Government secrecy behind real estate disclosures in British Columbia
Excessive fees, document delays and privacy policies supporting corporate interests have been on full display in Vancouver’s real estate industry this week.
Three recent media revelations related to Vancouver’s real estate industry have sparked debate over the apparent superiority of wealthy elites, corporate interests and our elected representatives in the purchase and control of residential property.
And at the root of these stories is how government policies dictating publicly available information about real estate have thwarted the public’s right to know.
“We definitely have a culture of excessive secrecy and government across Canada,” said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, a civil rights group that advocates for open government policies and reform of Canada’s laws on access to information and confidentiality.
First, News1130 radio station reported on August 25 that Vancouver’s Liberal federal candidate Granville Taleeb Noormohamed was a pinball machine. Five days later, the NDP released a more comprehensive list of 42 properties Noormohamed had sold over the past 17 years.
A provincial government register keeps information on property sales. However, a standard search costs $ 10.50, as does additional mortgage information on the property – meaning the NPD has spent over $ 800 on Noormohamed’s real estate portfolio.
The provincial government’s ongoing public inquiry into money laundering has heard testimony from several experts stating that a well-enforced property registry for beneficial ownership should be free to the public to help identify possible illegal or unethical activities.
The Government of British Columbia recently launched such a registry through the Land Title Survey Authority, however, there is an additional charge of $ 5 for any title search.
“No one should have to pay because we are already paying for the government to collect the information,” Conacher said. “If the government doesn’t keep this information in an accessible way, it’s the government’s fault and that’s what needs to be cleaned up and not just start charging people. Clean up your information management system.
Real estate critic and housing activist Rohana Rezel, who was the first to spot a turnaround pattern by Noormohamed and shared his findings on Twitter, noted that federal candidates have no obligation to disclose assets, including real estate, when running for office.
Since politicians set housing policies (the Liberals have proposed a tax on house overthrow), it is in the public interest to understand what private assets and interests the politician may have, said Andy Yan, director of the City program at Simon Fraser University.
“It’s not even interest, it’s total conflict. You have a candidate who has been doing this type of speculation in terms of residential real estate, and a prime minister and a whole political party saying, “I’m going to eradicate this, I’m going to tax this.
“So, is this just theater where this kind of conflict is going to be hidden or covered up?” Yan asked, noting that municipal candidates file such disclosures.
A second South China Morning Post article from August 31 found that it took more than five years for the Canada Revenue Agency to respond to a 1995 request for a study on luxury home purchases in Vancouver by wealthy investor class immigrants. Legislated access to information requests are expected to take only 30 days and the government can request extensions thereafter.
The study was kept under wraps by the CRA (and much of the Post’s response is written up). The study looks at wealthy immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China who buy property and report little income to support those homes.
Without an answer, why was the study withheld and why it took five years to produce the requested information, especially at a time when, as Yan asserts, there was “enormous public interest” in it. foreign investments in real estate.
Yan said that such a delay creates a “crisis of confidence” with the government and, in his view, there is a “direct lead” between this crisis and the protests against vaccines and vaccines passports fueled by a such mistrust.
In a third example of the government’s failure to properly produce records, the withholding of details of the sale of the Little Mountain property in Vancouver came to an end on August 31 when developer Holborn Properties abandoned its judicial review of a decision of the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s office calling for the 2008 Holborn land sale contract with the government to be made public.
The CBC and former NDP MP David Chudnovsky had searched for the records since 2018. The three-year saga has highlighted the difficulties faced by the public, including the media, in accessing government information.
“This is a transaction of public goods in private pockets,” Yan said, adding, “this, if at all, is a clear call for transparency. Because otherwise, if it is hidden under the veil of government secrecy, this creates an environment conducive to corruption.
The records showed what Chudnovsky described as a “deal of the heart” whereby Holborn secured a $ 211 million interest-free loan from the provincial government plus a “credit” of $ 88 million for the promised construction of 234 units. non-marketable on the property (which still have to be built).
Conacher said freedom of information laws are full of loopholes, especially that protecting companies’ contracts with the government, as was the case with Holborn. His group advocates the proactive disclosure of most government information, with the exception of genuinely proprietary information, personal information, police investigations, and national security matters.
“Information is almost never proprietary, in fact. It’s just used to hide bad business where the public gets ripped off or the government does favors on insiders or friends of the ruling party and they don’t want the public to know that you are doing these favors, ”he said. said Conacher. (Holborn donated over $ 226,000 to the ruling Liberals in British Columbia before corporate giving was banned in 2018).
Conacher adds that there are no sanctions against bureaucrats and politicians who break information laws.
During this federal election campaign, no federal party specifically devoted part of its platform to improving access to information laws. The Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats have committed in their platforms to a federal registry of beneficial properties. The government has already pledged to create a similar registry for companies, including shells.