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Fleeing Million Dollar Vancouver? Your Suburban Life May Cost Just as Much

Urbanist Andy Yan’s latest study reveals the cost burden of transportation.

Christopher Cheung 21 Dec

Christopher Cheung reports on affordable housing for the Housing Fix. 2016-17 funders of the Housing Fix are Vancity Credit Union, Catherine Donnelly Foundation and the Real Estate Foundation of B.C., in collaboration with Columbia Institute. Funders of special solutions reporting projects neither influence nor endorse the particular content of our reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this article or other Housing Fix articles, please contact solutions editor Chris Wood here.

Choosing a cheaper suburban house away from the madness of Vancouver real estate doesn’t mean you’ll be able to escape a million-dollar life. The house may be cheaper, but over the long term, transportation costs will likely make the Vancouver house look like a good deal.

In his latest study, Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s city program, looked at the cost of transportation over the past 25 years and property assessments of detached houses in the Metro Vancouver region.

About 43 per cent of Metro Vancouverites’ houses are worth more than a million dollars, according to 2016 B.C. Assessment data (collected July 2015), mostly in Vancouver, North Vancouver, and West Vancouver.

But factor in transportation costs over 25 years, and almost 92 per cent of households in Metro Vancouver face a total of more than a million dollars.

“Transportation is the iceberg of affordability,” said Yan. “On the surface, it doesn’t seem like that much per year, but when you look at the long-term impact of transportation costs and how much they can flux, it can have a dramatic effect on affordability.”

Yan cautions that affordability isn’t simply a number based on housing prices and incomes.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation defines any housing that costs less than 30 per cent of before-tax household income as affordable.

But residents choosing suburban houses to get under that bar might find they are spending a hefty amount over the years on transportation, especially compared to their urban neighbours.

The transportation ‘trade-off’

In Langley, located the farthest from Vancouver, only 0.3 per cent of properties are assessed at over a million dollars. Yet owners of detached houses there pay the most in Metro Vancouver for transportation, an average $564,000 over 25 years.

House owners within the City of Vancouver — the region’s hub and the municipality best served by public transit — pay the lowest 25-year transportation costs: at $298,000.

“It shows that car-dependent municipalities like Langley actually have very sizable transportation costs,” said Yan.

According to 2011 census data, the municipalities with the most jobs in Metro Vancouver are Vancouver (35 per cent), Surrey (13 per cent), Burnaby (12 per cent), and Richmond (11 per cent), likely attracting commuters from elsewhere in the region. Also, these more urban municipalities were the only ones served by the SkyTrain rapid transit system at the time.

And even what’s considered “cheaper” living in Vancouver is not as cheap as in places like Calgary and Ottawa, where incomes are higher and annual monthly housing costs are lower.

A 2015 Metro Vancouver study concluded that the region’s residents face a trade-off between cheaper housing/costly transport and costly housing/cheaper transport.

The million-dollar mark

Yan, aside from his SFU position, is also an adjunct professor at UBC’s planning school and a researcher and senior planner at Bing Thom Architects.

In a study earlier this year Yan showed how the divide between Vancouver’s west side, once known for its “million-dollar” homes, and the more affordable east side vanished over a decade, especially in the past three years.

Ninety-one per cent of detached houses in Vancouver are now assessed for more than a million dollars. In the Metro region, detached homes worth over a million jumped from 28 per cent in July 2014 to 43 per cent in July 2015.

And that’s before the cost of getting to work and home again.

* Story modified on Jan. 4, 2017 at 10:27 a.m.


Read more: Transportation, Housing

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