Archive for February, 2009

Terminus – 36 Water Street in Gastown sculptural’ addition

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Latest Gastown households move in to homes that are intensely modern spaces behind a serenely Victorian facade

Michael Sasges
Sun

photographs, by Nic Lehoux, from the rear, or Blood Alley side, of the completed Terminus new-home project

Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood, interior and exterior

The Terminus hotel, for example, was built in 1889. The Stanley and New Fountain hotels across the alley were built in 1907

In our homes, by our comparative novelty culturally, the opportunity to juxtapose old and new, later century and earlier, one design period and another, is limited — the pairing, for example, of a mid-century modern Womb chair and ottoman with the restored bay window of a Victorian railway hotel framing an Edwardian warehouse.

That’s why it’s a pleasure to show you photographs from the recently completed Terminus new-home project on Water Street in Vancouver‘s Gastown neighbourhood.

The 46 Terminus households will reside in spaces ranging in size from 623 square feet to 1,624 square feet.

They are now moving in.

The developer is The Salient Group; the architect, Acton Ostry, and the interior designer, Evoke International Design Inc.

Acton Ostry commissioned most of the photography published here and inside, for inclusion in submissions to architectural competitions.

The firm’s assignment to Vancouver photographer Nic Lehoux, Mark Ostry says, was “Capture the sculptural character of complex spaces.”

The Terminus homes envelop their occupants in innovative, sustainable design, behind old-as-they-get Gastown facades. (The restored bay windows in the front-of-building homes were installed almost 110 years ago.) The homes are heated and cooled geo-thermally.

They are emphatically linear, their outside walls equally boundaries between households and canvases for tempering the linearity with European kitchens and bathrooms and artful millwork.

The adjacent Terminus and Grand hotels are lending their facades to the new Terminus building.

The former was destroyed by fire in 1998, with only its Water Street facade saved. The latter was neglected for years and had been largely demolished, the exception its Water Street facade.

The households moving into the Terminus received a memorable housewarming gift last week: a mention of their new homes in the Wall Street Journal newspaper.

CITY HALL’S HERITAGE INCENTIVES HELPED PUT NEW HOMES IN OLD BUILDING

The Terminus developer, Robert Fung of the Salient Group, is worried about the opportunity to do another Terminus.

‘With the City [of Vancouver] putting its heritage-incentive program under review, I’m concerned that projects like the Terminus may – repeat, may – not happen again.

‘The value to the buyer in these projects is unparalleled. Due to the heritage incentives assisting in the cost, the developer is able to sell the suites at less than what they cost to build. In this case, homebuyers truly get much more than they paid for.’

The heritage-preservation incentives that city hall now is reviewing were passed by previous councils ‘to facilitate the conservation and rehabilitation of heritage buildings’ in the Vancouver’s first neighbourhoods, Gastown, Chinatown, Victory Square and Hastings Street between Cambie Street and Heatley Avenue, a city hall report says.

THERE WERE THREE PARTS TO THE PROGRAM:

- Grants to the owners of heritage properties to improve their properties’ exteriors.

- Property-tax exemptions.

- Sellable density.

”A frequently used incentive is granting of bonus density in exchange for the rehabilitation and legal protection of a heritage building,” a city hall primer on this incentive says.

‘When it is not possible to use this bonus density by adding more development on the same site as the heritage building, council or the Development Permit Board may authorize it to be made available for transfer to another site where there is opportunity for additional development.

‘The sale of transferable heritage density generates funds for the owner of the heritage site; this helps defray rehabilitation costs.’

Salient sold out the Terminus in June, 2006, but some buyers have decided not to close. (No news there these days!)

A RECENT HISTORY

Blood Alley’s history is more recent than many of the structures that back on to it.

The Terminus hotel, for example, was built in 1889. The Stanley and New Fountain hotels across the alley were built in 1907.

Blood Alley, however, was created in the middle 1970s. In the words of one city hall document, the “significant public realm improvements” done then “included the brick and granite pavement and planters [and] lighting treatment.”

When built, the Stanley and the

New Fountain were separate hotels, but were combined, again in the 1970s, as housing for the destitute and impoverished.

The City of Vancouver now owns the combined buildings. The Portland Hotel Society manages them.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

 

February median market values: ‘Sky has not fallen the way a lot people have predicted’

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Sun

Last month, and on behalf of Vancouver Sun readers, the wizards at Landcor Data Corp. passed almost 466,000 Lower Mainland residential addresses through the company’s proprietary property-valuation software.

Then, the purpose of the exercise was to answer a question on the minds of many: are we well or poorly served by the B.C. government’s decision to ”cap” assessments at the lesser of two values, the July, 2008 value from BC Assessment or the July, 2007 value?

The conclusion? The value of Lower Mainland homes in January was more likely than not within five per cent of the value BC Assessment gave it in July, 2007, meaning the assessment freeze allows most B.C. homeowners to pay tax on property values that reflect the current market conditions.

This month, Landcor repeated the exercise, but with a different purpose: To generate “last seen” residential values to help identify just how much market values have deteriorated.

THE CONCLUSIONS:

[1] The majority of detached-residence values throughout the Lower Mainland are within three per cent, plus or minus, of May and June, 2007 values, averaging from $380,000 in Abbotsford to $1.135 million in West Vancouver.

[2] Apartment and townhouse values, not in all locations, but certainly in Abbotsford, Surrey, Delta, Port Moody, Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows are very close to values seen in 2008, meaning their values have held better than detached values, likely due to the relative affordability of attached residency. Values range from $200,000 to $340,000.

The study had some surprises and unexpected trends.

“If you look specifically at Vancouver, both attached and detached values are most similar to July 07 and August 07 market values,” comments Rudy Nielsen, founder and president of Landcor. ”This is very much in line with what I expected to see, given the findings from last month’s article.

”However, segments like West Vancouver attached homes are reflecting values dating back to September, 2006, meaning a drastic correction is taking place in that market.

He goes on to explain that “what is telling from this information is that the majority of market values are holding better than most had expected. We are coming down from some unreasonably high market values, but the sky has not fallen the way a lot of people have predicted.”

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Builders, developers pursue new ways to attract prospects to their sales centres

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Sun

Walking the talk at the Anderson Walk new-home project, Chris Tsakumis reports Epta Properties is changing with the times, big and small. An Internet blog will chronicle construction to boost customer confidence. Smaller homes and back-to-basic finishes also created better-for-these-times prices. ‘Our expectations had to change on what we could sell the product for,’ he says. ‘Price point is what everything is coming down to and we decided to build what was practical.’ Photograph by: Glenn Baglo, Vancouver Sun

ANDERSON WALK

Project: 51 single-family homes (28 in first release)

Location: 14645 Winter Crescent, south Surrey

Size Range: 2,500 sq. ft. – 2,800 sq. ft.

Price Range: $590,000 -$640,000

Developer: Epta Properties

Interior Designer: TD Swansburg Design Studio

Exterior Designer: Tynan Design

Sales Release: April 5

Occupancy: Homes are built after they are sold

Web: andersonwalk.ca or www.eptaproperties.com

Telephone: 604-270-1890

- – -

The “reality check” of today’s retreating new-home prices and sales is forcing local developers and builders to seek innovative responses, ranging from offering buyer incentives to exiting the build-to-sell market.

On Tuesday, for example, and over breakfast, a rental-property broker will introduce members of the local development fraternity and their builders to a subject history suggests they would prefer not to examine.

”Ready for Rental” is the name of the seminar, organized by the Urban Development Institute. The presenter is David (”We’ve just sold our fourth building this year”) Goodman.

Local developers and builders, in this decade, mostly assemble property for eventual new-home additions to the property and, then, to sell a finished product, home by home and not building by building, and only rarely to assume a landlord function.

The blow to new-home-buyer confidence delivered by the international recession, however, is forcing a review of that business model.

Industry leaders like Ward McAllister (Ledingham McAllister) thinks buyer interest hasn’t so much as crashed as frozen up.

“It’s like everything’s been held in suspended animation,” he was quoted as saying. McAllister said he was at a recent gathering of Lower Mainland developers and posed the question how many were starting new condo projects for 2009? The answer was zero.

So how is the industry responding?

They are starting to think outside the box to deal with their properties and old stock.

More and more are considering building rental apartments or enquire with B.C. Housing into whether some of their sites can be used for future social housing projects.

Epta Properties is one such developer finding innovative ways to deal with the slowdown. A single-family housing project in south Surrey, called Anderson Walk, is being downsizing from larger, more expensive homes to smaller, more affordable ones.

As well Epta’s proposal to build a 17-storey luxury condo project on Johnson Road, in White Rock, is being scrapped. Instead, the developer is at city hall requesting a zoning change in order to build a seniors independent living complex.

“It (the seniors complex) just makes more sense,” says Epta vice-president Chris Tsakumis.

“Seniors are saying to us finally someone is coming to build something for us in the core.”

But the project that has already received the green light is Anderson Walk — where homes that would have been larger and selling in the $700,000 to $720,000 price range are now smaller with a starting price of $590,000. (Upgrades to granite countertops, hardwood floors instead of engineered laminate and closet organizers would, of course, increase the base price. Stainless steel appliances are included.)

“It is a reality check.,” says Tsakumis. “You have to be realistic on what you think you can sell. Our expectations had to change on what we could sell the product for. Price point is what everything is coming down to and we decided to build what was practical.

“Each developer is different. Some still have expectations beyond what they should expect. We’re realizing it’s better to build product that fits the market.”

That means the first release at Anderson Walk, in south Surrey, will be marketed towards one of the few buyers out there — the first-time buyer. And unlike the boom years when buyers were lined up outside the door and a developer couldn’t build fast enough the company is constructing the homes as they are sold.

This also works to the consumer’s favour as well, says Tsakumis, who notes: “In a slowing market this gives people the opportunity to sell their homes first.”

In total 51 three-storey homes will be built at Anderson Walk but in the first phase only 28 are being released, with sales starting April 5. The second phase homes will be larger, around 3, 800 sq. ft., and will be directly adjacent to Anderson Creek, which runs parallel to the project, located just off Highway 99 on the west side.

Tsakumis feels, despite the economic downturn, the west side of Highway 99 will fare better than new builds happening elsewhere in south Surrey, such as the newly created neighbourhood of Morgan Creek.

“The west side is more established and older whereas the newer area is not so well-entrenched. Eventually it will do well but there is so much development there it’s created some confusion,” he says.

The only other project nearby Anderson Walk is Parklane’s South Porte, but with a bigger product on the market at a higher price he doesn’t see that as competition for Epta Properties.

The first 28 buyers at Anderson Walk will also get some incentives the company was able to negotiate with Best Buy and Shaw. All will receive $3,500 in home electronics free as well as the set-up and three months free Shaw TV, HGTV and high speed internet with no obligations should they choose not to continue the service after the three months.

As well, all of the first homebuyers will receive a free design consultation with with Teresa Ryback, of TD Swansburg Design Studio.

Another new approach Epta Properties is trying with Anderson Walk is creating a regular video blog on the website showing the progression of construction. It’s all about being as “transparent and open” as possible so consumers can feel confident with the product they are getting, says Tsakumis.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Fidelity’s new netbook keeps it simple

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Sun

Netbook VPC, Fidelity

Inspiron Mini 10, Dell

SideWinder X8 Mouse, Microsoft

G-Pen F509, Genius

Netbook VPC, Fidelity, $250

While most manufacturers are adding features and upping the size of their netbooks — and their prices — Fidelity Electronics is going the other direction. Its newly launched Fidelity Netbook VPC (for “Very Personal Computer”) is true to the mini-notebook origins, but it includes a spreadsheet, word processor, a media player for movies, music and photos, an e-book reader, dictionary, calendar, and other useful items. The display screen is among the smallest in netbooks, at seven inches (17.7 cm) and internal storage is only 2 GB. Its rechargeable battery has a three-hour life, and it has USB, SD and Ethernet ports. At a featherweight 1.5 pounds, it’s among the lightest netbooks out there. The new VPC is scheduled to start arriving on store shelves in March. www.fidelity.com.

Inspiron Mini 10, Dell, $480

Dell’s Inspiron Mini 10 fills the niche between the company’s Mini 9 and Mini 12. On its arrival, it has most of the standard netbook features, but Dell is planning to add options later this year that could make the latest Mini an entertainment machine. Slightly heftier than its junior sibling, at 1.3 kilograms (or 2.86 pounds), it also comes with a larger keyboard at 92 per cent of a full-size one. Including features that are pretty much standard on the growing netbook lineups being rolled out by computer makers, it has built-in WiFi, Webcam, 1 GB of RAM, and a 160 GB hard drive, with Windows XP. It also comes with HDMI output, to be followed up with entertainment options for the Mini 10 later this year that include an internal digital TV tuner, HD resolution, and external USB DVD player options. www.dell.ca. You can also find out more by following Dell’s Canadian Dell sales on Twitter at Twitter.com/DellHomeSalesCA.

SideWinder X8 Mouse, Microsoft, $120

For gamers, Microsoft bills its latest in the SideWinder line as having the best frame rate, speed and acceleration on the market, with a tracking range from 250 dots per inch (dpi) to 4,000 dpi. It adds the BlueTrack technology of the Microsoft Explorer mouse and the Microsoft Explorer mini mouse that lets it work on virtually any surface. Combine that with 2.4 GHz wireless and up to 30 hours of game-playing time on a single charge, or use the play-and-charge cable. www.microsoft.com/canada/hardware.

G-Pen F509, Genius, $110 US

The latest in Genius’ digital tablets, the G-Pen comes with both Windows Vista and Mac software. Meant to make it easy to carry around, with a 13 cm-by-22 cm (5.25 inch-by-8.75 inch) working area, this makes a paperless solution for artists, sketchers, bloggers and others who want to use a digital pen. www.geniusnetusa.com

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Talking about the future of Metro real estate – Patsy Hui – Realtor says good time to buy

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

The Sun hears from a panel of experts who share their predictions about the Lower Mainland’s property market in the months ahead

Sun

As long as we keep getting immigrants into Canada, and the wealth keeps coming in, and the talent keeps coming in — this is heaven on earth — they will pay anything for it. Patsy Hui

My sense is [prices] haven’t stabilized yet.

They have further to fall. You need to get change in sales before you get change in prices. Sales always lead prices.

Tsur Somerville

Most people in the homebuilding industry here do consider that housing is too expensive in Greater Vancouver.

And one of the benefits, perhaps, of this correction is that prices are coming down. Michael Audain

Q: On prices, do you think they will stabilize any time soon, have you seen any signs of that?

Michael Audain: I think the first thing to deal with is volume. The volume of sales was as low as I can remember it in about 27 years for October, November, December and January. The market was almost frozen. But we’ve noted in [the past month] the volume does seem to be picking up.

I think the price stabilization comes later. You have to have volume for a while, and to get volume people need to get their prices down to a level that the consumer thinks that they’re a bit of a bargain. There is a lack of confidence in the market and a belief that prices will continue to fall.

But I’m fairly confident — based on other market corrections I’ve lived through and traded through in the Greater Vancouver area — that by the third-quarter we’ll see price stabilization, if not price increases.

Patsy Hui: I don’t think anybody in this world — and I’m talking about the world this time because it’s a worldwide thing — can really tell you what’s going to happen and when it’s going to stabilize. I’d like to tell buyers that it’s already doing so, but I honestly always tell my clients to purchase. There’s only two criteria: First, that you can afford the payments for the next five years; and also that you love the place.

Just trade up, trade down, but stay in the market — 25 years later it’s your retirement income. We actually encourage this as a great time to buy. Interest rates this morning, I have a client telling me he got 2.4 per cent. Why wouldn’t you buy?

Tsur Somerville: My sense is they haven’t stabilized yet. They have further to fall. You need to get change in sales before you get change in prices. Sales always lead prices.

We saw in this market that sales started dropping before prices started dropping, and [a recovery] is going to, in a way, work the same process. The early indications suggest the decline has slowed dramatically and sales are much closer to having sort of bottomed out, but that’s not the same as turning around.

MA: Another indication of a direction of the public interest is that our sales offices have been very busy over the last two or three weeks.

I have no difficulty in advising close friends and family to buy a home now, with interest rates down at levels that I would never have thought believable and with the price corrections that have already happened in the market. So I strongly believe that if someone is to buy a home, in five years from now it’s going to look like a very smart decision. If they’re not prepared to live in that condo or single-family home for five years, then they should not be buying. That’s what I tell them.

…….

Q: Are people easily getting pre-approved for mortgages? That is one of the concerns being raised about whether, in fact, credit is moving, banks are lending.

PH: The only hiccup is [in] commercial [real estate]. For commercial, [banks] are starting to really, really make it very difficult.

MA: We’re finding that people who have employment have no trouble getting mortgages from banks and credit unions. We’re very fortunate in Vancouver, because I don’t think that is the case in the United States.

TS: When you’re looking on the investment side, from what I hear and what I’ve been told, the banks are much stricter on providing funds for people who are not going to be owner-occupiers. So there’s a piece that was an important piece of driving the market in the [past]. [Investment property] is a market where the financing is really hard to get. The investment side is completely dried up.

……..

Q: To see higher volumes of sales this spring, what do you see as the key factor that will bring buyers back?

MA: I think you can only freeze the market, as I mentioned before, for so long. And then there is a need for people to secure accommodation. And also, lets face it, people who have participated in the market over time have done very well. They have found, undoubtedly, their home has been their best investment.

Q: So you’re only losing if you look back at nine months ago when you didn’t sell your house?

TS: People do that. We did some research on what people’s reference point was for deciding on losses, and the reference point doesn’t necessarily turn out to be the price they purchased, but what was the maximum they could have made, which at some level doesn’t make any sense at all. But there’s that psychology out there, and I think it shows up particularly when you get these turning points.

MA: People like me who have been around for quite a long time in Greater Vancouver have experienced incredible appreciation. So I can tell people that I own a house in West Vancouver that has appreciated 17-fold since I originally bought it. So if I’ve had that experience, no wonder I’m going to advise a lot of young people to get into a home ownership position.

Q: What’s the likelihood of that kind of market growth being repeated?

MA: Oh, I believe in the future of British Columbia and most particularly Vancouver, very much so. That’s why in recent years our market has appreciated as much, because we have attracted a lot of people to our shores. That has driven the price of housing to quite high levels.

The other thing that has occurred is that many people have bought residences in Vancouver just like we would buy summer cottages.

Q: Since you mention that the investment market is struggling most, what does that mean for prices?

TS: The investment piece is still very small in the overall market. It’s highly concentrated in certain product types — downtown condos, certain suburban high-rise buildings. Overall, it’s not a big story. Going forward, we don’t really understand what is going to happen to those properties.

People will buy and sell them depending on what city is attractive or not attractive, or what city they want to be in. I don’t think we really know what’s going to happen to those condos over time.

A lot of local investors bought condos, and some of those people are going to be squeezed, and we don’t know what’s going to happen with them. You’ve got people with pre-sales that are under water. In segments of the market, there are still a lot of questions.

MA: There are different types of investors. There are people who you might call investors, but who only occupy the home part of the year. It’s not their principal residence. There are other people who buy condominiums to rent on a long-term basis, which is wonderful because it’s creating rental housing. And then there are those who buy to flip the property. I think those are more the “froth”, so to speak. They will get hurt in a market correction.

Q: Patsy, what do you see on the ground in terms of buying for occupation or investment?

PH: I’ve never dealt with flippers. I always advise my clients: Own your own home.

Everybody witnessed how Vancouver has changed. I came in 1970, and [it has] changed, believe me, and it will yet again. Because I think we were born in 1986 after Expo ended. We are like a toddler right now. And I think by this time next year, the world will really get to know us after 2010.

To make a long story short, basically, this is a baby as far as an international city is concerned. It sounds totally unaffordable for Canadian people, which was the same thing when I first went into the market.

I was a new immigrant in 1973. I’d only been here for 21/2 years. I ended up with my own 8,000-square-foot lot, six-year-old home, two-piece ensuite, gleaming hardwood floors. That’s [the] immigrants’ dream. As long as we keep getting immigrants into Canada, and the wealth keeps coming in, and the talent keeps coming in . . . this is heaven on earth. They will pay anything for it.

……..

Q: Tsur, what’s the expectations around the Olympics?

TS: I think anything that’s good about the Olympics, in terms of the economy, has happened already. I think what the Olympics has brought us is a certain kind of infrastructure that we might not have gotten already — the convention centre, a gateway project, the RAV line. That’s where long-term benefits are going to be.

I think what Patsy’s talking about about immigrants is really important in that part of what gives Vancouver, in the long run, a certain amount of strength is that Canada’s an attractive destination to come to . . . there are a limited number of places that people are going to go. We’ve got this basic growth. Even if we have a downturn, there is a base to help us grow out of it more quickly than might be the case otherwise.

MA: I think one of the interesting things about this market correction is that there has been relatively little overbuilding compared to other corrections I remember — such as what occurred in the early 1980s and the late 1990s.

This time, the banks have insisted on pre-sales, and as a consequence, right now we have a very low inventory of completed, unsold condominiums. Of course, people are now stopping building. Housing starts are down about 50 per cent from a year ago, and I think quite a few of my colleagues will take a bit of a holiday from building until the market strengthens again.

……….

Q: Is there anything governments, the provincial government in particular, can do vis a vis making housing a little more affordable?

MA: Yes, the provincial government needs to help first-time buyers. We find even a couple with full-time jobs, in many cases, haven’t been able to save for a down payment. So I think there’s a role for the government. We [once] had a home-purchase grant for first-time buyers — it was an incentive to help them get into their first home. I think that’s a role, and I would recommend that really as a way right now to increase employment in the province. You are going to be surprised at how low housing starts are going to be in the next few months. There’s no quicker way of firing up an economy than getting the housing sector going, much quicker than getting public works going.

PH: It’s not just homeowners we’re dealing with. We should be really looking into helping people, local people, invest right back [into rental properties].

Think again, what tax incentive is there to the homeowner to provide more affordable rental places so young people can actually save more money?

TS: I think the easiest thing to do on affordability is get rid of the property transfer tax for first-time buyers. Your cost of capital for that particular piece is really high. And getting rid of it for first-time buyers would not be a major hit on the provincial treasury. But that’s a short-term, one-time fix. How do we move forward? Doing things to streamline the regulatory process to make it easier to do certain types of development are going to have long-run effects, but that’s not a quick solution. Accelerate that process, remove the uncertainty. The clearer it’s going to be for developers, the less of their own equity they’re going to have to put up to go through that process, the quicker that process happens. It doesn’t mean you get rid of regulations, but streamlining that process is something that will have a long-term benefit.

On the other hand, we have poor renters who are in really difficult straits when you think of their ability to live reasonably close to work and have a reasonable percentage of their income going to housing. Given the land prices we have in this city, probably a more aggressive social housing policy is really going to be important.

If you look at other really land-constrained environments, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, they have very aggressive social housing programs. It’s not clear to me that the number of people who are truly priced out of the market — as opposed to being delayed for two years, or instead of owning a condo in downtown Vancouver end up in Burnaby — that doesn’t strike me as the acute issue.

MA: I’d just like to point out that most people in the homebuilding industry here do consider that housing is too expensive in Greater Vancouver. And one of the benefits, perhaps, of this correction is that prices are coming down. Also, the costs of new construction will come down. Construction costs are coming down, our finance costs — the interest we pay the banks is coming down — and also land prices will eventually come down a bit.

But one thing isn’t coming down, and that is the imposts we pay to municipalities. For instance, in Richmond we’re building wood-frame apartments for young people, first-time buyers. We’re paying over $28,000 per unit to the City of Richmond. In south Surrey, we’re paying over $25,000 per unit to the city for development-cost charges, again for homes we’re trying to sell to first-time buyers.

This is really counter to the whole idea of making housing more affordable.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

What happens if you don’t pay your parking tickets?

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Chad Skelton
Sun

Most people who get a parking ticket in Vancouver – 73 per cent, in fact — pay it, usually early to take advantage of the lower fine.

Others decide to fight their tickets in court, convinced either that they’re not guilty or that they have the perfect excuse that will get them off.

But every year, thousands of people decide to take another approach to their parking tickets: Ignoring them.

In fact, about 75,000 Vancouver parking tickets a year — one in every five — are unpaid.

So what happens if you don’t pay your parking ticket?

The city has a few options at its disposal.

If you don’t pay your ticket — or arrange to dispute it in court — the city will eventually send someone out to hand-deliver you a court summons.

If you then don’t show up in court, it’s technically possible that a warrant could be issued for your arrest.

More likely, however, is that the judicial justice of the peace will hold the trial in your absence, usually resulting in a guilty verdict.

The city will then send you a demand letter, warning you of legal action if you don’t pay your fine. This letter alone is enough to make nearly half of people pay up.

If you still won’t pay, however, the city files a case in small-claims court, which can affect your credit rating and lead to things like having your assets seized or your paycheque garnisheed.

When it comes to legal action, the city said repeat offenders are its first priority. But it said it also goes after people for only a few unpaid tickets, or bundles together a number of unpaid fines into a single legal action.

By the time all these measures are taken, the city gets paid in about 70 per cent of cases.

According to the city, one of the worst cases of unpaid fines involved a resident with 223 tickets totalling more than $16,000 in unpaid fines.

After going to small-claims court, the city eventually garnisheed his wages and seized his vehicle, eventually recouping 100 per cent of the fines owing, plus interest and court costs.

In addition to legal action, the city has one other weapon it can use against scofflaws: towing.

The city can’t tow your car away for simply not paying your tickets.

But parking officers have the discretion to order a tow for any violation they wish.

And if you’ve got a ton of unpaid tickets — something the officers know as soon as they punch your plate into their hand-held computers — chances are you’re getting towed away.

That means $59 to get your car out of the impound lot and, if you’ve been avoiding getting served with your court summons, parking enforcement now knows where to find you.

One enforcement weapon the city doesn’t have at its disposal is the Insurance Corp. of B.C.

Unlike speeding tickets, which ICBC makes you deal with before getting your licence renewed, you can renew your licence no matter how many unpaid parking tickets you have.

Last year, Vancouver‘s Civil City report recommended ICBC start enforcing municipal bylaw fines as well.

However, ICBC poured cold water on the idea, saying it had no interest in becoming the city’s collection agency.

Despite the number of unpaid tickets on the books, the city still rakes in a healthy $12 million a year from parking ticket revenue, about twice the $6 million it spends on parking enforcement.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Poisoned sites lure Web surfers

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Search for snow conditions drew virus attack

Gillian Shaw
Sun

Web surfers checking the snow report for Cypress Mountain are the latest target of Google poisoning in which fraud artists get their malicious Web site close to the top of search engine rankings.

Lauri Sawka, who runs the outdoor education program at Notre Dame regional secondary school, was searching for the Cypress snow report this week to prepare for a school snowshoeing trip when instead she found herself fighting off an attack on her computer.

“There were a couple of sites that didn’t give me what I needed so I went to another, it was about fifth down the list in Google,” she said. “I clicked on it and a big red sign came up and it was flashing ‘alert.’

“It said there were viruses on my computer — something like 137 viruses — and it started running.”

A worried Sawka went to find physics teacher Peter Vogel, head of Notre Dame’s Information and Communications Technology, who recognized what the site was attempting and contacted The Vancouver Sun with the warning.

“It’s the first experience I’ve had with local content being used for Google poisoning,” Vogel wrote in an e-mail. The elaborate poisoning scheme, which uses Google, other online search engines and even online ads, lures people into clicking on links that take them to malicious Web sites.

Once there, the unwary surfers can have their computers taken over by the cybercriminals and to add insult to injury, many are convinced to pay $60 for bogus virus protection. Plus the attackers install keystroke loggers to collect banking information, passwords and other critical information which they then sell or use to bilk their victims of more money.

The practice is not new but it was likely Cypress Mountain caught the attention of the schemers because it is the 2010 venue for the freestyle and snowboarding events and recently hosted pre-Olympic competitions. The people behind the attacks, thought to be mostly located in Russia and China, are constantly adding new Web sites as earlier ones are shut down and they follow the news to come up with search terms likely to be popular at any given time.

“They try to create a situation in which whatever people are searching for there is a good chance their lure site will come up on the first page of the search results,” said Roger Thompson, chief research officer for anti-virus and security company AVG. “Their goal is to get their page ranked high enough so it will come up preferably in the top 10 when somebody searches for something.”

Asked about Google poisoning, Google spokeswoman Tamara Micner wrote in an email: “We work hard to protect our users from malware. Many of these results have been removed from our index. However, this issue affects more than just Google, as these sites are still part of the general web. In all cases, we actively work to detect and remove sites that serve malware from our index.”

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VACCINES AND ANTIDOTES FOR ONLINE POISON

While Roger Thompson is with the security software company AVG, which has a popular free anti-virus software as well as a more complete paid Internet security software, he says regardless of what software you choose, it should offer layers of protection:

- A link scanner that blocks sites that could turn up in Google searches but which are recognized by the software as poisoned search results

- Traditional anti-virus scanner

- Identity protection, so if malicious software manages to evade detection through the other systems and starts logging keystrokes or doing other suspicious activity, it would be removed from your computer.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

January building permits down 54% in Vancouver from 2008

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Continuing trend may cost city $12m: councillor

Catherine Rolfsen and Derrick Penner
Sun

Cancelled Ritz-Carlton downtown project is another casualty of the economic slump. Photograph by: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun

The value of building permits issued by the City of Vancouver last month was less than half that of the January prior, and that represents an ongoing trend that could cost the city $12 million in yearly revenue, according to Coun. Raymond Louie.

A monthly update from city building official William Johnston, issued earlier this month, shows that in January of this year there was construction permit revenue from 34 new units in the city, compared to 78 in January 2008.

“The value of building permits issued in January 2009 was approximately 29 per cent lower than the previous month and 54 per cent lower than the value for January 2008,” reads a statement from Johnston accompanying the statistics.

Coun. Geoff Meggs called the news “grim,” pointing out that January was the second consecutive month with significant building permit declines. “It’s really slumped. And the slump continues,” he said.

Louie said the city typically makes about $24 million from building permit fees every year, but is anticipating a “significant drop” in that revenue. “If that holds for the entire year, and it’s a 54-per-cent drop in comparison to 2008, then that represents about a $12-million drop in permit fee revenue to the city,” he said.

Louie said he hopes the losses won’t mean higher property taxes, but can instead be covered by cost-saving measures being considered by city manager Penny Ballem. Those include a review of current city expenditures and hiring and pay freezes.

The problem is not isolated to Vancouver. Other municipalities around the region have been bracing for the prospect of builders scaling back their activities and paying fewer fees for development and building permits.

The City of Surrey has budgeted to receive $13.5 million in fees this year from its building department, down substantially from the estimated $16 million it took in last year, Vivienne Wilke, the city’s general manager of finance and technology, said in an interview.

However, Jean Lamontagne, Surrey‘s general manager of planning, said permit activity in January was only about one quarter of the level experienced in January 2008. In February, Lamontagne said activity to date has been about 40 per cent of the level it saw in the same month a year ago. “For us, we could see some trends start last year,” Lamontagne said. “We anticipate industrial, commercial and institutional [permit] activity to be about the same as last year, but residential will be down, we’re targeting about half the value of last year.”

Richmond also prepared for a drop of about $900,000 in revenue from its building department, city spokesman Ted Townsend said, budgeting for about $2.8 million in revenue from about $3.6 million a year ago. “So we’ve adopted a fairly frugal budget, really tightening spending in order to minimize the overall impact on people,” Townsend said, adding he did not readily have a figure on building activity in the municipality.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

Park your excuses at the door: The days of getting a break in traffic court are over

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Take the 50-per-cent discount instead of hoping for leniency

Chad Skelton, with files from Denise Ryan
Sun

Dragan Milovanovic successfully fought and beat a parking ticket in Vancouver court. Photograph by: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun

For years, it was the secret parking enforcement the city didn’t want you to know: Fighting your ticket in court was worth it.

Not because you had much chance of winning — parking enforcement has a conviction rate any gang prosecutor would envy — but because, even if you lost, you could make a case for a reduction in your fine.

People put forward their best excuses — they were poor, they never had a ticket before, they’d learned their lesson — and the judicial justice of the peace would often give them a break.

Many people had $90 tickets knocked down to just $10 or $20. Others had their fines waived entirely.

Fine reductions became so easy to get that many people stopped bothering to fight their tickets at all, agreeing to plead guilty as long as they got to argue for a reduced fine in a process known as “disposition.”

Unfortunately for illegal parkers in this city, the party’s over.

Last year, the City of Vancouver changed its bylaws to create mandatory minimum fines for any municipal-offence ticket written after April 15, 2008.

In the case of parking violations, those minimums are the same as the face value on each ticket: $60 for sitting at an expired meter, $90 for stopping in a no-stopping zone and so on.

In other words, the best fine you can hope for by going to traffic court now is the same one you’d have to pay anyway. A fine, by the way, that is twice as high as the discounted rate if you pay your ticket voluntarily within the first 34 days.

Under the new bylaw, JJPs still have discretion to reduce a fine in cases of financial hardship.

But the onus is on you to prove it and it’s a tough case to make.

On a recent day in traffic court, JJP Colleen Proctor explained it to a roomful of defendants this way: “I’m talking about someone who lives on the street and has no ability to pay, not generally someone who owns a car.”

And if that’s not enough, while JJPs have more or less lost the discretion to reduce your parking ticket, they still have plenty of discretion to increase it.

Under provincial law, JJPs can increase any fine up to $2,000.

A fine that high for a parking ticket is almost unheard of, but it’s not unusual for someone — especially a repeat offender — to get dinged $100 or $150 a ticket.

Since last summer, the city has begun sending a court liaison officer to court with a printout of each offender’s history, so they can ask the JJP for higher fines for those with a history of parking illegally.

The new bylaw, combined with the court liaison program, has turned traffic court from a place where people once got a break to one where they often get stung for more than they bargained for.

Indeed, a review by parking enforcement of 587 guilty pleas in December and January found that, on average, drivers left court with a fine 15 per cent higher than they walked in with.

The change has been so sudden, and dramatic, that it has taken many people by surprise.

At traffic court on Feb. 11, May Joan Liu tried to explain away the eight expired-meter tickets her Hummer got in December, saying heavy snowfall and a flat tire made moving it impossible.

JJP Ken Yamamoto patiently explained to her that, no matter what her excuse, she’d have to pay the minimum fine on all eight: $480 in total, or twice the $240 she could have paid when she got them.

“I was given bad advice that if I went to court I would get a reduction or have it wiped out,” said Liu. “Now I wish I hadn’t come. I would have just paid it.”

Upset to learn the rules had changed, Pierre Nasr, in court on six separate tickets, asked Yamamoto if he could at least get a no-stopping ticket from January reduced from $90 to $45, the amount he could have paid without coming to court.

“The only time you get a 50-per-cent discount is when you pay it up front and that’s because they don’t have to do all this paperwork,” Yamamoto replied. “Coming to court and thinking you’re going to get a break on a fine is a fairy tale.”

(As it turned out, two of Nasr’s six tickets were from before last April, so he did get a small break on those: from $90 to $60 on one and $60 to $50 on the other.)

Aside from hoping for a break on your fine, the other reason for going to traffic court is that you believe you’re innocent of the offence, or are hoping the parking officer doesn’t show up.

Parking enforcement manager Ralph Yeomans said his department works hard to coordinate its staffing schedule with traffic court to make sure officers are working on the days they’re due in court.

Overall, the department has a no-show rate of about 10 per cent, Yeomans said.

But that doesn’t mean 10 per cent of offenders get off scot-free.

If someone has a dozen tickets, it may be impossible to find a day when all 12 officers who wrote the tickets are on shift. In such cases, the trial may go ahead with only 10 officers available.

Two of the tickets may be dismissed, said Yeomans, but the rest go ahead. And when a case goes ahead, it usually results in a conviction.

Statistics compiled by the city suggest fewer than six per cent of those who plead not guilty are successful in having their tickets overturned.

“Most of these people convict themselves when they get on the stand,” said Shayne Jankowski, parking enforcement’s court liaison officer.

That’s because many people confuse an excuse — they just ran into the store for some milk, they didn’t have change on them — with a defence.

On Feb. 12, Alan Katowitz, caught parking in a permit zone in Kitsilano, told the court he had lived in the area for more than 20 years and, while he usually has a permit, he couldn’t afford one this year.

Katowitz said he was just dropping off some groceries and wasn’t planning to be in the spot for very long.

Verdict: guilty.

Joseph MacKinnon, facing a ticket for an expired meter, said he didn’t think it was right that parking meters didn’t take nickels or pennies.

Verdict: guilty.

Every so often, though, someone does win a case.

Contractor Dragan Milovanovic got ticketed and towed after being caught in a temporary no-stopping area near the Shangri-La construction site last September.

Milovanovic told the court the temporary signs weren’t there when he parked his truck in the morning, and he suspects they were only put up that afternoon.

“My personal opinion is I’m not guilty,” he said, since he had no way of knowing what he was doing was illegal.

The officer who ticketed him couldn’t say exactly when the temporary signs went up.

Proctor, the JJP hearing his case, said she couldn’t convict him if he had no way of knowing he was parking illegally.

“There aren’t many defences to traffic tickets,” Proctor said. “However, what you’ve told me certainly raises a doubt in my mind.”

JJP Joanne Arnsten, meanwhile, acknowledged that the bigger picture is that parking generally is a problem in city cores, but added that the position of the bench is that “you need to address that with the city, not in traffic court.”

Arnsten said that, in many cases, she thinks people just want to be listened to.

“People genuinely want an opportunity to explain why they got that ticket,” said Arnsten, whose case list averages between 60 and 70 per day. “They often take it as a personal affront.”

She suggests alleged offenders try to have a conversation with the parking officer who gave them their ticket before entering court. Whoever ticketed you will have the opportunity to make a recommendation to the judge, to corroborate your story, even to suggest an outright dismissal.

Parking Secret No. 12: Just because there’s no chalk on your tires doesn’t mean you’re necessarily safe in a two-hour parking spot. Instead of chalking, some parking officers log the position of each car’s tire air valve in their hand-held computers. If the position hasn’t changed by the time they come back around, they know your car hasn’t moved. Other officers put a small stone on top of each tire or check tailpipes for signs of condensation.

Parking Secret No. 13: When the time runs out on your parking meter, you always get a two-minute “grace period,” regardless of whether you paid for four minutes or an hour. During that grace period, the meter will display a solid “000″ instead of a flashing “0000″ and you will not receive a ticket. However, the grace period also means if you tell an officer the meter just ran out, they know if you’re lying.

Parking Secret No. 14: You can get a ticket even if your meter is fully paid. Along several rush-hour routes, such as Robson, a meter will accept your change even though you’re not allowed to park there between 3 and 6 p.m. Stickers on each meter warn parkers of this fact, but dozens of paid-up parkers are still ticketed and towed every weekday.

Parking Secret No. 15: There are no parking enforcement officers working on either Christmas or New Year’s Day. Vancouver police will respond to complaints about serious safety violations, but your chances of getting a ticket for anything else on those two days are virtually zero.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun

 

The reno tax credit: how it works

Friday, February 27th, 2009

UPGRADES Dos and don