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Will young homebuyers say goodbye to Vancouver for good?


Hotter housing prices in Vancouver and other desirable West Coast cities close nearby may be driving young people out of the region or even the province in greater numbers.

There is no shortage of anecdotes about families, couples and even singles deciding to up stakes and settle where the grass may or may not be greener but at least there is a lawn.

Vancouver’s $1-million-plus houses are already the most expensive in the country and they continue to grow in value, as shown by the latest B.C. Assessment numbers this month. Vancouver, along with Richmond and West Vancouver, showed hikes of 16 per cent over the year before, among the only double-digit increases in the province.

And the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., the country’s national housing agency, is forecasting that housing prices in Metro Vancouver — even though they are expected to stabilize over the next few years — will rise by 2.3 per cent this year to an average of $802,000 for a single detached house.

Good news for homeowners and speculators, not so much for those hoping to buy in.

So those unwilling to raise a family in a tiny apartment or accept a lengthy commute to take ownership of a townhouse or detached house far from their workplace may be saying goodbye for good to the area where they may have hoped to settle.

While there was a net inflow of 42,000 immigrants to B.C. from other countries last year, more people left B.C. for other provinces than moved here, resulting in a net loss interprovincially of 1,125, according to B.C. Stats.

Are they leaving because they wanted a house with a yard?

“That’s a great question and you’re not the first one to make that connection,” said demographer Ryan Berlin of Urban Futures.

But short of polling those who’ve left, there’s no way of knowing if high housing costs drove them away, he said.

“There’s lots of anecdotal evidence [they’re leaving] because prices are so high,” he said. “But we just don’t know.”

The situation is different from the tens of thousands of British Columbians who left in the 1990s, largely because of a shortage of jobs, because B.C.’s economy is now strong.

“And this is a bit different because they’re leaving for Ontario and Quebec,” said Berlin. “Typically, it’s just to Alberta.”

But Berlin said interprovincial migration is cyclical and there are many reasons for people to move, including lifestyle reasons and economic opportunities.

“And there are still lots of people coming here,” he said.

And, he said, B.C. house prices have been steadily rising since 2001 and there hadn’t been a net loss in interprovincial migration before last year.

A search of the MLS listings of properties for sale shows a shortage of reasonably priced suites suitable for a young family. Last week, there were about two dozen listings for two-bedroom suites under $300,000 in the city of Vancouver, some with no-children restrictions.

“I’m really concerned if we see young people and families leaving the city because of high housing prices,” said Mayor Gregor Robertson. “I worry about that with my own kids, who are in university now . . .

“A lot of cities are grappling with this problem. It’s always been a nagging concern for Vancouver.”

He said, “We need more housing created in the low- to middle-income range.”

He has appointed a task force on housing affordability, which includes social housing for the homeless, and he said he expects an initial report this spring.

The experts will look at solutions based on zoning, density and different ownership models that work elsewhere, he said.

Robertson said because it’s not the city’s role to become a developer or interfere in the free market, “We have a limited ability to affect the market.”

But he said the city does have some tools and incentives to encourage higher density and mixed-income developments.

Housing experts say the ship may have sailed for affordable housing in Vancouver proper, or on the North Shore, where there are only eight two-bedroom suites under $300,000 listed with MLS, but numbers increase marginally elsewhere, with 70 such properties in Burnaby, 77 in Richmond and 42 in New Westminster.

Further east, there are 465 $300,000 or cheaper two-bedroom suites in Surrey and White Rock, 159 in Langley and 272 in the Tri-Cities, for a total in Metro Vancouver of more than 1,100, with an additional 325 in Mission and Chilliwack.

“Buyers have to ask themselves what kind of house they want and in what location” before deciding if they can stay in this area or leave for another province, said UBC Prof. Tsur Somerville. “They might say, ‘I have to buy a condo in Surrey but what I really want is a house on the west side of Vancouver.’ If I had to live in New Westminister instead of Vancouver, that for me isn’t a huge affordability issue.”

But while he said some low-income earners who have trouble even affording to rent may never at that income level be able to own, the government does have a role to play to ensure there are decent apartments available for reasonable prices.

He said that includes zoning restrictions, limiting development costs and removing red tape for developers.

Cameron Muir, a senior housing analyst with the B.C. Real Estate Association, said one-third of all home sales last year were to first-time homebuyers and 70 per cent of all new housing starts were for multi-family developments, which provides more affordable housing.

But Vancouver’s geography, with the Georgia Strait to the west, mountains to the north and agricultural reserve land to the east, puts pressure on land prices, he said.

The government’s job is to improve the supply of housing by encouraging density with bonuses and use various planning tactics and strategies, including reducing the “onerous” taxation on real estate, which he said keeps prices high, including the provincial transfer tax, and development costs.

And he said first-timers have to lower their expectations if they want to stay here.

“If you want to live in this day and age in a single detached house on the west side of Vancouver, it’s not likely,” he said.

Young families may be choosing to live in the inner city, according to numbers from the Vancouver School Board, which says after stable Kindergarten enrollment for years in its downtown schools, it has seen an increased demand.

It recently added four classrooms to the elementary school in Yaletown to accommodate the increase and has begun plans to build a second inner-city elementary school downtown called International Village Elementary, said spokesman Kurt Heinrich.

“This signals that many more people are living longer in smaller and more costly urban environment, even with children,” he said.


Have you fled Vancouver because of its high real estate prices? Are you sharing housing because of it? Are you taking other steps to cope? Tell us how you are managing in the country’s most expensive real estate market. Send your story to with “Housing” in the subject line.

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