Just out from the Literary Review of Canada:

PT: Frances Bula has indispensably covered urban issues and city politics in Vancouver long enough to remember things other writers didn’t even live though much less forgot (as the review of Jesse Donaldson’s book, Land of Destiny: A History of Vancouver Real Estate, demonstrates).  So with her nuanced and in-depth perspective, she’s now able to piss off every side of the debate on housing affordability, development and who’s responsible.

Here are some excerpts – but go read the complete story here.

Donaldson limits his narrative to one overarching theme: that a select group of speculators have controlled this city forever. In Land of Destiny, only the names change through the decades — the general storyline stays the same. There is always a powerful group of marketers and speculators, and there is always a willing band of politicians to give them whatever is needed in order to reap the windfall.

Donaldson suggests that Vancouver’s dynamic real estate experience is unique. But that interpretation, a familiar one in an often unhappy city, where suspicion-filled and resentful narratives about development are an established noir tradition, leaves out so much. For one, Vancouver is not unique when it comes to land rushes. That’s pretty much the story of the western United States and Canada, as people scrambled to acquire property, in what were seen as newly opened and empty territories, and then market it to newcomers. Capitalism at its rawest.

Second, Donaldson doesn’t explain why the speculators were so successful here compared with other places. Many have failed at this capitalist game of creating demand where there was none before, losing fortunes as buyers failed to appear at their gimcrack Shangri‑Las. What was it about local dynamics that nurtured enough pressure on real estate that it became a reliable speculative vehicle right from the start?  (Details follow.)

 

Here’s the part of the review that I think is most salient:

A history of Vancouver real estate should give some kind of attention, at some point, to all buyers and owners, not just foreign investors. But too many of those buyers and owners are absent from Land of Destiny. Their absence becomes steadily more glaring as the chapters unfurl because local transactions are, in the end, the mechanism that makes speculation work.

She adds a quote from Los Angeles writer Mike Davis’s City of Quartz that is particularly relevant to Vancouver culture (and to the local Green Party in particular):

Davis details the way that homeowner groups of thirty years ago, using the language and often the support of the environmental movement, blocked development of lower-cost housing throughout Los Angeles: “Environmentalism is a congenial discourse to the extent that it is congruent with a vision of eternally rising property values in secure bastions of white privilege.”

And then, ka-pow:

Land of Density makes it sound like a mystery why all those politicians with real estate cronies get elected. But it’s not a mystery. A significant group of voters, the ones who have benefited from the way the current system works, keep electing them. They were mostly pleased with themselves and their foresight while Vancouver property values kept climbing. It’s only when things got a little out of hand this past decade — when suddenly neither children of the land rich nor double-income households could afford even the first rung of the homeownership ladder — that we saw some backlash from the existing owners.

It would have been nice to see that analysis and history in this book. The opportunity was there. There’s no shortage of archival news accounts of locals pushing back to keep the outsiders away, including the now-legendary comment by a west-side resident in one public hearing that a potential transportation corridor shouldn’t be allowed in her area because it is filled with the “crème de la crème.”*

Or this:

Donaldson employs language and framing that pins everything on the cabal of “others.” Real estate is controlled by “oligarchs.” Developers and politicians, even left-wingers like the former councillor and NDP MP Libby Davies, have “cozy” relationships. He throws out the casual stat that 46 percent of condos in Vancouver are owned by “investors.”

Like many who have come to use the term in recent years as a straight pejorative, he doesn’t seem to recognize that “investors” also constructed and run much of the now-valued low-rise apartment stock of the 1960s and ’70s, or that the new generation of “investors” are supplying rentals through their willingness to buy and then rent out individual condos. That’s the way most rental housing gets built in the market system we currently have: people who have some extra money acquire property and offer it to those who don’t.

Finally:

So, in the end, Donaldson’s book is a useful summary of one part of the history of Vancouver real estate. But it’s not the complete history, which is still to come.

So, Frances, what are you doing with all your spare time?

 

* The reference to ‘creme de la creme’ gives me a chance to add a personal note to that infamous moment in our history. I was at the council meeting when it was first spoken by Pamela Sauder in regard to the Arbutus right-of-way as a potential rapid-transit corridor:

“We are the people who live in your neighbourhood. We are dentists, doctors, lawyers, professionals, CEOs of companies. We are the crème de la crème in Vancouver. We live in a very expensive neighbourhood and we’re well educated and well informed. And that’s what we intend to be.”

I recognized right away that she had spoken the unspeakable.  Her neighbours may have felt the same, but, my god, you weren’t supposed to say that in public.  So up went my hand to ask her a question at the end: did she perhaps want to clarify what she meant by ‘creme de la creme’? – surely not the reason why council should choose one part of the city over the other.

She didn’t recognize the significance of her use of the phrase – but one of the other delegates did, and came up to me afterwards, infuriated, with a scold that went something like this: ‘You knew what you were doing when you asked that question.  You wanted to make sure the press picked it up.  Otherwise it probably would have been overlooked.’

I doubt it would have been missed, but the scolder was correct.  I did want it to be picked up.  I just didn’t realize how profoundly it would enter Vancouver history.

 

Comments

  1. That’s funny. I always thought the creme-de-la-creme remark was attributed to then-mayoral candidate Cynthia Pitts!

  2. Of course the issue now is that the “dentists, doctors, lawyers, professionals” find it difficult if not impossible to afford a home on the West Side of Vancouver. However, the daughter of a foreign telecommunications oligarch apparently finds it quite easy to own two.

  3. Yeah, reading this review was an interesting experience. For the most part, it came off like she either didn’t read the entire book, or was – deliberately or inadvertently – viewing it through the lens of her own prejudice. Whether that prejudice is borne of a cozy relationship with the same development interests that fuel our current crisis, or if it’s simply the result of privilege isn’t my place to say.

    I’m certainly not against criticism, or any stranger to it, but the trouble here is that this particular review misrepresents a number of key points within the book itself, drawing conclusions that even a basic reading of the text would quickly dispel. The book never suggests Vancouver’s speculative history is unique. In fact, it notes early on that the problem of rampant speculation is baked into the crust of most coastal cities. Where Vancouver is unique is that we don’t have much else of note keeping our economy afloat, giving outsize influence to developers and their enablers. Why have they been so successful here? Because they’ve been allowed to be. They’ve been encouraged to be. They’re what keeps the economy moving, and generations of civic and provincial politicians have focused so much on that element, they’ve missed or ignored its impact. That’s in the book, too.

    At no point is the election of civic politicians sympathetic to development interests portrayed as a mystery; money wins elections, even at the civic level, and development/real estate money has made sure to keep council populated with people willing to serve their interests. That’s common at all levels of politics, and it’s that influence that is given its due in the book – whether it comes from wealthy property owners on the west side, or investors from further afield.

    In fact, Bula’s insistence on looking at foreign investors vs local property owners is a false dichotomy – one the book goes out of its way to dissect. It reflects an archaic way of thinking about the property market, one that serves no useful purpose in any modern discussion on the subject. Money all spends the same, no matter where it comes from, and in order to move forward, the investor/rentier class needs to be recognized as the dangerous force it is, when allowed to expand unfettered within a local market.

    I’m not surprised that this particular review either ignored or missed the point. This book was intended, in part, to ruffle some of the right feathers. Her review indicated that it has, and that’s good enough for me.

  4. I vividly remember the ‘creme de la creme’ comment! The moment I heard the clip on the CBC I knew that one would go down in history. I hung out with a of bicycle/buddhist/tech geek gang who met for breakfast weekly in East Van, including Georgia Straight writer Matt Burrows. Our gossip get-together was immediately christened the ‘soy-de-la-soy’ (being in East Van and not nearly so posh), and has remained SDLS ever since.

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