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Peter Gaskill, president of Pacific Arbour, says the issues around seniors and housing have no easy answers. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)
Peter Gaskill, president of Pacific Arbour, says the issues around seniors and housing have no easy answers. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)

Generation Where? Vancouver’s coming crunch in senior housing Add to ...

On a late spring afternoon, Kitsilano appears like a bucolic version of Logan’s Run. Strapping young triathletes, fresh from a swim at the outdoor pool on the beach, jog by in all their glory, as cars, buses and bikes duke it out for space on Cornwall Avenue.

While the city is concerned with the likes of a proposed new bike lane in the area, there is another issue looming like a sleeping giant.

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In the midst of the youthful, able-bodied crowd, a man in his late 60s, shaking from Parkinson’s disease and recently injured in a car accident, tries to cross the street. He makes it to the other side with his two bags of groceries, and then stops and stares at the steep hill in front of him. How will he ever make it back home – a journey that entails not only the steeply graded hill, but a walk up three flights of stairs?

“By 2040,” says urban planner Patrick Condon, a professor and senior researcher at the UBC Design Centre for Sustainability, “there will be a 250-per-cent increase in people over 65 living in the city of Vancouver.” And the big question is, not only how will they make it home, but where will they live?

In a city seemingly obsessed with the cult of youth, Mr. Condon predicts a shortage of housing suitable for the very same aging boomer generation who came of age not trusting anyone over 30.

While this is a global trend, especially in Western countries with rapid urbanization, smaller families and longer life expectancy, Vancouver’s high cost of real estate is also a factor.

With many families being forced to move to the suburbs, says Mr. Condon, “family housing in the city is lived in increasingly by elderly residents or bought up by people that don’t have families. This creates a special situation where the over 65 cohort is on the verge of exploding.

“Our region needs 300,000 new housing units by 2050, but no one has really explained that most of the absolute growth in housing need is in the elderly cohort.”

At his annual speech in May to the Urban Development Institute in Vancouver, condo marketer Bob Rennie also mentioned the increase in the city’s over-65 population – adding that the new real estate reality is one in which seniors sitting on home equity are downsizing and helping their children buy into the market. Both Mr. Rennie and Mr. Condon point to the trend of seniors wanting to age in their neighbourhood. But many new seniors housing projects in traditional West Side neighbourhoods are meeting with considerable community opposition – often from the same demographic group that might benefit from them. The proposed six-storey seniors residence by Pacific Arbour in Dunbar, for instance, has been put on hold after area residents protested and the city rejected the developer’s rezoning application.

There are developments under way, however, in other parts of the city. A new six-storey, 102-unit seniors-oriented building across from Oakridge Mall called the Leo Wertman Residences, overcame community concern about height and density and will open in 2014.

And a new Pacific Arbour project – a seven-storey tower on Marine Drive – will open in West Vancouver this summer. Neighbourhood residents’ concerns about scale, massing and siting were mitigated by extensive community outreach, and also by an increasing need for seniors housing in the area. But Mr. Condon sees a solution to both a lack of senior-suitable housing as well as community opposition to towers in the form of low-rise development along city arterials.

“When you look at the city you note that the arterials are the low hanging fruit for this kind of independent downsize/assisted care/co-housing option,” Mr. Condon says. “We have studied this and see the capacity for an additional 150,000 housing units just on city of Vancouver arterial streets.”

Studies at the Design Centre for Sustainability indicate potential for “an additional 200,000 residents without breaking the four-storey barrier.”

Mr. Condon sees such development as intrinsically linked to “a zero [greenhouse gas] transit strategy that would include investments in smooth-running, low-floor and pollution-free trams, as a way to insure easy mobility for an often impaired cohort.”

“Vancouver has an opportunity here,” he says, “that no other metropolitan area has capitalized on.” That is namely to fix mobility issues by housing seniors on arterials with at-grade sidewalk access, “so they can connect to the entire city,” as well as crucial services like pharmacies, grocery stores and inexpensive cafes.

But Mr. Condon thinks it’s “a mistake” to have exclusively designated seniors housing, preferring the term “seniors appropriate” housing, which might also house young and middle-aged people. He sees the ideal as one of “integrating” seniors into the community rather than “isolating them from the city they love.”

Peter Gaskill, president of Pacific Arbour, sees some potential pragmatic issues with Mr. Condon’s ideal. While such a model might work for relatively able-bodied 65-plus seniors, the 85-plus cohort has a different set of needs.

“If a building is mixed use, it gets more expensive to provide services like housekeeping, an emergency call system, a front desk, to only a portion of people living there.”

His Dunbar project, for instance, is on hold partly because anything of lower density than the proposed six-storey building, would simply not have been cost effective for either the developer or potential residents. He is however currently looking at a similar project in the less pricey Burnaby Heights neighbourhood. “It’s all based on critical mass and service sharing,” he points out.

Mr. Gaskill also foresees that the 65-plus cohort currently living in single family homes – like a large part of the Dunbar demographic – might want to downsize, but not necessarily into “noisier arterial neighbourhoods.”

He acknowledges a growing “fear factor” among the elderly cohort.

“People who are 85 and older currently in retirement homes, they retired 25 to 30 years ago, and the amount they saved for retirement is a figure that today, with lower interest rates, is laughable.

“If you sell a million dollar house and get $20,000 a year income, soon you have to start spending capital.” And with increased longevity, he understands why many elders would consider this another reason to sustain a single-family home – in spite of maintenance and in-home-care costs.

“We’re setting ourselves up for a huge problem,” Mr. Gaskill says. “Empty nesters belief in equity is only based on the idea that there are buyers lined up to buy them. But who are the future buyers of those properties? There isn’t a big supply of families in the city who have the money to buy those homes. So how is that equity realized when people decide to tap into it?”

While Mr. Gaskill acknowledges that issues around seniors and housing are complex and there are “no easy answers,” he affirms that “elder NIMBYism” is not part of the solution.

“Neighbourhood opposition is having a detrimental effect on our ability to learn about best practices for seniors housing,” he says.

And almost a century after increased mobility and an end to intergenerational living have caused huge social shifts, “we don’t know all the answers. We’re still trying to figure out what all this means.”

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