Knee Deep in Lotusland
The Peddling of the Private Residences… Undercover in the Bowels of Vancouver’s Big-Money Real Estate Racket
by Marc Serpa
THE COME ON
“We chose a boutique management company because we wanted a more… personable product.” Management from Texas, marketing out of London, a developer based in Singapore. She’s really working the Singapore angle.
“It’s a fabulous investment. They’re just such a proud people, you know? I really shouldn’t say this... because I’m Asian...” she lets roll a practiced little chuckle, “but developers from Hong Kong, they just want the money.” She laughs again. It’s a weird, mechanical laugh. “Have you been to Singapore? Oh, so you know. They’re really more concerned with reputation.”
She’s wearing all black. Knee-high leather boots, odd-fitting slacks like riding pants and a lacy, low-cut top. Money likes sexy. It feels like a call girl is pitching two-million dollar condos. I look around at the sterile white of the showroom; promotional shills on the walls, disembodied model kitchens. An intricate scale model of the forthcoming high-rise is encased in glass before us.
Basically they’re renovating Vancouver’s old Hotel Georgia and building a big über-bourgeois condo tower over the parking garage next door. A simply beautiful mélange of historic elegance and ultra-contemporary design, it reads. Another sign hawks the illustrious patronage of the hotel in her golden years: Louis Armstrong, Sinatra, the Rolling Stones… even Elvis. With such “simple, elegant choices,” surely they’d buy condos here if they could. She prattles on with her spiel: light and dark color schemes, optional waterproof flat-screen above the tub, floor plan A, B, C, etc.
Mother of God, how did I get here? I glance down at my tattered sandals and stained pants. I’ve come with my great aunt, but we both look a couple of bingo patrons. I guess they figure anyone can have money. She’s come to town hunting for an investment and I get to be the chauffeur.
Nonetheless, I feel dirty just being here; treasonous. With the showroom actually on the ground floor of the old hotel, pedestrians pass by the big windows facing out on Georgia Street. I try not to make eye contact, thinking of the scorn I’d lay upon the rich bugger inside if it were me passing.
We go over to a huge computer screen and she shows us the digitally generated views from different floors and aspects. Southwest over the art gallery, northeast towards the mountains. Once you’re a couple dozen floors up and high enough to see across most of the other buildings, the cost jumps like nobody’s business. I ask for an actual figure. Another laugh. “We’ll have better numbers by the end of the week, so I can only give a rough estimate.” Eventually I get out of her that the smallest, single bedrooms will begin at a little under a million. She starts in on the perks.
“The tower will be fully attached to the hotel with maid service if you want it… you’ll basically be able to order room service from the best chef in Van and he’s a national finalist, just to die for… of course, the location is duh-vine…” I ask about bankruptcy protection for the development. She figures I’m kidding, smiles, and heads right back into the pitch. “Complete fitness center and spa… he’s Sting’s trainer when he comes to town…” And then, all of a sudden she’s talking about a golf trip to Thailand.
“It was our last day, and we found out after that it was the same hotel as that guy who got SARS. Can you believe it? We checked out at ten. He checked in at eleven and coughed in the elevator. They said the people who took it after got sick. I guess I’m lucky like that.” Apparently this is the preamble to the seismic assuagement.
“Oh, the regulations are quite strict. Everything’s good to 7.5.” She leans close and whispers conspiratorially, “we’re on a fault line you know.” I mention the recent earthquake in Peru, it was 8.0.
She laughs again.
“Well, I guess when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.”
KNEE DEEP IN LOTUSLAND
It’s game day for the rich down at the Hotel Georgia. Nerves run high as hopeful buyers mill about the presentation gallery, salivating every time one of the saleswomen appears with a summons. Each sale leaves the rest with bowels twisting, clenching collectively tighter because they know damn well that every one that goes pushes them a little further from their honey pot. It’s already four o’clock and signing has been going on since the morning. With more contenders than available units, sweaty palms rub under competitive glares as bleats of nervous laughter fill the air.
A couple weeks since my last foray, I’ve come back to the Georgia today to act as power-of-attorney for my great aunt. I’ve got an appointment but there’s no guarantee she can afford whatever might be left by then. But, if I can get one, it’s pure gravy. Twenty-five percent down in the first year after which that you can sell at who knows what kind of obscene mark-up. The color scheme and floor plan and all that couldn’t be more irrelevant. The developer is only releasing sixty percent of the units today to raise the easy capital for building.
Once those go, they’ll jack the prices up monstrously and everyone who got in will be laughing all the way to market.
The crowd is almost entirely Asian; Hong Kong mostly, or so I’ve been led to believe, but with some Koreans over by the windows and a few Persians dressed better than everyone else. A gaggle of shriveled old white ladies loiter conspicuously by the catering, shaded by the kind of hideous, floppy hats even a Shriner would think tacky. With haughty sneers, they stand as close as their massive bonnets allow and scrutinize the competition. I realize after a moment that their furtive glances have landed on me, but they collectively recoil when I raise a brow and level my own reproach.
Hey, where’d that guy get the wine? They must be hiding it from me, the sly bastards. If I’m gonna hobnob, I’ll do it right, by god. Wearing my big backpack and crumby clothes that happen to be clean, I’ve gathered a selection of treats and now stoop over a marble countertop. Roasted things, strange crackers, stinky cheeses; time to kick back and watch the money-dance.
Behind a table on my left, a middle aged woman churns out lattés and the like for a small queue. A man waiting for his coffee seems totally oblivious to the sores he’s salting.
“Only three years I immigrate from China and already have three million.”
She looks up at him with tired eyes and tries to smile.
“Wow. That’s great,” and she turns to the coffee machine.
“How old, guess please?”
“Ha!” he laughs, “you’re right. That’s yours also?”
There’s a veritable deluge of staff: salespeople from marketing, runners from the developer, caterers bursting from the back with endless silver trays and an elderly Punjabi security guard teetering in the corner. There’s even a young whippersnapper who just kind of hangs about and looks desperately for something to do—a plate to clear, a rogue coffee cup… anything. And he’s not fooling either; I just caught him fold over and snatch up a little scrap of Kleenex in mid-stride. Hot damn, they run a tight ship down here.
A svelte, white saleswoman with short and fantastically red-streaked hair comes thundering past on massive heels. She trips and booms a tremendous clop around the vacuous room, every head snapping instantly towards her. A snicker escapes from some ass, as with a red face and big, mortified smile, she approaches an older Asian couple. The wife, gaudily plastered and glittering from neckline to knuckle, hangs stiffly from the arm of her silent, utterly impassive husband. I can’t hear what she tells them, but whatever it is, a vicious scowl cleaves the wife’s strata of powder and prompts a guttural harrumph from the husband. She ain’t getting the one she wants, I’ll tell you that for free.
Suddenly my sales-liaison from the other day appears, come to advance me to the holding pen. She’s all in black again, but severe this time; no skin, like she’s going to a funeral. No need to sell anything at this point, she’s done her job plenty well it seems. Hmm… wonder what she makes? Would she like to get one of these for herself, or does she prefer it out in a suburb?
“It’s just cray-zee in here.” She’s all smiles and chitchat as she steers me through the crowd. “God, these heels are just killing me. I wish I was wearing your shoes.”
“I bet you do,” I say, flexing my toes in the used loafers I paid four dollars for at the Mennonite thrift store over on Fraser.
We reach a little enclosure of black velvet curtains. A small line waits along a red felt cordon in front, but she deposits me at the front. A little murmur of indignation goes up along the line behind me.
“They’ll just be a minute,” she grins, loud enough for the line to hear. She loves the novelty of giving some shaggy mendicant the treatment while the fatbacks who patronize her all day squirm.
Once she’s gone I turn around and survey the aggrieved. With some glee I discover that one of the floppy hat ladies is in the line. With bulging eyes and jowls shaking she pulls her eyes from me and glowers at the black nothing of the curtains with enough ferocity to instigate a stroke.
“Well, there’s no official data on that,” comes the ominous disclaimers of the hatchet men from inside the enclosure. “Not the responsibility of the developer… full discretion of the developer to cancel the contract.” I can’t hear what follows and instead try to pick up the conversation from a group sipping their wine over by the wall.
“I do like it here, but… well, it is eight hours till London,” complains one woman’s British accent. “It can be a dreadful bother to telephone. And also,” she sighs, “from Van you can only fly direct to certain countries.” Behind them on the wall there’s a big map of the city with a little orange dot for where the tower will be. Vancouver is consistently rated one of the most liveable cities in the world reads along the bottom.
Behind me, an older Persian couple emerge grandly from the enclosure and stalk off behind one of the saleswomen. After a moment an arm extends from between the folds.
“We’re ready for you, sir.”
THE WINNERS CLUB
“What about 1404?”
“Nope,” he says.
I’m within the curtains. Two chairs and small folding table are the only furniture. Hanging before me is a large profile of the as yet unborn condo tower; not due, in fact, until 2011.
Anticipated, impending, fated… I’m here to purchase a very expensive piece of sky. I stand before the profile, at the side of a slick, thirty-something white man and we go through my list. His associate, who could well be his twin, sits and fills out a form at the table.
“Let’s see… actually, there’s nothing at all on the fourteenth.” Condos only start on the fourteenth floor with amenities and ‘executive offices’ below that. I’ve been given a graded list of suite numbers by my aunt with the hope of getting the lowest, cheapest thing possible.
“Only floor plan A.”
“Is that the big one?”
“Yup. Same on sixteen. If you want something smaller, you’ll have to go up to… oh, there’s still an E on seventeen.”
“Which number is that?” Christ, it’s down to the dregs. Or, the anti-dregs, actually. Auntie doesn’t really have the big money required to properly ascend the golden staircase.
I look down at my sheet. It’s the last number on the list of about a dozen.
“Alright. I’ll take it.”
The guy at the table looks up at his cohort then makes a note of it. 1,070 square feet at an affordable $1.25 mil.
“Perfect,” he beams at me and we shake. “If you’ll accompany Janine here…” he beckons a woman from outside, “we’ll get you all done up with the contracts.”
And with that, transcendence. From the ominous black of the buyer’s judgment hall, she conducts me forward to a sublime, empyreal little white-curtained cubicle. We sit at a little table and she opens a large folder before us. With manifest grace in my fingertips I initial a vast slew of sheets I’ll never read a word of. An inconsistent scribble which will instantly separate me from those still in waiting beyond this hallowed realm.
When we’re done with the signing Janine escorts me to the homeowners lounge. It’s back over by the black curtains and old Floppy Hat in the line gives me the stink eye as I pass.
Ah, yes, here we go… the winners club. About a dozen people stand around or lounge on the leather couches of the model living room. How fitting a setting to bask in our glorious ascendancy. Set by the entrance is a platter of chocolate-dipped strawberries intricately decorated to resemble little tuxedos. I approach the bartender who’s popping a new bottle of champagne.
“Champagne or scotch?”
“Hmm...” I investigate the labels. Oh, hello… an eighteen year is it? “I better take one of each, my good man. And tall.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Aw, don’t call me that… I’m just posturing.”
He grins, and we chat. Apparently he’s a painter who specializes in large murals of fish, seeking in his art to address issues of over-fishing and sustainability. Far out. He invites me to a gallery opening in a few weeks and puts me on an email list. The guy’s so happy to talk to someone in a lower tax bracket that he swears he’d slip me a bottle of the scotch if he could get away with it.
I take a seat on a couch facing a big, silent flatscreen. Breaking News, says the caption, small plane crashes in Richmond. A live feed shows the gouge rent in someone’s bedroom, a little spout of water cascading from a mangled pipe. Apartment building hit… scrolls the banner across the bottom of the screen, cause unknown… The steady tripod shot of the apartment exterior continues without variation as the minutes roll on. With no sound, the static image makes for a bizarre backdrop as a couple of pros sit down on the other couch.
“So, how many did you get over there?”
“Oh, 'bout four.”
Chopper 9 live… If you witnessed the crash call…
“So, you got four and six, another two is twelve…”
He whistles, impressed. Maybe he’s new at this.
“Times a million-five… Jesus that’s good money…”
“Well," ... big smile, “it’s hard to lose.”
It’s a free for all. And how did he get two? Did he grease the wheels somehow? I wonder whether anyone who buys these places ever intends to actually live in them. It’s a bloody scalpers’ market. Christ is it easy to make more money once you’ve got a lot of it.
Momentarily, one of the twins from the land of black curtains comes in and sits across from me. He’s from the States somewhere and I ask what he does when this is over.
“Oh, you know… more travel.” He’ll be off to sell the remainder at what he implies will be significantly higher prices. The usual places: Dubai, Hong Kong, Seoul…
I’m on to my second neat and peaty double when a group of four or five elegant seniors take up residence with their drinks and strawberries around the far side of the other couch. What feels like the same goddamn image of the mangled apartment still sits silently on the TV.
“These are friends we met on that wine tour. She’s from the Austrian consulate.”
“Oh, how lovely. What floor did you get?”
“Thank you,” the Austrian says and smiles, “What can I say? Vancouver is a good place to spend some money.”
Illustration by Spencer Brown