Vancouver’s most famous urban planner and researcher on how to build a livable city—and avoid the zombie apocalypse
Vancouver is one of the most unaffordable housing markets in the world, causing many to worry the city is losing its soul. Andy Yan, a senior urban planner and researcher with Bing Thom Architects, whose ancestors arrived from China more than a century ago, has been watching the boom unfold and mapping its trends for the past five years. Among the first to quantify the empty condo problem in downtown Vancouver, the dramatic eastward shift of $1-million homes, the exodus of young people from the city’s west side, and concerns over offshore money flowing into local real estate, Yan has become the go-to guy for insight into Vancouver’s turbulent real estate scene and its impact on the city.
Are you concerned about what is happening in Vancouver?
What worries me is how we build a city where people can thrive and develop a set of roots amid the forces of globalization. That’s the challenge. How do we work out of a set of conditions inherited from the 19th and 20th centuries in a 21st-century environment? The old economic environment has changed so much. Are we preparing to work in the new global economy while protecting things that made us such an incredible place to grow and thrive?
I suppose the rapid increase in million-dollar single-family homes doesn’t help…
The danger is that Vancouver becomes a city of the entitled, and we drive out the risk-takers, the innovators and the dreamers. We also stand to lose a major demographic of 25-to-39-year-olds in the workforce, just as they are entering their most productive years. San Francisco and New York are very expensive, too—but risk-takers still flock there because those cities are some of the most powerful economic engines on the planet. Without that kind of dynamic economic engine and with the price of residential real estate so high, Vancouver runs the risk of becoming a stagnant slough.
Many are quick to blame offshore buyers for escalating real estate prices. Is that fair?
I’m not denying the effects of global flows of capital. Money is coming from all over the world and landing in the city. I was one of the first to start talking about it. But there is also an unprecedented level of cheap money because of low interest rates and a large transfer of generational wealth, mixed in with a limited land base. I like to say I’m trying to find the Higgs boson particle of what drives Vancouver real estate. Is it just foreign investment?
[At this point, someone eavesdropping on the interview interjects that “of course” it’s foreign investment, adding that his friends on the west side have “all sorts of examples.” Unperturbed, Yan uses the interruption to make a point.]
You have to acknowledge this type of passion. I feel it myself. But you have to temper that passion with reason. I believe in understanding a problem before reaching for a solution. Anecdotes are not data, and they lead to very poor decisions. They also lead to rage. They don’t move us toward solving housing problems.
Why has it taken us so long to start talking about this?
It’s hard to talk about money flow because there’s so little hard data. A war on data seems to be emerging. Eliminating the long-form census is a good example.
Is there a worry of being labelled “racist” for pinpointing the role of offshore money from China? Is it racist to do so?
It’s a statement of where a lot of money is from—and that’s China.
Have you been attacked for saying that?
It’s harder to attack me because of my name, but some have been, and some are racist. There’s also a darker side to Vancouver history we need to acknowledge. That being said, raising concern about how the city is developing is not racist. These are engaged citizens who really care about their city and their neighbourhoods. Cries of “racism” shouldn’t silence discussions about city building.
How much of a blight is the extent of empty condos in some downtown areas?
There’s an obsession with empty condos, but what about the fact that 50 to 60 per cent of downtown condo units are not owner-occupied? They’re part of our market rental housing stock—a big subsidy to the city. But can somebody actually reliably rent these units for five to 10 years? You see the complexity.
You’ve said Vancouver is turning into a “zombie city.” It’s a great phrase, but what do you mean by that?
A zombie city is a city pre-occupied with consuming as opposed to producing. It’s reflective of zombies who mindlessly wander the earth to consume. In the past, Vancouver’s economy was about logging, fishing, mining. It brought in jobs that allowed people to build their lives, raise their families. What happens when those resource industries change and evolve? The old relationship of real estate to local wages is pretty well broken. While wages have remained stable, even stagnated, you still see the type of price escalations we have in Vancouver.
Should governments intervene to curb real estate speculation? What about property rights?
We’re talking about homes. That’s a fundamental human need that justifies state intervention. We do it all the time when it’s in the public interest—whether social housing or zoning or public schools... A reformed property transfer tax is one thing they could do.
But can you really stem the flood of offshore money?
Not without some severely draconian measures. Or jiu-jitsu.