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A passenger float plane takes off from the harbour over the skyline in downtown Nanaimo, B.C. (Don Denton/The Canadian Press)
A passenger float plane takes off from the harbour over the skyline in downtown Nanaimo, B.C. (Don Denton/The Canadian Press)

Priced out of Vancouver, residents turn to Nanaimo for affordable living Add to ...

Three times a week, Neil Valsangkar escapes Canada’s most expensive real estate market by paying $100 for a 20-minute float-plane ride to his Vancouver office from his home across the Salish Sea.

The 50-kilometre aerial commute allows the father of three to live in Nanaimo, B.C., where homes cost about a quarter of those in Vancouver, one of the world’s frothiest markets with average homes selling for $1.3-million. He’s encouraging some of his employees to do the same.

“Raising a family in Vancouver is really challenging logistically,” the 50-year-old chief executive officer of Sun Coast Consulting Ltd said. “I made a lifestyle choice because of housing and the ease of raising a family here.”

Nanaimo, a formerly rough-and-tumble logging and fishing town of almost 100,000 people on Vancouver Island, offers the same stunning views of snow-capped mountains and rugged bays as its larger neighbour. With float planes taking off for downtown Vancouver several times an hour, a vehicle ferry, helicopter flights and a planned high-speed passenger service, the commute across the Salish Sea makes sense and can be shorter in some cases than commuting by car from Greater Vancouver’s eastern municipalities.

The cost of owning a bungalow in Vancouver now accounts for 87 cents of every dollar earned by the average family. That has triggered protests by young professionals who complain of having to bunk with roommates into their 30s and forcing them to delay starting families. The provincial government will begin collecting data on foreign buyers who have been accused of driving up prices in the city of 2.5 million residents.

John Winter fled Canada’s most expensive city six years ago, settling in Nanaimo with his wife after struggling with Vancouver’s sky-high cost of living. “I knew I’d never be able to afford a home there,” said Mr. Winter, 41, who runs Harbour Air Ltd.’s Nanaimo operations. “The average house price in Vancouver is out of everyone’s price range.”

Despite its proximity to Vancouver’s real estate frenzy, Nanaimo seems a world away. The town suffered a long, steady decline in the 1980s as lumber mills and fisheries closed and government offices relocated. It’s always been overshadowed by the better-known and larger Victoria, British Columbia’s capital, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, a Taiwan-sized island with a fraction of its population – 750,000 versus about 23 million.

“This was very much a fisherman’s town, a forestry town and had been a coal town,” said Ralph Nilson, president of Vancouver Island University, a “hinterland school” that’s helping to attract interest in Nanaimo with students from 88 countries, many of whom end up buying property, as part of the 2,000 foreign students on campus.

The city, which sells itself as a “solution to Vancouver’s affordability and transit challenges,” is aiming to attract new businesses and their employees, in addition to people nearing retirement age who want to realize property-price gains in Vancouver and downsize to Nanaimo, said John Hankins, chief executive officer of Nanaimo Economic Development Corp. A single-family home averages $358,200, an increase of about 7 per cent over the past five years compared with Vancouver’s 57-per-cent gain.

In addition to becoming a transportation hub for Vancouver Island, with a new cruise ship dock in one of British Columbia’s deepest ports and an airport that has had five years of record passenger growth, the town has a growing technology sector.

The city’s latest plan is to start a high-speed passenger ferry service and will request bids later this year from private companies to operate it. The trip would cost about $30 one way and take an hour from downtown to downtown.

“We’re really an annex to Vancouver,” said Bernie Dumas, president of the Nanaimo Port Authority. “We’re seeing Nanaimo becoming the backyard of Vancouver.”

Unlike other waterfront cities such as Seattle and its nearby islands such as Vachon and Bainbridge, Vancouver’s real estate boom has left prices in Nanaimo and other nearby towns on Vancouver Island largely untouched. For now, that has its benefits. Nanaimo’s laid-back vibe and quiet streets mean many of its workers walk to the office in 15 minutes, including stopping to buy a coffee.

Michael Reid, a 41-year former Vancouver resident who runs a technology company employing five people, strolls along the harbor walkway after arriving from Vancouver on a float plane and walks back to his office a few blocks away. His Vancouver meeting was finished before noon and he was back in Nanaimo for lunch.

“Vancouver might be more fun, but will you have the money to enjoy it?” he said. “As long as you can easily get to Vancouver when you need to, it’s not a problem living here.”

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