Is there really an empty condo problem? And if so, anything to be done about it?

News earlier this week of extensive new research on the “empty condo crisis” by Andy Yan, of Bing Thom Associates, produced a frenzy of media  coverage that has yet to peter out.

Now Yan has provided a useful clarification of many of the misunderstandings about hisstudy, including what is meant by “empty” and “foreign.” (This was a case where few wanted the facts to stand in the way of a good story or a cherished opinion.)

Still to be determined, however, as Gary Mason pointed out March 23 in the Globe, is whether there is a crisis, and if there is, whether anything could or should be done about it.

For as Yan’s provocative slide show makes clear, the seemingly high number of “empty or non-resident occupied” units in Coal Harbour, to take one example, may not be truly “empty,” just not occupied when the census was taken.

They may be used by out of town owners for vacations, awaiting renovation, or lightly used for countless reasons.They are not a problem for the city from a tax standpoint, because taxes are paid and services not consumed.

But suppose they are really empty. Why own a unit and leave it empty? If it’s for speculative purposes, the market will render justice eventually. If for other reasons, whose business is it?

I’ve often wondered how a crackdown on “empty” units would work. With teams of inspectors, perhaps, monitoring electrical use, then sweeping in to cross-examine neighbours and visitors?

Of course, some will say the real issue is the “foreign investors.” Really? The Americans, for example? No, the conversation usually swerves around to Chinese investors, whose interest in owning BC real estate is supposedly turning our market upside down. I don’t buy it.

Yan’s research is clear-eyed and of high quality. Four years ago, he reported that one avenue of inquiry suggested the “empty condo” problem was a myth. The latest analysis raises a different possibility, that in some areas of Metro Vancouver the “empty” rate is higher than might be expected.

A problem? Not compared to homelessness and housing affordability, where the city is taking action and seeing results.