Necessary for people to act
Left to right, emcee Yael Dirnfeld with panelists Penny Gurstein, Tom Davidoff and Michael Geller, who discussed the Metro Vancouver real estate market. (photo by Lior Noyman)
Few topics in Vancouver are debated more intensely than real estate. “It is now possible to use the words ‘housing crisis’ without being labeled an alarmist,” noted Michael Geller at the Ohel Ya’akov Community Kollel’s Stunning Views: Vancouver Real Estate panel discussion last month.
Held on June 28 by the Barry & Lauri Glotman Kollel Business Network, the event was the second meeting hosted by the Kollel to look at the situation in the Metro Vancouver real estate market and its impact on the Jewish community. This second session focused on practical, grassroots solutions, featuring once again presenters Tom Davidoff, Michael Geller and Penny Gurstein and emcee Yael Dirnfeld.
Davidoff is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business and incoming director of the Sauder Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate, and Geller is an architect, real estate consultant and property developer, president of the Geller Group and an adjunct professor in Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Sustainable Community Development. Gurstein is a professor and the director of the School of Community and Regional Planning and the Centre for Human Settlements at UBC, while Dirnfeld is director and team lead in private banking with Scotia Wealth Management.
Each of the three presenters brought differing but complementary perspectives. Davidoff spoke in rapid-fire witticisms and big picture sketches, focusing on the international picture and willing to offer speculative answers and predictions about the future. Geller was more cautious, and drew on his extensive knowledge of Vancouver history and urban planning to weigh different possible futures and suggest options for buyers and investors. Gurstein spoke of political solutions, emphasizing the importance of both legislative changes and broad community organization and activism to effect change and provide more housing, increased diversity of housing and a sustainable real estate economy.
Davidoff discussed different possible ways forward. Should the city build more housing to drive down prices? Should the province raise taxes? Should the federal government intervene? Davidoff said the situation is authentically worrisome and there are possibilities of the market undergoing “a nasty correction.” He argued that legislative changes were the most effective long-term solution, and that the tax on vacant houses being discussed by Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robinson is a good start.
From where will change come? asked Davidoff. Quoting George Orwell’s book 1984, he said, “If there’s hope, it’s from the proles,” the proletariat, or the common people. Pressure needs to be put on government from people other than wealthy homeowners, investors and developers, said Davidoff.
Geller warned the audience that everything being discussed should be taken “with a grain of salt.” He said, “None of us up here know very much but, since we are sitting up here and you down there, we are obliged to be sage.”
Geller pointed to the impending crackdown on unscrupulous real estate agents as a positive development, as well as the federal government’s allocation of $150 million for affordable housing in British Columbia, the utility of which Davidoff doubted. Geller emphasized the cyclical nature of markets and the likelihood that the boom would not go on much longer. “I think it will peak, but I am not sure it will crash,” he said. “I am inclined to think the correction will not be severe.”
Gurstein also thought that there have been positive developments in the last few months. “We need a government intervention,” she stressed. But, she said, “… there is a fear that, if they intervene, it could have a serious impact. This points to the need for a serious, wide-ranging economic strategy: we cannot be dependent on global capital coming in and generating a whole real estate industry from that.”
Gurstein emphasized the need for large-scale diversification, as well, pointing out that Vancouver needs different kinds of housing to meet everyone’s needs, as opposed to a market-driven fixation on condos and detached single-family dwellings.
The audience’s questions were directed to future developments and which investments are best. “Michael,” an attendee asked, “where are things going, what will prices look like in five to 10 years?”
“You’re going to have as many people saying prices will go up as go down,” replied Geller. “Some will say it will go up because of Brexit, or matters in China, or the stable Canadian economy. Other people will say it simply cannot continue and, if you look at the history of Vancouver, we have seen bubbles like this before that burst. Some of the remedies that people have been asking for – taxing foreign investment and vacant homes, government money for affordable housing, taxing BnBs, building more houses, all of those things – will have some impact in dampening things a little bit but, again, I don’t see a severe crash coming.”
Geller also spoke about the subjective nature of assessments. “Will things drop or stabilize? … After Brexit, the market dropped 200 points, then 200 points more, then it was 150 points up again because some people said Lloyds Bank is down 40% and it has to be a good time to buy! So, now it’s going up. Why did it drop at first? Fear. Then it comes up because of hope. It’s all so psychological.”
Geller and Davidoff agreed that investing in central Vancouver real estate is unlikely to pay off at this point, but looking farther afield to New Westminster, Squamish, the Sunshine Coast and other developing communities is a good bet. Asked whether one should rent or buy, Geller suggested, “Why not rent somewhere near a shul and buy a property elsewhere you can rent out for income?”
Gurstein spoke about Tikva Housing Society, which was formed to address the needs of working families, single people and others having difficulty finding affordable housing. “What they’ve done is work with other nonprofit housing societies and the Jewish community and they are now building housing,” she said. “They have one development in Richmond with 10 units, they have [one with] 32 units in Vancouver, and they are amazing and beautiful.”
Gurstein cited Tikva Housing’s work as an example of proactive, effective action. “We need to be supporting these kinds of institutions because they are going and making connections with other nonprofit housing societies to really address this,” she said. “Forty-two [new] units doesn’t solve the problem, but it begins to address it.”
Geller added that Tikva is not the only Jewish housing society and advised that people should take a close look at what’s on offer.
Asked what was the most effective activism for change, Geller emphasized the importance of going to town hall meetings, writing editorials and otherwise making it clear to government that there is a sizable, active constituency desiring intervention. All three presenters agreed that, absent such public activism, the only voices likely to be heard by government are the ones that have prevailed so far: those of wealthier homeowners, developers and foreign investors.
Matthew Gindin is a Vancouver freelance writer and journalist. He blogs on spirituality and social justice at seeking her voice (hashkata.com) and has been published in the Forward, Tikkun, Elephant Journal and elsewhere.