Talking about the housing market in Vancouver is about as much a pastime for us residents of Lotus Land as is yoga and running the Grouse Grind. In reality, it’s probably much, much more than that – it really, honestly seems like you can’t get out of even a casual conversation on an overcrowded Skytrain without someone grumbling about new record-high prices on the west side, or the new average cost of a Vancouver special.
“I so admire 95% of immigrants from China. I don’t admire the 5% or so who are just looking for a place to park their cash.”
But there’s something else going on as well. You can’t often get through a paragraph of a news story about the housing market in Vancouver without a discussion of a spectre haunting the region and the market – Asian buyers. It seems that everyone has concluded that there’s a problem with the housing market – good job, everyone – but they’ve also decided that the most proximate cause of the problem is people who just aren’t us. It’s the Other, again. Yellow peril.
C → M→ C / M → C → M’
I don’t think it’s the ethnicity of the people buying the housing in Vancouver that is the problem. Really, it’s the act of buying property in Vancouver that’s the problem, and what happens when homes are treated as commodities, or simply as means to an ends of increasing capital. I think it’s capitalism that’s at the heart of the issue in Vancouver housing. Not too sound too much like a rote Marxist, but it’s capitalism, dude.
I don’t think we need to go the route of centralized economic planning of housing, where everyone is assigned a housing allowance and the state provides. In fact, I really don’t think we should do that. But this no-holds-barred, free-market-capitalism approach to housing in Vancouver is ridiculous and absurd. And it’s creating these scenarios of obscene outcomes, like where the rental vacancy rate in Vancouver is nigh on to zero, or where rental rates are rising 4.6% in one year.
It’s getting to the point in Vancouver where credit unions are warning of impending labour market collapse in Vancouver because people can’t afford to live here anymore. I think many of us know this first-hand; a basement apartment in Vancouver is $1,200+; a nice 300-square foot apartment in downtown might be $1,750. Some city councillors seem to think this is just fine, suggesting that “affordable” means what you can afford.
But what causes this? I’m going to be bold and suggest that it’s not “The Chinese,” despite the commonality of that argument.
Again, I think it’s because of capitalism. We treat housing as a commodity – a thing that can be used, or bought and sold. And in many cases, instead of seeing a use-value in housing – the value of housing intrinsically being linked to the use we can get out of it – we’re seeing the value of housing being expressed as an exchange-value – the value for which we can exchange the housing.
This probably sounds quite opaque. But that’s part of the problem. Commodities are things that we use, or that we trade for other things – in a classic, trade and exchange-based market, you might trade potatoes for apples, or apple for a goat. There’s an understanding that a certain amount of value ascribes to various things, but mostly because of how they can be used. A goat might be worth a lot of apples, because apples are used once, and goats can be useful for a long time. If you want an equation for this kind of exchange, it’s pretty simple: C→C. Commodity for commodity.
A short history of historical materialism follows.1 People over time realized that it was hard to trade commodities directly; sometimes you wanted a house and had only apples, and you couldn’t ever trade enough apples for a house. So money was invented, as a medium to facilitate exchanges. You’d trade someone commodity for money, and then trade money for commodity. Money isn’t itself inherently evil; it’s a way to make trade easier. Exchanges on this basis can be diagrammed this way: C→M→C. Commodity, for money, for commodity.
In the context of housing, this makes sense. You’d take your work-time, a commodity, exchange it for money in pay, and get enough to buy a house – a commodity. However, over time, money can become the commodity itself.
And then something strange happens, when money becomes the commodity: first, people learned that if you add a little bit of labour to a commodity (polish the apple, for example), you can increase its selling price – its exchange value. M→C+L→M’. Money to commodity, plus labour, to money prime.2 Next, people learned that you could often pay labour less than the difference in cost between money and money prime – ie, if your initial apple was worth $0.50, and you paid someone $0.25 to polish it, you could sell it for $1.00 and end up with $0.25 of profit. This was the basis of capitalism.3
Capitalism has transformed itself though, and completely reinvented the diagrams and equations that gave rise to trade and money. Now, instead of trade and money being focused on commodities and adding value as a way to get more commodities – focusing on use, trading apples to goats to houses though money – capitalism is focused on transforming money. Here, the equation that started off as C→M→C becomes perverted, it becomes M→C→M’. Money, through commodity, to money prime.
In this perverse appropriation of exchange and use, capitalists start with money, convert it to commodities, and then work to get more money in the end. Sometimes they shortcut it even more, and go M→M’, through things like currency speculation.
But what does this have to do with Vancouver’s housing?
We’ve successfully transformed housing in Vancouver from being something whose value is connected to its usefulness to something whose value is connected to its ability to generate more money. We’re valuing housing and homes on their marketability and capacity to appreciate, rather than their capacity to house people and provide living spaces. That’s a huge issue. Instead of housing being something you trade commodities, through money, to get and use, it has become something that you trade to get more money. You might have started approaching housing as C→M→C – a commodity you want and trade other commodities (your time, your other resources) to get, but now it’s the middle part of M→C→M’ – the commodity that’s the interstitial between the starting phase of money and its second, increased phase. In Vancouver’s housing market, increasingly, housing is simply the C in the middle of the M→C→M’ equation.
But look at that closely. Capital is capital. Money is money. M is M is M’. It doesn’t matter where it comes from; you don’t have a Chinese M or an American M in the equations, you just have M. And it’s capital that flows through this circuit.
Do people think that Chinese capital has some kind of superpower that increases its damage when it flows through the Vancouver housing market? Does Chinese money have a larger impact as it purchases commodity-homes and lets them appreciate in value than Russian or American money? I don’t think so.
“It doesn’t matter where they’re from, but money is made in China not like in other countries.”
It’s true that there’s a lot of Chinese money in the Vancouver housing market. And maybe the ethnicity of capital in Vancouver’s housing market doesn’t matter, but I think it’s actually quite fair to say that the volume of capital has a lot to do with its potential impact. And there’s a lot of volume of Chinese capital.
China’s wealthy are an odd crew, to be sure. First, China’s wealth have gained wealth in some really concerning4 ways: state-owned enterprises have often been privatised, with Communist party functionaries and local leaders becoming the new owners. China’s state machinery still supports state-owned enterprises, and labour is ridiculously cheap in China, and not for any good reasons.5 This has all kinds of problems. If we go back to the equation that is the basis of capitalism – M→C+L→M’ – the ‘recipe for success’ in China is rigged. The commodities are cheap because the government procures them. The money is the state’s money. Labour is procured by the state, and low labour costs are enforced by the state. Often, labourers are virtual – or literal – prisoners in the factories. The capital is bloody, and it’s supported a regime that sees this process as being a path to rapid development. It’s often ‘privately owned,’ under this “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.”
And China’s characteristics on its capitalism are fascinating. There’s limits on the amount of capital you can move out of the country at any one time. And there’s no guarantee that your private wealth, whether it be savings by hook or by crook or by legitimate means, won’t be repossessed by the state on a whim. So, wealthy people try desperately to move capital out of China as quickly as possible. Westerners do this too — we all know of the repute of the Cayman Islands, or many small Caribbean nations, as banking black holes, where money can go never to be touched by governments again. That’s how many Chinese buyers use our housing market, in Vancouver.
But the problem isn’t the Chinese, nor is it the bloody history of their capital.
The problem is that we’ve created a housing market that is no-holds-barred, capitalism at its best, where housing is just a transitory commodity that money uses to grow into money prime. Our housing market is incredibly egalitarian, provided you’ve got the money to play — it doesn’t give a damn about the ethnicity of your capital. It just wants you to buy in and get excited about the potential for cashing out.
“There are so many wonderful immigrants from China, who struggle to make a new life here..who are not in the wealthy category.”
The nature of Chinese capital hints that it might be transitory at best. Russia’s oligarchs did similar things after 1990, when the Wall(s) fell: they cashed out. The newly-minted billionaires took over state enterprises and appropriated whatever they could get their hands on. The connected made a killing, and the rest tried to survive. But then the Russian economy crashed, and now it’s hard to say if the same pattern keeps happening. The Russian capital may have had a tremendous impact in the local housing markets in Europe, and London, as it did similar things to what Chinese capital is accused of here. But it’s transitory. Maybe Russia’s value has been exploited. Maybe not.
What’s not transitory, at least not in Vancouver, is anti-Asian racism.
Vancouver has a long and storied history of anti-Asian racism. We’ve had Asiatic Exclusion Leagues, social groups of white people who felt that the yellow peril was so dangerous they had to be banned from Vancouver. We’ve had politicians ‘pledge’ to keep BC ‘white.’ Our history of anti-Asian racism is something that we cannot ever be proud of, but it’s also something that we cannot ever deny.
And just as it’s nothing new, it’s nothing old. There are jokes where the University of British Columbia, or UBC, is known instead as the ‘University of a Billion Chinese’6, or where the danger of driving in Richmond is noted as being severe, due to “Asian drivers.” There’s even Tumblr and Twitter accounts7 that document “Asian parking” or “Asian driving” in Richmond. And in Richmond, where a large number of ethnic Chinese have settled, we’ve got white people complaining that their town is being “taken away” from them because of Chinese-language signs on business they’ll never frequent. Not pictured are the Coast Salish who wonder why their signs never got made.
We won’t even touch on the atrocious things we’ve done, like the Asian Exclusion Acts during the wars, the head taxes on Chinese migrants, the direct passage laws, or the Japanese Internment Camp programs. All of which were explicitly racist, and in the words of things that ring the patriotic bell in all of our Canadian hearts: it’s a “part of our heritage” that we have to live with.
This long, storied, and unacknowledged racism is something that’s always simmering away in Vancouver. First, Asians were too poor – they were here to take our jobs, do work that no other Canadians would do. First, Chinatown was a slum in need of improving. Now, they’re too rich and taking our homes.
So, either the Chinese are model minorities, struggling away to eke out a living, or they’re evil rich people taking our jobs and our homes? It’s hard to trace exactly what evil the Asians are doing now, but in Vancouver, we’ll always find a new way to demonise them.
The Chinese capital itself may be transitory. In a few years, it might not be the Wangs and the Xiaos buying a lot of houses in Vancouver’s free-capitalist housing market. It might be the de Valencias and the de Perrotins. But the anti-Asian racism seems to be here to stay.
“Why does the left insist on throwing down the race card? It’s being picked up and parroted by the developers and the builders. We need the data.”
In the Vancouver housing debate as of late, the spectre of racism is rather frequently raised. And it’s raised in a pretty typical pathway: an issue or article about the insane housing market is published. Someone notes that “foreign” capital is causing the issue, and that China is a large source of the foreign capital. Then the racism takes off in the comments and in the public debate on the issue.
It’s created the fascinating situation where the housing developers — people who explicitly market new apartment buildings and developments in China hoping to cash in on Chinese capital — are echoing the protests about the racial colouring of the debate, protests made by leftists activists. And then other activists yell at the first activists, saying that it’s not racist to mention that the Chinese are buying our homes, because it “shuts down debate” or something else. It’s so remarkably common that we spend more time debating the potential racial nature of the debate than the issues at heart.
So, maybe there’s some relevance to the protest about the race issue.
But is there, really? I mean, isn’t this current debate just another excuse for the racial issue to rear its head?
MLA David Eby says that he’s not happy that this discussion is something that will allow racists to “crawl out of their caves” and voice their minds. But aren’t we enabling this?
Vancouver is a racist society. It’s been that way for some time and it seems like it will be forever more. Sure, we’re debating the race of the people buying our homes. But we shouldn’t be. We should be debating solutions. We should be debating ideas about ways we can solve the crisis we’re facing when it comes to homes in Vancouver.
But instead of doing that, there’s a group of people saying “we need data on the number of foreigners8 buying homes in Vancouver,” instead of people demanding data on the number of homes being purchased just to be flipped, or homes not occupied, or homes being purchased only to be torn down, or homes being purchased as speculative investments.
The race of the people doing this purchasing doesn’t matter, yet for some reason in Vancouver we’re telling ourselves that it does.
Maybe it’s because we seem to think that only Asian capital has some sort of super-power that allows it to impact our screwed-up housing market. Maybe I’m wrong, and the Chinese M in the M→C→M equation has a different impact than the American M.
But I don’t think that’s the case. It’s really not, and it can’t be.
“I’m Chinese Canadian. Can I be racist against myself?”
Many people in the Vancouver housing debate insist with one breath that it’s not about race or ethnicity or national origin, and then in the next breath, insist that the Chinese buyers need to be counted and identified, because the data doesn’t exist. They often also insist that with proper data, the fact that it isn’t about race will become evident.
Again, there’s an element of truth to this. But collecting data about the ethnicity of home buyers doesn’t change the debate from being one that is centred on ethnicity and national origin – it can solidify it, and refocus it.
If we’re to collect the proper data, we need to collect data on the number of homes not being occupied9, or the number of homes purchased only for investment, or the number of homes purchased and flipped within a certain amount of time.
And maybe we do need to collect data on the number of homes being purchased, ultimately10, by non-citizens. Maybe we’ll find that it’s a small number, or maybe we’ll find that it’s a substantive number. And if it’s a substantive amount, maybe we may find that we need to create some policy solutions that will address this.
But we shouldn’t focus on how many buyers are Chinese. Or Asian. Because that plays into the racist system that we’ve created.
And someone may not enter into this debate with an eye towards being racist, but unless they’re exceptionally sensitive to the impacts that social and cultural racism can have, they’ll end up asking questions about the kind of foreigner is buying homes rather than whether or not they’re foreign, full stop, or even why they’re buying homes.
Recently, a Chinese-Canadian researcher launched a study about the ethnicity of people buying homes. He incredulously wondered on radio if he was being racist against himself, or if that was even possible. Much derision along those lines followed.
The sad truth is that you can be racist, even if you are racialized. If you’re making judgments about people based on their ethnicity, then there’s a problematic privilege being exercised. It’s important to figure out what we want to assess and how to get there – we want to know how much of Vancouver’s housing stock is being purchased by citizens, then measure that. If we want to know why Vancouver’s housing market is so unaffordable, ask questions about speculation and investment. Not about ethnicity.
To do otherwise falls into the trap our racist society has created.
On November 2nd, a report by urban planner Andy Yan was released that showed that a staggering number of homes in Vancouver’s affluent west end were being purchased by Chinese people – or, at least, people with “non-Anglicized Chinese names.” This interesting methodology aside – for a moment – the report gave rise to some awkward and interesting conversations.
Yan’s report gives a rationale for the methodology – he argues that it’s accepted practice in determining if people have Mainland Chinese backgrounds, and that the methodology was externally reviewed and was found to be acceptable for the goal that was being pursued. And that’s probably the case.
But aside from the absurdity – does measuring the ethnic origin of buyers tell us anything particularly useful about who’s buying homes other than where they’re from, and does it provide data that’s actually useful towards any solutions we might come up with11 – there’s something darker lurking here.
We used to be a society that forced people to integrate and assimilate into our dominant white culture. First Nations people were forced to adopt “white names,” and immigrants arriving on our shores were expected to do the same. Assimilation was the name of this game.
But now we’re apparently a more equal and diverse society. And allegedly, we don’t penalize people for not assimilating into white culture.
Bullshit. That we can make value judgments on the potential impact of people buying homes based on how white their names sound is incredibly racist.
When we’re asking the names of people buying homes in Vancouver, do we think that’s more important than the reason they’re buying the homes, or what they intend to do with it?
We’re making value judgments here on ethnicity. Some people suggest that we’d be just as concerned if the names involved were Campbell and Roberts instead of Liu and Wang. And I would hope we would be.
The racist history of Vancouver makes us think where the money is coming from is more important than what’s being done with it, and it’s blind to the issues around assimilation.
“Well, you know, affordable housing is something that somebody can afford,” Jang replied.
But we’re also blind to the fact that the issue isn’t the ethnicity of the capital, and that the solution isn’t going to be solely restricting the ethnicity of the capital that enters our housing market.
The solutions are going to come from reforming how we see homes, and what we intend to do with them.
We’re concerned about affordable housing, but we don’t seem to be concerned with the ridiculous mental Olympics you need to go through to define affordable housing as “something that somebody can afford.” That’s the ridiculous statement in this mix. Not that the buyers might be Chinese.
Come on, people.
We’re being gaslighted.
Canada just worked its way through an incredibly divisive election where it seemed that the population of the country may have objected en masse to the racist division being sown around the niqab and Islamic dress. We rejected a government promising to ban religious vales and institute “barbaric cultural practice tiplines”12 in favour of one that embraced diversity.
Is it too much to ask that we might do the same in Vancouver? That we might be able to move beyond the racial and ethnic identity of the people in the housing market and face instead the issues in the housing market?
We’re being gaslighted. We’re being divided.
All of us, no matter the ethnicity we’ve been born into, are impacted by Vancouver’s housing market. But since the developers and builders of real property in Vancouver don’t want us to explore policy options that might impact their profits, they’re trying to divide us and keep us from working together to push for those kinds of policies.
First, capital didn’t want us to work together against them, so they split us by race. Then they set us against each other.
We need to snap out of it.
Building on the power of community.
And we need to come up with solutions.
There’s lots that can be out there. Here are some that come first and foremost in my mind:
- Build more housing co-ops. They’re amazing organizations for building commonly owned housing entities. They reduce profit going to developers, and they require that their apartments, suites, and homes are owned by people who live in them. They don’t allow speculation or flipping. Government needs to invest more in housing co-ops to make this work.
- Collect the right data. Instead of collecting data on the ethnicity of people buying homes, we should simply ask whether or not they have Canadian citizenship. But we should also be collecting data on how the buyers plan on using the home, and perhaps we should be restricting the amount of nonproductive home ownership13 you might be able to have on your own.
- Divorce race and ethnicity from the issue. Chinese capital is transitory. It may be ascendant now, but it may not be in the next year. The issue isn’t the ethnicity of the money. It’s that we allow a no-holds-barred housing market.
- Build more purpose-built rental housing, to solve big issues of profit seeking at every level of the market in Vancouver.
The end of this rant.
Race isn’t the issue in the Vancouver housing market. Chinese capital doesn’t have super-powers over other ethnicity’s capital.
But we’re oddly focused on the Chinese. The reason why is because of our historic anti-Asian discrimination and racism. Debating housing affordability solely through the ethnicity of the people buying homes in a single neighbourhood is a flawed approach.
We need to be debating solutions instead. And nevermind the ‘yellow peril’ bullshit.
- Apologies. ↩
- Money prime means money in its new state; or increased money ↩
- It’s also a way to screw over workers: if labour increased the exchange value of the apple by $0.50, why do they only get $0.25 of that increase? ↩
- To us westerners. ↩
- In fact, some pretty shitty reasons. ↩
- Or more explicitly racist slurs. ↩
- To which I shall not link. ↩
- The say foreigners, but they mean Chinese. ↩
- The City of Vancouver is actually working with BC Hydro to collect this data. ↩
- Ultimately reflects the reality that it’s often hard to trace actual ownership of assets like houses, because they can be owned by corporations that can be owned by corporations that can be owned by someone far away. ↩
- Nope. ↩
- Snitchlines, really ↩
- Not lived in, etc. ↩