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How real is real estate? From ancient Greece to Alpine Meadows By Stephen Vogler The average house price in Whistler rose in the last two years from approximately $380,000 to $480,000. In some magical realm of the universe it just sat there and gained $100,000. This is good news if you plan to sell your house and leave the community, but not so good if you want to stay and pay your taxes. It's also bad news if you hope to one day own a home of your own in Whistler. I recently calculated that at my current writer/musician salary I will be able to buy a house here in about 200 years. In 1967, when a house in Whistler cost about one-twentieth what it now does, I might have only spent 10 years saving up for a roof over my head. Soaring real estate prices have an enormous effect on our lives and on the fabric of our community. Whether we rent or own a home, most of us now work more hours a day and more days a year than ever before just to make ends meet. We have less time to enjoy the outdoors, less time to get together and discuss what's going on in our town or even to wonder why it is we're all working so much. It's unfortunate that such a fickle and artificial force as the real estate market can dictate our lives to such a degree. But when we tell ourselves that the real estate game is simply a fact of life, a reality to be dealt with, we forget that it is really a product of our culture, created by ourselves. With a possible 200 year wait before I can move into my own home, I decided to do a little time travelling in the opposite direction to gain some perspective on the real estate phenomenon. The best time travelling machine I know of is a good library, so I headed down to S.F.U. to begin my journey. My first stop was an entomological dictionary. The terms "real estate" and "realty" first came into use in 1666, meaning a right or real possession. "Real" comes from the Latin res meaning matter or thing, and is cognate with Vedic Sanskrit rayi-s meaning possession or wealth. (The three sixes in the date were not mentioned as carrying any significance). It was a good start, but I wanted to go back further and get some context. My next stop was a book called Land And Labour In The Greek World by Alison Burford. The ancient Greeks didn't have a word for landowner, although they did for land sharer: geomoroi (Samos) or gamoroi (Syracuse). While plots of land were granted by the polis to members of the community, the land belonged ultimately not to the individual, but to the community and the gods. In the Laws, Plato stated, "We must distribute as equally as possible the land and the houses." Herein may lie the root cause of Whistler's affordable housing problem. We currently have 5,620 residences in the valley, many of which sit empty most of the year, yet over 5,000 of the 7,400 permanent residents don't have a home of their own. Plato would have been appalled at our inability to share among the community, and would have certainly endorsed a redistribution of land and houses in our less than ideal state. When land holdings became concentrated among the very few in Ancient Greece, the revolutionary cry of "redistribution of the land" was usually heard. In the Politics, Aristotle points out that on the island of Thurii, "the notables got hold of all the land because the state was biased toward oligarchy, but the people became stronger than the garrison, so eventually the possessors of more than their fair share gave it up." In Athens, wealthier citizens were encouraged to support the city's defence, religious rituals and cultural life from their private resources and land holdings. Burford says this voluntary giving was done "to gain popularity or power, or to render back to the community what was its due." The practice was similar to the native North American potlatch in which wealth is redistributed through gifts of land and goods. There are other surprising similarities between Ancient Greek and native North American attitudes toward land. In the Laws, Plato speaks of the relationship between the lot holder and their land: "the recipient of the lot... should tend the land which is his parent more diligently than a mother tends her children, for being as it is a goddess it is mistress over its mortal population." Many lands in Ancient Greece were actually owned by, or dedicated to, the gods. Lands dedicated to Athena or Apollo were often leased for 10 or 20 year periods which helped to cover the costs of maintaining the cult of the god. Another purpose for these lands was to remind everyone that in the last resort, all the land belonged to the community and the gods. Those "who took up leases for these estates," Burford says, "expected to serve the community and the gods as much as to benefit themselves." In Whistler we already have an entire village dedicated to the god of capitalism, but it might be time to diversify. If we dedicated some land to Ullr, the snow god, we could build some employee housing on it for seasonal workers, who tend to worship Ullr most fervently. There is one last feature from Ancient Greek land practices which might provide a useful example for Whistler. Trees on private estates were sometimes designated as public or sacred, and the fruit from these trees profited the city or the sanctuary that owned them. Burford points out that "the penalty for damaging or destroying one of them had been execution." With a simple law like this in place, I'm sure many of the trees accidentally cut down during development would still be standing. England's common fields were another example of land being held in common by the community. The first record of such fields goes back to the Dooms of King Ines of Wessex in the 7th century. In exchange for military service under their lord, commoners were granted plots of land. These lands were only enclosed by the proprietor when they were in crop. The rest of the time they remained open for all to use. Common pasturing helped to fertilize the land and was generally more advantageous to the farmers than enclosing private plots. This system of land tenure remained in England until the 16th to 18th centuries. In that period the technological advances in farming and textiles prompted some landlords to enclose many of the previously common lands. Enclosure was often met by resistance from farmers who saw that they would loose their common grazing rights. In Fields In The English Landscape, Christopher Taylor writes that "there was in many areas an active movement against enclosure which in the early seventeenth century led to disputes, inquiries and even riots where it was attempted." What is interesting about this period of change is that often the two different systems of land holding were able to exist side by side. Taylor points to one example of this in 1577 at Charminster in Dorset: "the lord and some of the tenants wanted enclosures and others objected. The outcome was an agreed redistribution of land so that a part of the common fields was enclosed and the rest re-allotted to those tenants who wished to keep the old system." This co-existence of different systems of land holding could provide a useful model for Whistler's affordable housing problem. Those who want private ownership and escalating land prices could all move into some of the ritzier subdivisions — say Blueberry Hill and Whistler Cay Heights. Others, who simply want a home in the community, could purchase rights in common property at a much more reasonable rate — say in Alpine, Emerald and Whistler Creek. Like the budding capitalists of the industrial revolution, the owners of private lots could make their fortunes in the real estate market, while across the valley the commoners could earn a good living and still enjoy the mountains. There are other surprising parallels between 17th century England and Whistler today. In the 1630s, the Earl of Bedford, along with 13 other landowners and wealthy businessmen, formed the Bedford Level Corporation. They undertook to drain the peat fens (what we now call wetlands) to reclaim the land for their own uses. They were met by opposition from the commoners (perhaps in the form of a local environmental group) who feared the "loss of grazing, fishing, wildfowling and peat-cutting rights." Using large drainage canals, the corporation eventually reclaimed 38,000 hectares of the fens which it then subdivided into rectangular fields. Much can also be learned about our own real estate system by looking at the first European land dealings in the new world. In his book, The Great American Land Bubble, A. M. Sakolski points out that America started out largely as a European speculation. In the 17th century, companies such as the London Company and the Plymouth Company were formed by leading merchants and noblemen in England who were in favour with King James I. Once the numbers of Indians in the Northeast were reduced by what King James called the "wonderfull Plague," he began granting land patents of enormous size. Sir Ferdinand Gorges received what is now the entire state of Maine; Sir William Alexander was granted Nova Scotia; Sir George Calvert, Maryland; and on and on. With more settlers arriving in the 18th century, speculators were able to push land prices higher and higher. Sakolski refers to this period as "The amazing story of land-grabbing, speculations, and booms." Land promoters became known as "land jobbers" and were viewed as being one cut above highway robbers. Land prices rose steeply and fortunes were quickly made and lost until the bubble finally burst in 1795. The accounts of land salesmen turning a quick profit and driving real estate prices through the roof sounds surprisingly similar to Whistler in the late 1970s. While the bubble burst in Whistler in 1980, it didn't take long for the boom to start up again through the 1980s and ’90s. In the States, the public's confidence in land markets was restored by the early 19th century when a whole new generation of land jobbers were ready to make their fortunes. In his famous book How To Make A Fortune In Real Estate, Albert Winnikoff looks at some of the personalities who made and lost fortunes in the North American real estate game. James Lick arrived in San Francisco in 1849 just weeks before the gold rush hit. Already fairly wealthy, Lick picked up properties with clouded titles for next to nothing and enforced his property rights over squatters with a loaded gun. His contemporaries described him as "unlovable, eccentric, solitary, selfish and avaricious," qualities which Winnikoff writes, "made James Lick an ideal real estate man." At other times Winnikoff is less admiring of land sellers. "When land salesmen ply their trade along lines that put them in a class with dope peddlers and flesh peddlers," he writes, "the general public has a right, in fact a need, to know more about the mechanics of the land business." I've heard such terms bandied about to describe sellers of land in Whistler, though I think the charges are uncharitable and should be reserved for unscrupulous developers. I think sellers of real estate are more like the young kids in places like Marrakech and Istanbul who flock around the newly arrived travellers at the bus station. They simply find out what it is you need and, for a fee, put you in touch with those who have it. But in a town where real estate prices continue to soar beyond most people's means, Mr. Winnikoff has left me with some heartening advice on buying a home. "There have always been and always will be good land deals available to investors who are patient, thrifty, and actively seeking." And while I'm waiting I can always jump back in my trusty time machine and broaden my perspective on the whole real estate game.