I have long wished for someone to write the definitive book about Vancouver: its blend of idiosyncratic subcultures, its conservative-meets-Lotusland-meets-revolutionary politics, its fraught relationship with real estate and housing. Something that would be the equivalent of Mike Davis’s 1990 portrait of Los Angeles, City of Quartz.
Over the years, there have been several titles about various slices of Canada’s little L.A., this city on the edge of the continent, far from the national power centres. The urban planner Lance Berelowitz’s Dream City explored Vancouver’s emergence as a beacon of new urbanism. Jill Wade’s Houses for All was about the grinding fight against a free-market, capitalism-will-solve-all mindset to get some subsidized or affordable housing built. The journalist and researcher Donald Gutstein’s Vancouver Ltd. looked at the power brokers who controlled development in the 1960s and ’70s, while his The New Landlords showed how local real estate dynamics shifted as the wealthy of Eastasia (his term) invested here. More recently, Larry Beasley, the city’s former chief planner, examined the rise of a new model of urban development beginning in the 1990s, with Vancouverism. (Disclosure: I provided a foreword for that book.)
But none of these works have captured the full tapestry of this shape-shifting place that has been permeated with gold-rush mentality from the beginning. And, I must sadly report, the latest entry in the field, Jesse Donaldson’s Land of Destiny, does not do it either. Yes, I fully realize it’s unfair to demand that Donaldson, who came from a theatre and acting background and says he kind of fell into historical journalism, match my expectations. After all, he was commissioned to do a short book filled with quirky anecdotes, along the lines of his previous This Day in Vancouver, only with a real estate theme. His work is, by its nature, largely focused on what he can cull from the journalism of others. Still, I was hoping, as I do with every new book.
Donaldson has done some digging in the archives and, occasionally, with locals. I found some of his vignettes of Vancouver history to be fun revelations: The city’s first mayor went on to a career in “place marketing,” which seems so very modern. By 1889, 85 percent of the land was owned by 130 people, and the Rockefeller family controlled a substantial swath of downtown property by the 1950s. The man who built my house in 1909, Robert Balfour, not only was on the first council but was the Canadian Pacific Railway’s superintendent of bridge construction. And legendary among Vancouver investors was Rudyard Kipling, who bought a couple of lots near what is now Fraser Street and Eleventh Avenue in 1889 and provided a prescient view of how all things real estate continue to work here: “You or your agent hold to it till property rises, then sell out and buy more land further out of town and repeat the process. I do not quite see how this sort of thing helps the growth of a town, but the English Boy says that it is the ‘essence of speculation,’ so it must be all right.”
Donaldson also paints a lovely story of the man who helped entrench the Vancouver Special, the unadorned rectangular house that emerged in the 1960s and was especially appealing to immigrant families, because it could easily be divided into two large suites, both above ground. And he has reminded me of the history of rent control, of the rush to convert cheap apartment buildings to stratas in the 1960s, of the cast of characters who were determined to gentrify Gastown in the 1970s, and of a dozen other great moments in Vancouver real estate history. It’s as if I’ve been able to reread the news of the past without having to scroll through pages and pages of microfiche.
It was a bit disconcerting that Land of Destiny’s first three chapters are focused on white colonials sabotaging each other to get the transnational rail terminus where they wanted it, among other fights to divide up the spoils. I started to wonder whether the Indigenous history of Vancouver land might get left out altogether. But Donaldson does get to it and does a good job of summarizing the efforts to push First Nations out of Kitsilano and Stanley Park, a history that’s getting some attention these days. Still, I would have been interested to learn more about the exact mechanisms and rationalizations that were used to take over these established settlements. It seems akin to having some stranger walk in through your unlocked front door, only to start auctioning off your furniture. I can never understand exactly how it’s done.
There are a number of inaccuracies and misspellings that should have been caught in editing. For example, the Affordable Rental Program and the Multiple Unit Residential Building Subsidy were federal programs, not provincial ones. Basement suites were not legalized in Vancouver in 2007; that happened almost overnight in 2003, when the incoming Coalition of Progressive Electors, headed by Larry Campbell, changed the bylaw in one motion to make them legal. Donaldson refers to Andy Yan, a prominent voice on foreign investment and local real estate and someone who has frequently talked about the head tax his Chinese grandfather paid, as “fourth-generation,” which he certainly is, and “Japanese,” which he most certainly is not. While these are relatively minor points, they are also somewhat unnerving when I think about the errors that might be included on topics I know less about.
Those glitches pale, though, next to the biggest hole in this history, which occurs as 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? Donaldson keeps emphasizing that this has been a part of the city since day one, not a recent development. But why? In the late 1800s and early 1900s, this wasn’t the resort town it is now. People weren’t moving here for the waterfront views. There’s an economy and demographics piece missing.
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.
Randy Shaw’s Generation Priced Out, Conor Dougherty’s Golden Gates, and Davis’s City of Quartz are examples of histories that are not particularly kind to developers. Davis, a self-described Marxist and socialist, is particularly scathing. But these authors also consider the homeowners — even, and sometimes especially, the most liberal and progressive ones — who have made the speculation game so bountiful. 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.” (I imagine he is utterly unsurprised that there are now 60,000 homeless Angelenos.)
Shaw, a long-time tenants’ rights advocate in San Francisco, and Dougherty, a New York Times economics reporter, likewise offered withering observations that emphasized how the widespread opposition to any incursion into single-family zones by apartments, or even housing variations as minor as duplexes, has helped ensure there’s a permanent shortage of affordable housing. And, not coincidentally, it has meant the value of property in those walled-off single-family areas, which often account for up to 90 percent of a city’s available land, continues to rise at rates that far exceed local income gains. When that kind of shortage and subsequent price escalation happen, speculators flock to the warmth (see also: pandemic; toilet paper).
Foreign investors alone didn’t drive up prices in Vancouver, though they’ve played a part, just as Canadians have in Mexican beach towns. They came here because locals had made it a good place to speculate. The restricted geography (mountains, ocean, the U.S. border) and the successful pushback on a freeway through downtown, while admirable on many fronts, have also contributed to a hamster wheel of intense competition. Because of the lack of a freeway, Vancouver could never provide lower-cost housing through the same mechanism as cities like Calgary or Houston, with their endless possibilities for spreading in every direction along high-speed commuter arteries.
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.”
Another opening for a deeper look: Donaldson describes the way a new political party, the Elector’s Action Movement, known as TEAM, took over the city in 1972, wresting it away from the old-guard Non-Partisan Association, which was seen as too cozy with developers. In his account, TEAM was barely any different, and it ended up with many of the same real estate players in its fold, along with a similar pro-development mindset. However, there was a crucial difference: saying it was listening to the neighbourhood-power movements then emerging, TEAM shut down most high-rise development in Vancouver. Construction in the West End, which had been transformed from a district of poor rooming houses into a densely packed apartment zone in the 1950s and ’60s, came to a standstill. The few towers introduced in other places — West Point Grey, Kitsilano, South Cambie — became lonely monuments to a bygone era. In the one notable area where the TEAM council did allow development, the formerly industrial area of False Creek South that was repopulated with multi-family housing, it restricted the density so much that, with park space counted in, the area actually accommodated fewer people than a detached-house neighbourhood of the same size.
Such political deference to vocal homeowner groups has continued steadily. The result is that most new housing is built on the slivers of land left over, usually through a complex process of rezonings and public hearings. The only recent developer able to circumvent the status quo is the Squamish Nation, which controls a slice of prime real estate near the Burrard Bridge that is not subject to city zoning processes. So its architecture team has designed an ultra-high-density cluster of towers — called Senakw to commemorate the village that once stood there — that will be modified based only on what the Squamish think needs to be changed, not on the views of their famously change-resistant neighbours at Kits Point. Everyone else, though, must jump through endless hoops. That benefits the biggest marketers and developers, because they have the resources to manage that kind of process. The small builders — the ones who tend to build the lowest-cost housing in other cities, where they can do so through a simple, negotiation-free process — are at a disadvantage.
Donaldson doesn’t bypass completely the role of supply and homeowner demand. He notes that the Shaughnessy Heights Restriction Act of 1911 banned multi-family dwellings in that luxury neighbourhood, mainly to keep out Chinese Canadians, but ended up affecting the market in an unanticipated way: “As a result of the dwindling housing supply, prices increased, making [the area’s mansions] a hot commodity for speculators, and consequently, instead of bothering with tenants, Shaughnessy homebuyers instead opted to evict them, and leave their homes empty in anticipation of a quick sale.” But that’s almost the only mention of this dynamic, and it’s buried far in the past.
Donaldson’s take on Vancouver housing is an unfortunate artifact of a raging war. For those not in the know, or unable to decipher the often-coded language that emerges about our housing stock, there is a profound emotional and rhetorical rift here over the root causes of unaffordability, homelessness, and general housing distress. Friendships have been broken, former colleagues don’t speak to each other, and birthday parties can get ugly if a housing debate breaks out. Millennials (including Donaldson) are a particularly divided generation: a huge proportion have been shut out of ownership, but they’ve interpreted the reasons very differently.
On one side of the fight are those who believe Vancouver has a problem unlike anywhere else in the world, caused primarily by distorted demand: foreign investors buying up properties that are then left empty by the tens of thousands, while “real” Vancouverites have to huddle together in basement suites. To them, there’s no point trying to build more supply, because it’s all going to the wrong buyers anyway. That group believes developers and politicians of all levels have formed near-criminal alliances to cater to wealthy foreigners, at the expense of locals. (For journalists and politicians, it can be very tempting to align with this view, which pins the blame on others, rather than pointing any fingers at their own readers or voters.)
On the other side of the divide are those who see similarities between Vancouver’s problems and the housing disasters in almost every other city of the industrialized world, where rising rents and home prices are wildly outpacing local income increases. This faction, reflecting an emerging YIMBY movement, looks at the way zoning has historically worked to create shortages for lower-income groups by restricting land for detached houses — homes whose values rise steadily as populations grow and create ever more competition. The less wealthy then must find apartments in the bits allocated for multi-family or must live in the basements of the lucky. This faction is generally in favour of more supply, especially if it can be taken from some of the single-family territory.
Donaldson is clearly in the first camp, and he chooses as his main contemporary sources many of those who have dedicated themselves to its narrative. (More disclosure: I’m viewed by trolls and critics as not aligning satisfactorily with this group, and this review will undoubtedly lead to another round of accusations, from my dedicated anonymous critics, that I’m a developer shill, a “supplyist,” or an apologist for the Chinese Communist Party.)
In his introduction and his conclusions, 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. Donaldson criticizes how half of the market condos built on the former Woodward’s site went to, again, investors. I researched the ownership of those 400 units at one point. The overwhelming majority were owned by people with local addresses — small-time investors with Hispanic, Italian, and English surnames — who were clearly trying to keep their middle-class heads above water by getting into the real estate investment game with one small foothold.
I’ve found the same is true in researching the ownership of commercial spaces along Broadway, where a new subway line is about to be built. The most striking pattern is that so many of the hundreds of properties are owned by people who are clearly mom-and-pop investors, playing a local game of Monopoly in this land of destiny.
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.