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Stephanie Roe and her husband have been looking for a house to buy for over a year and are making an offer on a house in Surrey, which will mean an hour-plus commute for her. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak)
Stephanie Roe and her husband have been looking for a house to buy for over a year and are making an offer on a house in Surrey, which will mean an hour-plus commute for her. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak)

Vancouver’s housing market pushes young workers into long commutes Add to ...

Stephanie Roe is typical of the average millennial trying to lay down roots in Vancouver. She works and lives downtown and with the assistance of her parents, she and her husband have a respectable amount of money to put toward a house so they can start raising a family.

But Roe, a 32-year-old legal assistant, has spent more than a year searching for that elusive house, and with prices climbing in the Lower Mainland, she wonders if home ownership will ever be within their grasp.

“It’s getting to the point where you have to leave and find another job and maybe relocate,” she says. “I have friends who were lucky, they purchased three months ago and bought a home off the highway in Abbotsford for $475,000, and there’s no backyard. This is what it’s now become.”

She and her husband, a plumber, have $550,000 to put toward a house. After losing out on several houses because of fierce competition, they’re hoping to purchase a small house in Surrey. If they do get it, it will still need a $20,000 renovation so they have a revenue suite. They can’t afford the house without it. The commute for Ms. Roe will be more than an hour, which is a lot longer than the short walk from her $1,350 a month, West End apartment. But they want a house.

“I can’t even fathom being pregnant in a 600-square-foot space. I can’t fit a crib in my current home.”

Condos won’t be the solution to the unaffordability crisis. A poll released this week showed 44 per cent of those surveyed still believe that detached houses “should comprise all or most future development in the province.” Forty-eight per cent of people polled said single-family homes should comprise “some” future development. The poll was conducted by McAllister Public Opinion Research for the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., and was based on a sample taken from 1,701 people across B.C., one-third of them urban.

As well, three-bedroom condos are scarce, and except for a big, bustling city like New York, condo living for families has never been a part of the North American worldview.

And even more spacious alternatives such as townhouses or duplexes are also priced out of reach for the average millennial, especially when strata fees are factored in. It means this group either has to commit to a life of renting, change their plans for having a family, or relocate far from their jobs, adding commuting costs that are, over time, prohibitive.

The unaffordability problem is changing the landscape not just for millennial workers, but also for the companies that rely on them.

Ms. Roe’s boss, lawyer Clint Lee, says the lack of available housing for staff means potentially losing employees, or having to shift to telecommuting, which isn’t always workable.

“From our perspective, this is problematic as it may mean that should she ultimately find housing far away from our office, she may decide to find employment elsewhere. It’s on our radar as a possibility, and if we lose her, it means having to train someone from scratch again. It’s a drain on our work process, and we really can’t afford to go through it too often.”

Restaurateur Neil Ingram, former co-owner of Boneta and current owner of Cinara, says his industry is having a tough time with staffing, too. There are jobs, but turnover is high because young people are leaving the city. He says if he were younger and starting out, he wouldn’t stay in Vancouver either.

“It’s really, really hard to find anybody to work at these jobs. Everybody has a hard time finding staff. It’s a huge, huge problem for the restaurant industry. The vacancy rate is less than one per cent, and people spend most of their income on rent and transportation to get into town. It’s nuts.

“These are people that any functioning city would want to hang onto as hard as they can. They are materially contributing, and they can’t legitimately have a hope of laying down permanent roots to live here.”

Last year, Vancity released a report that said by 2025, 85 of 88 “in-demand jobs” would be too low income for Metro Vancouver. In a decade, most people will relocate outside of the city, and if there’s enough outward migration, it could result in a labour crisis.

Between 2001 and 2014, average wages increased 36.2 per cent, compared to an average Vancouver home value (all types) increase of 211 per cent. Only senior managers, specialist physicians, lawyers, certain types of engineers, police officers and firefighters had the incomes to afford a home in Metro Vancouver, said the report. But that list could have changed by now, with the more than 20 per cent increase in assessed house values we saw last year. A Vancity spokesperson conceded they would probably be updating the report.

Ryan Holmes, chief executive officer of Vancouver-based success story Hootsuite, recently wrote an op/ed about the unaffordability crisis potentially impacting the tech industry. That industry is the glimmer of hope that the city needs, but without affordable places to live, how is any industry to survive?

A Vancouver-based employee of a major tech company who preferred not to give his name, e-mailed me: “The first question that comes out of the mouths of candidates I speak to is, ‘how expensive is it to live in Vancouver?’ This is the biggest concern for people making the move here and it shouldn’t be, especially for highly paid tech employees who earn significantly above the median household income in Vancouver.

“If things keep going the way they’re going, I may not be able to answer them honestly with, ‘you can make it work.’ And that really worries me.”

If Vancouver can get it right, he added, the tech industry could flourish. People love living here. But he’s also spoken with worried people in other occupations, including a paramedic who lives in fear of being evicted from his affordable apartment.

“These people are the lifeblood of Vancouver … and we’re kicking them all out.”

Paul Robinson, 34, who grew up in Columbus, Ohio, moved to Vancouver to work as a senior engineer. He’s having a tough time bringing in workers from cities such as Calgary, where housing is more affordable and incomes are about a third higher.

“I just went through this. I asked a guy, ‘Would you come work for us?’ He lives in a $1-million house in Calgary and he’s a senior engineer. And he said, ‘there’s no way I’m moving there. I lived in Burnaby in the nineties, and I couldn’t buy that house again.’

“It totally shuts down the conversation. They say, ‘I know house prices. You guys can’t pay me enough.’”

Mr. Robinson, who rents downtown, wants to raise a family in a house. But he’s also nervous about investing a lot of money in a market that appears unstable.

“Everyone I know, who’s young, rents downtown. But when it comes time to start a family, they move back to Ontario, or if they can line up a job, maybe Victoria, where they have nice houses – a house with yard and a garage. Not next to a crack house.

“I don’t need a big house or even a really nice house. I grew up in a very normal house in a so-so suburb, but we could walk everywhere. I’ve worked very hard, and I have made good moves in my career in the past 12 years. I know what those earnings would get me in any other city in North America. I’d like to be able to have kids that can play in a backyard, and I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

He also doesn’t trust the market, where he sees locals overleveraging themselves just to get in on the action. He’s seen what happened in the U.S. during the mortgage crisis and how people’s lives were ruined. Vancouver’s market feels unstable because we’ve hitched our house prices to an unknown entity, which is the foreign money driving prices, he says. In a city such as Seattle, the housing market is more stable because it’s directly linked to the job market.

“In Seattle, prices are going up because of Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon, Costco, and a lot of people moving from California in the tech sector. Here, that’s not the case.

“So if I get a house for $1.2-million, I would be stretched to the absolute limit. All my life savings are invested in this house. So, you hope prices continue to go up, and the only way prices can continue to go up is if foreign money continues to come in.

“Because if I’m earning more than the average person, and if I can barely buy the worst house in the city, who could buy that house off me?”

As part of the budget announcement this week, the province offered property transfer tax exemptions on new houses up to $750,000. By offering increased tax exemptions, instead of cooling the influx of foreign money, the province is facilitating a dangerous game, he argues. The guy who buys in last is most vulnerable.

“They are encouraging people to get in at the very, very bottom of the pyramid, because they don’t want it to collapse.

“I would not buy into a market that’s driven by outside forces that no one has even quantified.”

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