Photo: Dan Toulget

by Geoff Olson

I first came to Vancouver in the spring of 1970, on a short trip with my family. As a kid, the region seemed magical to me compared to flat, cold, Southern Ontario.

Mountains! Beaches! Huge, all-season Christmas trees! A public aquarium with performing whales!

The entire family moved to B.C. permanently in 1973. I recall ambling through Jericho Park when Vancouver hosted Habitat 1 in 1976 — a conference championing the progressive notion that government had a responsibility to ensure its citizens proper shelter.

“The Vancouver Declaration” from Habitat 1 stated that “unacceptable human settlements circumstances are likely to be aggravated by inequitable economic growth and uncontrolled urbanization, unless positive and concrete action is taken at national and international levels.”

A decade later the city hosted Expo 86, a world exposition on transportation and communication presided over by a used car salesman and a robot named Ernie. By then I was old enough to recognize the transportation theme was a thin conceit to advertise Vancouver to the international investment community.

In 1988, the province sold the Expo lands to Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing for the fire sale price of $145 million. Soon developers were erecting cheap, Santa Fe-style architecture on the city’s West Side, laying the ground work for the infamous leaky condo crisis another decade down the road.

In 1989, long before the arrival of wealthy Chinese investors, I noticed the proliferation of Jaguars, Mercedes and other high-end cars in the city streets. Coincidentally or not, this was the same year I noticed homeless people appearing in the streets of my Kits neighbourhood.

The deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, with only fragmented support services to help them, had begun in earnest. Ironically, Vancouver’s status as an international hotspot was coupled with its distinction of having the poorest postal code in Canada: a sacrifice zone occupied by disturbed people self-medicating in the streets.

The effects of the Thatcher-Reagan-Mulroney group grope were being felt across the Anglo-American world; globalization was ascendent and aloof Vancouver took on a mercenary edge as it adopted the free market mantra.

With B.C.’s resource-based economy on the slide, the stage was being set for increased commodification of shelter.

As urban policy expert Elizabeth Murphy reminded me recently, the Sino-Cascadia pathway across the Pacific was well-prepared by local policy decisions.

It started with the City of Vancouver’s drive “to rezone massive amounts of the city, removing checks and balances like Third Party Appeals to the Board of Variance, changing from the Liveable Region Strategic Plan to the Regional Growth Strategy, unhinging transit from transportation to the delivery system of development, dismantling of heritage programs while encouraging the destruction of the older more affordable housing stock,” Murphy writes.

“Blame foreign investment all we want, but our governments invited them, accommodated them and sold us out to an invasion of international wealth we can never compete with,” she adds.

Asian investors with yuan to burn — ill-gained or otherwise — are acting as rational economic players by responding to a red carpet rolled out by a succession of blinkered civic, provincial and federal officials. The blame lies squarely on this side of the Pacific. (See Kerry Gold’s excellent article in The Walrus for an overview of Vancouver’s surreal estate story.)

The past six years has seen residential property prices go asymptotic, with perfectly liveable homes reduced to landfill for the sake of ticky-tacky mansions. It’s like butterflies pupating into caterpillars in the city’s gutted neighbourhoods.

Also over the last six years, St. Paul’s hospital has recorded close to a 90 per cent increase in mental health emergency visits. “At least 46 homeless people died in British Columbia in 2014 — a 70 per cent increase from the year before,” according to report released by the street newspaper Megaphone.

Meanwhile, increasing numbers of young people in Metro Vancouver are choosing the temporary “lifestyle alternative” of living in vans, rather than rent or own property. When I was young, we called that “homeless.”

Ah, Vancouver. You were always an austere beauty, with the looks of a Hollywood starlet, the warmth of a customs agent, and the depth of a gnat. Only now do I realize, four decades after arriving here, that I once loved you. And with lingering feelings of connection, I despair your extreme makeover is far from complete.

The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 7


Comments by e-mail (names changed/removed):

Hi Geoff,

It seems that an alarm went off recently that woke up some of the media, which are now starting to talk for real about this stuff. A bit. And some are still only using spokespeople who benefit from the real estate insanity for their “expert opinions.” Nothing wrong here, it’s normal, etc etc. The Courier has been a fabulous exception in a good way.

We are presently living in NH and trying to extend our work visa so I’ll use a pseudonym. My husband is a surgeon and got fed up with fighting for operating room time in Vancouver (the waits were harming his patients) whereas here surgery is a profit-centre for the hospital and it’s just about unlimited. That said, the US system is no picnic and we want to move back to YVR, except we can’t afford the house we sold 2 years ago; it’s gone up by a million bucks! WTh? Typical price here in Hanover, NH for a BIG huge house and a couple of acres $600k.

Happy Friday, and thanks again,


Message: Hi Geoff,

I read your latest in The Courier about Vancouver’s Extreme Makeover. I just want to say thanks for adding your thoughts to this ongoing conversation. It’s an excellent follow-up to Kerry Gold’s piece in The Walrus. I notice that writing on this subject is becoming more honest and articulate.

Like you, I first experienced Vancouver in the 1970s, and my family relocated here from Toronto in 1979. As a child, it was a fantasyland. I still view it through those eyes, despite the socioeconomic changes. I’ve since lived in other great (and not so great) cities. I would take today’s Vancouver over anyplace else. A cut in salary and savings are worth the general environment and quality of life.

I left Vancouver a few months ago to do a Masters overseas. I didn’t leave for the reasons everyone complains about. I don’t mind renting, I find the people very friendly, and I don’t think Vancouver is all that expensive if you don’t expect the royal treatment. That said, I do acknowledge that more people are living in vans and being shunted out of being contributors to their city and neighbourhoods. I could afford to leave — some people can’t, and as you rightly point out, they are technically homeless. There is a larger crisis looming if action isn’t taken now.

The reason I left had more to do with the job market and the way employers treat job seekers. Four years of their psychological beating took a toll. I did everything and more to make myself employable — taking courses, retraining, networking, consulting with HR experts for resume and interviewing advice, not to mention re-writing my CV hundreds of times to fit whatever job I was applying for.

It would have been easier to take if employers said, “Sorry, it’s a tough market, there’s just not many jobs.”  Instead, they say there are jobs galore and blame candidates for using the wrong font on their CV, or not being able to answer inane interview question not related to the job. Even when I got an internship at a multinational (at age 46) I was told I wouldn’t be in line for a $15-an-hour job if I didn’t extend my unpaid services to three months (but no promises after that). They called it a training period, as if someone who’s worked for the past 27 years needs that much training to fill customer orders. Of course, that statement is evidence of the “wrong attitude,” right?

Final straw was a magazine publisher that asked me four simple questions, and deduced from their formula that I was unable to demonstrate initiative. They wouldn’t look at my portfolio of editing assignments and published work, because that would have biased the process. If they had engaged me in a conversation about my work, they would have seen ample evidence of initiative. Instead, they try to make me feel inadequate because, I’m told, I didn’t study the right HR formula before the interview.

At a certain point, one has to throw in the towel. I could have continued my job search overseas, but I chose school. I’m too burned out and beaten down to handle one more application, one more interview. An MA is a bit of a breather.

In other respects, I retain a lot of love and good will toward Vancouver. I believe it can be saved from itself if more people keep writing and talking about it — and getting politically involved instead of fleeing. I still hope to return one day, though I’m not sure I can deal with Vancouver’s job culture again. I’ll probably have to stay overseas until retirement.

Thanks for your writing. I think all of you at the Courier give the city some of its most essential journalism. The Sun and the Straight, unfortunately, don’t cover city politics that broadly.


(To read further comments on ‘Extreme Makeover’ posted to this blog, see below.)



by Geoff Olson

Ever get the feeling that Vancouver is gaslighting you?

Gaslighting is “a form of psychological abuse used by narcissists in order to instill in their victim’s an extreme sense of anxiety and confusion to the point where they no longer trust their own memory, perception or judgment,” according to one definition found online.

Me, I experience a form of gaslighting regularly as a news junkie and journalist living in Metro Vancouver.

Hardly a day passes without another story of local real estate insanity, from demolished heritage homes to jaw-dropping leases for student “nano units.”  Even though more young Vancouverites are finding the light at the end of the tunnel is an Ikea floor lamp in their parents’ basement, they have plenty of pundits to remind them of their great good luck to live here.

The latest dispatch along those lines is the annual Mercer report, which pegged Vancouver as the top place in North America for “Quality of Living” in 2016. The report placed the city at number 5 in the world.

As per usual, the local media recycled this report in another Mobius strip of inward-gazing civic boosterism.

On a web page explaining its 2014 rankings, Mercer states it “conducts its Quality of Living survey annually to help multinational companies and other employers compensate employees fairly when placing them on international assignments.Two common incentives include a quality-of-living allowance and a mobility premium. A quality-of-living or “hardship” allowance compensates for a decrease in the quality of living between home and host locations, whereas a mobility premium simply compensates for the inconvenience of being uprooted and having to work in another country.”

Quality of Living is not the same thing as Quality of Life. The former is a metric for corporate relocation. The latter is something more subjective. As Mercer straightforwardly notes, “a city with a high Quality of Living index is a safe and stable one, but it may be lacking the dynamic  “je ne sais quoi” that makes people want to live in world-renowned cities such as Paris, Tokyo, London or New York. Sometimes you need a little spice to make a city exciting. But that “spice” may also give a city a lower ranking.”

Whatever the lifestyle metrics, they are largely irrelevant to locals who can no longer afford to either own or rent in Vancouver. In contrast, outsiders get to park their bucks and butts in a spot highly favoured by the Mercer report and the liveability rankings of a magazine called…wait for it…The Economist.

We’d be mistaken to analyze Vancouver’s hyperinflated real estate market in isolation, however. Global capital is always looking for profitable berths in portfolios and properties. A large but unknown fraction of this money involves tax evasion and/or criminal activity by a footloose international leisure class, who are driving up property prices across the world.

In New York, wealthy Russians, Europeans and Asians are using numbered companies to buy up the high end condos in Manhattan. In New Delhi, a newly ascendent plutocracy is pushing out street beggars and people on the margins for the sake of glass tower lifestyles. Stockholm, London, the Gulf States…it’s all part of the ever-widening chasm between rich and poor.

Market bubbles are inflated by a combination of guile and greed from high rollers, and subsequent panic from low rollers driven by FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Such bubbles represent capitalism in its purest, unregulated form.

“All that is solid melts into air,” mused the economic historian Karl Marx of capital’s transformative capacity to erase neighbourhoods, cities, and entire cultures in repeating cycles of boom and bust. Even that revered figure of classical economists, Adam Smith, warned of the threat from unregulated markets in his 1776 study, The Wealth of Nations.

The Scotsman knew that markets aren’t forces of nature; they are social conventions we agree to abide by – or not. That said, I see little interest in the province or city to address our out-of-control real estate market in any substantive way. Like other non-measures taken by the BC Liberals in this department, Christy Clark’s recent twiddling of the property transfer tax was budgetary cosmetics. It will do nothing to stop the real estate bubble from getting bigger, much less bursting.

Getting that gaslit feeling yet?

The Vancouver Courier, March 10