Race and real estate: how hot Chinese money is making Vancouver unlivable

“Here’s one,” says Melissa Fong. She’s browsing online real estate listings in a cafe near Vancouver’s City Hall. Behind her, the mountains of the North Shore – the view that launched a thousand bidding wars – rise through mist. “Three-bedroom townhouse, 1,400 sq ft, C$1.5m (£800,000). You could start a family in a place like this. Way, way out of my price range, though.”

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Fong moves on, scrolling through half a dozen homes, each smaller than the last, until she arrives at a tiny, 500 sq ft condominium on the east side of the city. “Unassuming” would be a generous way to describe how it looks from the photos, which, tellingly, are all exterior shots. “You could live there if you only had one kid, right?” she says with a grim smile.

An urban planning researcher, Fong divides her time between Vancouver, where her elderly parents live, and Toronto, where she’s finishing a doctorate. She grew up in Vancouver, has deep roots in the city, and plans to settle here with her husband, a home renovator. But she has looked on with a mixture of frustration and horror as the cost of housing in Canada’s famously liveable city rise beyond the means of young professionals like her.

“When you think it can’t get any worse, it does. So you keep adjusting your expectations, you know?”

Over the past year, the price of a single family house in Vancouver increased by an incredible 30%, to an average of $1.4m. It’s just the latest, most dramatic jump in an already dramatic long-term trend that has turned the beautiful but unassuming Canadian city into one of the world’s least affordable, with a housing price-to-income ratio of 10.8. That’s third after Hong Kong and Sydney, and well ahead of London, which ranks eighth at 8.5.

Driving the rise is an unprecedented flood of foreign capital, mainly from China. “What you have is a huge pool of very wealthy people who want to hedge against uncertainty back home,” says Thomas Davidoff, a real estate economist at the University of British Columbia (UBC). “Combine anxious money – a lot of it – with a beautiful gateway city that has limited space to build, low property taxes, lax regulation on capital flows, and wealth-friendly immigration programmes, and you get a market like this one,” – a market where an ordinary house with a waterfront view can sell for $15m while people earning local wages struggle to buy or rent a home.

In spite of spiking inequality, policymakers have been slow to acknowledge the problem of foreign capital. Public debate about Vancouver’s affordability crisis has, until recently, been surprisingly circumspect – due in no small part to a very Canadian discomfort with talking about race.

Chinese immigration has always been a defining social, cultural and economic force in Vancouver – and Vancouverites know what the wrong side of history looks like. Railway workers from southern China began arriving as early as the 19th century, and at the beginning of the 20th century Vancouver was the stage for some of Canada’s ugliest episodes of racism: anti-Chinese riots, a “head tax” on ethnic Chinese, and later an outright ban on Chinese immigration.

As the city grew into a mecca of leftwing politics and hippie self-expression in the 1960s and 70s, the ideals of tolerance and inclusion became central to the civic self-image. Today, more than 30% of residents claim Chinese ancestry and the city is, by the standards of most western countries, remarkably easygoing – though this ideal of harmony never quite squared with immigrants’ own experiences. Fong notes the pressure her parents’ generation felt – and still feels – to assimilate. “When we were growing up, they encouraged us to speak English at home instead of Chinese,” she says.

The lessons of the past go some way to explaining Vancouver’s almost religious embrace of multiculturalism, says David Ley, a UBC geography professor and wealth migration expert. “I think it’s very much part of the Canadian psyche to want to avoid these discussions,” he says. “We’re a polite and tolerant society that has been thoroughly schooled in the virtues of multiculturalism.”

Unfortunately, this also amplifies the uneasiness around the affordability discussion.

“It’s frustrating,” says Justin Fung, an activist with Housing Action for Local Taxpayers, a local advocacy group. “[The crisis] is a policy issue, it’s a social justice issue, and up until now, everyone is saying, ‘We’re nice, we can’t talk about this.’ Well, if you can’t even talk about where the money is coming from, you can’t do anything about it.”