Rohani: Leave ethnicity out of real estate debate

Farid Rohani on Vancouver housing prices and foreign buyers.

His arguments, while superficially appealing, suffer from two major weaknesses:

  • He does not sufficiently distinguish between Canadian residents, whether citizens or permanent residents, and foreign investors and non-residents. The issues are largely with the latter group, where the scope and nature of needed policy interventions is greatest and needed. One cannot simply conflate the two; and,
  • One cannot, and I would argue, should not ignore the elephant in the room that the vast majority of foreign investors are from China (I suspect that Toronto numbers would show a greater diversity of source countries). These investors affect all Canadians whatever their ethnic origin. The question is how to have a more open discussion without being xenophobic. A mature multiculturalism should allow for more open frank discussions without descending into xenophobia or accusations of xenophobia. Much of the discussion and debate has not been xenophobic in nature. Particularly revealing has been increased coverage of second-generation immigrant concerns regarding foreign real estate investors, highlighting that while the origin of the concerns comes largely from one country and ethnicity, the impact is felt across all ethnicities.

A more interesting contribution from community leaders like Rohani would be how best to have these open discussions. Again, following many of the articles and commentary, I think this is happening and is possible.

…We accept the free market principles of supply and demand and we deal with price fluctuations as best we can.
So why do we blame immigrants, and specifically the Chinese, for spiking real estate prices when the real problem is lack of supply and increasing demand?

It’s a dangerous tendency, and one that threatens to undermine the very ideals of citizenship and plurality that have made Canada so admired around the world. Our country’s heritage includes every ethnicity on earth. The principles that define us as Canadians include those of dignity and kindness, tolerance and compassion. The elements that underpin our democracy include a respect for liberty, for freedom of movement and for the potential of a market driven economy under the rule of law.

But these principles and values are not guiding the current discussion. Instead we see outbursts of ignorant emotionalism and incipient racism.

It’s important, first, to define the immediate problem. The economic power of recent immigrants and foreign purchasers has showcased excessive economic advantage while denying many the ability to be part of a vibrant, growing cosmopolitan city. Many of the young people and professionals who make up our city’s core are feeling frustrated by our failure to find a solution to affordable housing.

Yet, instead of working together to address the challenges of inequity, many are retreating to the more familiar ground of racial accusations. They use the seeming intractability of these problems to build scapegoats. Even people who may have been acting in goodwill have been guilty of launching dubious studies that rely on selective facts and the dangerous sweep of ethnic stereotyping.

In an age when terrorism is also a serious social issue, and when certain people have chosen to target ethnicity or religion in that conversation, this raises a risk that I feel personally. I, who have been proud to call Canada my home for more than four decades, have an Arabic name — one that might easily become part of a database of potential security targets, not for anything I have done, but merely because of my heritage.

This is a perversion of the Canadian experiment, and one we must deal with quickly, and together. We cannot promote prejudice against any racial or ethnic group without betraying ourselves. The vitriolic accusations against “others” can lead only to hate and a division that will harm us all.

We need a solution, of the sort that can only be found through joint action. We cannot continue to speak from both sides of our mouths, on the one hand promising economic hope and jobs, while at the same time isolating recent immigrants and visitors from normal social intercourse based on mutual respect.

Certainly, government must be forceful in addressing issues such as the disruptive influence of laundered money. At the same time, we must all stay focused on the economic principles of a liberal democracy, of supply and demand. We must remember the values of immigration and the benefits of building a progressive society in which people of diverse backgrounds can live and prosper together as members of one city and country.

This responsibility rests upon all levels of government, as well as upon community leaders and the media. All must work together to refresh the spirit of optimism, while rejecting any narrative where facts are manipulated to become food for racist agitators or dismissive special interest groups.

The only way to resolve deep social and economic problems is by forging a unity of purpose.

Racism has deep roots. Without a conscious, deliberate, and sustained effort, we are all at risk from its destructive influences. It can only be overcome through open dialogue and close association among those of opposing points of view.

So, I address this appeal to all — politicians, pundits and community leaders: the realization of our collective potential depends on the character and initiative of every individual. No action plan can succeed if leaders fail respond in their own capacity. I respectfully and urgently call upon my fellow Vancouverites of whatever background to look at current real estate situation with new eyes and with a new resolve to set ethnicity aside — to embrace all of your neighbours, new and old, in the search for a lasting solution.

Opinion: Leave ethnicity out of real estate debate

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

2 Responses to Rohani: Leave ethnicity out of real estate debate

  1. Farid Rohani says:

    Thank you Andrew for your thoughts. I purposely didn’t distinguish between different people in Canada because I wanted to create debate and discussion. Many automatically and unconsciously make accusations and base marketing on targets. In this case we see a different face and they become our intended target. I have not seen data that indicates Chinese are the majority of buyers.

    On the second point, I think the visible minority ( Asians) are the target of bias. We don’t have data on Americans buying in Canada because of the lower Canadian dollar, or the British and other Europeans bringing their money here because of political uncertainty. As an example ” British Pacific properties” is the largest tax payer in West Vancouver where the highest price of real estate is in Canada. I don’t imagine we would have remained as quiet if that company had a Chinese name.

    My intent was to start a discussion, I am glad I did. The tax also appeared to be a Trump like grab at votes that I don’t believe will hold up in court. I can’t imagine the reaction if Canadianw ere charged a similar tax for work done in the US or homes purchased in the US, some in the most expensive areas.

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks Farid for taking the time to respond and address what I saw as the weaknesses in your arguments.

      Well, you succeeded in creating debate and discussion. I always agree that it is important to be mindful of bias and prejudice. And while the data available is not as definite as I would like (it never is), there have been enough studies by serious academics (e.g., David Ley and others) as well as some good reporting by Douglas Todd and the South China Evening Post, as well as overall greater Vancouver demographics to indicate it is.

      I would hope that the provincial government would get much more serious both in terms of the data it collects as well as the policy measures it adopts. Talking to a friend who spent some time in Sydney, which prohibits foreign investment in housing, suggests much more that can be done (which would of course apply to all groups).

      Again, I think we need to take this seriously. One of the general strengths of Canada’s approach to citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism is the diversity of groups that have chosen Canada. Countries which have more monolithic or dominant groups such as in Europe or the USA tend to have more tensions, particularly when this is combined with actual or perceived poorer economic outcomes for those groups. But the same resentments or tensions can emerge when you have large numbers from the same group that are at the other end of the economic spectrum, as we are seeing in the current debate over real estate and foreign investors in Vancouver.

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