License to Shill: Why aren’t there restrictions on licensing of realtors in Vancouver?

The litany of lost opportunities to meaningfully address the housing crisis in our city is depressingly long, and given the role that the real estate industry can play in that equation — you might be surprised to learn that the City of Vancouver have absolutely no rules or regulations to govern the licensing of realtors doing business in the City of Vancouver.

Wednesday morning (July 13) the Independent Advisory Group on Real Estate Licensee Conduct, in a presentation to City Hall reported on Conduct and Practices in the Real Estate Industry in British Columbia. The Advisory Group, mandated by the Real Estate Council of BC was there ostensibly to reassure City Councillors that something was being done on a provincial level about corruption and conduct in that industry.

The practices of certain bad player realtors in our city have come under increasing scrutiny in recent months: from shady practices like shadow flipping and double ending, to serious allegations about ethics, transparency and discipline within the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver and even some realtors failing to comply with federal (FINTRAC) money laundering rules — but so far, City Council hasn't taken any action.

Three term Vision Vancouver Councillor Kerry Jang even had the temerity / lack of self-awareness to ask “what took you so long?” of the industry regulators’ failure to address the housing crisis, jokingly asking if they “were having too good a time making too much money” (I think somewhere in the audience I heard the echo of a sad trombone).

Some might argue that the licensing of realtors is already mandated and regulated by the provincial government, and that’s true. In the wake of reports of egregious and unfettered realtor practices, the provincial government recently acted decisively (if not belatedly) to end the controversial practice of real estate industry self regulation. But the recently streamlined process for acquiring a license to do business in the City of Vancouver doesn’t now, nor has it ever placed any restrictions or regulation on realtors operating in our city.

Provincial and federal legislation and jurisdictional overlaps aren’t otherwise precluded from existing City of Vancouver licensing though. In fact, the City has a number of business licensing bylaws that overlap with pre-existent senior government legislation, addressing specific industry sectors under a mandate that includes “protecting vulnerable populations”. It’s not a stretch to suggest the housing crisis in our city has created a significantly vulnerable population — so why is the city failing to enact suitable protection methods?

A review of City’s License Bylaw (4450), details a number of definitions, conditions, prescriptions, and restrictions to getting a business license. Want to open a cheque-cashing business? Despite robust federal legislation and industry self-regulation, there’s a bylaw for that. Want to open a business that serves alcohol? Despite readily enforcable provincial laws, there are dozens of conditions outlined in the bylaw including “responsible serving practices… [per] provincial operating regulations”. Open a compassion club? There are over thirty different articulated conditions, despite pre-existing federal law and industry self-regulation.

Contractors, recyclers, bowling alleys, dating services, pet stores, bike couriers, vapour-lounges: each have conditions and restrictions on doing business in our city — but there is nothing for realtors. At Wednesday’s presentation a number of city councillors expressed concerns about residents, seniors in particular being duped by unsolicited high pressure realtor sales tactics — while city business licensing bylaws prohibit contractors and peddlers from such practices, there is no bylaw for realtors.

The realtor business is booming: the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver reports an all time high with 12,200 registered realtors. Licensing couldn’t be easier: $1300 and an online course is all it takes, companies like New Coast Realty will generously offer pre-training and a bursary to cover the cost. It should be noted that New Coast are also notorious for ethically dubious training, along with a lack of FINTRAC compliance, double-ending and shadow flipping.

Given the impact of housing unaffordability, it is not enough that the city rely on industry self-regulation, toothless legislation, and as yet undelivered provincial oversight. Under their mandate to regulate the licensing of business, trade, professions, and other occupations with the City of Vancouver - licensing should at the very least be regulating the practices of realtors in our city, it’s shamefully long overdue.