edited by Stanley Lee
interviewed by Stanley Lee and Ian Young
Given the timing of the B.C. elections, we have decided to interview Ian Young. He has been a correspondent journalist for the South China Morning Post (based in Hong Kong) covering the Vancouver file since 2010 (the year he moved with his wife). Given the number of Chinese-Canadians who are working in Hong Kong (about half a million), and a massive number of them were from Vancouver, there is a market for such content.
As the property value in Metro Vancouver spiral out of control due to international market factors, we’d thought interviewing him and picking his brain may make sense. Hope you enjoy reading and listening to interview.
Let’s start with the first question. Did you really move to Vancouver because you fell in love with the city?
No. I actually moved to Vancouver because I fell in love with my wife, who was born in Vancouver, Hong Kong Chinese parents, but we’ve met in Hong Kong. My wife, who was as I said Vancouver-born Chinese, had always wanted to move back to Vancouver. We both love the city. We do love the city, but –
Because of the family, right?
I’d be lying if I said I moved to the city because I love the city. I moved here because of my wife [laughter].
So are you like before you did the South China Morning Post ever have a journalist just living here currently in the city? Are you like the first one-
We never had a core of staff correspondent but we had always covered the city. You might know Peggy Fong. Peggy Fong, who used to work for the Vancouver Sun and the CBC and I think she’s at Langara College now teaching journalism. Peggy used to write a regular column for us as well as writing stories for the South China Morning Post. In fact, I hired Peggy when I was the foreign editor at the South China Morning Post.
Do you find this place unique from a journalist’s point of view, I mean this city?
I think it is unique specifically in terms of the South China Morning Post’s readership. The importance of Vancouver to the SCMP is reflected in the very large numbers of Vancouver people who live in Hong Kong and the very large numbers of Hong Kong people who live in Vancouver, this is being back and forth. For instance, in Hong Kong, there are 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong in a city of about 6 million so that’s what 5 percent of the entire population, so a huge population. Just roughly speaking, you probably guess at about half of that population is from Vancouver, split down the middle between Vancouver and Toronto people. Yeah, Vancouver has always held a very special place among the readership for the South China Morning Post. The demographic factors that make Vancouver unique are what make it important to the SCMP.
So now we have this housing crisis. What’s your interpretation like is it just like a supply crisis? Is foreign money the major, major or dominant factor?
I would say the cliché answer is to say that the market is always about supply and demand. I mean that’s an easy answer because if you don’t have enough supply and relative demand goes up and if you got a huge amount of demand and relative supply goes down even if supply hasn’t changed at all. Now I would say that if you would look it the way the prices have fluctuated, specifically in recent years, prices have gone through the roof. There hasn’t been any major fluctuation in terms of supply. There’s been fluctuations in terms of relative supply, but if anything, supply has gone up if you look recently. We’ve seen record levels of housing approvals and the correlation between supply, raw supply that is houses that are listed, not houses listed in time but houses that are listed over time hasn’t fluctuated greatly.
The supply I don’t think is the issue. I think the issue comes back to demand, and demand is something that’s most definitely fluctuates, and I think that pretty close from the day that I’ve seen a very large portion of that demand is foreign money. I don’t say foreign buyers. I don’t say foreign investors. I say foreign money and that can most definitely come from Vancouver residents as well as foreign buyers, but also from Vancouver residents.
I think people need to be clear what they are talking about. But yeah, I do think the thing that distinguishes Vancouver’s market, that distinguishes it from other Canadian cities and even from Toronto, which has problems but nothing like Vancouver’s is foreign money. I think it’s pretty clear.
Do you think at least from your coverage in your correspondence that the foreign money is outpacing the demand like specific kind of housing much faster than how quickly supplies can be replenished up?
Yes and no. I mean I think that I don’t say outpacing. I mean because the market is set where it is. I think the prices are exactly what the balance of supply and demand dictates. There is a very, very strong demand among Chinese money, foreign money, Chinese money we’re talking about for single-family homes, and that is the most definitely in limited supply, most definitely in limited supply. That’s reflected in sky high land values when we talk about in terms of the affordability crisis in Vancouver.
Yes, we have a rental affordability crisis, too, but really what we have is a land value affordability crisis. When you say outpacing, has it been outpacing over the past decade to keep prices static? Obviously, prices have gone ballistic, and I think over that time, we are consistently seeing sky high demand from Chinese buyers, that is, ethnically Chinese buyers who speak Chinese, who mostly likely are financed by foreign money, foreign income and foreign wealth. That’s clear from a number of data points, and I’d like to go through those.
What’s your suggestion for young people because many of them are leaving. Is it true for a young person in their 20s or early 30s, if you have a big aspiration or you have a big dream, probably you should either if you’re Asian, maybe go to Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, or go to the States. Just leave this place.
I wouldn’t advise anyone to do any of those sorts of things. I mean I don’t see my job is to advise people where they take their lives. But the reality is that Vancouver is grossly unaffordable at least in terms of housing. A young person trying to get on to the corporate ladder won’t be able to climb anywhere near as high as their parents did because the situation has changed radically. I think we have seen people making that decision. I’m not advocating it, but I think we have seen people take that decision to leave. But in terms of solutions, I think that there are better solutions than people packing up and that is to do with curtailing the demand.
I think that you’re right that this the way that the Vancouver market has developed. Absolutely, I completely agree that Vancouver has become a very attractive place for wealthy people to do a couple of things: to retire, to send their kids to school, to house their families, and by families, I generally mean wives and children. I think they’re very common themes among wealthy Chinese.
Maybe just a quick comment. Maybe like for a young person, you don’t see that you can change what’s going on in politics or the strategic direction of this area and you don’t want to leave this place, maybe you should just invest your time and resource in this industry related to retirement, entertainment, etc. Maybe I’ll put the question another way like have you seen sufficient data points suggesting that if young people don’t want to invest their resources, figuring out how to serve the foreign money injected into here, then they are making the moves to leave because their income, they just can’t match what it takes to afford living here.
Other people have written about that. Other people have written about the flight of young people. I’m not entirely convinced the phenomenon is super strong. I think the people willing to put up with relatively crappy jobs that pay relatively low amounts and to continue to be renters. For instance, we can see that Vancouver has got one of the highest rates of renter-ship amongst major cities. I think it’s something like over 50 percent or close to 50 percent. I’m not sure if people are willing to compromise other aspects of their lives because they really do want to live here and that’s very understandable because Vancouver is a very lovable city and people have families and roots here.
I don’t know if that has happened to – I think it has happened to an extent. I think other people have looked at it. I think other people have found all the data points, but I haven’t written about it because I haven’t seen the data points that convince me that it has occurred on a huge scale. I’ve certainly seen the data point that show that is very, very hard for a young person from [unintelligible 0:13:38] to get ahead in the city, but I haven’t seen the data points that really convince me that there’s been this massive flight of young people. It does happen. Anecdotally, it happens and it probably is happening faster than it is and it’s probably happening faster here than in other cities that other people have written about and I haven’t because it’s the story that people are willing to tell, then so be it. I do see what you’re getting at, which is do people need to adapt to this situation.
To this situation?
Rather than the system. There are two logical reactions: you either resist it or you adapt to it. You can do both. I’m 46. I think it would be very presumptuous of me to tell the Millennials – and I bought my home here in Vancouver in 2003, so it would be presumptuous of me and to an extent, I won the lottery. Anyone who bought around that time won the lottery. I don’t see that as a reflection of any great cleverness on my part. What it’s a reflection of is I got lucky that I happened to meet and fell in love with a Vancouver woman at that time and then we decided to get married at that time.
It would be presumptuous I think of me to tell a young person, “You need to adapt to this new reality” and it’s too lifechanging. I think there are ways of changing it. I think it’s very, very hard. I don’t necessarily see Vancouver becoming as super affordable city, but I think is that it would be tough to resist it, to resist this phenomenon.