Ina Mitchell,
Documentary Filmmaker

Vancouver, B.C., Canada


Briefly describe the situation in your area.

Vancouver remains one of the most expensive places in Canada to live, with homes costing millions and rental rates consuming almost half of people’s incomes. The City of Vancouver now defines $3,702 rent as “affordable” housing! That’s if you can even find a place to live with our one-percent vacancy rate.

Homes are supposed to be for shelter, but in Vancouver homes have become a commodity. A way to get rich for some, but a path to poverty for others.

There are a number of factors involved that led to our affordability crisis that most would consider unethical, if not illegal. The end result is that we have entire neighborhoods of empty or underutilized homes that are not available for long-term use by locals.

Mostly they are owned by foreigners and numbered companies who “land bank” their money using local real estate. As it stands, foreign buyers now own $45.25 billion* of Vancouver real estate, there are 25,000 empty homes, and there’s a record-breaking homeless population. The situation in Vancouver is dire, to say the least. That’s just regular apartments and midsize homes, though.

The wealthiest of investors have set their sights on building mega-mansions located on protected farmland in the Greater Vancouver area. They are given enormous tax breaks because technically it’s farmland as long as they put up a small crop. These mega-mansions are either underoccupied or used as illegal hotels, private-birth tourism facilities, or for other illicit purposes. The owners more often than not are numbered companies from overseas or list “homemaker” or “student” as the owner.

In fact, some of our highest priced houses in the municipalities of Metro Vancouver are owned by those with the lowest median household incomes. To give this some perspective, a local paper reported that a university student was listed as the owner of a 31-million-dollar home in Vancouver. Keeping in mind that Canada has more of a socialist system, that provides services like healthcare to everyone equally (paid for by taxes based on income), you can see this is much more than just an issue of conspicuous consumption and ostentatious displays of wealth—it’s a threat to Canadian values of equality and fairness.

*Source: Statistics Canada [the Canadian government’s national statistical agency]

What are you working to protect?

A recent study was conducted, ranking Vancouver as “the unhappiest city in Canada”—strange when you consider that we are “a city of millionaires” with the highest net worth in the country. Either money truly doesn’t make people happy, or the divide that we see in Vancouver is so extreme—between the wealthy and poor—that it has made everyone miserable. I don’t believe that we can reverse what has already happened. It is unrealistic to think that people who bought multimillion-dollar homes will be willing to sell for millions less in response to the anger around the affordable housing crisis. I mainly see this issue as one of greed, loss of community values, and lack of accountability from people in positions of power who knew what was going on but did nothing to stop it, out of self-interest. We now have a new government in power, which is working towards closing the loopholes. However, we can’t force people to think of others and consider the needs of the greater community, especially if those values are not something they are familiar with. If anything, that is what I am working toward: preservation of our way of life, the right to shelter, and sustainable living for all “equally.”

What is the biggest obstacle you face?

We need to get back to viewing “housing” as a human right, not as a commodity. The biggest obstacle by far is actually corruption, apathy, and greed.

Although our affordable housing issue has impacted all socioeconomic levels, it’s really noticeable with young adults, most of whom are not able to buy into the market and are spending, on average, more than 30 percent of their income on rent. The result of an inflated property market, high rental costs, stagnant wages, and a 1% rental vacancy rate has created an unsustainable living crisis resulting in young people leaving the city for greener pastures. This in turn has impacted services, is eroding our sense of community, and is tearing apart families. We are now seeing professionals, like doctors and teachers, bypassing Vancouver as a place to start their careers, because they see a bleak future there. What is the point of owning a mega-mansion if you don’t have basic services in the community?

Is there a leader of your group or is it led by committee?

For a long time, our politicians have been very slow to react to the crisis, in large part because Vancouver actually relies heavily on the real estate industry as a financial resource for the province. In the last year, though, our new attorney general, David Eby, has really listened to the groundswell of anger in Vancouver. There has literally been a movement of affordable housing activists and dedicated journalists who report on our dysfunctional housing market with regularity. Attorney General Eby responded to this immediately when he was elected, by implementing a speculation tax for foreign and domestic speculators, satellite families who live in B.C. but do not pay their share of income taxes, as well as homeowners who hold vacant property in designated urban centers. More recently he has released an independent report on “dirty money,” which tackled money laundering in casinos and that is linked to the real estate market. The real estate market in Vancouver has made a lot of multimillionaires, but not without huge costs. The priciest home in Canada is in Vancouver, and is valued at $78 million—and it’s only 10 miles from the poorest neighborhood in Canada. That shows you the extreme divide here in Vancouver. Attorney General Eby is seen as a kind of Robin Hood of real estate. How you feel about him depends on what side of the fence you find yourself on. I happen to think he is trying to make things less extreme, a little fairer, and to cool the market a bit, which is good.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned since you started working on this issue?

When I started my film [Millionaire City], I didn’t realize how much the affordable housing crisis created this huge divide in our city. There seemed to be a lot of hate toward “perceived wealth,” and a view that [those who have it] should be punished. However, I also noticed a lack of empathy from the well-to-do, toward those unable to afford to live in Vancouver.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the affordable housing crisis is the racism that was shown toward multigenerational Chinese Canadians, many of whom found themselves struggling along with everyone else. Sadly, there is an assumption that if you are Chinese here, you have money. That is not the case at all.

If I have learned anything, it’s that we need to hold our politicians more accountable—to listen to the regular taxpaying citizens, not developers and special interest groups. When politicians don’t act on behalf of citizens, it divides a community and it creates unrest, which is what we now have.

In the past few months Vancouver has seen a bit of a revolt, to [oust] the usual civic leaders who traditionally align themselves with real estate developers. The ruling party at City Hall since 2008, who under their watch allowed the real estate market to destroy the city, has pretty much fallen apart. Now, for the first time in the history of Vancouver, there has been a groundswell of community affordable housing activists running for our next municipal election, all because of the affordable housing crisis. I hope that they can do some good for the city, but I also think it’s possible that the divide might actually get worse, and that people may end up feeling even more dejected because, in the end, no one can promise to fix housing entirely.