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[Editor's note: What's with Vancouver? It's always had the gorgeous setting, the country's best weather. But why is it now also the country's most out-of-reach housing market? And what can the city do to diagnose the problem and respond? This new Tyee Solutions Society case study series offers some insight.]

People from all over the world flock to live here. Over 600,000 live here now, and as many as a million more are expected to move into the metro region over the next 30 years.

Some come for the proximity to nature: the city is a short drive from mountains for hiking, climbing and skiing, and the water that snakes around it is frequently dotted with pleasure cruisers, kayaks and paddle boards.

Others come for the culture: artisanal hipster fare like craft beer and liquor, dozens of food trucks, and more than its fair share of coffee shops, all consumed on the way to world-class theatre, music and film festivals held year-round.

Few come for the nine months of rain. But it allows for the lush green foliage that weaves through and blankets the surrounding lands. No snow also means more biking, a smoother transit commute, and plentiful, multiple growing seasons.

Sound familiar, fellow Vancouverites? But no, I'm talking about another city that description fits like a pair of recalled yoga pants: Portland, Oregon.

Scenery and an obsession with artisanal foodstuffs aren't the only things the two cities have in common. Median annual incomes are similar: Portland's C$59,000 is just slightly higher than Vancouver's C$53,600. Populations are close, too: 619,360 people live in Portland; 640,469 call Vancouver home, and both cities are growing steadily.

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In a comparison with a dozen U.S. cities, Vancouver's incomes are in the bottom half. All incomes in Canadian dollars. Source: Statistics Canada and U.S. Census, American Community Survey.

But the median cost of a home in Portland is C$413,526.38. That's considerably less than Vancouver's C$720,000 median sale price.

To be clear, that covers all residential real estate, from multi-million dollar west-side trophy homes to comparatively budget-priced east-side condos. The median for detached homes in Vancouver is $1.1 million -- as has been widely quoted by the city's "#DontHave1Million" protesters.

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Vancouver's home prices are the second highest in the same comparison of a dozen U.S. cities. All prices in Canadian dollars. Sources: Vancouver: Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver; U.S. Cities: Zillow.com.

Look at it this way: that median-priced house in Portland represents seven years of income for the median-earning household. That's how long it would take -- putting every penny into it -- to save up the sale price of the city's median-priced home.

In Vancouver, that multiple is 13 years of income -- nearly twice as long.

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Here's how many years you'd need to save your entire median Vancouver income to buy a median-priced home, as compared to other North American cities.

With similar incomes, populations and population growth, Portland offers the best look at what Vancouver's housing prices might be if they were linked to local incomes and normal economic forces.

Instead, purchasing power from somewhere is putting a $300,000 premium on Vancouver housing prices. That figure represents, more or less, how a widely inferred but currently unmeasured inflow of money to the city is pushing up prices for everyday residents with the hope of one day owning the roof over their heads.

Not New York; so not San Francisco

Of course, the cities don't match perfectly. And comparing American and Canadian cities with different interest rates, government housing programs and currency values adds an admitted apples versus pears element to the contrast. (To make it a little easier, all incomes and prices reported here are in Canadian dollars.)

But Vancouver's case has even less in common with its Canadian sibling cities. Montreal and Toronto are much larger, both in population and area. Calgary and Edmonton have very different cultures from Vancouver, says Andy Yan, adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Community and Regional Planning.

"There's a culture of pragmatism [in Alberta]," he said, that shows up in investments in housing, education, culture and ending homelessness, even under Progressive Conservative governments until recently. "There is a level of realization of the need to invest in public goods."

By this point one of you is likely already tapping out a comment citing the sky-high housing prices of San Francisco or the density levels of New York City, scoffing: "It's not just here, housing prices are rising everywhere!"

But the data don't back this up. New York has more people packed in tighter than Vancouver. New Yorkers make more money than Vancouverites, yet their housing is still C$100,000 cheaper at the median than Vancouver's.

True, San Francisco is closer in physical size to Vancouver than Portland, but that's where the similarities end. San Francisco is less dense, and its residents make more than $20,000 above Vancouver's median income.

Plus, with a $1.4 million median sale price in 2014, its housing problems are worse than Vancouver's. Median salary earners would have to save their entire income for 17 years to afford a house at that price.

Is it the density?

Despite other commonalities, Portland has three times the space of Vancouver to house the same number of people. At 5,569 people per square kilometre, Vancouver is closer to Boston-level density than Portland's 1,790 people per square kilometre.

Yet Vancouver's median house price is still $156,000 higher than Boston's at $564,477. Boston's households have more to spend, too: their median annual income is $74,000-$20,000, or 37 per cent, higher than Vancouverites.

Curiously, despite a median housing price barely above half of Vancouver's, Portland isn't building or selling nearly as many homes. In fact, of the 14 cities we looked at, only Denver came close to Vancouver's 10,000-plus home sales in 2014.

Where is the purchasing power coming from to add roughly 75 per cent to Vancouver house prices compared to its most similar North American twin? Call that Vancouver's $300,000-per-family question.

"Is it debt? Is it generational transfer?" asks Yan, referring to parents leaving their homes, or the value of their homes, to their children. "Is it global capital?"

The answer may lie in public records that provide detailed information on who is buying and selling homes in Vancouver. That information is held by the British Columbia government, which has so far declined to release it.

Until it does, the source of the money floating through Vancouver's housing market remains a matter of speculation. What it's costing the ordinary household hoping to buy a modest condo or family home, however, is a bit clearer.  [Tyee]

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