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House-rich, lifestyle-poor in Vancouver

VANCOUVER -- Boomers who grew up in metro Vancouver in the 1950s have nostalgic memories of a port city where their parents owned a house, they played soccer on the street with pals after dinner, and neighbourhood loyalties were strong.

Occasionally families moved on when Dads got promotions but, by and large, the street tribe of families grew up together. Empty nest couples stayed on in their homes as long as possible. My grandparents lived about three miles away, and we drove there for Sunday dinners. Our cleaning lady lived in a house three blocks away from our place in Dunbar. My friends and I walked to school after breakfast.

 

I have vague memories that entry prices for west side homes in the early 1960s were in the $15,000 to $20,000 range. When, finally, my folks planned a big move to a larger house on the University of British Columbia Endowment lands in 1967, the price was an astronomical $36,000. But both parents worked at UBC as professors, and affordability was possible.

In the late 1970s, my wife and I moved away to Calgary. Vancouver real estate became an even more distant reality. And then I remember the first phone calls from family talking about the rapid rise in house values. Hong Kong was going to revert to Chinese Communist ownership, and nervous Asian capital was moving to Vancouver. Friends who had stayed in Vancouver began to report enormous increases in the value of their modest bungalows. We also noticed from afar that they tended to conflate their new real property wealth with business acumen.

In Calgary, house prices collapsed in 1982 along with oil prices. When oil prices eventually went up, gradual price recovery and tiny annual increments occurred. No one really thought of a house as an investment. We wondered if we had made a grotesque error in not staying in Vancouver.

Summer and Christmas vacations only reinforced our real estate angst, but to be honest, the Vancouver job market was no screaming hell. Compared to Calgary, it seemed provincial. We wondered how a city could claim "world class" status, when it had few corporate head offices and declining fortunes in forestry, mining and the fisheries. We saw that Vancouver friends had little ability to travel, even to see us in Calgary. Housing was rich, but paradoxically cash was tight.

On the other side of the Rockies, we were growing in our careers, saving money, building RSPs and investing in education and family travel. It seemed to be the Vancouver-Calgary trade off: rapid real estate appreciation versus good jobs, stock market equity and lifestyle benefits. By the mid-1990s, moving back to the coast was no longer an option. We simply couldn't afford it.

A defining point in our extended family history occurred when my father died and my mother had to sell the family home in 2006. My wife looked at me and said: "The family will never be able to afford that house again." She was precisely correct.

After 30 years in Alberta, we sold out and moved back to Vancouver as renters. Our cautious $200,000 investment in Alberta real estate netted about $450,000. We soon found out that equalled an 800-square-foot condo in False Creek. The old neighbourhood now starts at $2 million, and ranges up to $6 million. Many of the houses are vacant; they are essentially emergency boltholes for Asian immigrants who have taken out Canadian citizenship via national immigration policy favouring offshore entrepreneurs with money to invest.

Today Vancouverites are collectively struggling with the benefits of the wealthy few and the reality of the rest. Vancouver housing is the national poster child for unaffordability. The current purchase solutions on offer for the 99 per cent are: long work commutes on the Sky Train from outlying districts that are still very expensive; condo living in small spaces in ever-increasing densities in the inner city; and extreme overextension of assets at current low mortgage rates. Rumours of an impending real estate bust abound. Young couples are perplexed. Starting out with a young family is impossible without substantial parental help with a down payment.

I cannot drive by our old house on Camosun Street anymore; it was torn down and replaced by a sprawling pink stucco "Vancouver special." The street is flanked with parked BMWs and Range Rovers. Children no longer play soccer after dinner. Our cleaning lady sold out for $2.1 million several years ago. It is true: you can't go home again -- at least in Vancouver.

 

Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO.

 

--Troy Media

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