British Columbia

Dirty deals and speculation: 3 major turning points in the history of Vancouver real estate

The problems facing the city's market now have precedents dating back to its origins.

The problems facing the city's market now have precedents dating back to its origins

Vancouver’s real estate story stretches back to the city's origins. (Canadian Press)

Vancouver's housing affordability crisis is an ongoing saga but has roots going all the way back to the arrival of the first colonizers.

To this day, the land is the unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh people.

"There was no treaty and there was no war, it was just expropriated," said Leah George Wilson, a lawyer and former chief of the Tsleil-Waututh nation.

"Access to the water and marine resources was a part of the setting aside of land and resources for First Nations."

In the first and biggest of the many dirty deals for land in Vancouver, the territory the First Nations were allowed to keep was gradually rendered unfit for resource gathering.

Rail lines and speculation scandals

Next came Canadian Pacific Railway, the most powerful company in the early history of Vancouver, which owned a huge chunk of the city's land.

CPR had announced the end of the railway would be in Port Moody, driving up prices there because speculators knew it would be valuable once the trains started running.

But then CPR pulled an audacious bait-and-switch.

Waterfront Station, pictured around 1915, was built after CPR switched its Pacific terminus from Port Moody to Vancouver. (Major Matthews/Vancouver Archives)

"Ultimately, the CPR had no intention of stopping there — what they said and what they did were two different things," said Donald Luxton, a Vancouver heritage advocate.

They quietly negotiated for land in Vancouver, Luxton explained, and then made a killing off the profits.

CPR sold the land for Vancouver General Hospital to be built on, for example, as well as many churches and other landmarks in the area. In many ways, they led the development of downtown. 

Vancouver was born in a climate of land speculation — and from one angle, that's why there's a city here at all.

Expo 86 ran from May 2, 1986 to Oct. 13, 1986 and attracted more than 22 million visitors. (City of Vancouver)

After Expo 86

Speculation has ramped up in more recent times, though, and if one event could be pinpointed as the start it would be Expo 86.

The World's Fair was designed to show off Vancouver with the idea of attracting foreign investment into B.C.

It marks the point when the flood of global capital into the Vancouver real estate market begins.

Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing bought the Expo lands in 1988 for $320 million — though the real price is generally considered to be about $145 million due to the cost to the province of remediating the soil. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

Two years after the fair, the Expo grounds were sold to Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, one of the richest men in Asia.

The message from Vancouver was clear: we're open for business. And money began flooding in from around the Pacific Rim, setting up one of the factors in today's housing crisis.

With files from Matthew Parsons, The Early Edition and SOLD!, a CBC Vancouver original podcast that digs into Metro Vancouver's real estate scene.