Unaffordability in a “Livable” City

I am a long-term tenant living in one of the last remaining affordable rental units in Kitsilano. Since I moved into the building in 2002, rental rates for the area have nearly tripled. When I moved in, rent for my studio suite (which is really a one bedroom that can be partitioned off with folding doors) was $765; today, it is $1,060.67. To give you some context, PadMapper’s “Rent Trends for Apartments in Kitsilano” for May 2021 shows the following:

Studio                   $1,650

1 Bedroom           $1,895

2 Bedroom           $2,680[1]

If I had been evicted, the rent I would be paying to live in the same apartment would be so much more. Conversely, if I moved out, the landlord could triple the rent. However, with a vacancy rate of 0.6 percent, there is nowhere for me to go that I can afford. I’ve put down roots in Kitsilano and want to live and work close to friends, loved ones, and neighbours. The only thing that ended these never-ending attempts to evictions to renovate and increase the rent on a newly renovated and vacant suite was filing a lawsuit, which I won.

My situation reveals the discrepancy between the idea of Vancouverism and the reality of trying to rent affordable housing in this city.

Vancouver has long suffered a housing affordability crisis. Housing prices began rising during the 1970s after the federal government shut down the last two grant programs for developers to build purpose-built rental housing units, that is, housing built expressly for long-term rental accommodation. Cut off from this source of funding, developers focused on building condominiums, which they promoted as “livable” – close to green spaces, ocean views, and other amenities – so they could boost the asking price. The upward trend on prices was compounded by a forty-year push by the provincial government to entice, through tax incentives, offshore money from Asia. These overseas investments went directly into real estate, inflating the prices of houses and condominiums. In 2017, Statistics Canada conducted a Condominium Apartment Vacancy Survey that found that foreign-owned condominiums went for an asking price of up to three times more than domestically-built condominiums. Additionally, low-interest rates, fear of missing out, a culture that privileges homeownership over renting, among other factors, have fuelled increases. Offshore money, money laundering, and the government turning a blind eye to inflated house prices by instead focusing on “growing the economy” are also lead causes. The government added to runaway house prices by promoting foreign investment through legislative policies such as tax incentives. A good example of domestic developers being left out of bidding on condominiums is the 1986 Expo site. Lots were bid on and sold in Hong Kong even before reaching the domestic market. In 2018, the publication of a report by Peter German titled Dirty Money revealed that money was being laundered through real estate, inflating housing prices by 5 percent, and that this illegal activity had gone unpunished.[2]

In 2002, the average benchmark price for a detached house in Vancouver was $373,110, an increase of almost six percent in comparison to 2001.[3] In 2016, a house described as “shabby” came to represent Vancouver’s runaway real estate market when it sold over the asking price of $2.5 million as a tear-down home.[4] The hope of owning a home is long gone for most people in the province. In 2016, the average price of a home in Greater Vancouver was close to twelve times the average household income.[5] Although prices declined at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, by May 2019 the market was once again in overdrive, symbolized by the sale of a nine-foot laneway (shed not included) for $289,000.[6] The market has long been in bubble territory. If house prices correct or interest rates rise, people could find themselves underwater according to Global News in 2021.[7]

Some have argued that pricing people out of the housing market has caused Vancouver to suffer a brain drain. University students and young people get their degrees then leave to settle in other cities where housing is more affordable.[8] For those who stay, they must resign themselves to high rents, higher demand on rental units, and likely never owning a home. According to the 2016 census, 53 percent of Vancouver citizens are now renters. Vancouver is a “city of renters” obsessed with homeownership. “We need to embrace that Vancouver is a ‘city of renters’ with more than half of households living in rentals,” Dan Garrison, the assistant director for the city’s department of planning, urban design, and sustainability said.[9] Many of these renters have high incomes, and landlords know they can get higher rents, which explains why renovictions are on the rise. Vancouver is a city of renters, yet renters are viewed as a burden. During my fourth eviction attempt, my landlord told the arbitrator, “If only they would leave, I could increase this rent up to three times more.” With vacancy rates so low, units are even being auctioned off in bidding wars that add stress to the lives of university students who want to rent to attend university or low-income or retail clerks who simply want to live and work in Vancouver. According to the 2016 census, the province of BC has the highest proportion of working poor of any province in Canada, and the majority of working poor live in Vancouver, where they can’t afford to live and work.[10]

In other words, Vancouver’s long-festering affordability crisis is now threatening the “feasibility of Vancouver’s service-labour reliant resort economy” because the folks who give you your coffee, teach your swimming classes, or run the Stanley Park attractions, cannot afford to live and work in the city. Vancouverism is unstable, and those with accumulated capital will likely choose to invest their assets in places with a more reliable livability model.[11]

  1. “Rent Trends for Apartments in Kitsilano,” June 2021, https://www.padmapper.com/apartments/vancouver-bc/kitsilano.
  2. Peter German, Dirty Money, March 31, 2018, https://cullencommission.ca/files/Gaming_Final_Report.pdf.
  3. Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, “Monthly Market Report,” February 2002, https://www.rebgv.org/market-watch/monthly-market-report/february-2002.html
  4. Karin Larsen, “Vancouver Teardown in Point Grey Sells for Almost $2.5M: Shabby Little House That Came to Symbolize Vancouver's Runaway Real Estate Market Sells over Asking, CBC, February 16, 2016, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/vancouver-teardown-real-estate-1.3449869
  5. According to data from the Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) and Statistics Canada, in April 10, 2021
  6. Karin Larsen, “At $289K, Vancouver’s Most Affordable Property Is Also the City's Tiniest: With Just 9 Feet of Frontage, the Property Looks Like a Dirt Driveway Belonging to the Next-Door Neighbours,” CBC, April 30, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/at-289k-vancouver-s-most-affordable-property-is-also-the-city-s-tiniest-1.6007132.
  7. Erica Alini, "Here’s How Home Prices Compare to Incomes across Canada during the Pandemic with Extra Money from CERB,” Global News, April 10, 2021, https://globalnews.ca/news/7740756/home-prices-compared-to-income-across-canada/.
  8. Data analyst Jens Von Bergmann denies there is a brain drain; instead, he argues, there is a cyclical revolving door of professionals: “There Is No Brain Drain, but There Might Be Zombies: Digging into Yet Another Round of Claims of Some Group of People Leaving Vancouver,” Mountain Doodles, February 3, 2019, https://doodles.mountainmath.ca/blog/2019/02/03/there-is-no-brain-drain-but-there-might-be-zombies/.
  9. Nick Eagland, “COVID-19: Vancouver City Staff Unveil Plan for Housing Woes Made Worse,” Vancouver Sun, May 2, 2020, https://vancouversun.com/news/covid-19-vancouver-city-staff-propose-drastic-housing-changes/.
  10. Statistics Canada, “Canada – Percentage of the Population Below the After-Tax Low-Income Measure in 2015, by 2016 Census Division (CD),” http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2016/geo/map-carte/ref/thematic-thematiques/inc-rev/map-eng.cfm?TYPE=8; Lori Culbert and Tracy Sherlock, “B.C.’s Working Poor: Meet the People Whose Jobs Don’t Pay the Bills,” Vancouver Sun, January 15, 2018, https://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/b-c-s-working-poor-meet-the-people-whose-jobs-dont-pay-the-bills; Iglika Ivanova, Seth Klein, and Tess Raithby, “Working for a Living Wage 2018,” Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, April 25, 2018, https://www.policyalternatives.ca/livingwage2018.
  11. J. Peck, Elliot Siemiatycki, and Elvin Wyly, “Vancouver's Suburban Involution,” City 18, 4-5 (2014): 386-415.


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