Opinion: Racial Discrimination in BC Real Estate

Richard Bell B.A. LL.B.
July 13, 2015

Recent media reports have brought to public attention a rather lengthy history of racial discrimination in the ownership of real estate in BC, such as this CBC story and this one in the National Post.  

Here is a sampling of covenants that are now void by legislation but that some people have found still showing on title:

  •  “…the Grantee or his heirs, administrators, executor, successors or assigns will not sell to, agree to sell to, rent to, lease to or permit or allow to occupy, the said lands and premises, or any part thereof, any person of the Chinese, Japanese or other Asiatic race or to any Indian or Negro.”
  • “No person of African or Asiatic race or of African or Asiatic descent (except servants of the occupier of the premises in residence) shall reside or be allowed to remain on the premises.” 

What is even more shocking is the second example is from a document registered as recently as 1965.

The Problem with Registered Covenants

So why not just get rid of it? The problem is that this discriminatory language has to remain visible on title as the covenant may contain other restrictions that are not discriminatory and are still applicable, such as those dealing with land usage.

The Registrar of the Land Title & Survey Authority of BC says it is unable to remove the offensive language without a court order, which is expensive and may not be successful due to the other valid legal provisions in the covenant.

I would respectfully submit there are two options to remove the offensive language.

Firstly, in the age of technology there is a simple solution: redaction, the “blackening out” of the offensive language.

Secondly, an even better solution would be to give the Registrar discretion to remove the registered covenant in its entirety where the other provisions in the covenant are obsolete or contrary to current municipal bylaws or other legislation. For example, the covenant may require the approval of building plans by the original owner who may have since died or in the case of a corporation has ceased to exist. Similarly the covenant may allow of only one residence, whereas City of Vancouver bylaws now allow for the building of laneway housing.

Apparently the Registrar does not believe they can take any action in respect of these offensive racial covenants without a legislative change.

So the government should just get on with it and make the necessary legislative change.

Learning from Past Mistakes on Racial Discrimination

This offensive discriminatory language should remind us of past mistakes and in the words attributable to many, including George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

We should always be looking at issues through the lens of history and perhaps we will be fortunate to not repeat the mistakes of our past. This is something to keep in mind as we, as a community, discuss the issues of non-resident buyers. We need to be asking if there is an underlying element of discrimination as people look to blame the Chinese buyer for Vancouver being unaffordable, as opposed to the wealthy of the world who want to own a piece of one of the most popular cities in the world. And whether this incoming global wealth is just one of many factors affecting prices in Vancouver and other great cities such as New York, London, Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland.

Perhaps other factors contributing to unaffordability are continued low interest rates, intergenerational wealth transfers (estimated for Canada to be $1 trillion in the next 15 years), downsizing baby boomers competing against the buyers trying to move up, increased density reducing detached housing stock and municipal development costs.

And adding confusion to this whole issue is the current level of activity – June 2015 was the second highest number of sales for any month on record!

Richard Bell B.A. LL.B.
Richard Bell is a Vancouver lawyer who specializes in real estate, wills and estate planning, probate, and immigration law. He is the co-founder of Bell Alliance Lawyers & Notaries Public and has been named Best Real Estate Lawyer in Canada by Canadian Real Estate Magazine.