Vancouverism@30: The Housing Crisis

After 30 years of building Towers-and-Skytrain Metro Vancouver is in a Housing Crisis. What are the fundamentals
behind it?

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Olser Street

VANCOUVER BUNGALOWS INCREASED IN VALUE 1,167% IN 30 YEARS

30 years after the first Skytrain was built single family home prices in Vancouver have shot up by 1,167%. Far outpacing wages, inflation in property values puts in question the ability of the middle class to ever own a home:

“I want to keep home ownership within the grasp of the middle class in British Columbia,” said British Columbia Premier Ms. Clark at a news conference in Victoria, 27 July 2016, nine months and 13 days ahead of the next provincial elections.

At these prices the Canadian Dream of owning a home is ruled out not just for median income earners, but for almost everyone else. Three forces are seen as distorting property markets. All originate in areas of government oversight and regulation: the shift in urban paradigm from suburban to Towers-and-Skytrain; the Agricultural Land Reserve; and Chinese flight capital washing on-shore.

1920s Bungalows

TYPICAL VANCOUVER BUNGALOW BETRAYS FEW IMPROVEMENTS IN OVER 50 YRS

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1. The Economics of Land

In his new book Land, Martin Adams presents these ‘truths’ about real estate markets (North Atlantic Books, 2015):

1. The value of a property can be divided into the value of its buildings (capital) and the value of its footprint (land).
2. Improvements made to a property increase the total value of the property, but generally do not affect the value of land.
3. Land values increase as places support higher levels of social functioning.
4. Capital used to erect new buildings (and build new infrastructure) may indirectly increase surrounding land values.

It is instructive to consider runaway land valuations in British Columbia and the Vancouverism in light of these precepts in land economics.

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1. VALUE OF PROPERTY = BUILDING(S) + LAND
To make a quick buck in a real estate renovate an old property and flip it.

Vancouverism has done away with all that. In recent years sellers of property in Metro Vancouver have shown little interest in increasing the value of their property by renovating the house. The agents do a ‘quick cosmetic fix’ and off to market goes the pig with lipstick on.
This observation is confirmed by the sheer quantity of bungalows on view along any residential street in Vancouver. Virtually untouched for 100 years (see photo), single family plots now fetch two and a quarter million dollars. Measured in 2016 dollars, this represents a 1,167% increase in value since 1986. It is important to note, in light of the laws of land economics, that the increase in value is all in the land not the building.

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2. IMPROVEMENTS MADE TO PROPERTY GENERALLY DO NOT AFFECT THE VALUE OF LAND
Land values remain constant. Only the price of buildings rise and fall with either renovation, or depreciation.

This tenet has been turned upside down by the Vancouverism. Land values have gone through the roof: The Tower-and-Skytrain paradigm is ‘lifting’ land values rather than keeping them stable. However, the market is being hijacked more than lifted. The profits are flowing into the pockets of a small cadre in the population, while the market as a whole has left behind the vast majority of Vancouverites.

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3. LAND VALUES INCREASE AS LOCALITIES SUPPORT HIGHER LEVELS OF SOCIAL FUNCTIONING.
Land values—location, location, location—reflect people voting with their feet. Popular places to live command higher prices because there is increased interest among buyers.

Vancoverism also falsifies this tenet. In a speculative land market social values no longer shape community planning. In Vancouver, for example, the Mount Pleasant Community Plan was ‘updated’ in 2012. The exercise identified new sites for towers and for hi-rise.

The plan took no account of elements supporting social functioning, such as: transportation, parks, homelessness, livable streets, walkable neighborhoods and housing affordability. This trend can be seen spreading throughout the city and the region. Local governments are abandoning social concerns to focus laser-like on increasing revenues by permitting hi-rise and—more preferably still—towers.

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4. BUILDINGS CAN INDIRECTLY AFFECT SURROUNDING LAND VALUES.
A rundown property in a good neighborhood will fetch a better price than a comparable property in a bad neighborhood.

 

The fourth law points directly to the ‘Expo Effect’. The escalation in land price in Metro Vancouver has been ‘a tide that lifts all boats’ alright—raising them beyond the point where a large majority of the population can afford to buy them. Vancouverism has revolutionized the principle of ‘stable land valuations’ to such an extent that land speculation is now the preferred mechanism for generating profits in the private sector and wealth in the public sector. This is achieved by pouring bottomless amounts of capital into the market with Towers-and-Skytrain mega projects.

Martin Adams suggests that too much capital locating in limited footprints may indirectly distort land values nearby. In the Vancouverism these effects are direct and deliberate. The first tower to go up in a neighborhood is the ‘bunker busting bomb’ resetting real estate values for the entire district. As condominium towers up-sell the market the lowest value obtained by an apartment in a condo tower resets property values in the rest of the area. Age or condition makes little difference since the real estate play is all in the land. Soon land prices become so inflated that only tower projects can yield sufficient return.

Thus, the Bosa Properties’ luxury Cardero project in Coal Harbour selling for an average of $1,700 per square foot in 2016 can be compared to $650 per square foot fetched by a 40-year-old apartment sold in a three-storey, wood frame, walk-up strata building in Mount Pleasant (the condo appreciated 530% in 30 years; almost 3x the CPI increase of 185% over the same period). Yet, what owners of strata properties are now contemplating tripling the square-foot-value of their holdings by selling the strata property as a whole to a developer who will replace it with a mid-rise apartment.

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We have already examined here the role played by local governments in escalating costs of new transportation projects in metro Vancouver. Now we see local governments generating ‘land value lift’ by means of a three stage strategy:

  • Permit tower densities;
  • Re-build infrastructure to service the hot-points of demand created by the new towers; and
  • Bring the Skytrain into the mix.

This is the true ‘Expo Legacy’—the Towers-and-Skytrain trifecta. What may not have been anticipated by the government planners is the contagion in land values from tower sites to single family residential properties. Thirty years on there is a decisive knock-on effect lifting land prices in housing throughout the region. No longer within  the bounds of scholarly economic theory, today housing valuations present as fact in newspaper adds, on listing websites and on the front pages metro Vancouver and international media.

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Towers Follow Skytrain

VANCOUVERISM: THE TOWERS FOLLOW THE SKYTRAIN

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2. Building Up Instead of Out

After the ALR took 30% of urban land off the table in Metro Vancouver in the 1970s, the provincial government moved to make even greater ‘big moves’ in the next decade. Decisions to host Expo ’86 and build the Skytrain followed in a decade that began in deep recession with 20% interest rates, and finished with the October 1987 market crash. Six months after Black Monday the Expo ’86 site sold to a Hong Kong developer. However, this is the forgotten part: the mandate to build towers had been baked in by the time of the sale.

The record shows that rebuilding the Expo site as a tower district was the provincial government plan from Day One. Infrastructure upgrades and Expo site construction were all carried out as the initial stages in a plan to fill the site with towers once the fair closed. Towers-and-Skytrain were the intended Expo 86 legacy. The fair was about changing the urban paradigm in third largest urban metropolis from a suburban expansion model to tower urbanism. Having the Expo planners ‘design the city’ can be seen today as the preparatory step for non-elected regional government and transit boards holding veto power over local councils. By 1988, two years after Expo ’86 closed, metro Vancouver governments had all bought into the new paradigm:

Build Up Instead of Out.

Overnight Vancouver became the ‘most livable city’ in the world… and the most expensive.

However, there was no public consultation and there appears to have been little economic planning. The regional strategies minted in the Expo era for engulfing the region in Skytrain-and-Towers made no provisions for the ill effects of land speculation. The New York media called it ‘Hongkouver’ in the 1990s mocking Vancouver and the province for aping development patterns from Hong Kong and elsewhere. While Vancouver buyers may have been naive about shadowy details in land economics, savvy offshore investors like Li Ka-shing had already made billions on land speculation.

What the Expo governments and planners failed to grasp is the corollary in the laws of land economics:

Pilling too much capital onto one property will DIRECTLY inflate the value of surrounding land. 

‘Building Up Instead of Out’ set conditions in place that would deliver the housing crisis we face today. Pouring money into Towers-and-Skytrain unhinged property values not just at the Skytrain stops but in nearby neighbourhoods as well. A contagion effect has spread high land valuations from tower sites to single family neighborhoods. Changing the North American paradigm has triggered land value inflation throughout the region as too large quantities of capital ride the Skytrain as far as the transit will take it.

Looking back over the past 30 years, as the real estate markets in Metro Vancouver leapt from 20% interest rates in the early 1980s to runaway land valuations three decades later, the risks have not been all economic. With property values soaring beyond the point where salaries can keep pace, home ownership has been put beyond the reach of the middle class. As a result the bedrock of Canadian society finds itself in a chasm of doubt, financial insecurity, and threatened oblivion.

The change in urban paradigm in Metro Vancouver coincided with two other factors unsettling the real estate markets: the restriction of land supply in the late 1970s and the expansion of demand from Hong Kong and China.

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ALR Lands

AREAS WITH GREEN BORDERS SHOW ALR LAND RESTRICTIONS

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3. Constricting Supply: The Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR)

The uncoordinated actions of two consecutive provincial governments in the 1970s resulted in a severe restriction of land supply in Metro Vancouver. Identified with a dark green outline on the map above the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) designation froze in place 30% of Metro Vancouver land or most of the undeveloped greenfield available at the time. Forty years later the ALR land is under producing agriculturally, while contributing to the runaway inflation of land values.

Taking off the table most of the land available for urban expansion in the concentric areas emanating from downtown was another page in the playbook for shifting the urban paradigm from traditional North American values to Tower-and-Skytrain urbanism.

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A SHORT HISTORY OF THE ALR IN BRITISH COLUMBIA

In the mid 1970s a new provincial government set aside 5% of all lands in British Columbia in a new restrictive agricultural zoning. Then, before the decade was over, power changed hands and the new administration hardened a policy they had opposed turning it into an outright ban of urban development.

1974 to 1976 — ALR 1.0

  • The Land Commission Act passed on April 18, 1973.
  • Between 1974 and 1976, 4.7 million hectares or 5% of the total land area of the province were zoned Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR).
  • In the 22 communities comprising Metro Vancouver the agricultural set aside was much greater than 5%: The ALR locked fully one third of the land in the largest metropolitan region in Western Canada.
  • Metro Vancouver’s non-elected regional government then brokered an unbalanced distribution of ALR lands among member jurisdictions.
  • Measured by land area, half of the communities were burdened with 91% of the ALR lands, while the other half carried just 9%.
  • Richmond, Surrey, Delta, Pitt Meadows and Langley hold 91% of the ALR in Metro Vancouver. Fully 86% of Pitt Meadows and 77% of the Township of Langley are zoned ALR. Yet, both places are within easy commuting distance from Canada’s third largest metropolis.
  • Other ALR lands occupy strategic locations along feral rail transportation corridors in Metro Vancouver.

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1977 SoCreds return to office

BILL BENNETT ELECTED BC PREMIER IN 1977

1977 — ALR 2.0

  • Four years after it was made law, the government opposing the ALR was back in power stripping the so called secondary objectives from the legislation.
  • Mandates for creating parks, acquiring greenbelts and land assembly for urban and industrial uses were cut from the ALR.
  • The mere stroke of the pen from a new legislative majority turned the ALR into a de facto land use ban.
  • Any resulting upward pressure on property values can be seen as a political concession from the new government to its backers in the real estate, development and banking sectors.

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The ALR Legacy in Metro Vancouver

In metro Vancouver today only half of ALR land is under cultivation, while 48% of the reserve is held in low-yield residential uses. Farm production in the Metro Vancouver is marginal at best. Berries, pasture and forage were reported as the major crops in Pitt Meadows (2011).

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W17th House

THIS PROPERTY SOLD IN 2017 AT A 400% PRICE INCREASE OVER 10 YEARS

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4. Expanding Demand: Offshore Capital Flight

A third factor contributing to land value inflation in Metro Vancouver are capital flows from China.

By the summer of 1980 the vice president in a Vancouver construction firm could assure me that all investment in downtown Vancouver was offshore, by which he meant Hong Kong. By the summer of 2016 I would overhear a conversation in a café near Cambie and 41st between a Chinese investor and a young developer, where the client was insisting that he would only put his money into ‘large projects’.

Offshore capital flight began as a steady flow of foreign money seeking safe haven in Vancouver real estate in the late 1970s. It grew in intensity as Hong Kong was usurped into mainland China in 1997, the same year the Asian ‘tigers’ crashed. It peaked last summer just before the provincial government announced a 15% foreign buyers tax. The tax introduced in August 2016 has had the effect of pushing the irrationally exuberant levels of property sales to the Toronto real estate market.

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Vancouver real estate inventories in February 2017 increased by 215% while prices showed mixed signs. Meanwhile, China has tightened currency controls heading into the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China this fall.

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Olser Back Yards

REAR YARDS IN 4,000 S.F. VANCOUVER LOTS: LAND INFLATED 1167% IN 30 YRS

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5. Calculating the Price of Affordable Housing

Announcing the 15% foreign ownership tax in August 2016 the BC Premier appeared to express a desire to support home ownership by middle-income wage earners:

“I want to keep home ownership within the grasp of the middle class in British Columbia,” she said on 27 July 2016.

Assuming that the Premier was referring to median-income Canadians, what property price can a median-income wage earner in British Columbia afford? According to Statistics Canada the average salary in British Columbia is $47,914. A mortgage calculation for that income level returns the following values:

  • Mortgage payment not higher than 33% of income = $1331 per month.
  • Property price: $360,000
  • Downpayment: $50,000 (14%)
  • Mortgage Insurance: $7,430
  • Mortgage Amt.: 317,030
  • Rate: 2.49%, 5-year fixed
  • Period: 25 years
  • Monthly payment: $1,419

Special considerations

The $360,000 home is a product we will be examining in the next post in this series. It includes 40% free energy generated by a solar panel array installed on the roof; an electric vehicle in the garage ($6,000 savings per year over a conventional car); and either a fee-simple, or bare-land strata property, located walking distance to a regional tram stop. One could speculate further that free EV charging will be provided at tram stations.

Middle Densities

MIDDLE DENSITIES MISSING FROM COMMUNITY PLAN UPDATES FOCUSED ON TOWER AND HI-RISE SITES (Landlines, July 2016)

6. Building Out Instead of Up

In the analysis presented here British Columbians must decide between two fates:

  1. Recapture traditional North American urban form, or
  2. Let the Towers-and-Skytrain paradigm change our economy and our politics.

Option (1) combines traditional urban form—the so-called “middle densities”—with new building techniques incorporating renewable materials. Yet, it was completely missing from the City of Vancouver 2012 Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood Plan with no reason or acknowledgement given. Option (2) creates a much bigger role for government as guarantor—and most likely—supplier of affordable housing. It leads to a polarized society of haves and have nots—like we see in mother England. Cities like Copenhagen and Vienna loom as more progressive examples where the middle and working classes simply do not own property. Housing is provided by the government and pro-rated on an earnings scale. Only traditional North American urbanism engages the meaning and making of place. Towers-and-Skytrain turn their back and blight the neighborhoods they occupy.

If we wish to keep real estate ownership in private hands, then the foregoing analysis points the a way out of the current housing crisis:

  1. Build Out Instead of Up.
  2. Control amounts of capital flowing to a single district or site;
  3. Use low and mid-densities while avoiding hi-rise; and
  4. Choose infrastructure wisely and replace Skytrain with modern tram and BRT.
  5. Correct an imbalance in trade—Canadians cannot own property in China.

 

Traditional west coast urbanism presents with the following quantifiable values:

  1. New levels of social functioning layered in urban design plans that achieve walkable neighborhoods, livable streets and affordable housing.
  2. Mega projects are not part of the human-scale environment.
  3. Low and mid-rise urbanism builds at a fraction of the cost of Tower-and-Skytrain.
  4. Urban districts are served by modern low-floor tram and BRT.
  5. Existing infrastructure and servicing is extended rather than built over again to service hyper-concentration of demand on ‘hot’ tower sites.
  6. Re-energizing the community spirit with communities built with human scale.
  7. All of it resetting land valuations to levels ‘affordable to median incomes’.

We can either return to our ‘traditional forms of urbanism’ or we can build the densities of Honk Kong, Manhattan and Tokyo without the economic engines that drive those markets.

In British Columbia we can build sustainably, we can build cheaply and we can build well. That has been the vernacular here on the west coast of Canada for over 100 years.

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