Public dialogue in Vancouver used to be about a lot more than where and how people park their butts and bucks laments columnist Geoff Olson. Photo Dan Toulgoet
Geoff Olson of the Vancouver Courier newspaper writes that Vancouver’s red-lining real estate market has led to a few casualties. Among them is local journalism. He means that in three different, but mutually reinforcing, ways.
1. Grabbing the headlines
The focus on rising property values, a shrinking rental market and overall affordability has sucked all the oxygen out of newsrooms. And for an understandable reason — shelter was deemed a basic human right by the UN General Assembly way back in 1948, when it was enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights. You can’t fault the local press for expending column inches and airtime over a human need topped only by food and water.
However, this means issues involving housing and affordability have largely displaced other newsworthy topics in the civic consciousness, including those of global dimensions. The public dialogue in Vancouver used to be about a lot more than where and how people park their butts and bucks.
2. A failure of nerve
It’s no big secret that Postmedia, the publisher of the city’s two dailies, is in serious financial trouble (in January, RBC Dominion Securities cut its price target on the shares from 50 cents to zero). Ads for high-rise developments comprise a significant fraction of the revenue for Postmedia’s local operations; so despite of the much-ballyhooed firewall between the departments of news and advertising, there’s an unspoken incentive for staffers to sing the free market hymn of rising tides and lifting boats. Or at least practise some self-censorship.
An example of this may be found in the press response to the release of a city-commissioned study that found only one per cent of single family homes were empty in Metro Vancouver.
The overall vacancy rate of available units reportedly hovered at 4.8 per cent.
A number of our print pundits predictably seized on this as proof that speculative money from foreign buyers was a market myth. Reporter Kerry Gold, less beholden to the West Coast property paradigm, quickly deconstructed this conclusion in a report for the Globe and Mail titled “Poking holes in Vancouver’s housing vacancy study.”
The author of the commissioned study was frank about its limitations, which relied on BC Hydro data on electricity use, Gold noted. “Houses that had the electricity turned off — such as old houses that sit empty as they await permits for demolition and redevelopment — were not counted in the study. They were only counted after electrical service had been restored for a full year,” she observed.
Many newly built homes were also exempt from the study, as well as houses with lights on timers or visiting caretakers.