Visas for sale, skyrocketing housing prices, miles of condos: Is the flood of foreign cash pouring into Vancouver’s housing market the model for any successful urban center?
Mother Jones Magazine, MAY/JUNE 2017 ISSUE
“See the little pair of shoes?” Kerry Starchuk brings her minivan to a halt before a sprawling manse with antebellum columns and a cast-iron fence and points to the front door. Sure enough, next to the welcome mat sits a solitary pair of clogs. Realtors do that, Starchuk tells me, “to make it look like someone is living there.” But a quick survey of the property spoils the ruse. The blinds are drawn. The lawn is overgrown and the capacious circular driveway is empty. Still, Starchuk credits the effort. “Some of the houses, you drive by and they haven’t even picked up their mail.”
It’s midmorning on a Saturday in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, and this is maybe the 20th example we’ve seen of what locals call the “empty-house syndrome“—homes purchased by foreign nationals, many of them wealthy Chinese, and left to sit vacant. Some will eventually have occupants; Vancouver is a top destination for well-heeled emigrants. But often, the new owners treat the houses as little more than vehicles for spiriting capital out of China. By one recent estimate, 67,000 homes, condos, and apartments in the Vancouver metro area, or about 6.5 percent of the total, are either empty or “underused”—an appalling statistic, given a housing market so tight that rental vacancy rates are below 1 percent. Hence the shoes: To shield absentee owners from public opprobrium, niche firms specializing in “vacant-property maintenance” will arrange elaborate camouflages—everything from timed light switches and “garden staging” to artful props, like pumpkins at Halloween and wreaths at Christmas.