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15% of downtown Vancouver condos sit empty, turning areas into ghost towns: Study

Barkerville. Deadwood. Downtown Vancouver?

An analysis of Vancouver’s empty condo rate or those occupied by foreign residents, by UBC planning professor Andy Yan, reveals much of the downtown core is starting to look like B.C.’s ghost towns — with apartments languishing empty, businesses closing down and residents not feeling the sense of community they bought into.

Yan’s data suggests that other than in the West End, 14.9 per cent of the condos downtown, or 5,710 units, are unoccupied.

This includes some of the ritziest, eye-catching real estate in the city — particularly in Coal Harbour — where one in four condos are either empty, or not lived in by their owners.

UBC economics and real estate professor Tour Somerville says that number is closer to 65 per cent for the immediate area.

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“I don’t find it surprising, particularly when you’re talking about Coal Harbour — including the Expo Land properties — that we’re likely to get buildings there with units that are owned and not occupied,” said Somerville, in his booming baritone.

“Once you get out of the downtown core, that percentage drops to about 25 per cent,” he said Thursday.

Overall, Vancouver’s rate of non-resident occupancy dwellings is the third highest in the country at 7.7 per cent overall, behind Windsor, Ontario (9 per cent) and London, Ontario (8.6 per cent).

Is it foreign investors using Vancouver as a summer spot?

Is it the price of rent in the city?

Yan’s data doesn’t distinguish between the two, and Somerville says until there’s a supply constraint in the city — which there isn’t, with so many unsold units — this shouldn’t be an issue for the city.

Vancouver city councillor Geoff Meggs acknowledges foreign investors have had an impact on the city, but isn’t opposed to the idea.

“I only have a problem with it if investors are leaving units empty,” Meggs said.

But it’s a problem to local small business owners and residents — especially in Coal Harbour — who have bought into the neighbourhood expecting more of a community, and more business.

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Rofie Tu, who runs Harbour Front Market, says her father bought the Coal Harbour convenience store in 1999.

Since then, she says, foot traffic has slowed to the point where it’s only tourists and businessmen coming out of conferences that she serves.

“The prices are too high here. Local people can’t afford (to live here). That’s the reason,” Tu said.

“You see around the area, small grocery stores are closing up. A lot of small companies are closing up,” she said.

Resident Margaret Klima has seen the boom-to-bust effect foreign investment has had in cities like Hong Kong and San Francisco, and says she sees similarities here in Vancouver.

“I thought it would become more of a community — which it has — but it’s pretty quiet around here,” said Klima, who owns in False Creek but spends time in Coal Harbour.

“When investors start pulling their money out for investments that are better for them, they’ll take the money out and leave a market that’s not so good behind,” she said.

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