House-hunting as an Asian immigrant in Vancouver means navigating racism

Vancouver (Toronto Star) – When my mother graduated from high school in Hong Kong in the 1970s, she and her friends did not have the luxury of going straight to college or spending a “gap year” travelling the world.

At age 18, she worked as a secretary all day and attended class in the evenings to earn a degree in business administration, while also studying English and shorthand.

She made 500 HKD a month, which was roughly equivalent to $80 Canadian at the time. Adjusted for inflation, that would still be less than $500 Canadian a month. My dad was working long hours, meanwhile, as a salesman for commission.

In my parents’ first home as a married couple, they lived in a flimsy shack on the rooftop of a high-rise building, which they jokingly referred to as their penthouse. It was better than when they bunked with their parents and siblings, with both families stuffed into 200-square-feet studios.

They saved fastidiously. My mom socked away half her salary each month and invested the money. Since she was constantly upgrading her skills at night, she also jumped jobs to double and triple her salary. By the time I was born, she had a fairly comfortable government job and my dad had moved up the ranks to general sales manager.

Joanna Chiu's parents help her search for an affordable apartment in Vancouver. Here, they are looking at a 500 square feet tiny townhouse in the Olympic Village area.

Yet they gave it all up to start over again in their early 30s. After selling their apartment, my parents moved to Canada, in hopes of giving their children a more secure future in a democratic country.

I’m now the same age they were when they settled in Vancouver. Even though I haven’t been quite as disciplined, because I followed their example of jumping jobs and working multiple gigs at once, I’ve saved enough and I’m looking for a home of my own.

Searching for a condo in Vancouver as an Asian immigrant is a fraught and emotional experience. Why? Because there is a class struggle centred around housing affordability happening in the Lower Mainland — and it’s led to outright racism, ageism, classism and xenophobia.

If you chat with any Asian person in Vancouver, they’re likely to say they’ve noticed an uptick in racism, of people who voice their assumptions that they are recent migrants with bucketloads of cash and are driving up the real estate prices for “locals” and “real Canadians.”

Earlier this year, a stranger confronted and raged at me that my Porsche had almost struck her. I was dumbfounded. I commute an hour to work on public transit every day. (To be clear, I do not own a Porsche.) Other times, people have simply shouted: “Chink!” at me, as I walked down the street.

At an apartment pre-sale event in Burnaby, I saw a one-bedroom that cost less than $450,000, and I couldn’t help blurting out, “Wow, that’s pretty cheap!”

It was a very crowded exhibition hall and immediately, everyone around shot dagger eyes at me and one white lady made a furious sound that sounded like “Eeuarrrckk!” then hissed under her breath, “Go back to China, bitch.”

And that’s just what I get as a young person. My parents are both boomers and immigrants, and even though they are so law-abiding they wouldn’t jaywalk, let alone engage in seedy real-estate fraud, they represent the most popular scapegoats for soaring real-estate prices in this city.

At best, it’s an unhealthy “us” versus “them” dynamic — at worst, it’s bigotry.

“I would never sell to a ‘housewife’ from China,” someone wrote to me in response to my first house-hunting story. The insinuation was that these people are undeserving of homes in Vancouver.

It makes me sad to see valid frustration about rising unaffordability lead to ugly attitudes toward people who are eager to become Canadians. My first job as a teenager was working as an English tutor, where I was mostly employed by “astronaut families.” Usually, it is the father who stays and works in the home country, planning to make money and join his family later, while his wife and children move abroad. The astronaut mothers that I knew were devoted to their kids’ educations, hiring multiple tutors and music teachers in ardent hope of helping them build bright futures in a new land.

Increasingly, these families are vilified.

 

Earlier this week, a woman was recorded berating a cashier at a Shoppers Drug Mart in Burnaby, saying such things as, “Speak English in Canada,” in a raised voice. It’s the latest high-profile incident of public racism in Metro Vancouver in recent months.

There are incidents of rich people who abuse the Canadian system with the help of shady locals, such as the case of unlicensed Vancouver immigration consultant Sunny Wang, who went to jail in 2015 for helping hundreds of clients fabricate fake addresses and jobs. This allowed them to maintain permanent residency or obtain citizenship and buy homes when they actually lived most of the time in China.

We shouldn’t forget that many immigrants are often victims of scams, too. Many may not know that they are forking money over to unlicensed consultants who don’t explain the consequences of breaking Canadian laws or who may have overriding financial motives. Still “other migrants end up stuck in problematic educational institutions in North America that exist primarily for profit-generation purposes” rather than providing adequate education, immigration lawyer Will Tao told me.

In 2016, the B.C. government slapped a 15 per cent tax on home purchases by foreigners in Metro Vancouver — the first such tax in Canada — in a bid to cool the market and improve housing affordability for local residents. The move was widely accepted as a pragmatic move that has since nudged prices down.

But, news flash: You can’t tell if someone is a Canadian by looking at the colour of their skin. Most of us are settlers on Indigenous land. When the lady at the pre-sale event told me, “Go back to China,” she was making all sorts of inaccurate assumptions.

To understand what’s actually at the root of our sky-high real-estate market, I reached out to people like Jennifer Bradshaw, the director of Abundant Housing Vancouver.

“We should fix zoning laws. That won’t drop property prices overnight, so people don’t lose their life savings. But it will help de-gentrify the neighbourhood, because multifamily housing like rentals and condos could be built there, which are much more affordable options than multimillion-dollar detached houses,” Bradshaw said.

People who block lower-income or densified housing in their neighbourhoods often do so because they fear their property values will tank.

The key to getting property owners to support more progressive policies is to educate the public and eradicate myths such as the fear that changes in zoning laws would force people to sell their land, Bradshaw said.

“Reforming zoning isn’t forcing apartments everywhere. There aren’t enough rental properties. What about all the people who are renting, including older adults, who have no chance of getting in the door?”

Joanna Chiu's realtor helps her hunt for a home fit for a millennial in the pricey Vancouver housing market.

Perhaps, it’s partly the Canadian school system that didn’t prepare us to have frank conversations about money. I don’t remember receiving much training in managing finances or investing, even though I received an otherwise excellent education in Canada. I had to learn from my parents that in your 20s, you need to have a cutthroat and calculating approach to money and career choices.

When we aren’t well versed in things such as taxation systems and property zoning, it’s easier to scapegoat people.

And when quality financial education isn’t provided to youth, this just engenders more inequality. People like me who have the privilege of mentors in my life who are financially savvy will get the education we need outside of the school system.

Writing these thoughts down, I realize that I’ve been anxious during my housing search partly because of a worry in the back of my mind: If I find a place I love, would the buyer decline to sell it to me because I’m Chinese?

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