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Renter numbers grow in Metro Vancouver — but many are struggling

Over half of Vancouverites rent according to data from Statistics Canada.

The Vancouver Skyline seen form Burnaby Heights on Jan. 26, 2017.

Jennifer Gauthier / For Metro

The Vancouver Skyline seen form Burnaby Heights on Jan. 26, 2017.

More Vancouver residents are renting rather than buying their own home, a trend that points to worsening home affordability but is also bolstering renters as a potent political force.

The percentage of renters in the City of Vancouver edged up to 53 per cent, compared to 51 per cent in 2011, according to Statistic Canada’s 2016 Census. Data on housing was released Oct. 25.

“I’ve rented my whole life and I know lots of people who’ve rented their whole lives,” said Karen Sawatzky, a Vancouver resident and advocate for renter’s issues.

“They are middle aged and make decent incomes, just due to the housing market and various factors they haven’t become homeowners and people are wanting to say that’s normal, that’s fine, and we want policy to reflect that.”

Sawatzky pointed out that several city council candidates in the recent Vancouver by-election made a point of identifying themselves as renters.

Renting in the City of Vancouver has been more than 50 per cent since the 1970s, and reached a high of 59 per cent in 1991. But that figure steadily dropped throughout the late 90s and 2000s, reaching its lowest point in 2011, at 51 per cent. In fact, 2015 was the first year the percentage of renters versus homeownership has risen since 1991.

Andy Yan, an urban planner and director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, believes the drop in renters between 1991 and 2011 was due to the city’s condo building boom that made it easier for people to buy a smaller, cheaper home.

But condos, once a relatively affordable option, have begun to climb out of reach in Vancouver’s hyper-inflated real estate market.

Yan also pointed to factors like a changing workforce where work is less secure and people may have more difficulty qualifying for a mortgage, or simply want the flexibility that renting provides.

Renting is also growing in Metro Vancouver municipalities, where rates of homeownership are typically higher. For municipalities like Surrey, Coquitlam and Richmond, that’s probably due to  condo construction, where a number of suites get rented out by the owners, Yan said.

Renting rose by 54 per cent in Port Moody, compared to a 21 per cent gain in homeownership. The stats were similar for Surrey and the District of Langley, according to an analysis by Yan.

Changes in housing tenure in Metro Vancouver by municipality areas, 2006 to 2016.

Andy Yan, Community Data Science at the SFU City Program

Changes in housing tenure in Metro Vancouver by municipality areas, 2006 to 2016.

Across most Metro Vancouver municipalities, renters are under more financial strain than homeowners. In the City of Vancouver, 44 per cent of renters pay over 30 per cent of their income on rent (a common measure of housing affordability). In West Vancouver, a whopping 57 per cent of renters are paying more than 30 per cent of their income on rent. The stats are similar for 14 other Metro Vancouver municipalities.

Percentage of owners and renters spending more than 30 per cent of income on shelter costs.

Andy Yan, Community Data Science at the SFU City Program

Percentage of owners and renters spending more than 30 per cent of income on shelter costs.

Since the 1950s, housing policies have been focused on encouraging Canadians to become homeowners, with generous tax breaks and benefits.

Yan said the data shows that when provinces or the federal government are designing new housing policy, renters need to be included as a major part of Canada’s housing picture.

“It shouldn’t necessarily be about how do we get (renters) to be homeowners,” he said. “We need to be thinking of housing policy that focuses on security of tenure.”

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