Sunday, 24 March 2013


Last week a UBC adjunct professor, Andrew Yan, gave a speech in which he claimed that there were a huge number of condos in Vancouver that were vacant.  Francis Bula reported the story in her blog and in the Globe and Mail. The numbers are startling:

Downtown, the rate is so high that it’s as though there were 35 towers at 20 storeys apiece – empty!”

The big story in all of this is that it was a story at all.  Everyone knows there is a problem. It is not the Chinese. It is our own government.  Vancouver’s media, mired in political correctness,  have not dared to speak of it.  

China’s Real Estate Riddle

It is, however, no secret in China. An article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in June 2009 by Patrick Chovanec, China’s Real Estate Riddle”] Chovanec,  a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing, China describes a phenomena that is all too familiar in Vancouver:

[Why] the seemingly endless rows of luxury megaliths you can see sprouting up in every provincial capital or third-tier Chinese city worth its salt, with nary a resident in sight. Beijing has no monopoly on ghost-condos.

One possible key to this riddle occurred to me after I heard about the Chinese tour group that recently (and famously) traveled to the United States hunting for post-bubble real estate bargains. I heard that one of the reasons they returned empty-handed was that they were shocked—shocked!—to discover that in the U.S., property is taxed annually on its value. China has taxes on real estate transactions, but no recurring tax on holdings. The group’s discovery, and their disappointment, got me thinking.

He observed that the U.S. tax system creates strong incentives for residential property owners to either use it to live in or to generate income by renting it to others to live in, and penalize them for letting it stand idle.

That is not how it works in China. Chovanec continues: “In China,  real estate—occupied or not—offers them a visibly reassuring place to park their money, sheltered from inflation. *** with little or no holding costs, Chinese owners are unconstrained by the need to make the property “pay” in cash or in kind. For them, an empty condo is a store of value, much like gold, another asset that performs no practical function besides retaining its worth.”

Apartments in China aren’t for living in, they’re for investing. That is the real source of demand.

 A  year ago in the Courier on April 5, 2012 Alan Garr set everyone straight:

"Blaming Chinese  high house prices  is racist"

If you believe that house prices are being driven up in Vancouver because realtors are catering to wealthy offshore Chinese you are living in a fictional world. It is happening in our city's housing market, but it's statistically insignificant.

Yesterday, Gary Mason opined on the Yan report that there just isn’t enough evidence. [I trust he accepts that Japan was hit by a Tsunami without demanding further studies.] In a paragraph that gives meaning to the term fatuous, he said:

I also find it amusing that we get so up in arms about “foreigners” buying up our real estate but think nothing of the thousands of Canadians who have poured into the United States in recent years to take advantage of the housing mess down there. Does anyone doubt that many of those same Canadians are buying those condos as investments in the hopes they’ll cash in once the market returns to normal? Do you hear Americans crying foul?”

Vancouver residents may not be so amused. It is one thing to buy into the depressed market in Phoenix or any other part of the Arizona desert to have a vacation home.  It is quite another to block the  views of existing residents with an inflation hedge.  Buying houses in neighborhoods where mortgages are in default has a different impact on a community from what has happened to Vancouver.  Here investors have bought up well-established,  heritage areas, demolished the houses to put up even larger ones. Home  owners have been forced to increase density, by building houses in their own back yards so they can afford to live in their own neighborhoods.

It is time to deal with it.

It does not matter whether it is the Danes or the Chinese who are bringing about the change. What matters is that the government should address the issue. They may conclude that every cure is worse than the disease but they still need to look at it. 

When the resort municipality of Whistler was developed in the early eighties, it was anticipated that wealthy Europeans and Saudis would aquire all of the units. They would remain empty most of the year and the retail stores could not survive.  Covenants were therefore placed on title to require them to be placed in a rental pool to ensure that they were occupied.

All three levels of government need to review the possible interventions.  We will need a home-grown solution but a good start would be to study what other countries are doing. 

The French government under President  Hollande is threatening to requisition vacant apartments.

The following summary comes from the CBC.

China imposed new restrictions on property sales in 2010 —
  • Foreigners can own only one residential property for their own use (permanent residents are restricted to two properties).
  • Foreigners must reside in the country for one year before they can buy property.
  • Foreign companies who buy commercial real estate must use it themselves.

The following restrictions apply to foreigners:

  • Foreigners — regardless of whether they are temporary residents of Australia or live abroad — are prohibited from buying existing housing stock (homes that have been previously owned or occupied for more than 12 months) for investment purposes — i.e. as a rental or vacation property.
  • The exception to the above rule is if a foreigner buys existing housing stock that they plan to demolish and redevelop. The property must be redeveloped within two years, and the redevelopment must increase the number of housing units. The property cannot be rented out prior to the redevelopment. The new property can be rented out, sold or used by the owner.
  • Foreigners temporarily residing in Australia can apply to buy one piece of existing property to use as a residence provided they sell it when they leave Australia. This provision was meant to address complaints that Asian investors buying property for children studying in Australia were outbidding locals and holding onto property after their children left the country. These are some of the same complaints being raised currently in Canada.
  • If foreigners buy vacant land for residential development, they have to build on it within two years and are allowed to rent out, use or sell the built properties.
  • There is no limit to the amount of newly constructed real estate foreigners can own as long as the property has not been marketed exclusively to foreigners overseas. Such property can be used as an investment.

Swiss real estate is some of the most coveted in the world, but the country also has some of the strictest rules when it comes to foreign ownership.

  • The government assigns annual quotas to the country's cantons limiting the number of houses or flats that can be sold to foreigners who do not reside in Switzerland. Each sale must still be authorized by the canton in which the property is located, and the cantons can set their own additional restrictions. Many limit foreign property sales to tourist regions, for example, or allow foreigners to purchase only property that is already foreign-owned.
  • Foreigners can buy only one property to be used as a holiday home or a secondary residence. They cannot purchase a property for the sole purpose of renting it out, although holiday homes can be rented out periodically on a short-term basis.
  • In some cantons, foreigners are barred from selling their property for a certain number of years after purchasing it — generally between five and 10 years.
  • If foreigners buy vacant land, they must build on it within a year.
  • Foreigners who live in Switzerland do not need to get prior authorization to purchase real estate that will serve as their main residence and can rent out the property or use it as a holiday home if they move to another part of the country.

Douglas Todd observed in a Vancouver Sun article yesterday that "one of the strongest factors working against coming up with a working solution is there is no solid data on which to base a strategy."  

He is partly right. Both truth and lies can be presented more effectively when grounded in statistics backed up by studies. I note, however, that Mr. Todd in his columns on religion can be very effective based on faith alone.

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