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Near and Far: Are rising real estate prices good or bad news?

As we all witness this bizarre situation play out, with prices skyrocketing and with governments that sometimes regulate markets staying eerily silent, I’m wondering where we’re headed. ~ John Young
John Young has been an advisor to political leaders in Ottawa and Victoria. He was the founding executive director of ACORN Canada, a national advocacy organization working with and for low and moderate income Canadians. He has been a Buddhist monk in France and an organic farmer in Powell River.

Near and Far is a column about public issues and cultural affairs.

A wise zen master I once knew (I’m not kidding) often said you can see the entire universe in a grain of sand. His point was that if you take the time to look at every single aspect of any one thing, you will see not only how it came to be but you will also see much more about wider social, economic, political, historical, environmental, cultural, spiritual and religious matters.

I’m thinking about this again these days, especially as it pertains to the pandemic-driven psychosis in the local real estate market.

Every month we read that Powell River has never seen such a “red hot” real estate market. And many of us regularly hear, in conversation with friends and neighbours, about a house that has just been sold to someone in a city somewhere else who took a video tour and then offered up to $250,000 above the asking price. 

This dynamic results in a very odd sort of lottery win for people selling their homes and also piles up significant sums in the bank accounts of those facilitating the wild spree: realtors, lawyers, et cetera.

In general, when we read local news reports about what is unfolding, those quoted present the latest statistics as if they were good news. Is it good news? For whom? Is it also bad news? For whom?

As we see a surge in brand new BMWs, Mercedes, Range Rovers and Jaguars in and around Powell River, I remember when I first started visiting more than a decade ago, before moving here six years ago: I don’t recall ever seeing the luxury vehicles that are standard accessories for those who live lives of conspicuous consumption. Having lived in Vancouver and other cities where great wealth is stacked up immediately adjacent to heart-wrenching poverty, I was glad to move to a place where the extremes in our society were less pervasive.

But that appears to be changing, as people from other places, primarily, bid house prices up so high that many local people are seeing their hope of ever owning a home disappear. Moreover, an already dire local rental market has been made much worse by the distorted bonanza.

As we all witness this bizarre situation play out, with prices skyrocketing and with governments that sometimes regulate markets staying eerily silent, I’m wondering where we’re headed. Maybe you are, too.

Powell River is in an exquisitely beautiful part of the world and my family loves it here. We’re never leaving. A great many of us feel that way.

But what about those who are now snapping up homes for global panic prices? How many of them are actually coming to live and work here? And what are their values? What do they value in general and in how they see life in Powell River? Are some or many of the homes flying off the shelf simply an insurance policy, some kind of deluded protection against the many terrifying things our species has unleashed all across this beautiful, troubled planet?

The vast majority of us are just doing our best to make a living. But, as is the case the world over, a very small number of people are making a killing. And those words mean exactly what they say. A living allows, supports and encourages life. A killing destroys a great deal as wealth is recklessly amassed and deployed, with collateral damage and rising inequality all around.

Let’s have a courageous, respectful public conversation at all levels of government and in all parts of our society. Let’s not stand idly by and watch this troubling dynamic reshaping our community to continue unaddressed.

John Young lives in Powell River's Wildwood neighbourhood.