Beyond the Foreign Investment Debate: By Maria Wallstam and Nathan Crompton
Overlook the billions of dollars freed up for capitalists through tax cuts and tax exemptions. Ignore the woefully inadequate state of rent control in BC. Forget that the federal government stopped funding social housing in 1993, and that in the next 20 years over 36,000 units of affordable housing are set to lose their funding in Greater Vancouver. Set aside the damage done by years of government-organized gentrification and displacement. Lastly, forget that home ownership and the private property market have never worked for low-income, working and Indigenous people.
Now instead focus on one relatively small demographic group: Chinese investor immigrants that have come to Vancouver since the 1980s. Convince yourself that the major cause of the current housing crisis is “foreign” money injected into the local real estate market.
This selective version of the causes of the housing crisis seems to guide most of the recent debate about growing unaffordability in Vancouver. The latest development is a growing number of Vancouverites rallying around the call for “more data” on foreign investment. At the national level, Harper has taken up this call for foreign data as a central plank in the Conservative housing platform. But when it comes to the housing crisis, is data on foreign investment the most pressing problem? Does it even make sense to distinguish between local and foreign capital?
Coming to terms with BC’s homegrown billionaires
Usually in the debates about foreign investment there are keywords that tip the public off about a subtext of foreign investment: empty condos, monster homes, and non-Canadians (read: Chinese immigrants) who pay less taxes than the people who Conservative Finance Minister Joe Oliver calls “hard working Canadians.”
What these conversations tend to overlook is that the empty units in ultra-luxury tower neighbourhoods like Coal Harbour are seasonal and secondary suites for Canada’s homegrown super rich. New condos, not to mention the mega-mansions from Shaugnessy to West Vancouver, are owned by Canadians. New luxury mega-developments, from Shangri-La to Oakridge, are owned and sold by Canadian developers.
Since 2006 alone, investors in Canada have saved over $60 billion thanks to corporate tax cuts. Today, Canada’s largest corporations are making 50% more profit and paying 20% less tax than they did a decade ago. So where are those profits ending up? Housing remains one of the highest-returnings investments in Canada, and Vancouver – with the lowest business taxes in the country and even the world – is its epicentre.
The myth of local and foreign capital
Race-baiting arguments also ignore the fact that these local investors and homeowners are, to the same extent as immigrant investors, reliant on international financial markets and labour markets. Much of the wealth accumulated by Canadian individuals and corporations has been made possible by exploiting natural resources abroad, by outsourcing production to the global south, and by the deregulation and globalization of financial markets.
Take for example the fact that Vancouver is today the headquarter of over 800 mining companies profiting from displacement, dispossession, and exploitation of Indigenous land in Canada and in the global south. These “Canadian” companies have Boards of Directors made up of capitalists from every country with investors.
This is why data about the exact percentage of investment that is “foreign” or “local” is elusive. Investment money today does not have a nationality. We have to understand Vancouver as a driving force and a power base of global capitalism, not a region oppressed by “foreigners.”
For the tenants being evicted across Vancouver, there is no difference if the landlord has a local address or an Anglo-Saxon surname. The result is the same because at the end of the day our landlords and developers are part of the same class – regardless of nationality. This also means they should be fought with the same intensity.
Foreign/domestic debate obscures the real causes of the housing crisis
Some have argued that because of its simple and accessible message, the myth of foreign investment should be used to unite “progressive people” in the city while at the same time igniting a new interest in housing politics. But in reality it only serves to rob us of any helpful understanding of the housing crisis, and worse yet it plays into the century-old scapegoating of Chinese Vancouverites. It’s concerning that Chinese investors and homeowners are increasingly referred to as foreigners regardless of immigration status.
In the foreign investment debate, the housing problem is seen as external to Vancouver and even Canada. Yet can we blame foreigners for the fact that BC’s local elite have created the highest wealth inequality in Canada, where the richest 10% of households hold a shocking 56.2% of the wealth and the bottom 50% of households hold 3.2% of the wealth? We have to look inwards. The causes of the housing crisis are local, but situated within a globalized capitalist economy.
When we fall for conspiracy theories and one-liners about “foreigners,” social inequalities are forgotten in favour of race-baiting. Class is replaced by ethnicity, and the blame and responsibility is absolved for investors, landlords, and the politicians who have arranged this mess.
By framing Vancouver as a “victim” of global forces, the colonial origins and imperialist reality of Canada itself are erased. Canada was born out the dispossession of Indigenous people. Its ongoing accumulation of wealth is stolen from Indigenous people who land it occupies and from those who its foreign “free trade” policies and military alliances rob. Land and housing crises have been with us since the beginning, and they radiate outwards through imperialist foreign policy, which is why the attempt to scapegoat recent immigration creates false solutions that will never get to the heart of the problem.