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Whose Property Is It Anyway?

Vancouver is changing, and certainly not always for the better. Everyday someone new moves into the Lower Mainland, and they bring something unique to contribute, whether they come from Alberta or Albania. You can’t limit the contributions to the obvious things like food or music. You also have to factor in the energy that comes from someone getting involved in the economy just to make a living.

The negatives? Traffic, obviously. Nobody likes more traffic.

House prices and density? That’s a horse of an entirely different color. If I’m a buyer I probably don’t like home prices rising, but if I’m a seller I probably do. I’ve been involved in real estate in Greater Vancouver most of my life. My parents were realtors and I became licensed in 1987. I’ve watched peaks and crashes, ebbs and flows, and I’ve seen my business change dramatically. I remember when a $10,000 loan from the bank of mom and dad allowed young couples to buy their first house. I remember single family homes selling below $100,000. I remember selling investment properties on the basis of solid cash flow numbers. Those days are gone and I fear that they are not ever coming back.

On November 4 Barbara Yaffe wrote an article about an elderly couple, Ian and Joan Todd, discovering that their home was worth $500,000 less than it would have been had the City of Vancouver not passed a particular zoning law. Yaffe referenced a blog post by realtor David Setton that also addresses the change and it’s impact.

The bylaw is simple. In essence it says that if your building was constructed before 1940, and if it has character merit, you must either maintain the house or build something smaller in it’s place.

There’s really no question that making someone use their private property in a way that the market doesn’t place the highest value on or restricting them from maximizing the potential of added value hits individual homeowners in the pocket book. A quick survey of the comments on Yaffe’s story indicates that there is no shortage of people who are absolutely fine with doing exactly that.

Again, the Lower Mainland is changing. Sometimes the change is for the good, and sometimes the change is for the worse. What intrigues me about this story is how quickly the means are justified by the ends. It’s almost as if we don’t pay any attention to history.

Prior to the bylaw passing city councillor Heather Deal was quoted as saying ““This new bylaw, should it be passed, means that you are going to be given a great incentive to keep that home and live in it…”. That’s a humorous way of saying “We will punish you for doing legal things we don’t like.” What can you expect? She’s a politician and politicians do that sort of thing.

Neighbourhoods for A Sustainable Vancouver (NSV) seem to think the bylaw does not go far enough. They’re the kind of funny group of people that worry me. They seem good hearted, but soft headed. They want the laudable ends and are more than happy to either ignore the means or simply put up with them. They’re like the nice people on Slate’s Political Gabfest.

That may not seem like a kind thing to say, so let me explain. They want sustainable, affordable housing. They want the government to give them that. They are disappointed that Gregor Robertson promised to act they way they thought he should and then continued NPA practices. To quote them in regard to the 2008 election “NSV created a candidate survey that lead to member endorsement of the Vision / COPE slate.” In 2014 they passed judgement on Vision: ” The message finally appeared to get through, as Mayor Gregor Robertson offered an apology in the final days of the election and related acknowledgement in his victory speech that he “heard loud and clear that there are things that we could do better and we will.” Humans are supposed to be good at detecting patterns, but I’m not sure NSV has honed that skill. Gregor Robertson will not be remembered as the mayor who made Vancouver the world’s most green, sustainable affordable city. He’ll be remembered as a skilled politician who pissed off a lot of people and worked well with developers (hear me now, believe me later).

Here’s the real problem. Neither NSV, Vision Vancouver nor City Hall truly represent community desires or interests. Voter turnout for 2014 was the highest in years at 44% according to Vancity Buzz. 181,707 ballots were cast. Robertson got 83,529 of those, or roughly 20% of the vote.

The interests that NSV, Robertson, Vision and city government represent are their own. They try to achieve their own desires, and that comes at a cost to other people.

You can argue (and the argument is made repeatedly in the comments section of Yaffe’s article) that the cost borne by the other people is not important, but in doing so you are admitting that the cost exists. And you’re admitting that the cost translates into money that the other people had access to prior to the law change, but now no longer have. You’re admitting that a law that you like (regardless of why you like it) gives other people, what was the phrase? Oh yes, a “great incentive” to do without a substantial amount of money so that you can get what you want.

Put more bluntly, you’re admitting that reducing someone else’s wealth through government fiat is ok as long as you get something approaching what you want, even if its not as much as you want and even if you’re not sure you can trust the government to deliver what you want (NSV admits that they aren’t certain that Robertson’s pre-election mea culpa was genuine).

House prices have risen in Vancouver as a result of many factors. The result is disheartening to many who have lived here a long time, and to younger people who do not have access to inter-generational wealth transfer. That said, prices have rising in the Lower Mainland because people just like you and I want to live here in increasing numbers. They compete to buy property. Its not a conspiracy of developers and foreigners.

You may not like the result, but is it moral to use government force to levy substantial financial penalties on a specific subset of individuals? You’re not punishing developers or foreigners. You’re punishing your neighbours.

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