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To the 'Burbs!

My Vancouver house-hunting triggers a flight response. What is lost when aspiring owners leave?

By Luke Brocki 14 Mar 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Luke Brocki is a Vancouver-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @lukebrocki.

[Editor's note: After a less-than-successful housing hunt in Vancouver, reporter Luke Brocki continues investigating alternatives in the suburbs, and talks to former city councillor Peter Ladner about the exodus of Vancouver's young to more affordable pastures. This is the third part of the series Priced Out, a partnership between The Tyee and the CBC. To hear and see more perspectives on this series, tune in to CBC Radio's On the Coast at 5:40 p.m. and watch CBC News Vancouver at 6 p.m.]

"Hey man, it's been way too long!" yells my old friend Sebastian Zielinski outside the Surrey Central SkyTrain station. He looks exactly as he did in high school, tall and thin, dressed in sweatpants, dirty sneakers and the kind of sweater you might find at a discount supermarket. Except today he's also mortgaging two real estate properties.

"Let's get out of here," he says, waving me over to an aging import truck with a crack in the windshield. "Traffic sucks today."

I'd already been on the road for about an hour, having ditched my bicycle at Broadway and Commercial Drive, then bought a 3-zone upgrade for my bus pass and sat on the eastbound train long enough to read an Atlantic article about how skyscrapers can save the city. Now we're off on another hour-long journey to Zielinski's recently acquired home in Maple Ridge, a townhouse he bought with his girlfriend after finding a renter to move into the one-bedroom condo he's still paying off in Whalley.

He says it wasn't an easy decision to move that far east. Zielinski works as an ICBC driving examiner in Surrey. His girlfriend is a Grade 1 teacher in Port Coquitlam. They looked at some 50 places before discovering the deep discounts to be had east of the Pitt River Bridge connecting Port Coquitlam and Pitt Meadows.

"We just kept looking a little bit further until we saw this place and this was the place we loved the most," he says in between cursing the slow-moving traffic. "It was the biggest townhouse; it was by far the best bang for your buck."

Eventually we get there, and once I've stretched my legs and cracked a beer the place does seem like a bargain at 2,400 square feet for $365,000. It's a nice townhouse on a quiet street and Zielinski gives me the tour, which takes us over three storeys and into multiple spare bedrooms and bathrooms.

"Downtown Maple Ridge is walkable, about a 20-minute walk depending on where you want to go," he says as I look out the window to scope out the area. "But there's not much. There's a Save-on-Foods, there's a rec centre. That's about it."

So what the hell do you do for fun around here? I demand.

"I get off work at 4:30, get home by about 5:30, hang around the house for an hour, go to the gym, by the time I come back it's like 8 o'clock, 9 o'clock, watch some TV, go to bed. Not too much," he explains. "It's a simple life."

I lament the lack of tool libraries and community bike shops, protests and assemblies, fringe cultural programming, late-night pizza joints and live music options.

"It probably would be fun, but I've never really lived that lifestyle so I don't know what I'm missing," he says. "This makes sense to me though, to own rather than to keep renting."

Why?

"Because eventually, and I say eventually, when the mortgage is paid off, you own it. If you're renting, you're just giving money to somebody else and in the end you'll have nothing."

I think about this for a long time, first on our 40-minute walk to get dinner "at the good pub," then in one of Zielinski's spare bedrooms late into the night, then again on the hour-long West Coast Express ride back into Vancouver the next morning. Hell, maybe Zielinski has it figured out. Tens of thousands of people live a similar lifestyle in the name of equity and square footage.

Critical mass

Trouble is, we've also suspected since about 1961 that the same post-war American Dream that brought us the big house via highway out of town also destroys the complexity modern humans need to create sustainable economies and communities. American-Canadian urban planning legend Jane Jacobs immortalized that thought in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, arguably the most influential planning document of the last century, in which she insisted high density, mixed use of space and walkability were keys to a diverse and productive human ecosystem.

Her arguments remain in use today. Here's what New Yorker writer David Owen wrote about Jacobs in his 2009 book Green Metropolis: "She had come to realize that the qualities she found most appealing about city life could be traced to the fact that she and her neighbours lived very near to one another, that their tightly-spaced apartment buildings were of varying sizes and configurations, that residences were closely mixed with business, and that she and her neighbours were not narrowly segregated by wealth. Society, she decided, has a critical mass."

I might not be able to find that critical mass in the suburbs, I worried. A few days later, a quick chat with a chap from the Urban Development Institute (UDI) in Vancouver worried me some more.

"People like you are what we need to have a growing economy," Jeff Fisher, deputy executive director of UDI, tells me in an interview. "We're 20th out of 28 census metropolitan areas, we're behind Sudbury, we're behind Windsor, we're behind Hamilton. If we lose people, it's a downward spiral."

I take a quick look at the data BC Stats collects around inter-provincial migration patterns and find some 50,000 people did leave B.C. for the greener pastures of other provinces in 2010, though the province still enjoyed a total positive net migration of some 57,000 people, nearly 44,000 of those into Greater Vancouver. There is no data on the reasons those who left decided to leave, but UDI says informal surveys show it's usually for affordability reasons.

Cause and exodus

Later that day, I'm off on another trip to find out more about these exodus concerns. This time I'm in a co-op car, heading deep into Vancouver's west side. I'm here to chat with Peter Ladner, former journalist and politician, proud Vancouverite, and lately quite vocal about affordability concerns, which seems strange coming from a man whose family name appears on maps of regional suburbs.

He greets me at the door of his home in a collared shirt and black micro-fleece vest, then invites me into the dining room for a glass of Happy Planet juice, which again seems strange given the drink's ties to Gregor Robertson, the man who beat Ladner to the mayor's chair in 2008.

"My wife buys this stuff," Ladner says with a smile and a shrug, pointing to the woman putting dishes away in the kitchen. Then he starts on why Vancouver real estate prices are a problem.

"I'm lamenting, because I've got four kids your age and younger and they're not going to get into this market as owners," he says.

I look around his big Point Grey house and can't help asking the obvious question.

"What's this house worth?" I ask.

"About 1.8 (million)."

"And what did you buy it for?"

"About a quarter of that."

So what's the problem? I insist. Let's talk about those uncomfortable end-of-life realities. As soon as you're dead, your kids will get half a million dollars apiece, which will likely still be a pretty good down payment, even in Vancouver. Plus, why wait that long? Why not pull equity and set them up with some cash right now?

"Yah," he says, which I celebrate as a quick victory, but he quickly shifts his worries to include kids of less established families:

"There's a whole story here about families getting split up," he says. "When the generations are all split apart and kids are moving somewhere else and you never see your grandchildren. What happens if everyone moves away and there's just a few old people hanging around? What kind of a city is that for everybody? Who's going to serve them coffee at Starbucks for God's sake? I tend to look at the greater good which we all feed off and say if you shatter that, then who cares if your property value is high?"

Ladner is not alone in worrying about young people being priced out of town. UBC landscape architecture professor Patrick Condon has been looking to quantify the alleged phenomenon by examining Vancouver's steady decline of school-age residents, which he sees as an effective proxy measure of young families leaving the city to get more bang for their buck in the suburbs. (Read Condon's thoughts, including suggestions on how to keep young families in town by providing more housing options, in his Tyee story here.)

It's tough to shape policy in the absence of hard metrics, but in the interim, people still need places to live. Still, those worries have yet to shake the status quo, and perhaps that's due to the great paradox of home ownership: the minute I slide my down payment across the table to a lender, I'll stop complaining about real estate costs and instead join that vast and powerful chorus of taxpayers keen to see those prices (suddenly pinned to my retirement dreams) climb ever higher.

Before I leave, Ladner complicates things by handing me a glossy ad for the 2012 Shanghai Real Estate Expo coming up in March, said to attract more than 100,000 potential buyers. Sell Your Property In China, the ad instructs. Call Us Now.

"It came in the mail today," he says.

Not this again.

Last year, Ladner was so worried about the influx of rich foreigners gobbling up Vancouver's real estate stock, he called for foreign ownership restrictions even in the absence of hard data that identifies it as a problem. Today the data isn't any clearer, but other voices are joining the discussion. He walks me out, and I head back over to the familiar side of Main Street to see what else I can dig up.

Tomorrow: Wading through the sea of anecdote and conjecture around foreign ownership.  [Tyee]

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