Monday, August 22, 2016

Serious About BC and Metro Vancouver Housing Costs? Ban Foreign Nationals from Home Sales for 6 Months

Bob Rennie painting in downtown Vancouver - Bill Tieleman photo
Drastic action needed to buy time to implement tax changes, rules to slow runaway home prices.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday June 14, 2016

By Bill Tieleman

"A foreign ownership tax of 10 per cent on a $5-million home will not stop a sale or create 
any affordability."

- Bob Rennie, real estate magnate, BC Liberal fundraiser.

Bob Rennie is right. That's why the first step toward solving Metro Vancouver's high-priced housing problem is simple -- though probably even more unwelcome to Rennie.

The government needs to ban all new foreign home ownership in British Columbia for six months.

A six-month ban would give us time to start finding longer term solutions and send a signal to the world that Metro Vancouver is not for sale to the highest bidder as a blue chip investment. It's our home and people with no commitment to B.C. have no business buying residential property purely for speculation.

UPDATE:  On July 25, the BC Liberal government surprised most by imposing a 15% foreign buyers property tax with one week's notice.  The impact of the tax has not been fully measured but anecdotally realtors complained that it had immediately dampened the market for sales, to both foreign and Canadian buyers.  The poll I quote in this column was no doubt similar to those conducted by the BC Liberals - leading to the flip-flop on taxes - but in my view a 6-month freeze would have been - and still could be - a better approach.

Even the Bank of Canada is concerned, saying foreign demand "does contribute to price increases that are driving the rise in household indebtedness."

And the Bank of Nova Scotia is restricting mortgage lending here because, its CEO Brian Porter says, "We're a little concerned about housing prices in the greater Vancouver area."

The Liberals could recall the legislature and pass an act suspending the purchase of residential property by foreign buyers for six months to stop the insane price escalation and the wild speculation fuelled by wealthy investors who have no plans to live here or make a contribution to our province.

During that six months, the province could work with the federal and municipal governments, realtors, developers, contractors, housing experts -- and most of all citizens -- to gather data and formulate a long-term strategy to reduce ridiculous price increases that are driving people into despair and out of their unaffordable city.

There are lots of good ideas being discussed -- lower property taxes for local workers and higher taxes on vacant homes, a speculation tax, more co-op housing, higher density incentives and many more.

And Josh Gordon, a Simon Fraser University professor of public policy, says that contrary to Rennie's view that lack of housing supply is the problem, record prices are being driven ever higher by surging demand from foreign buyers. And, says Gordon, there are solutions readily available to government.
"The policy levers to curtail foreign investment exist, should we wish to use them. Properly implemented, they will address the root cause of the recent price surges without setting us up for an even worse price correction. It is simply a matter of political will," Gordon argues in a Globe and Mail column.

Why no Liberal action? Check their donor list

But the B.C. government won't impose a temporary foreign ownership ban or do anything substantial. It has turned a blind eye to the problem for more than a decade and even now is only proposing measures that are meaningless, ineffective window dressing.

The reasons for the BC Liberals inaction are obvious. First, the provincial Property Transfer Tax revenue of $1.1 billion helps balance their budget. (It's forecast to bring in nine times as much as the $128 million in natural gas royalties' revenue expected this fiscal year.)

And second, developers and the real estate industry that dine out on foreign investors' mad money contributed $12 million of the $70 million in donations the BC Liberals received between 2005 and 2015 -- more than any other sector, including mining and forestry.

Integrity BC's study of Elections BC financial records show that Bosa Properties contributed $726,000; Onni Contracting and linked firms gave $464,000; the Aquilini Group Properties and affiliated companies contributed $582,000; K & T Properties donated $618,000; Concord Pacific Development contributed $666,000; Wesbild Holdings gave $685,000; Wall Financial contributed $459,000 and Polygon Homes donated $656,000.

That's a whole lot of BC Liberal love from those who build and sell housing.

And who is Premier Christy Clark's chief fundraiser and confidante?
Rennie, the condo king who adamantly opposes restricting foreign sales. Rennie Marketing Systems gave the BC Liberals over $329,000 during that period.

"China buys $6 billion a year in British Columbia exports. Are we going to tamper with those jobs and our economy?" Rennie told an Urban Development Institute audience this month.

So exports of resources and imports of Chinese produced goods is dependent on letting foreign speculators buy residential land? Preposterous.

"The city of Vancouver should get out of the affordable ownership business," Rennie added.

And so long as Clark listens to Rennie there won't be any action.

But with a new Insights West poll showing 80 per cent of British Columbians would support a tax on absentee owners, it's clear the public wants action, not more pontificating from those who profit from out of control prices.

"The level of animosity towards the provincial government is high," says Insights West vice-president Mario Canseco.

Simple solutions could slow runaway price increases

How bad have Vancouver housing prices gotten? Vancouver mathematician Jens von Bergmann calculates that soaring prices have brought gains to homeowners equivalent to working at a $126-an-hour job. (The average wage is $26 an hour.)

"It's another reminder of how disconnected the real estate is from the local market and I think it's kind of a turning point where we have to ask ourselves, 'How can we adapt our tax and regulations system to deal with these new realities?'" said von Bergmann.
We can adapt. And after the six-month freeze on foreign home purchases, B.C. could restrict outside ownership in the way that many other countries like Australia, England, Switzerland, Mexico -- and yes, China -- now do.

But first we have to overcome the Rennie rhetoric that informs Clark's policies.

"If you have a 'no tower' sign on your front lawn," Rennie says, referring to a neighbourhood group opposing a 12-storey tower near Commercial Drive, "then you have no right to talk to your children about affordability."

Really? How about -- "You have no right to talk about housing affordability if you are selling out the province to foreign buyers while driving prices beyond the reach of ordinary British Columbians?"

But Rennie's comments are a symptom of the problem, and definitely not a solution.

The first step -- just like with a life-threatening injury -- is to stop the bleeding with a six-month ban on foreign home buying.

But until the BC Liberals realize that skyrocketing housing prices are threatening our way of life, there will only be more casualties.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Tragically Hip Rigged Cross-Canada Ticket Rip Predictable... and Avoidable - But Music Industry Doesn't Blow At High Dough

Gord Downie at the Vancouver Tragically Hip concert July 26, 2016 - Bill Tieleman photo 
Governments could give fans fair shot at tickets with simple rules for sellers.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday June 7, 2016

By Bill Tieleman

"Ticketing, to put it bluntly, is a fixed game."

- New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman.

Tragically Hip fans had almost no chance to get Vancouver or Victoria tickets for the iconic band's farewell tour -- because the ticketing, reselling and concert industry doesn't blow at high dough.

So seconds after 10 a.m. on Friday, no matter how fast your fingers, you and I were shut out of buying tickets by a combination of industry greed, insider trading, scalper robots and governments that couldn't give a rat's ass about fans.

Call it a fully, completely ticket rip for those who love the Tragically Hip and lead singer Gord Downie, sadly suffering from brain cancer.

Almost the whole predictable story can be explained by former insiders who have exposed the ticketing Wizard of Oz tricks that make it possible time after time. (Remember the instantly sold out Paul McCartney show earlier this year?)

Fortunately, all this could be avoided with a few simple steps.

Unfortunately, ticketing and reselling businesses, promoters and, yes, even the bands in some cases, don't want to change a thing -- because they make millions more gouging fans who never have a chance to buy a ticket at face value.

New York's attorney general Eric Schneiderman has blown the whistle in a scathing report earlier this year.

"A detailed report issued by my office in January finally pulled back the curtain on the ticketing industry, exposing a troubling network of middlemen -- brokers, ticket vendors and more -- who use any means they can, both legal and illegal, to jack up the price of tickets and squeeze money out of fans," Schneiderman wrote in the New York Post.

'A fan's guide to why you're totally screwed'

And former Ticketmaster CEO Nathan Hubbard spilled the depressing beans in a stunning article this month titled "Why You Can't Get a Ticket to the NBA Finals... and every other major event on the planet. This is a fan's guide to why you're totally screwed."

The articles reveal how fans are shut out. Most tickets are never even available to the public.

Schneiderman found that on average less than half of concert tickets go on sale to regular fans, and for big concerts by stars like Katy Perry as few as 12 per cent of seats are available.

Instead, the tickets are reserved for promoters, venues, band managers, record labels and the artists themselves.

And they then offer them to resellers like StubHub, which is owned by eBay, and Tickets Now, which coincidentally is now owned by Ticketmaster!

That's why resellers are offering tickets mere seconds after a concert is declared sold out and online sales are halted.

It gets worse. There are also "fan club" and other pre-sales -- something the Tragically Hip offered before general sales. And guess what? Most fan club members were shut out too.

That's generally because, according to Schneiderman's report, the same limited number of tickets are offered in advance to credit card companies who use them as rewards, social media websites, specialty shopping sites and others.

Ticket brokers use fake names to sign up as fan club members and get early access.

And then there are the bots.

As Hubbard explains, brokers use robot software programs to buy massive numbers of tickets in seconds.

The bots are stunningly effective. Schneiderman's investigation found that just one bot was able to buy 1,012 U2 tickets in one minute for the band's Madison Square Garden concert last year!

And even when bands like Pearl Jam try to stop the reselling and keep ticket prices low they are unsuccessful, the New York investigation found, with a bot buying a ticket and selling it for 13 times face value.

Bands cash in on ticket profiteering

Hubbard, Ticketmaster CEO from 2010 to 2013, says bands are deceiving their fans and the public by hiding the fact that they are being paid off through inflated reseller tickets.

"The biggest artists sign contracts that guarantee them money every time they step on the stage, and that guaranteed amount is usually more than 100 per cent of the revenue if every ticket is sold at face value," Hubbard wrote in The Ringer.

"Which means that if every ticket in the venue 'sells out' at the face value printed on the ticket, that wouldn't be enough to pay the artist what they are contractually guaranteed by the promoter for the performance."

Since promoters aren't in the charity business, they need to take in enough money to pay the band, cover expenses and make a profit.

So how do they solve the problem?

"By selling some of the best seats directly in the secondary market, so that artists don't get flack from you for pricing them high right out of the gate. That means the artist is either directly complicit, or that the artist is taking a massive check for the performance while looking the other way," Hubbard wrote. "Goddammit, right?"

So first most of the good tickets are removed through pre-sales to various industry stakeholders and then the leftovers go to the public? Err, no.

The bots sweep in to grab the remaining tickets the public foolishly think they have a shot at.

Three simple changes to give fans a chance at tickets

We won't likely get answers to questions about what happened to the Tragically Hip tickets across Canada -- and I've tried contacting Ticketmaster and the Tragically Hip without hearing back by press time.

But here they are:

How many tickets were pre-sold for Tragically Hip concert dates and to which lists in addition to the fan club?

How many tickets actually went on sale to the general public on Friday at 10 a.m. local time?

Ticketmaster said buyers were limited to four tickets and that people who bought more could have their orders cancelled. The limit could apply to "orders associated with the same name, e-mail address, billing address, credit card number or other information," the company said.

But was the limit enforced? Did it apply to all buyers? What about multiple orders from the same IP address?

Did the Tragically Hip, its managers, agent or other band-linked individuals and businesses get pre-sale tickets, and if so how many?

How were they sold and at what pricing?

What steps did Ticketmaster, the Tragically Hip, promoters, venues and others take to prevent ticket buying bots from scooping up huge numbers of tickets?

What faith can Tragically Hip fans have that their fan club is made up of real people and not ticket resellers with false names and addresses who were able to buy up pre-sale fan club tickets? What security measures were in place?

There are lots more questions one could pose, but you get a pretty good idea why answers are unlikely -- or why the situation won't change without government action.

Hubbard sums up the ticket buying situation for fans: "This shouldn't be a zero-sum game, but it is. And you already lost."

But there are simple solutions to give fans a fair shot at tickets for concerts or big sports events, he says:

"First, artists and teams could price the ticket at its actual worth in the open market. This leads to higher prices, but at least the money goes to the artist or team we love.

"Second, artists and teams can use technology to restrict the transferability of a ticket, making it impossible for it to be bought and resold. This technology, commonly called paperless ticketing, requires that the credit card used to purchase the ticket be swiped upon entry to the venue.

"Third, artists and teams can use technology to design a screening system that gets below-market-priced tickets directly to passionate fans who will use them."

Schneiderman says New York is taking steps to "make it unlawful for ticket brokers to knowingly resell tickets that were purchased using bots, and make using a bot to buy tickets a misdemeanour for the first offense and a felony for additional offenses."

All that's lacking here in Canada is political will. But no province seems to be interested, and the industry would fight hard to keep the existing profitable system going.

Vancouver-West End NDP MLA Spencer Chandra-Herbert has called on the B.C. government to introduce consumer protection legislation. But Public Safety Minister Mike Morris says it's "a nightmare" to try and stop ticket profiteering.

But with one last poignant chance to see Downie singing some of Canada's greatest rock songs already gone for those without high dough, the ticketing scams are truly tragic.

UPDATE:  Thanks to the generosity of a kind reader and Facebook friend, we were able to buy 2 tickets for the Tuesday July 26 concert at face value because that person was unable to attend after lucking out through the system.  It was truly a great concert and I am very happy I could attend but my criticism of the ticketing system still stands. 

The show was indeed sold out but how much each member of the audience paid differs wildly.

For those unable to get a ticket, CBC TV will broadcast the final concert in the Hip’s hometown of Kingston on Sunday August 20.