Monday, March 27, 2017

Martyn Brown: An essay on B.C.'s housing crisis and what to do about it

Martyn Brown: An essay on B.C.'s housing crisis and what to do about it

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    [Be forewarned: this essay is not a column. It is long, and I hope it is worth the time and effort!]
    Enough already. Metro Vancouver’s real estate frenzy is out of control.
    Vancouver now ranks as the third least affordable housing market of some 367 global metropolitan markets analyzed in Demographia International’s 12th Annual Housing Affordability Survey, for 2016.
    Just yesterday, the Vancouver Board of Trade released a major new report. It found that Vancouver "ranks 15th out of the 17 metro regions for which data were available on housing affordability and gets a ‘D’ gradeonly Shanghai and Hong Kong are less affordable. The region’s expensive housing acts as a major barrier to retaining and attracting high-end talent and business investment."
    new survey conducted for Vancity shows just how central that challenge and its related impacts on the cost of living and quality of life has now become for Metro’s millennials.
    The April 2016 benchmark price for detached properties in Greater Vancouver was $1,403,200up 30.1 percent over last year and up 53 percent over three years ago.
    Another Vancity report from early 2015 put Vancouver’s affordability problem in perspective.
    It noted that the median gross monthly household income in Metro was $6,225. At that rate, even with a whopping 20 percent down payment of $92,875, a typical family could only afford to buy a home worth up to $464,375.
    That’s less than the current benchmark price of $475,000 for a typical condo and nowhere near the $608,600 benchmark price for an average townhouse.
    It’s nuts.
    And a major reason for that problem is the impact of foreign capitalmostly from Chinaas SFU assistant professor Josh Gordon has persuasively presented in his new paper.
    Like a virus, it is a killer concern that is spreading.
    Metro Vancouver’s affordability crisis is now Greater Victoria’s unfolding nightmare.
    Victoria is now the second least affordable housing market in Canada and the third-hottest luxury real estate market in the world, according to Christie’s International Real Estate.
    Kelowna is now also feeling the pinch, aggravated by runaway foreign investment that is either directly or indirectly pushing home prices through the roof and putting the dream of home ownership out of reach for too many B.C. families.
    Meanwhile, the Clark government sits on its hands in denial and tries to pretend that it is just a minor symptom of B.C.’s booming economy.
    Relax, the real estate and development industries assure us, the impact of absentee ownership and foreign investment is widely overblown and not supported by its figures.
    Small monthly surveys of local realtors conducted over the past two years by the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver suggest that foreign investors only account for between 1.5 percent and six percent of all buyers.
    Yet no one has been collecting any hard information on who those buyers really are, on where they really live, or about their citizenship.
    The real estate industry’s informal voluntary surveys of typically under 250 members are no substitute for hard, definitive data. They are also suspect, given both the nature of those polls’ unscientific methodology and the self-interest those realtors have in downplaying the extent of foreign ownership on Vancouver’s white-hot housing market that is driving their sales commissions.
    At the same time, our federal and provincial governments say they are not persuaded that foreign ownership is really that much of a problem, since they have failed to collect any reliable data on the nature of those foreign investors. As if that proves their point.
    Anyway, the supply-side hawks argue, it is mostly a problem of too little supply outstripping demand. As if the only answer is to address the first half of that equation, rather than taking the more emphatic and politically precarious course of also limiting unwanted demand.
    True enough, all governments have done too little to stimulate and expedite the supply of more affordable housing.
    Zoning restrictions, permitting processes, density barriers, development cost charges, and a lack of readily developable government-owned land have all depressed the supply of affordable homes.
    Onerous property transfer taxes, rapidly rising property taxes, inadequate government investments in social and rental housing, and ridiculously low income assistance rates and financial aid for B.C.’s most vulnerable families have also hurt affordability and housing investments.
    Each level of government blames the others for failing to address the supply problem.
    Yet the provincial government is hardly in any position to point fingers at local governments.
    Its refusal to properly invest in desperately needed public transit infrastructure has clearly inhibited the densities and investments needed to rapidly liberate more affordable housing.
    Plus, the Clark government wants Metro’s governments to raise property taxes and community amenity "contributions" to finance critically needed TransLink investments.
    It wants to hike taxes that would only further add to the costs of new homes and existing homes alike. And now it has the gall to attack the NDP for its proposed new speculators’ tax? Spare me.
    For the province, any new demand is always welcome, no matter who gets hurt or how it unfairly distorts our local housing markets.
    As the finance minister has confessed, the B.C. Liberals are in no hurry to regulate the real estate industry, let alone do anything that intentionally curbs any foreign demand.
    The B.C. Liberals have no desire to bite the hand that feeds their government and that contributes so generously to their party coffers.
    Indeed, the province now collects about three times more in property transfer taxes than it receives from the natural gas royalties, despite Premier Christy Clark’s endless yattering about the wealth that sector generates.
    Arguably, the proportional benefit and impact of the money the B.C. Liberals receive from their paymasters in the property development and real estate sectors is even greater.
    In politics, money talks.
    And the cash the B.C. Liberals get from their wealthy benefactors in those sectors has made the NDP’s demonstrably sensible demand-side measures targeting foreign speculators and absentee owners a moot point for the Clark government.
    Finance Minister Mike de Jong and Premier Christy Clark have been in no hurry to regulate the real-estate industry.
    STEPHEN THOMSON
    The governing party that so actively courts those donors through private tête-à-têtes with the premier and her ministers is not keen on taking any action that might anger the barons of industry who sustain the B.C. Liberals’ gravy train.
    In any case, affordable housing is not a problem for any of those B.C. Liberal MLAs who have their secondary homes and mortgages in Victoria directly subsidized by B.C. taxpayers.
    For them, any demand that increases those property values or the value of their other personal property holdings is inevitably more cash in the bank. Many of them own multiple residences.
    That is equally the case for homeowners who have seen their property values soar with the offshore investment tide that supposedly "raises all boats", as it also quietly drowns out hope for young families and swamps those most in need of affordable housing.
    Most homeowners want to stop the worst abuses and negative side effects of unwanted foreign investment, but only to the extent that it does not reduce the new market value of their most valuable investment.
    What to do?
    Marc Lee’s excellent new paper on behalf of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Getting Serious About Affordable Housing, offers a lot of great ideas on ways to increase housing supply and to also restrict unwanted demand, which is my primary concern here.

    Rebalancing Supply And Demand

    First, we might ask ourselves, for whom do we hope to add new supply?
    For people from abroad who do not plan to live and work in our country, or even necessarily occupy those new dwellings?
    For foreign investors who use every trick in the book to avoid paying taxes that are imposed on our citizens? How are they any different than those we are so quick to pillory who have been exposed by the Panama Papers?
    For foreign investors whose primary aim is move their money out of China and evade their own laws that restrict the outflow of capital?
    For those in the real estate and development sectors who are unfairly hurting British Columbians by driving those types of new demand?
    If you agree with me that the answer to those questions is "no," it follows that we should also ask ourselves whether our governments should act to deliberately suppress that added foreign demand, no matter how incremental it might be in further aggravating our housing affordability crisis.
    That unwanted demand, it must be noted, is also largely driving certain new supplies of new housing that is being built primarily to attract those wealthy foreign buyers and the higher prices their investments leverage.
    It is also hiving off huge portions of our existing housing supply to sell to those wealthy foreign buyers, who are typically wealthier than most Canadians and who enjoy a competitive edge over all domestic buyers by dint of the substantial premium they gain on our struggling currency.
    Contrary to what the Clark government maintains, we do need to address the demand side of the housing crisis. Because that unquenchable demand is arguably doing more harm than good.
    The writer of this article, Martyn Brown, was chief of staff to ex-B.C. premier Gordon Campbell.

    Addressing unwanted demand

    Over the last several months we have come to learn a lot about what has driven that demand, thanks to the dogged efforts of the media, NDP housing critic, David Eby, and Mayor Gregor Robertson.
    We now know that much of that demand has been amplified by a tsunami of foreign investment that is illicit and marked by absentee ownership and by unconscionable tax avoidance.
    That added extraneous demand has also been driven by unethical realtors, brokers, and unlicensed agents who have preyed upon unwitting sellers and buyers to pad their own pockets.
    Too often theyand certain developershave also hurt would-be domestic buyers through objectionable marketing initiatives targeted exclusively to foreign buyers.
    Entire new condo towers have been unfairly marketed in China before they are even made available for purchase by British Columbians.
    New properties have been posted for sale on Chinese websites, with insider data inappropriately drawn from MLS, before they are even publicly listed for purchase in our own country.
    British Columbians are being inundated with story after story that rightly makes their blood boil.
    Stories about coercive pressure tactics, deceptive sales pitches, dishonest brokerage practices, and even threats of personal violence that paint an ugly picture of a Wild West real estate industry that is hurting British Columbian sellers and buyers.
    Stories about Canadian banks and brokers that appear to have been actively aiding Chinese money laundering in facilitating financing arrangements for nefarious real estate investments.
    The federal Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre (FINTRAC) has amplified those suspicions and concerns with its recent report that found "significant" or "very significant" deficiencies within dozens of brokerage firms that it is investigating.
    British Columbia can live without that type of corrupt foreign demand, thank you very much.
    Economists from the National Bank of Canada recently hypothesized that Chinese buyers likely accounted for a third of all Vancouver property sales last year, representing an aggregate value of almost $12 billion.
    Much of that real estate investment is being made in ways that are deliberately aimed at avoiding normally applicable taxes.
    As the Globe and Mail reported, "An in-depth look at public dataincluding land titles, tax reporting and court recordsrevealed a distinct pattern, suggesting the typical wealthy foreign family buying Vancouver real estate pays little or no income or capital gains tax…The Globe discovered one in three multimillion-dollar homes bought recently in Vancouver areas popular with foreign buyers is registered to a homemaker, student or corporationone indicator of how the identity of the person who actually paid can be hidden. When a spouse or child sells a property that is registered in their name, the real investor can avoid capital gains taxesbecause the relative in Canada can claim it was their primary residence, therefore not an investment."
    Hope springs eternal that many of these problems will be addressed through the upcoming report of the independent advisory group on real estate practices. It should help restore shaken public confidence in the industry.
    It will be recommending tougher penalties for abusers and new rules to address some of the issues that inexcusably escaped the attention of the B.C. Real Estate Council and the Financial Institutions Commission of B.C.
    Both of those entities that are responsible for overseeing the real estate and mortgage brokering industries have failed miserably to protect the public interest.
    It is good that the province has finally been forced to address the problem of so-called "shadow flipping". Its new rules governing assignment sales should better protect the public.
    But that is only one problem of many that fall on the demand side of the housing equation, which the Clark government does not fundamentally see as requiring any material changes.
    In addition to the problems of tax avoidance, affordability, and potential corruption, we must also come to grips with the negative impacts of unwanted foreign investment on our usable housing supplies and on the strains it is creating for our communities.
    Some of Vancouver’s wealthiest and most desirable neighborhoods are being alienated before our eyes, as wealthy absentee buyers and foreign investors scoop up those iconic properties, only to let them sit empty.
    It is happening in slow motion, as a crime against our culture.
    Governments have for too long turned a blind eye to that ugly social ill, documented online by Beautiful Empty Homes of Vancouver and Vancouver Vanishes.
    Their posted images and evidence are maddening and heartbreaking. They only scratch at the surface of the broader problem of how heritage homes and perfectly good newer homes are being deliberately dilapidated, waiting only for the wrecking ball or for demolition permits.
    The new homes that are being erected in their place are in many cases out of place in those neighborhoods. Like the modern monster homes that first changed the face of some of Vancouver’s oldest and most architecturally beautiful districts, they are an abasement of our collective history, heritage, and culture. 
    The numbers of darkened windows in Vancouver’s most prestigious new condominium towers is equally alarming and objectionable.
    One recent study based on electricity consumption data found that about 12.5 percent of all Vancouver condos were unoccupied in 2014. You might say that one fact puts a different light on the report’s overall finding that Vancouver’s residential nonoccupancy rate has been flat since 2002. Although not many in Vancouver really believe that.
    Another analysis, compiled in 2013 by UBC adjunct professor of planning Andrew Yan, found that as many as 22.5 percent of all Coal Harbour condos were either unoccupied or occupied by a temporary or foreign resident.
    It did not come as a surprise to many who live and work in that slice of heaven.
    As the Globe and Mail reported on Yan’s presentation, "Downtown, the rate is so high that it’s as though there were 35 towers at 20 storeys apieceempty.  In all, the city of Vancouver appears to have about 7,500 more vacant housing units than what would be expected in most other Canadian cities. For Metro Vancouver, there are around 15,000 to 20,000 more."
    The true extent of that problem is unknown, as is the portion of it that is attributable to absentee foreign ownership. But whatever that amounts to, it is too much. It can and should be addressed as unwanted and unwelcome demand on our limited supply of private homes and housing.
    The Clark government’s move to once again start collecting data on all homebuyers’ citizenship and residency through property transfer tax forms is welcome and overdue. But I suspect that it is at least partly motivated by a desire to "prove" that foreign ownership is not a major problem.
    The first tranche of that new data to be collected over the next six months will be released just before the next provincial election. How convenient.
    Mark my words, it will find that the number of real estate transactions accounted for by nonresidents and non-Canadians is only a small fraction of the total, and it will be held up to minimize the significance of that investment on overall demand. 
    If that is so, it begs the question: why would putting new restrictions on certain types of unwanted foreign investment in our most pressured markets fundamentally threaten housing prices?
    It might help to depress further price escalation in those markets and help to ease that unsustainable form of rampant inflation. But if the amount of offshore investment is really just a minor factor influencing housing prices, surely it follows that any modest move to restrict that inflow of foreign capital should not send existing prices plummeting.
    In any case, we should be wary of the accuracy of that new data.
    It will not be wholly reliable or fully reflective of the issue it is designed to measure. It will not take into account those who illegally ignore the new requirements, who lie about their primary residency, or who exploit the available legal loopholes to hide the true purchasers’ true identity.
    The federal government is hoping to bolster that data by collecting additional new information that should give us a clearer picture of the scope and nature of foreign ownership.
    But it is in no hurry. And it is only investing the princely sum of $500,000 over the next year to develop methods for gathering that missing info on Canadian housing bought by foreign homebuyers.
    It needs to do more, as advanced in a new petition initiated by Burnaby resident Raymond Wong that is sponsored by NDP MP Kennedy Stewart (Burnaby South).
    I won’t hold my breath waiting for the federal Liberals to act on that petition in any meaningful sense.
    NDP Leader John Horgan wants the government to tax people who own homes, don't pay income taxes, and leave their properties vacant.
    STEPHEN HUI
    However, I fully expect the B.C. Liberal government to use its new data to try to persuade B.C. voters next spring that NDP leader John Horgan is wrong to push for his proposed Speculator Tracking and Housing Affordability Fund Act.
    It would impose a two percent "housing affordability levy" in Metro Vancouver and in other "participating jurisdictions" on all properties owned by anyone who does not pay income taxes in B.C. and who leaves their home vacant.
    It is a modest, sensible measure that can’t come soon enough, as part of a suite of taxation initiatives that should be adopted to discourage unwanted demand-side pressures from uber-rich speculators, foreign investors and absentee owners.
    Horgan’s initiative is similar to the property surtax proposals advanced by various professors from UBC, SFU and the Sauder School of Business. Mayor Gregor Robertson has also called for the province to impose new taxes on speculators, absentee owners, and luxury properties.
    Any of those measures might help to dampen unwanted demand, depending on how punitive the taxes are that are designed to make those unwanted foreign investments less lucrative.
    They would all certainly help to reduce existing tax evasion, as they would surely generate many millions of new tax dollars for government to invest or redistribute as they see fit.
    Yet none of those measures would fundamentally address the legal ability of those with deep enough pockets to buy whatever they want, wherever it is for sale in British Columbia.
    And therein lies the greater problem, in my view.

    Broaching new restrictions on foreign ownership

    We should have an open, honest debate on whether it is time to embrace any of the approaches now variously employed to restrict foreign property ownership in such farflung places as Australia, Denmark, Singapore, Mexico, Thailand, Brunei, India, Hong Kong, and China.
    It’s not rocket science. Even within Canada, Prince Edward Island has long had a law that imposes certain restrictions of foreign land ownership.
    Some jurisdictions, like PEI, restrict the amount of land that foreign corporations and foreign nationals can own in aggregate in any particular location.
    Other jurisdictions, including China, restrict foreign ownership to condominiums and other strata properties; some also limit the total number of such units that can be bought in aggregate by foreign citizens.
    That ensures a majority of all units in any given strata property are only available for purchase by their own citizens and residents, which in turn ensures that they can maintain control over the governance of those shared facilities.
    That might be an option to help ease affordability in Metro Vancouver, or in other pressured communities like Whistler that are so deeply beholden to strata developments.
    Other jurisdictions, like Australia, limit foreign purchase opportunities to investments in new properties, as they also impose significant surtaxes on speculators.
    A number of countries restrict unwanted foreign investment in housing in highly coveted properties, such as waterfront properties, in culturally sensitive areas, in coastal communities, and in metropolitan centres that are geographically pressured.
    Metro Vancouver and Greater Victoria are similarly bounded by mountains and ocean that make them more desirable locations to live, as those natural features also circumscribe both regions’ capacity to create new housing and the infrastructure needed to service new growth.
    Lots of those nations that restrict foreign investment and ownership are highly focused as well on protecting agricultural land for their own citizens’ ownership.
    At the rate vineyards in the Okanagan Valley are being bought by Chinese and other foreign investors, it won’t be long until much of that iconic and critical agricultural region is owned and/or controlled by offshore interests, largely to meet exploding Chinese demand in B.C. wines. The same thing is happening right now in Napa and Sonoma, in California.
    Countries such as Denmark strictly limit the types of residential properties that foreign nationals can buy as they also allocate regional quotas that restrict the numbers of properties available for foreign purchase.
    Maybe that is an approach we should explore.
    Some of those jurisdictions offer special concessions to foreign nationals from countries that enjoy special trade relationships. That is not discrimination. It is trade-based affirmative action.
    There is a good argument for extending preferential treatment to foreign investors who are our partners in free-trade relationships that guarantee reciprocal market access and labour mobility.
    Many jurisdictions restrict foreign ownership to long-term leasehold interests in land and real property, much like those held within Canada by nonaboriginals living on reserve lands.
    It is a concept with which Chinese investors are intimately familiar, given that no one in that country can technically really own any land at all, legally burdened as it all is by underlying state title. They can only buy and own exclusive long-term property usage rights, which inevitably expire and are subject to state approval for renewal.
    Indeed, that is how we manage and regulate the vast majority of our natural-resource extraction activities in British Columbiathrough exclusive licenses, leases and other instruments that award ownership rights to land, rather than title, per se.
    They are still private property rights, but they ensure that those Crown lands are never permanently alienated as fee simple property.
    To that end, we might also take a cue from Canada’s First Nations.
    Most of them would never willingly allow their lands to be permanently alienated through fee simple sales to those who are neither citizens, nor permanent residents of their traditional territories, nor entitled to their unique constitutional rights as aboriginal peoples.
    By the same token, First Nations often do allow nonaboriginal people to lease lands and properties within their reserves and traditional territories.
    They might well decide to embrace new means for creating a form of fee simple lands within their territories that are nevertheless ultimately burdened by their jointly held, underlying aboriginal title.
    But the very nature of their connection to the land and its centrality to their unique cultures dictates their obligation to each other and to future generations. It ensures those lands can never be permanently sold and controlled by people who are not citizens of their nations.
    The models and methods for restricting foreign property ownership that have long governed so many countries’ real estate markets are numerous and varied.
    In virtually every instance, they all specify that allowable foreign-owner purchases and permissible exceptions must be reviewed and approved by a designated state agency.
    I think it is time to say that here, in British Columbia, if you are not a citizen, a permanent resident, or otherwise demonstrably committed to living and/or working in our province, you cannot buy B.C. land or fee simple property that is specially designated for protection. Period.
    At least not without formal approval, to the extent that the law permits.
    You might be able to lease properties not available for sale, for several decades, with explicit provincial approval. You might be entitled to purchase certain types of property within specific buildings or designated areas, up to whatever aggregate limits might be identified to restrict foreign ownership.
    You might also be eligible for certain exemptions or special exceptions if you work or study in B.C., or if your home country allows British Columbians to buy residential or agricultural properties within its borders, or if your country is one of our partners in free trade.
    But if you do any of those things, you should also understand: the age of unfettered access to owning any property, anywhere in B.C., and holding it strictly as an unoccupied or underoccupied investment, is over.
    The principal of reciprocity should factor into that equation, as it should also factor into the design of any new property purchase restrictions on foreign ownership.
    For me, the overarching principles and motivation for introducing some new restrictions of foreign ownership on designated residential and agricultural properties is clear. They might be summarized as follows:
    • British Columbians do have an interest is maintaining ownership and control of their own limited stock of private land, especially where land available for affordable housing is precious and scarce.
    • Extraneous foreign demand that artificially inflates the values of British Columbia’s private property and that prices our citizens and permanent residents out of their own housing and rental markets is unwelcome. It is a failure of the free market that should be actively countered and regulated by government.
    • B.C. residents and Canadian citizens should have priority over foreign nationals in buying and controlling the places available to live and farm in their own country.
    • Foreign investors and absentee owners should not enjoy property ownership privileges in British Columbia or Canada that they are not entitled to hold as citizens of their own countries, or that our citizens would not be eligible to equally enjoy in those foreign nationals’ home countries.
    • British Columbians deserve a direct say on designing and deciding what new rules, if any, should be introduced to restrict residential foreign property ownership in their own province.
    In short, we need to articulate, agree upon and secure a contemporary societal vision for the limited land that is available within our province for private ownership.
    Our history with the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) can teach us much in that regard.

    Preserving Private Land For Public Good

    Way back in 1973, B.C.’s first NDP government had the foresight, guts and good sense to create the Agricultural Land Reserve. Dave Barrett’s NDP ran and won on that initiative in the 1972 election that fortunately let those "socialist hordes through the gate"  much to the chagrin of W.A.C. Bennett.
    The ALR was arguably the Barrett government’s most valuable and widely revered legacy.
    Its purpose was clear: to preserve B.C.’s arable land for farming and food growing in British Columbia. And also, to preserve greenbelt land, parkland and so-called "land-bank land" that might be suitable for urban and industrial development and permanently protected from "incompatible purposes" through land purchases by the ALC and local governments.
    Regrettably, the Socreds subsequently did away with the Agricultural Land Commission’s role in preserving greenbelt land, land-bank land, and parkland. We have been paying dearly as a society ever since, to reverse the damage that resulted as those lands were developed and debased.
    Happily, the newly protected farmland was so popular with most British Columbians that Premier Bill Bennett’s government dared not fundamentally touch it. Much of that farmland was and remains private, fee simple land.
    It was a controversial policy at the time that was reviled by those whose private property values were adversely affected. It was anathema to "free enterprisers" who were worried that it was just the NDP’s first move to make our whole country "communist".
    True enough, the ALR radically restricted the ways in which those designated private lands might be used, zoned, owned, and regulated. But time has proven the ALR’s unquestionable merit.
    Few today would deny that the ALR was a masterstroke of political leadership that has served our province exceptionally well. It kept so much of our province green, as it has also made other provinces green with envy.
    Were it not for that bold policy, you can bet that Burns Bog, Richmond’s cranberry fields, the entire Fraser Delta, and most of the Fraser Valley would now be one continuous concrete jungle.
    Without the ALR, there might now be more housing, less density, and marginally lower property prices. But the green farming spaces we still have would have long ago been paved over to put up more than a few parking lots, subdivisions, and industrial eyesores.
    That would have cost Metro Vancouver residents much more they now pay for new services and infrastructure. It would have also further aggravated the region’s current population pressures, including its air quality and water challenges.
    Ditto for the rich farmland that has been permanently protected on the Saanich Peninsula, where I live, and throughout our province. Were it not for the ALR, Greater Victoria would have also succumbed to wall-to-wall sprawl.
    The ALR took courage, farsightedness, and decisive action. It never would have happened if Barrett’s harsh and vocal critics had their way.
    And that should be instructive to all who care about the way we are allowing our private residential lands and prime agricultural real estate to be recklessly sold to foreign investors, absentee owners, and offshore interests.
    Yes, that investment is creating lots of wealth for governments, families, and property speculators that is also sustaining jobs for those who work in its related sectors.
    But it is also hurting B.C. families and communities in ways that are perhaps less obvious.
    Which is why I think it’s time to extend the ALR’s vision to preserve our precious farmlands and also newly designated residential lands and property in perpetuity for British Columbians.
    We should extend the vision of the ALR beyond the principle of land preservation, to also preserve those lands and other valuable private properties that engage our land base and our citizens’ most fundmental needs for the exclusive ownership of our citizenry.
    We should protect those private fee simple lands with new rules that allow them to only be available for sale to Canadian citizens and permanent residents, at least in areas designated for such protection.
    Foreign investors who don’t meet those criteria should be restricted to purchasing leasehold interests in such properties and perhaps condominiums and other strata properties.
    But that is just my view.

    British Columbians deserve a say

    All British Columbians deserve a say on whether they wish to introduce new legislative restrictions on agricultural and/or residential foreign investment, and if so, how to do it.
    A good start might be to strike an independent expert advisory group that is charged with consulting British Columbians and assessing the many mechanisms now employed around the world for restricting foreign ownership of residential and agricultural properties.
    That advisory group should be further asked to recommend ranked options for restricting the purchase and ownership of designated British Columbian lands and residential properties to Canadian citizens and to those who hold permanent resident status.
    That report and its ranked options should then be put to the people to democratically decide whether any restrictions on foreign ownership should apply, and on how they should be structured and enforced. We should do that by way of a provincial vote, or through regional referendums, wherever those new rules might be proposed to apply.
    The aim of that initiative would be threefold:
    • To suppress unwanted demand that is unnecessarily inflating property prices in British Columbia’s hottest markets, thereby partially addressing the problem of affordability;
    • To preserve B.C.’s private housing stock to actually house people who want to live in those homes, instead of looking to property surtaxes, speculator taxes, and luxury taxes as the only or best means to achieve that goal, however socially desirable they also are for additional reasons; and
    • To keep B.C.’s pressured residential properties, farmlands and vineyards for British Columbians and more broadly, for Canadian residents and citizens. Because those precious private assets should not be sold to foreign nationals and investors who otherwise have no vested stake in our province or our society and whose own nations do not equally welcome British Columbians’ investments.
    To be clear, I am not talking about in any way restricting or inhibiting immigration.
    Nor am I arguing to restrict foreign property investment or ownership specifically from China, per se.
    Indeed, like most Canadians, I cherish our multicultural society and the role that immigration and foreign investment has played and must continue to play in building our country and in strengthening our provincial economy.
    Frankly, I am sick and tired of walking on eggshells on this critically important issue.
    It should be possible in this country, of all countries, to have a respectful, intelligent debate that is grounded in the principles of mutual tolerance and respect, which most of us consider defining hallmarks of Canada.
    We should talk about this issue openly and honestly, without fear of recrimination or being branded as "racists".
    Sadly, it is a virtual certainty that anyone who dares to broach this subject does so at their own peril. I have no delusions about how my views will be characterized by those who are worried that the public debate that I and others are hoping to advance will gather steam.
    No matter how clear or well-intended my words might be, like all the others before me who dared to broach this subject, I will no doubt be vilified with stinging words that are designed to hurt.
    In this age of Donald Trump and the intolerance he has fostered and exploited for political gain, it is too easy to gain cheap political points by branding anyone who even whispers about restricting foreign property ownership as "racist" or "intolerant".
    It is easier still to maliciously imply they are secretly "anti-immigration" and "anti-Chinese".
    So be it. The issue is too important to be cowed into silence by those who are at least as intolerant as the people they live to lash.
    Citizenship and permanent residency status carries with it certain privileges in Canada, be it entitlement to social programs, voting rights, or other rights and privileges.
    I submit they should also include the right to be eligible to buy and own certain forms of real property in the land on which we all live and call home, broadly speaking.
    My concern is about the pace and degree to which we are selling out our private lands and properties to foreign nationals and their proxies, who are neither citizens of Canada nor permanent residents of our country.
    It is about the way we are allowing the dictates of the unrestricted free market to unintentionally rob us of our collective ability as British Columbians to own and control our province’s precious and limited stock of privately held residential and agricultural properties. Our collective "home and native land," as it were.
    The origin of that foreign investment and the nationality of those making it and owning those properties is not terribly material to me. Other than to the extent to which Canadians’ foreign investments in residential and agricultural property are reciprocally welcomed and allowed by those foreign investors’ own nations.
    The problems that are being created by overheated demand and unchecked foreign investment are demonstrable.
    They are vital to the issue of affordable housing, to the nature of our communities and to our capacity to own and control our own limited stock of privately held residential and agricultural lands and the real property "improvements" they support.
    They cry out for bold, immediate action that should include giving all British Columbians a direct say on the steps we should take to arrest them.
    We should ask all British Columbians whether it is time to impose new restrictions on foreign ownership, similar to the provisions that many other countries have put in place to protect their public and their private lands for their citizens.
    It is time to openly discuss the vision we hold as a society for the land beneath our feet and who should own it.
    If anything, we need to deal directly with that "elephant in the room" before it crushes Canadians’ welcoming attitudes towards immigration and much-needed foreign investment.
    Otherwise, I submit, public resentment and anger will build in ways that are anathema to Canada and to our multicultural society.
    To be clear, my concern is not about China, per se, or about Chinese nationals who we should heartily welcome to live, work, and study in Canada as residents and new citizens.
    Rather, it is about the deleterious effects of those nonresident foreign investors who are buying up B.C. properties without any real regard for our province, for our culture, or for our working familiesand what we might do about that.
    My hunch is that many, many British Columbians and other Canadians share that concern and would welcome the chance to discuss it in the spirit of tolerance that our multicultural nation should afford.
    Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic advisor to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment in British Columbia. He is the author of the ebook Towards a New Government in British ColumbiaContact Brown at towardsanewgovernment@gmail.com.