What is the price we pay for Vancouver being the thirdmost-unaffordable housing market in the world, where home ownership is out of reach for our next generation, skilled immigrants, teachers, nurses, police officers and health-care workers who are so vital for a livable city?

Vancouver’s chief planner, Brent Toderian, says suck it up and learn to enjoy renting.

But our cultural traditions – not to mention our financial security and historical wealth generation – are still built around home ownership. People want to own their own homes. If they can’t afford to own here, they move away. And that costs us.

It breaks up families and it hurts the local economy.

In 2007, the Vancouver Economic Development Commission asked business and community leaders to name the biggest barriers to job creation in Vancouver.

At the top of the list were high commercial and industrial land prices, and unaffordable housing that makes the city unattractive to workers and managers alike.

That’s job destruction, not job creation.

People say we can’t restrict foreign investors in real estate because that would scare off other foreign investment. Do offshore real-estate investors follow up with commercial investments? Are the majority of foreign buyers only here for a “secure” investment or do they intend on making a commitment to this community? We should know the answers, but we don’t.

Lots of other jurisdictions have restrictions on who can own real estate – Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Prince Edward Island, Switzerland, Austria, Japan, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, China and Australia among them.

We wouldn’t think of allowing unlimited foreign access to our schools and universities, because we’ve determined that local students should take priority.

This is a conversation that has to come out into the open.

It’s the biggest issue in our city today and no one is addressing it.

Source: Peter Ladner, former city councillor and author of The Urban Food Revolution: Changing the Way We Feed Cities, published by

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