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Rendering of Vantage downtown Squamish project.

Vantage

Small town life has been good to Tyler Martin, a mountain-biking enthusiast and former urban dweller who now commutes to Vancouver from his new home in Squamish, B.C. He and his wife, Emily, are part of a growing trend that is seeing Vancouver residents trade in a hard-to-afford urban lifestyle for the far more affordable small-town life. For many, Squamish – less than an hour’s drive from Vancouver – used to be simply a pit stop on the way to Whistler. Now, it’s a destination of its own.

“It was a lateral move for us, and we jumped at it – and it’s awesome,” Mr. Martin says. “Every morning my entire complex is alive with babies and people playing outside, and a lot of young families and young children. Everyone is in their early 30s, around our age, and we’re all in the same boat – we couldn’t do a house, or didn’t want to, because they’re closing in on a million bucks ... and we needed more space.”

They are fairly typical of a lot of young families who’ve relocated to Squamish in the past two years. Wanting to start a family, they went in search of more space at a better price. They sold their one-bedroom apartment in North Vancouver and for the same price purchased a new, three-bedroom, three-bathroom townhouse with a two-car garage. The influx of young buyers has attracted new coffee shops and restaurants, and even a small craft cidery scene.

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The only adjustment he’s had to make is getting used to friendly people who want to make small talk.

“The big difference is it’s so friendly. I moved up here, and I thought it was really weird, and I wondered, ‘Why is everyone trying to small talk me?’ It took me a couple of weeks to adjust. Now I quite enjoy the change.”

The mayor of Squamish, Karen Elliott, says the town is bracing for future growth, because she knows the “real estate migrants from the Lower Mainland” will keep coming. Young families are moving there, but so too are downsizers who are relocating to be near their grandchildren. Many are coming from the Vancouver area, but there is also a tide of people from nearby Whistler, a high-priced resort town with limited housing.

Ms. Elliott was elected mayor in 2018 and has lived in Squamish since 2012.

“I have seen the changes, and it’s happened very quickly,” she says.

Ms. Elliott calls the upgrade to the Sea-to-Sky Highway in 2010 a “game changer that suddenly put the community within striking distance of the Lower Mainland.”

Squamish became a more affordable alternative to Vancouver, and outdoor enthusiasts were drawn by the rock climbing, mountain biking and skiing. The average age of the town is 37.5 years old, she says, and 20 per cent of the population is younger than 14, so it’s a young town. But it’s a town that needs more job growth and office space, because 26 per cent of residents are commuting elsewhere.

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“We are working hard to turn that around,” she says. “We don’t want to be a bedroom community.

“It’s an exciting time for Squamish, but housing is one of our key priorities and we can’t let our guard down on this file, even as the market has slowed on this somewhat. We know the demand won’t entirely go away. We’ve seen tremendous growth in this housing market over [the] last few years.”

In 2018, the district issued 576 permits for multifamily residential units of all types, she says. As of June of this year, they had issued 241 permits, which is a slight decline but still steady. There are hundreds of units coming online by next year just in the downtown core.

The boom has had its impacts: The town has had a near-zero vacancy rate since 2015. And local businesses are having a tough time keeping staff as housing prices have increased. The mayor says they’re working to encourage development of all housing types to protect long-time locals from displacement. As well, they’re keen to develop townhouses for young families who are expected to out-grow condo living.

Currently, there are more than 21,000 Squamish residents. Ms. Elliott says the town has an official community plan that will allow for up to 34,000 residents to reside within its existing boundaries.

“So we are looking to build density in our current footprint as much as possible,” she says. “And we recognize – and this is a focus of this council over this term – that while people may be happy to start out in a condominium, we know that people are looking for different housing forms … not everyone wants to live in a condo.”

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Condos have been steady business in Squamish. President of Accorde Properties Edward Archibald sold a 73-unit project in 2017, with one- and two-bedroom condos ranging between the $400,000s and $500,000s. Most of the project sold within three months.

“When we launched, there was a bit of competition, probably a couple of hundred units available over all at that time. For Squamish, that was a lot of units being released at the same time. And everyone who launched at that time has all sold out.

“There is limited inventory for the presale market right now.”

Mr. Archibald moved from Vancouver to Squamish three years ago for space and value.

“When I moved to Squamish, you could buy a three- or four-bedroom single-family home for $850,000 and now that house is just over $1-million. I have a young family, and it was the concept of having space versus being urban that was a big component.”

North Vancouver realtor Chris Brown has seen an increase in clients moving to Squamish and, until recently, he and his wife also lived there in a townhouse they purchased. It was always just a two-year plan, because they had to return to the city, but he and his wife have held onto the townhouse and rented it out. They paid just under $700,000 for it. The same one in North Vancouver would have been around $1.2-million, he says.

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“We wouldn’t have qualified for a mortgage for a brand new townhouse in North Vancouver, nor would we want the exorbitant cost,” Mr. Brown says.

The Squamish market is still steady, particularly townhouses and houses for less than $1-million, he says. He just sold a three-bedroom townhouse for $742,000, a slight reduction in the asking price.

“The buyer came from outside Vancouver, a classic downsizer but not ready for a single-level home. I think that’s a typical story in Squamish – people who have some equity are buying.”

The master-planned Sea and Sky development will eventually include 1,000 units.

Bluesky Properties

Long-time developer Lorne Segal has partnered with another established Vancouver developer, Dale Bosa, to build a master planned, 54-acre, multiphase waterfront development of nearly 1,000 housing units in Squamish called Sea and Sky. The first 88-unit phase sold out, and they’re about to launch the second phase of 125 townhouses, starting in the low $700,000s. The project is being built on an old mill site on the Mamquam River, outside of downtown. It will include affordable rental, market condos and townhouses, as well as five acres of park, cycling paths, boardwalk and pedestrian bridge over the river. They’d purchased the former mill about 15 years ago and held it until the market in Squamish was ready they say. It’s finally there.

“I look at [Squamish] as really as an emerging market – maybe one of the last frontiers,” Mr. Segal says. “If you look at the entire Lower Mainland, at Surrey, Coquitlam, Ladner, all of them, think of an area that hasn’t been tapped at all. You’ve got your 45-minute radius around downtown Vancouver and everybody tends to go south, so this becomes an option.”

It’s also an option that doesn’t have the daily traffic of Highway 1, which connects Surrey, Langley and the Fraser Valley, he adds. They are marketing their project with that congestion in mind.

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“If you have to commute, do you want to get stuck in gridlock somewhere travelling to those other places, or to take one of the most scenic drives in the world?

The first phase sold out in 2017 in a month and a half, Mr. Bosa says. They are hoping to sell half the units of the next phase in the next couple of months, but it’s a slower market now, with new government policies that have addressed empty homes, foreign buying and speculation. Eighteen months ago, he says, people were buying homes in the Lower Mainland in a desperate panic. That sense of urgency is gone.

“You do take risks and gambles, and you are planning stuff down the road,” Mr. Bosa says. “For example, the market was going at a steady pace and you get a change in government, different policies put in and all of a sudden it’s a different landscape. Now you have to shift and pivot and figure that out. You can’t just put everything on hold, because that doesn’t make sense. You have to stay calm and figure it out.”

The Lower Mainland remains largely unaffordable, despite the drastic decline in sales and softened prices. Mr. Segal says the Lower Mainland’s crisis has finally got people looking to Squamish.

“We had this affordability crisis here, and it opens up opportunities for places like this,” he says. “The value is amazing, and people will see the kind of quality they are expecting in Vancouver, but at a fraction of the price. They will be able to get their feet on the ground, they will be able to live where they like to play and create a life, and raise a family in maybe one of the healthiest uplifting environments anywhere.”

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