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Metro Votes: Young Vancouverites fleeing to more affordable pastures

Young people are increasingly leaving Vancouver to pursue better career opportunities and more affordable lifestyles.

While the Vancouver census metropolitan area continues to experience population growth, Statistics Canada numbers show that the Lower Mainland is actually losing residents aged 20 to 30 to other provinces.

The region saw a net loss of 1,571 residents in that age group in 2013, adding to the 770 that left Vancouver the year before.

In fact, Vancouver has been losing traction in that age group (those graduating from post-secondary institutions, launching careers, looking to put down roots and start families) since net influx peaked in 2009.

None of that comes as a surprise to Penny Gurstein, of the University of British Columbia’s school of community and regional planning. “It’s a larger reflection of the socioeconomic community we’re creating here,” said Gurstein. “You have a number of well off people buying properties and a large service sector, where the 20- to 30-year-olds are primarily employed, that doesn’t have enough income to afford anything. Of course they would want to leave.”

Gurstein said the lack of affordability and job opportunities are major driving factors for young professionals leaving the city.

Real estate prices here are notoriously the highest in Canada.

The average price of a detached home in Greater Vancouver is currently just under $1.3 million, while attached homes (including condominiums) average $548,028.

And although 34 per cent of people in Metro Vancouver sport a bachelor’s degree or higher (above the national average of 26 per cent), Vancouverites aged 22 to 55 with degrees have the lowest median income ($41,981) among Canada’s 10 largest cities, according to research by prominent urban planner Andy Yan, of Bing Thom Architects.

The City of Vancouver has put a lot of effort in attracting tech companies to the city, but Gurstein says the sector isn’t large or stable enough to offset the lack of opportunities elsewhere.

Tsur Somerville, of UBC’s Sauder School of Business, cautioned the net loss of young people in recent years isn’t a new phenomenon.

He says Vancouver has always been an expensive city and young people migrating to parts of the country where economic opportunities are strongest (such as Alberta and Ontario) is normal.

“It’s not a new issue,” he said. “It’s cyclical. There’s always a back and forth between the cities and, right now, Calgary is very, very strong. Young people are the most mobile group and we’ve seen since the 1990s a decline in the attractiveness of B.C. for people in other parts of the country.”

Somerville said many of his students come to UBC because they want to live in Vancouver, but discover it’s not a viable long-term option for them.

“It’s good if you’re renting and living in a smaller place. The second you want to be an owner, then it’s a real problem,” he said.

Gurstein said the city’s efforts to increase the number of rental units (51 per cent of Vancouverites rent) is good, but suggested a housing authority with more power is needed to address home affordability.

She also believes large employers can do more to secure affordable housing for employees (UBC does so for faculty) but says there aren’t enough organizations in Vancouver that are big enough in size to afford those kind of programs and incentives.

Somerville says tackling the issue in any meaningful way at a municipal level is difficult.

“Short of Stephen Harper writing a big cheque, it means municipal government has to build a lot of social housing, which equals taxation, or rezone areas with single family homes to increase supply and have denser neighbourhoods,” he said. “It isn’t going to be politically popular.”

Home is where the affordable three-bedroom house is

Lauren Harvey and husband Mike Green had no intention of leaving Vancouver.

Now that they have, they’re not wasting any time looking back.

As young professionals looking to put down roots, Harvey and Green (both 29 years old at the time) picked Vancouver as the place to settle down.

They had already been living in the city for seven years and considered it home.

But when it came time to go house hunting in the city, reality sunk in.

“Anything under $500,000 was a shoebox,” recalls Harvey, now 32.

The pair now has the lifestyle they desired.

Driving to work takes less than 10 minutes.

They go to yoga classes after work, and there is no shortage of culinary hotspots for the couple to hit up.

During the summer, they get off work on Fridays at noon and are on the water by 2.

But instead of squeezing into a 500-square-foot condominium in Vancouver, they are living comfortably in a three-bedroom home in River Heights.

“Winnipeg’s Kitsilano,” as Harvey calls it.

They’re spending less on housing – and just about everything else – in a city where they found career opportunities to be more plentiful and lucrative (Green works in digital marketing at Tourism Winnipeg and Harvey is a buyer for The North West Company).

There’s even money for a cottage and a few trips back to Vancouver each year.

“For sure affordability has been one of the big things,” Green said. “Winnipeg has everything we need and we have disposable income, which isn’t something we’d have living in Vancouver.”

Meanwhile, their successful friends in Vancouver continue scraping for a down payment on a suitable condo.

“Both of us never though we’d ever live in Winnipeg,” said Harvey, who is originally from there. “Vancouver has a lot going for it, but our quality of life now is so much better.”

The pursuit of full-time employment is what drove 26-year-old Charlotte Bell-Irving out of Vancouver.

Job prospects in Vancouver had dried up, so the geologist left for Calgary where resource-industry gigs were plentiful.

It turned out she wasn’t the only one.

When being interviewed by Metro over the phone Thursday, Bell-Irving was seated at a restaurant table with four new friends who had all moved to Cowtown after leaving British Columbia.

“That’s one of the things I like about Calgary, everyone is from somewhere else and have come here for work,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to make friends and get to know people.”

The five-per-cent sales tax, cheaper gas and overall low cost of living also help.

She’s looking now at buying a home, years before she ever though it would be possible in Vancouver.

“I can’t see myself moving back to Vancouver,” said Bell-Irving. “As much as I love it, I could never afford it.”

Affordability voted top Vancouver election issue

Affordable housing is the most pressing issue for Vancouverites, according to pre-election polls.

Here is what the top political parties say they will do about the problem:

Vision Vancouver

Vision Mayor Gregor Robertson will continue on his plan to build more dedicated rental housing, promising 1,000 units per year for the next four years. While the new units are pricy at up to $1,400 for a studio, the idea is supply will free space in older buildings. Plus, renting is cheaper than buying.

Non-Partisan Association

Mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe wants to focus on bringing in higher paying jobs so people have more money and can afford to live in the city. He also wants to work with the province and federal governments to create a tax credit for new rental housing.

Coalition of Progressive Electors

Mayoral candidate Meena Wong pledges to place a tax on vacant properties and slap a luxury tax on homes worth more than $2 million and use that money to fund city-owned housing. It intends to build 800 units of city-owned housing per year, although it’s not clear how it will pay for these.

With files from Emily Jackson