By Jenna Tytgat and Ashley Singh
Photos by Veronnica MacKillop and Ashley Singh
Real estate coverage in Vancouver has seen a large shift in recent years, with much credit going to local journalists who pushed for harder-hitting stories.
Until as recently as two years ago, real estate in Vancouver was reported primarily as a by-the-numbers story. A handful of journalists—seeking a deeper understanding of how the industry works—started pursuing a more investigative approach.
One of those reporters was Kathy Tomlinson. After working for The Globe and Mail for a year, Tomlinson realized that the high demand for news about real estate in Vancouver simply was not being met. She started investigating and dug deeper into the troubled market.
“I had to build a lot of trust with the people in the industry before I could get to what was going on with [The Globe’s] reporting on real estate,” she says.
Initially, Tomlinson says she faced considerable pushback from sources—mainly from buyers and sellers who had been directly affected by deals Tomlinson was trying to report on. She put out cold calls, but many of the sources were embarrassed or unwilling to talk, “because it was about their finances; it was private.”
Taking the time to build a connection with sources eventually paid off, when they started to share evidence of particular deals.
Tomlinson says she found many sources started telling her about realtors and sellers using contract assignments for selling homes. Tomlinson was not initially interested in pursuing that story, but eventually changed her mind.
“At some point the light bulb came on and I realized even though we, as reporters, try to look for wrongdoing in terms of things that are against the rules, or things that are against the law, this wasn’t against [the law] at all. It was being used so frequently because it was perfectly legal and it was entrenched. And so that’s where I just thought, ‘Well maybe that shouldn’t be so easy to do.’”
Her stories were well-received and are considered by many to represent a turning point in understanding what was really going on in Vancouver real estate. (Her work has been nominated for several national awards, and last fall won Best News Reporting at the 2016 Webster Awards.)
“The thing that was really heartening about the whole thing was how many people care about this community, and how many people really didn’t like what was going on and […] so badly wanted it exposed, but weren’t able to do so because they were in the industry.”
While Tomlinson says she is taking a step back to work on other things, she says she is proud of the work she has done on real estate.
“I hope, if anything, our reporting raised the bar in terms of the conversation, what reporters and editors feel they can pursue.”
South China Morning Post’s Vancouver correspondent Ian Young says he saw something missing in how real estate and the lack of affordability was being reported in Vancouver.
Young moved to the city in 2010, and tackled real estate and unaffordability shortly thereafter. “I didn’t think it was being attacked the way it should be, and so I started writing about it,” he says. “I thought there was a gap in the way [unaffordability] was being reported and hopefully I’ve helped change some of that.
“Vancouver’s becoming this little test case for unaffordability and the way it’s tackled,” he adds. “It went from a stage where your average upper-middle-class family, your doctors and your lawyers, would reasonably be affording a detached house. That was only 10 years ago—and that’s history. That changes the nature of a city.”
With the price of homes in Vancouver going up at a rate much faster than that of incomes, the possibility of home ownership for those living in the city becomes more and more of a pipe dream.
“In the past 12 years or so, less than a generation—half a generation—unaffordability […] has increased in Vancouver by 123 per cent,” Young says, comparing Vancouver to Sydney, Australia, where he says unaffordability has increased by about 35 per cent in the same period, or Toronto’s unaffordability, which Young says has increased by about 90 per cent.
Reporting on real estate in Vancouver was trying at first, but Young says he did not worry about being an expert.
“I did meet a little bit of resistance from [people in the] industry who probably thought I didn’t know what I was talking about,” he says. “The journalist isn’t meant to be an expert. The journalist is meant to make a judgment about who are the experts.”
Young acknowledges the importance of previous journalistic efforts on real estate, but says that there was more to what was happening than what could be contained in the real estate section of a paper.
“Real estate was done more as a consumer story rather than a social justice story, and even though they might not have put it in those words, I think most people in the city […] knew it to be a social justice story,” he says. “People want to find out what happened yesterday, as well as finding out the long story.”
According to Young, the entire story of affordability and real estate in Vancouver is far from finished, but he thinks journalists have made long strides in filling the gap that had initially driven him to write.
“I think there is a risk of fatigue, but as long as the stories keep coming … people know a story when they see it. I’m actually trying to step back a bit because I’m a little bit fatigued by it,” Young says. “We have reached that tipping point where a lot of other journalists, and a lot of people in power, are now talking about [affordability] and dealing with it in a way that wasn‘t happening [before]. So I’m quite comfortable stepping back a little bit.”
Young says he respects the competition between journalists and newsrooms on this beat, but adds that, for a story to be told, there needs to be co-operation.
“I’m not ashamed to sometimes refer a tipster to another journalist, and I’ve had other journalists refer other stories to me,” he says. “I don’t want it to just be me banging the drum; in fact, there’s safety in numbers.”
Freelance reporter Kerry Gold is one of those who has thrived covering Vancouver’s real estate market, mostly for The Globe and Mail.
Gold has been a reporter for 11 years, and got her start writing about music for various publications, including the Vancouver Courier and Vancouver Sun. She says she got into reporting real estate stories due to a lack of reporters covering the issue.
“It was very much happening, so it became quite fun and quite interesting, but at the same time it also felt pretty lonely. There was one other voice out there, but there weren’t many of us reporting on this,” says Gold.
Today, that is no longer the case, with media from Toronto to New York to London finding interest in Vancouver real estate stories. “I wrote a piece for The Walrus a year ago and I think that it made it clear that Vancouver’s a freak show,” says Gold.
Gold believes that a big part of Vancouver real estate blowing up in the news is because now—unlike in the past—publications are willing to invest in reporting the issue. “When the ball drops on a story like [Kathy Tomlinson’s shadow-flipping piece], it creates shock waves suddenly. You know media follows media—that’s what we do when there’s an interesting story: everybody sort of picks up on it and runs with it and tries to find a new angle on it.”
While Gold thinks that the public has yet to tire of news on the real estate crisis, they may be getting a bit too used to it. “I think people are becoming desensitized; I think they’re used to stories of corrupt realtors maybe, or corrupt investors. It’s hard to shock them really; a lot of the big stories are really done. But no […] I don’t think they’re getting bored.”
She argues that the real estate situation in Vancouver is unique—other cities around the world aren’t dealing with the same problems, or at least not as extreme as Vancouver’s. “The difference with other cities, such as New York or London, is that they have high-paying jobs to support their needs.”
Gold sees a rift occurring between younger generations and older, more financially secure homeowners.
“Traditionally it’s been very North American. You own a home as security for your future: this is how you’re going to pay for your old age—it’s your life line,” she says. “Now we’re telling a whole generation they don’t get that—they’re out of luck—and that’s upsetting to a lot of millennials and Gen X’ers,” Gold says. “Even if you get a great job, chances [are] you’ll be renting for life … [unless] you have a parent who can give you the money, you’re just going to be hugely in debt. Things have changed—they’ve changed permanently as far as I’m concerned.”
As Vancouver’s real estate market continues to evolve, one thing seems clear: the city’s journalists are likely to continue to play a vital role in keeping the industry and politicians honest.
Some reporters, like Mr. Young compare Vancouver to other large Pacific port cities such as Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney, Melbourne. All are bounced on one half by the sea, and have a major international airport–the common mode of human transport in this era.