[Sandy Garossino had been invited by e-mail to be heard as part of this series. Her office indicated she would respond to our questions. While we await that response, here are excerpts from an interview she did with Andrew Wit and Sean Antrim in The Mainlander, 5 Nov 2011. The whole interview is a ‘must-read’ for those interested in the issues. Thanks to readers who alerted us to this interview. -ed.]
Andrew Witt: … I think that everyone recognizes that there is an affordability crisis in the city. In 2008, Vision Vancouver was elected on a platform that would address housing, homelessness and the affordability crisis, but we all know they have done little to tackle the problem. How will you address this issue, and what distinguishes your platform from that of Vision Vancouver?
Sandy Garossino: Almost everyone that I have heard discuss this sees the affordability issue. I’m talking here about broadening this beyond homelessness and subsidized housing, but also market housing for the average working person. Almost everyone who talks about this, talks about it in the simple supply and demand equation, and their point is to increase supply. Because I deal with Asia, I understand capital markets in Asia, and I have dealings there, this seems to me to completely miss the true nature of the issue and the challenge that we confront. Just to give you a little bit of a background, our median income levels in Metro Vancouver place 20 out of 28 urban regions in Canada. Our median income levels for 2010 were below Sudbury, Windsor and St. John’s Newfoundland. We have the highest real estate prices in Canada, relative to median income. We have almost the highest real estate in the world. Relative to median income, we are 56% higher than New York City and 31% higher than London, so there’s clearly a serious distortion in the market. One of the first challenges we have is we don’t have the data. We don’t have information that can pin-point exactly what is going on and the extent to which capital is entering, and the extent to which that capital is non-resident, and how much that is affecting the market. We need to know a lot more than we do. But based on anecdotal information, which is turning out to be corroborated in news reports, it looks like global capital is having a massive impact.
I don’t know if you saw the CBC report, where on Cambie Street bungalows were sold for an average of $3.4 million to a mainland Chinese buyer. So, this is a non-residential purchase, we know there is a flight of global capital. What most people, even many people in land development and even many people in government are not perhaps cognizant of, is the extent to which rules in other parts of the world are creating a funnel effect that is driving global capital here. The challenge is not that there’s inflow of global capital because in some ways it could be quite beneficial and benign, the problem is that it is pooling in a single asset class, residential real-estate, where there is a compelling public interest. We’ve got median income levels at Sudbury levels, and we’ve got average real estate prices that are twice the average of Canadian real-estate prices. When people are feeling that they are choking, it is because they are. It is not only choking individuals, it is choking small businesses, because there is no disposable income. Businesses can’t recruit people, they can’t recruit talent, and universities can’t recruit talent. It is corroding the entire local economy, which is primarily a small medium enterprise economy. So what to do?
Sean Antrim: Bob Rennie, when he was recently speaking to the UDI, argued that it is not money coming from around the world. He looked at all of the property taxes were going out, and found that only single digit percentages of them were going to mainland China, or even just out of the country.
Sandy Garossino: I was quite struck by that analysis, because if you or I own property in a foreign country, you would have a property manager in that local environment, and that property manager would take care of all of those things. It is completely irrelevant where property taxes were mailed to. We need better evidence. Anybody who lives on the West Side, as I do, knows how false that is. There are people in my community who describe that they are the only occupied house on their block. There are houses sitting empty. We have a situation where in the marketplace, we have excess housing. We’ve got residences, thousands of them, both single-family homes and condominiums sitting empty. Well, we’ve got a rental crisis. We need to start looking at the levers. And what can be done? I don’t have the answers because this is a really complex question, but obviously we don’t want to shock the market, because that would take a bad situation and make it infinitely worse. So my approach is to ask what are the surgical tools you could start to use. So on rezonings, if we are going to be doing spot-rezonings which at least in the short-term foreseeable future we will continue to do, those rezonings should perhaps be made conditional on all the units being occupied, regardless of who the owner is. Because off-shore owners frequently do rent out their property, and often when they do they rent it below market value, that can be useful. There’s no reason in the world that we should be rezoning properties to build towers that are not going to be fully occupied. Everything should be fully occupied.
Secondly we should be looking at some of the solutions that other countries and cities have looked at like Singapore, which creates zones. Some zones are totally open for the international market, and some zones you can’t buy in unless you are a resident.
Sandy Garossino: ” … let’s look at the low-hanging fruit. Empty condominiums, and empty residents are investment properties, they should be taxed. If it is the case that business subsidizes residential housing, it should be subsidizing residential housing, not investment units. Investments should be taxed at the business rate. I would be looking for those kinds of mechanisms. We should be looking much more closely at the nature of capital that is coming in. It can be perceived as a threat because it is operating in a negative way, that has pooled so much. It is also an opportunity – one of the real interesting features of this capital is that, generally speaking, I think it is individuals, and they also have a tolerance for lower rate of return on income, lower return on investment, than the local developers. One of the challenges of STIR is that local developers actually want a decent return, or a lot of return, on their investment. That is really difficult when you have really high bank costs, but actually the non-resident investors are prepared to live with empty-units. Return on investment is not their primary objective, they are looking for something else. We should be looking to channel that investment into rental housing, channel it into financing some of these more innovative situations.”
Sean Antrim: “Bob Rennie has talked about “social housing condos” as people buy them as investments, I’m not sure if that is what you are talking about?”
Sandy Garossino: “I am thinking in concept. I think we actually need all of the players at the table, we need developers, they do understand planning costs, and we need everybody at the table, rolling-up their sleeves and really saying “OK, we are going to crack the code on this,” and we’re going to find solutions that are not going to destroy the equity that recent young buyers, the last thing they want is anybody who is actually able to shoehorn themselves into a property and for them to lose their house because we have a crash. We can’t have that.”
Andrew Witt: “You have served on a number of different art-institutions Boards. In Vancouver there are a lot of art spaces that are under erasure, especially under the threat of real estate speculation. … What is your strategy to fund these projects as well as maintain Vancouver’s dynamic artist-run culture so that it is not displaced entirely.”
Sandy Garossino: “I see this in the broader context, in cultural context. The real cause of the problem, is that real-estate prices are off the charts. Being able to fund small boxes and little spots here and there is not how you instill energy and dynamism in a cultural community. My daughter is an artist living and working in Montreal. She is in the music scene, she is rising. Things are happening there. Why? It is not because of her space, it is because she is around other exciting artists and musicians. They have a a whole scene there. It is not a typical postal-stamp place that is affordable. It is about having an environment which is artist-friendly, where it is possible to be an artist where other artists want to be.”
Sean Antrim: “Why should people vote for Sandy Garossino on November 19th?”
Sandy Garossino: “Because we do need to get new voices in and, in particular, if you look at the development issue, there’s just a huge amount of money being poured into the parties and we need to have much more wide-open ability for interesting people to come forward. The other reason is that I will attack this affordability issue, and I’m going to get right to the heart of it, and not tinker around the edges and say there, we’re done. We’re not done until people can afford to live in this city.”
[This post is not to be seen as a VREAA endorsement of any of the above positions. See ‘Policies On Housing’ – The Positions Of Local Entities On The Challenges Facing Vancouver Housing‘ for an introduction/rationale for this series.]