Cindy Leibel of Kamloops was looking forward to working and settling in Vancouver after becoming a teacher. She was freshly graduated from Simon Fraser University with a bachelor’s in education.
But after two years of scrambling to find stable work and losing about $300 a month, Leibel and her partner gave up on the region and moved to the Kootenays. Poor work and housing prospects in unaffordable Vancouver squeezed them out in 2012.
“It feels like such a big problem that we’re powerless to change,” she said.
We know that Vancouver’s skyrocketing housing costs are harming workers. Family housing, three-bedroom units in particular, is hard to come by. Commutes are getting longer for many. And wages are lower in Vancouver compared to other Canadian cities.
But all of this hurts the city’s employers, too, making it difficult for them to attract and retain workers in the urban core.
“There’s no question that Vancouver has become a global destination, and the reality is that the cost of living has risen in the past few years,” said Bill Tam, president and CEO of the B.C. Tech Association. The industry-backed non-profit is part of Go North Canada, a national campaign looking to draw newcomer and ex-pat tech workers to the country.
As Vancouver continues to blossom as B.C.’s tech hub, the challenges of sprawl and ensuring a mix of housing types are on Tam’s mind.
“The biggest concerns for tech companies are creating an environment that employees can easily get back-and-forth between home and work and the housing stock,” said Tam. “There’s the challenge of pricing, but that’s also balanced by the need to ensure there’s efficient rental stock.”
To examine how incomes in Vancouver compare to other cities, urban planner Andy Yan crunched some numbers from the 2011 National Household Survey for a housing report by Resonance Consultancy that came out earlier this year.
Yan wanted to see how the median income for grads with bachelor degrees (between 25 and 55) compared across Canada’s 10 largest metropolitan areas. He calls his findings the “chart of doom.”
If you’re a bachelor grad of that age group, your best bet is working in Toronto. The median income for your demographic is a little more than $64,000.
Your worst bet of Canada’s 10 largest metropolitan areas is Vancouver. The median income for the same demographic is about $42,000.
Last year’s average rents for both metropolitan Toronto and Vancouver were about the same at $1,233 and $1,223 respectively, according to CMHC. But the median bachelor grad in that age group from Vancouver has $22,000 less to spend on that near-identical rent than their counterpart in Toronto.
Some other cities that fare better than Vancouver for those bachelor grads are Ottawa, Calgary, Waterloo, and Hamilton.
So how are Vancouver’s housing challenges affecting employment?
The Tyee interviewed representatives from Vancouver’s workforce in education, health, policing. Here’s what we heard, along with suggestions like creating workforce rentals and transportation investments.
Epic commutes for hospital workers
High housing costs have made it harder for the Vancouver Police Department to attract officers across Canada working in other police forces, said the force’s Staff Sgt. Randy Fincham, a media spokesperson.
One challenging demographic is younger recruits in their mid- to late-20s, who might be interested in purchasing real estate to put down roots. The ability to buy a home is “definitely a factor in choosing whether to work here,” said Fincham.
Eighty-three per cent of VPD officers don’t live in the city of Vancouver, but Fincham says that doesn’t impact the quality of policing, only the convenience of getting to work.
The Hospital Employees’ Union, with 49,000 members, has been vocal on the transportation end of the housing equation for its Metro Vancouver members.
A 2012 study of HEU members revealed that one in four members living in Metro Vancouver face staggering commute times to work: drivers spend an average of one hour and twenty minutes a day behind the wheel, while those on public transit spend an average ride of two-and-a-half hours.
“It became clear from some of the economic analysis that people were making up for housing affordability by moving further and further out into the valley,” said Neil Monckton, a communications officer at the HEU. “Solving one problem created a different problem.”
Monckton also noted the challenges of those who don’t work on the public sector and might not make a living wage. As a result, they often have to take on more than one job, and those long commutes rob many parents of family time.
“We hear lots of stories of dads that work six days a week, leaving the house before the kids get up, and only seeing them one day a week,” said Monckton.
He said that a Broadway extension to the SkyTrain would benefit his union’s members, as it would provide faster transit access to the area’s medical community.
Tech workers want workplace proximity
Tech is B.C.’s fastest growing sector — there are currently over 9,500 tech companies in the province — and it needs workers.
“There is tremendous demand for talent here,” said Tam of the B.C. Tech Association. “But compared to London, New York, and San Francisco, the reality is that Vancouver is quite affordable if you’re young and mobile. The attractiveness is more difficult for companies hiring mid-stream or mid-career people who might be coming from smaller jurisdictions.”
Having a hub and community where tech companies are located is crucial. Vancouver’s hub is in and around downtown, clustering around the city centre transit station, Yaletown, Gastown, and Mount Pleasant.
“It’s almost a requirement in terms of success in recruiting people,” said Tam. “We’re seeing this more and more in all other major tech centres. That close proximity to the workplace is what tech workers are looking for.”
One area that’s been pegged as Vancouver’s next biggest tech community is the False Creek Flats. It’s an industrial area just east of Mount Pleasant and close to downtown.
The flats are already home to Mount Equipment Co-op’s headquarters and the Centre of Digital Media, with the Emily Carr University of Art + Design planning to relocate here as well. Tam calls it the “single largest undeveloped opportunity in the city.”
However, developers have said the city’s plan for the area falls short of what could be a new, dense live-work community, as it only allows for 1,400 residents despite welcoming potentially 20,000 new jobs.
“When you build the capacity for housing units within walking distance of the work environment, you also seed the ground for things like restaurants, coffee shops, and amenities that operate 24/7 — not just from nine to five,” said Tam. “That’s what creates vibrancy in tech communities.”
Teachers learning to adapt?
President Rory Brown of the Vancouver Secondary Teachers Association has noticed more teachers choosing to live in the suburbs, and more teachers looking to work there too.
“It’s quite unprecedented,” said Brown. “As the local president of a teacher’s union, I got more calls this year than ever before from people asking how to switch districts.”
Brown has no data on how high housing costs in the urban core are influencing education, but he shared some “worrisome” changes that could be connected. Schools on Vancouver’s pricier west side — such as University Hill, Lord Byng, and Magee — have a harder time filling positions.
Teachers on call in Vancouver are also harder to come by, and when there is no replacement for a staff member who is away, a class often will require the principal or vice-principal to instruct them for the day, or the class might combine with another class. There have also been fewer teachers signing up to help with afterschool activities in the arts like theatre.
“Things have really changed,” said Brown, “but it’s difficult to know exactly what to attribute changes to.”
Despite the lack of concrete data to pinpoint housing as the culprit for these changes, Brown said the union is looking into innovative solutions that could keep teachers closer to work.
San Francisco took two actions this year to help house teachers specifically. One program called Teacher Next Door offers loans to local teachers toward the purchase of their first home.
And this past May, San Francisco’s mayor pledged $44 million for the construction of 130 to 150 rental units for teachers. The site chosen for the coming rental housing is an annex currently used for office and archive space; Brown hopes the Vancouver School Board will look into creative ways to use its own land.
San Francisco’s commitments came after the story of a homeless math teacher came to light. The teacher was evicted from a home in foreclosure and had to sleep in hostels and a shelter.
The anecdote was often used as a testament to life in the increasingly expensive Bay Area. A San Francisco Chronicle headline read: “Low pay, high SF housing costs equal 1 homeless math teacher.”
“Education is all about relationships,” said Brown. “If you live in the community you work in, it makes a difference.”
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