During a two-and-a-half-year span, Mayor Gregor Robertson sent only two letters to senior federal and B.C. politicians seeking action on property flipping and tax evasion in the Vancouver real estate market.
None of the letters or replies mentioned money laundering, nor did they cite Chinese foreign investment as the biggest market influencer.
theBreaker asked, under freedom of information, for copies of correspondence from Jan. 1, 2015 to July 24, 2017 between the Office of the Mayor and senior officials in Ottawa and Victoria, about real estate regulation and taxation, foreign demand, market manipulation and real estate-related crime, including money laundering. City hall finally released the documents Oct. 18.
Robertson’s May 22, 2015 letter to then-Premier Christy Clark said the “world’s wealthiest citizens” were affecting the market.
“Housing should not be a speculative commodity that can be left empty in the expectation of automatic gains,” Robertson wrote.
In her June 4, 2015 response, Clark downplayed foreign investment (she, too, didn’t mention China) and claimed using taxes to control prices would hurt homeowners’ equity. Clark suggested the city do more on its own, such as cutting fees and levies on condo projects.
“Finally beyond any new taxes to curb demand, there is also the option of increasing supply through better land use planning,” read Clark’s letter.
A year later, with her BC Liberal party suffering in opinion polls, Clark imposed a 15% tax on residential purchases by foreigners (condominium pre-sales were exempted) and agreed to Robertson’s proposed 1% tax on houses left empty in the City of Vancouver. At the time, Clark and Robertson’s parties shared the same bagman, real estate marketer Bob “The Condo King” Rennie.
Robertson wrote June 1 of this year to federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau about high housing prices, and combatting tax evasion and speculation in Vancouver real estate.
“While your recent actions to provide greater oversight on issues of capital gains are greatly valued, I often hear from residents who are concerned about fraudulent practices connected to home purchases in Vancouver,” Robertson wrote.
In a July 24 reply, Morneau mentioned that Canada Revenue Agency increased its compliance and enforcement efforts, but he misspelled the province twice.
“With regards to housing vulnerabilities and affordability challenges in the GVA [Greater Vancouver Area], I encourage continued engagement of the City of Vancouver with the new provincial government in British Colombia (sic) in the federal-provincial-municipal working group on housing,” Morneau wrote.
Saving face amid housing furor
The Mayor’s office released the June 1 letter to at least two media outlets, the Globe and Mail and Vancouver Sun, which reported on it June 16 without mentioning how they obtained the letter.
Email shows that Robertson’s chief of staff intended all along to release the letter to the media. Just two minutes after Robertson aide Connie Pavone emailed the letter to Morneau on June 2, Kevin Quinlan wrote to Amanda Campbell in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office.
“We don’t plan to make it public for a while and will check in with you before we do,” Quinlan wrote.
On June 14, Quinlan told Campbell that “we’re planning to give this letter to some media… to highlight the Mayor’s efforts focusing on housing affordability and the concerns around money laundering/tax evasion in Vancouver. I sent it over a week ago to Ally Chalke and Ian Foucher in [Morneau’s] office so they know it’s been sent. Any concerns let me know.”
In 2017, Robertson’s pet cause, the environment, has taken a back seat to the housing crisis. Critics blame Vision Vancouver for failing to fulfil a 2008 promise to solve homelessness. Instead, the Vision-led city council has rubber-stamped luxury towers built by party donors who regularly pre-sell condos to buyers in China. Voters are showing signs of impatience. The Vision candidate in an Oct. 14 by-election to replace Geoff Meggs finished fifth. Quinlan, in his first full year after succeeding Mike Magee as chief of staff, took a night school course at Simon Fraser University in real estate development in 2015.
Robertson’s latest gimmick was to ask city staff to study ways and means of encouraging developers to market new condos to local residents and workers before offering them to buyers elsewhere.
Housing is expected to remain the hot topic on the way to the Oct. 20, 2018 municipal election. Housing affordability played a role in the NDP ascending to power after the May 9 provincial election. New Premier John Horgan’s party won six of nine Surrey seats and knocked-off Liberal incumbents in Burnaby, North Vancouver and South Vancouver.
Robertson is also feeling pressure about relations with China.
In July, Robertson’s staff admitted he broke-up with Chinese singer girlfriend Wanting Qu. Her mother, former Harbin government official Qu Zhang Mingjie, is facing real estate corruption charges in China. In September, Robertson made an unannounced trade mission to Beijing and Shanghai. His staff finally admitted he was in China, meeting government officials and business executives, the day before his final day there.
City hall did not hold a flag-raising ceremony to mark China’s Oct. 1 national day. The ceremonial flagpole was allegedly removed for maintenance, after a 2016 event drew protests from citizens concerned about China’s history of human rights violations.