Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Taking shelter from an infinite ceiling in a perfect storm.

Ride through Vancouver, and you will see that the city is home to far too many homeless people sleeping rough in neighbourhoods all over the place.

Less apparent, yet equally important to the equation is all of the Homes-Less-People, the multitude of condos and detached houses alike, entirely empty of inhabitants, sitting vacant year after year after year.

The path to this door has been unused for so long that it is almost completely lost to moss.
Whole neighbourhoods are turning into ghost towns, so that fewer and fewer privately owned places are actually occupied. According to the 2001 census, almost a quarter of the residences in Coal Harbour sit empty, causing house prices to skyrocket as fewer and fewer homes remain available to Vancouver residents looking for a place to live. And it's not all condominiums, either.

It's happening all over the lower mainland, but the nicer the neighbourhood, the more it attracts the foreign investor. Vancouver's great beauty, its very liveability is working against our best interests. It's turning our nicest areas into empty, vacant villages.

Take a ride through Shaughnessy with your eyes peeled for the signs of abandonment, and you will be surprised at how many homes are unoccupied. Look for moss on driveways, and rott eating away at a back lane garage. We took just such a ride, and came upon a big old house listed for sale. We stopped by just as the agent was locking the gate. She asked if we would like to view the property, and of course we jumped at the chance.

This 8,000 square foot house is listed at $13.5 million dollars, down from the original $15 million. The agent is a lovely woman named Wendy Tian, of Sutton West Coast Realty. Her number is (604)375-6030,  just in case you've an extra twenty million or so kicking around and a fierce yearning for a to-do project. This is one of those very residences which has been empty for years. The man who bought it was originally planning to turn it into a fifteen thousand square foot home, complete with an inside/outside pool. It will stand in place of the old pool which sits there now, in view of the neighbouring Canuck Place Children's hospice, which is simply the best neighbour a person could hope for, at least if karma has anything to do with it.

The owner's contractors had already begun taking the house apart, so it is without its fixtures and fittings.

He had a full set of blueprints drawn up, and all of the permits are in place, but after work had begun, the owner decided that he would rather build his mansion on the hill in West Vancouver, where he can enjoy a beautiful view.  He bought another property, and began work on it there. And so this house sits empty, uninhabited and unliveable. 

I asked Wendy whether she'd had any offers to date, because I had heard that bidding wars were becoming quite common here in Vancouver. She said that when it was first listed at $15 million, a woman offered $13 million, and the owner declined. Then just a week or so ago, "A kid from China offered the list price for the property, as long as nobody told his parents about it." And Wendy told me that she replied to him that "No, sorry. We won't do that sort of thing." Apparently the boy wanted to store his car collection here, but he didn't want his dad to know what he was up to. !!!! That's some kinda garage. We won't even mention the money laundering that happens in Vancouver Real Estate Transactions. Nope. Not a word.

You will find a fair few massive, unbelievably expensive homes scattered throughout the lower mainland, and increasingly they belong to foreign nationals who don't even spend a fraction of their time here. And despite the price of property here in southwestern BC, which impacts the price of everything, from food to clothes and beyond, wages have not even begun to catch up. That means that what would have been a comfortable, middle class salary ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago is now too small to make ends meet. What used to be middle class is today the working poor, folks struggling to afford their lives. People who used to hold a reasonable expectation that they would buy a home, and pay off the mortgage in twenty odd years must now dream an impossible dream. I met a couple the other day, both of whom hold masters degrees in their chosen fields. They have a baby, and would love another, but they can't afford two children. They also can't afford to buy a place, not even a two bedroom condo, and although they are both working full time, they are struggling to make ends meet. They are the very definition of middle class, and yet (depending on your definition of impoverished), they are also the working poor.

But Vancouver real estate wasn't always so far out of reach. Let me introduce you to the Vancouver Special.

These wonders of architectural mediocrity were createded to maximize square footage to a standard city lot, and were designed with the primary living space on the top floor, and secondary bedrooms on the ground floor. This made it a simple thing to build an inlaw suite, which, when rented out made it easier to pay off a mortgage, or to bring granny over from the old country to help care for the little ones. Between the mid sixties and the mid eighties thousands of these places were built to provide an affordable housing solution to immigrant and working class families. You'll still find them today, scattered all over town, though of course you will find way more of them east of Main than on the west side.

Given the obscene price of real estate and painfully low average wages, you would think that the Government would step in and create a buffer for the populace by building some affordable housing. After all, any self respecting G8 government would by nature be aghast at the possibility of being at the center of a crisis of homelessness, but our leaders don't care, just so long as their patrons are raking in the dosh. They hung us out to dry. Our federal and provincial governments both ended any and all support for affordable housing, preferring instead to build bigger prisons.

Now let me introduce you to the Vancouver Especially:

Vancouver Especially
This is a scale model of the original Vancouver Special, created especially for the 2015 Bienale by artist Ken Lum, as a commentary on the soaring cost of living here in the Lower Mainland. Mr Lum (creator of the East Van Cross) received $45,000 in grants to build this exhibit, which is what it would have cost to purchase one of these boxy residences in the mid 1970's. Originally, he had planned to build a replica the exact size of what $45,000 will get you in today's housing market, but that would be much too small for this project. Instead, he etched a $45,000 space into the front of the display.

Talk about living in a shoe box! Actually, with the rise of micro condos, shoebox housing is the only option left for plenty of people.

For a while, a fair few creative individuals were staying financially afloat by mooring their live-aboard boats in False Creek indefinitely, but with the coming of the Olympics, the tides turned, and the city put an end to that.

Vancouver has a rich history of sqautting, and an equally strong record of evicting those willing to take a housing crisis into their own hands. The Bank of Canada surprised everyone early this year when they dropped interest rates even further, despite what analysts have been saying for years about an overheated property bubble. If they drop it any further, they'll have to pay us to borrow money for a mortgage. And frankly, what with the price of housing, we're going to need all the help we can get. The obscene price of real estate in Vancouver isn't going to change any time soon, however. Not even if the bubble bursts. There is just such a limited supply, and an ever increasing demand.

Some people are doing what they can. Atira, the Vancouver Women's Resource Society, created Canada's first recycled shipping container housing development on Alexander St, just down the block from the city's very well patronised homeless shelters.

There are other examples of sustainable housing in the city, too. Cob houses are an interesting alternative to the bricks and mortar more commonly found around town.

And apparently yurts are making a comeback, too, providing a fresh perspective on the ancient issue of finding shelter from the elements. That's a whole new take on a tent city.

But the problem here isn't about the price of building a structure, it's about the cost of the land itself, and the ever widening chasm between the average person's earnings and the cost of living in the city where the jobs are.

Something is rotten in the country of Canada, Horatio. It's not right. The banks are all making record profits whilst the middle class simply disappears. Fewer and fewer Vancouverites can afford the roofs over their heads, even as a teenaged boy is prepared to drop fifteen million dollars on a Shaughnessy estate to house his secret car collection. Something has got to give. It's inevitable. Who knows? Maybe change will happen organically, and withougt resistance. Men like Warren Buffet give me hope. And then there's John Caudwell. He is one of the wealthiest men in the UK, a truly self made man, who is giving half of his fortune to charity. He retired from his mobile phone empire to pursue a new direction and now he strives daily to become the greatest philanthropist the country has ever seen. His Instagram account has all of the usual photos of the life and times of a young and influential billionaire and his beautiful wife and kids, but one photo stands out:

The CBC recently aired a BBC interview with Mr Caudwell, which ended with his line "All I need is my health and my bike." Hear hear. I couldn't agree more.


  1. il Pirata est Mort9 April 2015 at 10:07

    Queen Victoria's parting words were along the line, "All my fortune for a few moments more."

    Act accordingly. Ride.

    1. Every day...! :)

      It's a gift, this life. If only we humans - the lone "civilized" species - valued it more.

  2. Babble,

    I understand that it is extremely difficult to change the course of a colossal ship that is under full steam. Your description of Vancouver gives me the same sense: Vancouver…on a collision course with unaffordable housing/diminishing middle class/stagnant wages/homelessness…FULL STEAM AHEAD!

    Really? Duh. Is anyone “in charge” there?

    I share your perception: “Something’s got to give.” I wonder what it will be? It’s a little frightening.

    I’m like you: keepin’ it simple. Riding my bike. Not spending money that I don’t have. Observing.

    Great illustrated post, Babble!!! You are a first-class journalist!


    1. Thank you, Old-timer. You're so very consistently thoughtful and kind, and I value that above all.

      Some days I despair for the Earth ship we are leaving for our children's children. I remain convinced that the only thing which will save us, given the rampant corruption obvious in governments across the planet, is an idea whose time has come. Unless enough of us can see a better way, and until we collectively stop "buying in" to the madness, we're lost, the lot of us.

  3. Hey Babs,

    Great post.

    I almost forgot about the activism part of your blog, what with all the injured leg and butt pictures.

    Being a photographer myself, I am always aware of your photography and assume you ride with a photographer. Yes? Nice job on their part as well.

    Your journalism is hidden behind your persona but it is none the less extant.

    Peace, lady.

    1. Why... thank you kindly, sir! :D

      Yes, I am a very lucky girl to have such an artist at hand. He curates beautiful bikes, too, and though I would like to turn the lens on him, he is modest and prefers to stay on the other side of the camera. One day I might just feature the collection of bicycles he has pulled together, though, because they really are gorgeous. Tom Burrows, one of the local artists I've featured a few times (most recently in The Art of Living Well, or, Well, Living the Art) actually held a gallery showing of these bikes several years ago. Many of them have been sold or given away, but there are still a couple dozen of them around which I have access to, and if anything is worthy of these pages, they most definitely are. I just need to concvince the man who built them.

      We were riding by a dumpster in a lane in the heart of the financial district downtown a couple of years ago, when he spotted an old roadbike which had been stripped and tossed on top. Later on that evening he said "I can't help it. It's my heroine," and he went downtown to retrieve the old Italian steel mess from the dumpster. A few weeks later it was unrecognisable. That's whatchacall Talent. Every bike he curates has a distinctive style to it. They are simple and elegant, and perfectly balanced. He fiddles with various parts, and changes things around till it looks "right," and it always ends up a thing of beauty. And then every day, after he decides which clothes to wear, he has to choose which bike to ride, too!

    2. Do publish his bikes if possible. He and I must be kindred spirits. I find and build junk into rides. It seems that my pets and friends fit that parameter as well. Living things get more respect, though. Especially Mother Earth.

      Whenever I watch a documentary of someone climbing Mt. Everest or other near death adventures, I can't suspend the reality that there is a videographer there. They are doing everything the subjects are but also carrying gear and shooting.

  4. G'day Babbs,
    Thank you once again for another entertaining, interesting and thought provoking post.

    I haven't noticed many empty houses here. But then I haven't been looking. I expect if there are any they will more likely be further north in Sydney or Queensland where it's warmer.
    As a double negative, being empty they don't even bring money into the local economy as they would if people lived there; you'd think... Possibly apart from council rates and utility fees depending whether you suffer the same "business" models as we do.
    It doesn't even look like they pay gardeners to keep the places tidy.
    I have noticed homeless people even though I haven't been looking.

    I love your phrases too by the way:
    "These wonders of architectural mediocrity..."

    On interest rates.. We've created a good old fashioned conundrum.
    We bought the house we live in during a period of relatively high rates following a period of around 16% for a few years.
    As with most people at the time we were very conservative based on our concerns that rates could go back to 16% or higher.
    With interest rates so low now people haven’t been so conservative and are up to their hipster beards in debt. The problem now is that if rates go up, hundreds of thousands of people won't be able to afford their repayments. They, or their banks, will have to sell when there is an over-supply driving prices down. You lot will know all this anyway based on the US story. Probably a bit different but the same melt down at the end.
    And being a responsible tax payer some years ago I did the "right" thing to ease the future burden on the old age pension system and bought an "investment" house myself. So far it's been a great deal for the tenants. It doesn't fill me with joy that I'm now part of the problem but "everyone" is doing it and I'm just one so surely that's OK?

    To add to the problem we have negative gearing tax laws here that make it attractive to buy an "investment" property if you're in a higher income tax bracket (which is why mine is a good deal for my tenants). Pushing the house prices up a bit more with the increased demand. There doesn't seem to be a problem at the moment finding people to rent them either.
    Unlike investing in manufacturing which is on the way out and ironically also the source of income for a lot of people who rent..

    How do "they" start to turn the ship without causing an instant crash or melt down?
    Have an end point or objective and make a lot of small changes over time while keeping people informed so they can adjust their business to suit.
    If they reduced the amount than can be claimed on a domestic rental property from 100% to 95%, for example, some people would not invest that way any more and it probably wouldn't cause a melt down; unless someone incited irrational panic - which can happen!
    Sort of like a continuous feedback mechanism that you'd use to keep a ship heading in the right direction as the winds and ocean currents change.

    Time for a beer.
    Ride on !

    1. Hmm... interesting. Are your interest rates super low right now, too? I am assuming that most first world governments reacted to the market meltdown with the same sort of low interest, fiscal stimulus sort of response.

      Take a look around. You might find that there are more empty places in your neighbourhood than you had ever imagined. Is a house's garden tended, yet there's never a bin out on pick-up day? (The gardens in those photos are all tended, it's just that the gardening happens according to a schedule, instead of when the trees get messy, which is what you would do if you lived there.) Is ther house always shuttered, with a few strategic lights on? Is there never a car in the drive? Once you start to look, it's fairly easy to determine whether a house is occupied, and it rarely takes more than a visit or two to figure it out.

      The trouble with a whole host of unoccupied investment properties is that there never, ever will be a shortage of renters, because there is always a shortage of available housing. Here in Vancouver, we are at a very uncomfortable <1% vacancy. That would quickly change if unoccupied houses were even moderately taxed for their vacancy.

      I agree, that you can can only arrive at your destination when you have a specific destination in mind, and that you can only turn a juggernaught gradually and with caution, lest you cause an upset. The devastation that an overwhelming number of foreclosures caused in the heart of many American cities is a warning to us all, and yet our economies need a fundamental change. What would happen if rather than a focus on shareholder returns, and infinite economic growth in a world with finite resources, we instead valued and rewarded the comapnies that created the most good for the greatest number of people? Sounds farfetched, yes, but something HAS to give. And if we can imagine it, we can create it.

  5. Hey Babbs, I've been busy in a new job :) so a bit slack on my internet chores.
    Yes, interest rates here are around 5% for the average home buyer. I've been keeping an eye out for empty houses and not spotted any yet. I don't ride around the streets much though. Mostly "rail trails" and bike paths etc.
    I completely agree with the fundamental change required. A change is how we measure what's "good" and what's "growth"

    1. Congratulations! That's great news! What fun! I wish I could say the same... I was totally loving my work, when the coolest little company in the world laid. me. off. Bloody hell, THAT wreaks havoc with a girl's plans.

      I had never, ever noticed an empty place until I became aware of the high rates of uninhabited places in this city. And still, so often these places are well manicured, so it is virtually impossible to tell. But people looking for a place to rent or buy here in Vancouver are all too well aware of the dearth of appropriate homes. Our rental vacancy rate is below one percent, which is not exactly ideal.

  6. It’s very frustrating to know about things like that. There are homeless people out there suffering from the cold weather because they have no place to dwell in. There are things we can do to help them, although limited, and that's the saddest part. In any way, thank you for sharing an eye opener! All the best to you!

    Jerry Brady @ Lambert And Williams