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Michelle Joyce, left, her husband, Steve Fyffe, and their two children, overlooking San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. (Toni Bird)
Michelle Joyce, left, her husband, Steve Fyffe, and their two children, overlooking San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. (Toni Bird)

Million Dollar Shack couple’s story resonates with Vancouver buyers Add to ...

When a Bay Area couple decided to document their unaffordable housing experience on YouTube, they didn’t expect their mini-documentary to become the lightning rod for the crisis.

Last year, Michelle Joyce and Steve Fyffe released the 23-minute self-funded video called Million Dollar Shack, which has received almost 276,000 views and made them a poster couple for unaffordable housing. Ms. Joyce says also heard from many Vancouverites, who have written her about their own housing experiences.

“We are getting e-mails from people all over the world, and a lot of people from Vancouver have contacted me,” says Ms. Joyce, who’s a social worker but used to own a video production company. She and her husband made the documentary to vent their frustration – and they’ve been shocked by the response, which continues a year later.

“They want to express their mutual disgust for what has happened to the housing market,” she says, laughing. “They just want to say, ‘it’s terrible, it’s awful here.’ There are a ton of comments from Vancouver.”

The story of Ms. Joyce and Mr. Fyffe – a former television producer who went on to work at Stanford University – is all too familiar to anyone living in the Lower Mainland. In fact, in any desirable city, it’s becoming a common narrative. Both have their master’s degrees and have decent incomes. In the documentary, Ms. Joyce, who grew up in what is now Silicon Valley, feels she is being pushed out of her own community, which used to be a quiet, middle-class enclave; a place to raise kids and visit with neighbours. But the flood of new wealth to the area has made the purchase of a house impossible for many.

“One of the very common responses to our documentary is: ‘But it’s Silicon Valley! People want to live there! It’s always going to be like that!’

“We point to Vancouver, and say, well, ‘Why is it happening there? And why is it happening in Sydney [Australia]?’ How are we in this situation? We can’t buy a house anywhere. It’s been very frustrating because I know that in previous generations – post-World-War-Two at least – it was expected that if you had a full-time job and you were marginally responsible, you would be able to afford something. I am Gen X, and I look at Millennials and think, ‘Whoa, if you haven’t started your own successful business, and you’re not a millionaire, good luck having an average life, providing school for your kids.’”

In the film, we see Ms. Joyce attending a viewing for a $900,000 (U.S.) townhouse that has asbestos in the ceiling and is located near a freeway. It is packed with potential buyers. In another scene, she walks around a clearly vacant house in her neighbourhood, the curtains drawn and the lawn filled with weeds.

They could have swapped out images of Vancouver in several scenes.

For a couple of generations, home ownership has been the biggest builder of equity in North America. But with unprecedented inflows of wealth and real estate investment, people like Ms. Joyce and Mr. Fyffe can’t assume that they too will be homeowners. They have been told to change their expectation, and for many, that is a tough pill to swallow.

“Going to work for a living is apparently for chumps, we are realizing,” says Ms. Joyce. “We are very worried. I saw my parents use their house as an ATM machine. Their house was everything.”

The plan was always to buy a house, says Ms. Joyce. But after years of saving up for a respectable down payment, she and her husband saw prices quickly escalate beyond their reach.

“We foolishly did the responsible thing and didn’t live beyond our means, and we didn’t want to borrow more than we could afford,” she says. “In 2012, things started spiralling out of control very quickly. We thought, ‘Let’s save another couple of years, and keep working hard, saving money.’ But it was crazy because people who borrowed more than they could afford and just really stretched and did all those things we thought were irresponsible, they got a huge payout – like a lottery payout.”

They lived for five years in their Silicon Valley house as they watched rents around them climb. They knew that if the landlord raised their rent, they’d no longer be able to afford the area.

As it turns out, the couple, who have a seven-year-old daughter and 18-month-old son, were recently forced out of their rental home.

The couple vacated because the landlord said his mother was going to move in.

This came up the same day that they’d complained about the house needing some maintenance. Seeing the writing on the wall, the family started making plans to move before they were evicted. If a landlord wants you out, you can’t do much about it, says Ms. Joyce.

Once they’d moved, she heard from her former neighbour that their landlord didn’t move his mother in, after all. Instead, he jacked up the rent, from $3,100 to about $4,400.

Even Ms. Joyce’s brothers, who had bought into the market, had to leave the area. Within the last six months, Ms. Joyce’s extended family has been displaced from the Bay Area because of the lack of housing affordability, she says. One brother moved to Raleigh, N.C., the other to Austin, Tex.

In August, Ms. Joyce and her husband moved to Eugene, Ore., where Mr. Fyffe had found a job. Only her mother remains in the Bay Area, and she too will probably move to be close to one of her children. The lack of affordable housing is busting up families and communities. That displacement from community, she says, is the hardest part.

Not all response to their little film was favourable. Some people accused the couple of being “entitled” thinking that they should own a home. Many Millennials and Gen-Xers in the Lower Mainland will have heard that argument, too.

“We definitely want to address some of those more negative responses to the documentary, like people saying, ‘Just move.’ Well, it’s not ‘just move.’ It’s taking our children away from their grandmother. It’s moving away from all our networking opportunities. People can always move. But if they want to stay in a community because they feel connected, and they care, the community is stronger. You lose those intangible things by having this kind of nomadic attitude: ‘Okay, so we all move to Oregon.’ Then what happens to people who can’t afford to live here because we drove the prices up? Do we say, ‘Move to Wyoming?’ Pretty soon everyone is displaced.”

Like a lot of people in the Lower Mainland, Ms. Joyce had been expecting the bubble to burst. Surely, prices can’t keep inflating, she thought. But that didn’t happen, and she wonders if it ever will.

“Nothing will surprise me if they just keep going up and up, up, up. And that’s terrifying because we want to accumulate wealth. We are in our early 40s. Our kids aren’t ready for college yet, but it’s coming.

“Our intention was always to hold on in the Bay Area in hopes that everything would burst. Just common sense says this is not a sustainable pattern. We were really braced to watch a spectacular bubble pop. … We are still surprised to this day that it’s holding strong.”

According to Million Dollar Shack, people are leaving the pricey parts of California and heading to more livable cities. Portland is undergoing a transformation as its heritage houses come down and big new houses go up. Fleeing Vancouverites are having the same effect on Victoria. Ms. Joyce says she’s already seeing Eugene house prices increase, and she’s worried about ever getting into that market. They are currently renting.

“In California, people are fleeing, and it’s having an effect on little Eugene over here. Everyone has been very nice to us, but people are saying, ‘Change those California licence plates as soon as you can.’”

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