Transformation and demoviction in Burquitlam

1960s-vintage walk-up apartment buildings near Cottonwood Park. These structures, and others nearby, have housed refugees from the Middle East and Africa in recent years. Many are targeted for demolition. When this photo was taken (October 2019) Google Maps showed a much wider area of similar buildings standing on the now-vacant lands in the foreground.

North Road, which splits Coquitlam from Burnaby, is one of British Columbia’s oldest roads. It was cleared in 1859 as an escape route to the Pacific, in the event that American forces attacked the British military camp on the Fraser River to the south.

A house from Burquitlam’s semi-rural period, probably 1940, just east of North Road

Against this dramatic background, the Burquitlam neighbourhood emerged after 1950 as an unremarkable add-on to existing sprawl. The new shopping plaza created a focus of sorts with its enormous parking lot. The funeral home provided another landmark, built close by the early-arrival house shown on the left. In between, the developers added a few blocks of rental apartment housing, something that made sense given the real estate economics and tax policies of the time.

The 2017 opening of the Evergreen rapid transit line is transforming this area. SkyTrain has enabled tower cluster formation around perhaps 20 stations in Metro Vancouver in recent decades; Burquitlam offers an especially drastic example of supercharged redevelopment and demolition, all on the Coquitlam side of North Road. In 2015 there were two mid-rise towers here. Today there are a dozen residential towers located around the North Road/Clarke Road intersection, with more towers, mid-rise complexes and townhomes in the works.

Apartments, maybe 1965, Whiting Way; mostly vacant, and waiting for demolition, on the day of our tour

The story received little attention in community media through 2018 and 2019. I can only conclude that the longtime homeowners — the sort of voters who influence local politics — have not collectively registered any concerns about the pace of change. Granted, the people who are most affected are renters, often new arrivals to Canada who are unlikely to rock the boat. But the owners of big detached homes are sharing the experience, through construction noise, the transformation of viewscapes, and increased traffic on side streets and arterials. The answer may lie in the fact that homeowners anticipate a big payday from the local land boom. In fact, some have already cashed in.

I walked through the neighbourhood with co-tourists Ellen and John Heaney, my sister and brother-in-law. They have owned and lived in a detached house here for more than 30 years, on a street where property values are rising. I was struck by the number of redevelopment notices and properties that have been cleared for redevelopment. In a 2016 post, I wrote about the demolition of the old rental stock around Metrotown in Burnaby and the eviction of renters. My impression from our tour is that the Burquitlam situation is event more acute.

The Metrotown demovictions triggered a protest movement that boosted the Green party’s fortunes in the 2018 local elections. Interestingly, representatives of the Metrotown protest movement arrived in Burquitlam as I was preparing this post. Spokesman Murray Martin told the Tri-City News that Coquitlam has had “a free ride for the last few years” with regard to the displacement of renters.

Fraseropolis Burquitlam towers

Towers under construction on Foster Avenue, seen from a residential property to the south

Fraseropolis Burquitlam shopping centre

A 1970s strip mall, the stub of a much larger property that was cleared for the new Safeway and towers in the background.

Ellen was a children’s librarian for many years. She now teaches English to adults and presenting story times to small children through local social service agencies. Her clients are mostly immigrants, especially refugees from war-torn parts of the Middle East and Africa. Some of the people she has taught lived in affordable apartments on Foster Avenue, and were dispersed by the construction of the towers shown above. Others fear they will soon lose their homes.

These are resilient people, my sister says, and quick to form support networks along national or religious lines. Most of them will find their way. Even so, we are looking at a long-term trend where an increasing number of people ejected from affordable housing across the Lower Mainland are competing for a shrinking supply.

The City of Coquitlam has tried to address the rental shortage in its 2015 Housing Affordability Strategy. Unlike in Metrotown in 2016, current project signs in Burquitlam show that the new towers will include some market rental units. However, this is not a one-for-one substitution; the three of us agreed that the new units will probably rent for twice as much as the existing ones.

As in Metrotown, many new Burquitlam residents will be working immigrants, especially Chinese and Koreans. We had our dinner at Katsuya, part of a quasi-trendy Japanese schnitzel chain based at a Burquitlam-like crossroads in Toronto — and part of a diverse Metro Vancouver restaurant market that caters increasingly to Asian tastes.

[This is post #42 in our Urban Villages series.]

Fraseropolis Burquitlam Station

Burquitlam Station

Fraseropolis Evergreen line

Burquitlam Station on the Evergreen Extension of the Millennium Line. The station sits at the summit of an old road from the Fraser River to the Pacific Ocean.

Burquitlam European moden

A low-rise complex with a “European modern” design, which some folks like and others don’t

Detached home on Adler Avenue, awaiting low-rise or townhome development

Fraseropolis Burquitlam redevelopment 2

Sign on yet another condemned property, not on a park

Fraseropolis Burquitlam house for sale

A house for sale at the edge of the redevelopment zone. At the time of publication of this post, it was listed at $2,400,000..





Imagining downtown Maple Ridge as a social services precinct

Services available for low-income people, seniors and families in trouble in downtown Maple Ridge, summer 2019. This may not be the complete list. (Graphic by Farnsworth Designs.)

Like some other sprawling urban jurisdictions in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, Maple Ridge (population 80,000) has a downtown core built around an old rural crossroads. The construction of the Lougheed Highway through farmland in 1929 generated a commercial cluster at the intersection of 224 Street. The original Fuller Watson furniture store is still in business at this corner, and other 1929-era structures nearby are  home to newer retail businesses such as the gelato store and a micro-brewery.

There is money in Maple Ridge. The 2016 Canada census indicates the median income is relatively high — well above those in the City of Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey, Coquitlam or Richmond. Managers and professionals commute from Maple Ridge to downtown Vancouver, the International Airport or the North Shore, online entrepreneurs and investors generate millions from their hillside estates, and double-income couples work in public-sector positions as university teachers, school teachers, nurses, bus drivers, municipal officials, police officers and prison guards. The money from these government jobs is not always spectacular, but it is steady and it comes with generous pensions.

Of course, there are lower-income people too. Many have settled in apartment complexes north or east of City Hall, where the can walk to buy groceries or to catch a bus. Some once worked in the lumber mills and factories that have disappeared over time; others have emerged a Maple Ridge jail without skills or aptitudes; the largest number, doubtless, work at a low wage in the hair salons, dollar stores and for-cash contracting businesses that form a big part of the local private-sector economy.

In a dynamic that has rolled out over many years, Maple Ridge has also spawned or attracted a prominent homeless population. For the B.C. news media, homelessness is a big part of the Maple Ridge brand; and for many local political candidates, homelessness became almost the sole issue in the 2018 municipal election campaign.

Other cities in the region — Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Surrey and New Westminster, for starters — also struggle with homelessness and related problems such as public drug use and property crime. However, it may be that the homeless are more visible in Maple Ridge than anywhere else, partly because the city’s founding families (think 1929) still own much of the inner-city land and have left it vacant.

The Port Haney homeless camp, Maple Ridge, on March 3, 2019, just after the City of Maple Ridge ordered residents to evacuate. In the next few days, 400 cubic metres of refuse were removed from an area the size of a standard residential lot. The City eventually allowed registered residents to return to the camp, under heavy security, but refused to admit any new campers. As as of summer 2019, the population had dwindled to something like 8  residents, down from a peak of 60 or more. The homeless, however, are still visible on the street, and appear to be scattered to gullies and the Fraser River shore.

Scored on the Fraseropolis urban villages index, devised for middle-class city dwellers such as myself, downtown Maple Ridge scores in the low to mediocre range. There is housing choice within 750 metres of the main streets, the transit system is improving, and there is growing urban interest around the farmer’s market. On the negative side, the retail and commercial services sprawl across too wide an area to encourage walking, the retail quality is often low, and retail businesses and restaurants frequently fail.

I developed the map at the top of this post simply on a hunch, to see what it would look like. My 2012 Fraseropolis index does not consider the density of social services — for the very poor, families in trouble, or low-income seniors. This is not a dimension of urban life that business improvement associations or local newspapers have focused on. However, the availability of such services is critical in pointing people towards employment, healthier choices and affordable housing. In exploring the urban villages of B.C. since 2012, I have frequently sensed a conflict between the need for social services storefronts and the consumer appetite for the chic and the trendy. The challenge, I guess, is to integrate services for the poor into trendy neighbourhoods; or alternatively, to think of ways to eliminate poverty.

Dewdney Trunk Road at 224 Street, Maple Ridge. Some visitors to the downtown may be driving in to shop in one of the strip malls, take a yoga class or have their truck repaired; others may be walking from apartments nearby to see their probation officer or negotiate free clothing at a charity store.



Vancouver’s housing crash and the cost of living

A recent report estimates that B.C.’s housing price downturn, underway for the past year or more, has cost Metro Vancouver homeowners 89 billion dollars in notional home equity or almost $40,000 for every resident of the region.

This number, which appears to originate with a couple of retired millionaires on the west side of Vancouver, feels about right. Monthly stats from the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board indicate that in the inner suburbs, the average owner of a detached home is losing more than $10,000 per month in estimated value. In the City of Vancouver and the District of West Vancouver, that number is more like $25,000 per month.

How much further can prices decline? At this moment, home prices from West Van to Abbotsford are still, in most cases, 85 to 130 per cent higher than they were 10 years ago. The cost of living has increased by 16.2 per cent during the same period, and wages (Statistics Canada, 2017) have tended to track the cost of living. Homeowners are still ahead of the game measured against what they would have made from other investments; would-be buyers still face a big affordability problem.

Fraseropolis Joyce Collingwood towersWhen was launched in 2011, Vancouver-area detached housing prices were high and moving higher at an accelerating pace, but organized public concern was limited.

Through 2014 and 2015 the conversation around home prices heated up, and so, anecdotally at least, did the inflow of offshore money. But the benefits from the real estate boom were very attractive for many people payments to real estate agents and developers, construction and renovation jobs, landscaping jobs, retail sales of home furnishings, and windfall gains to the provincial government from the property transfer tax.

Starting in 2016, despite the benefits from a speculative market, governments have taken steps to cool things off, including:

  • A provincial foreign buyers tax
  • A federal mortgage “stress test” to confirm the financial position of all home buyers
  • A municipal vacant homes tax (City of Vancouver)
  • A provincial speculation tax to be imposed on all vacant non-primary residential properties in high-cost areas
  • A provincial investigation into the real estate effects of money-laundering, and a commitment to crack down on money-laundering in the housing industry.

So with all that, plus a chill in Canada-China relations, the price of housing in the Vancouver area is lower than it was a year ago. But prices are still high. Examples:

  • In North Delta, a suburban area that is relatively close to jobs in Burnaby, Surrey and Richmond, the benchmark price of a detached home dropped by 6.9 per cent from May 2018 to May 2019, to just under $900,000. It is still 61 per cent higher than it was 5 years ago.
  • Langley is an outer suburb with a growing employment base. According to the Fraser Valley stats, the benchmark price for a townhome dropped by 5.9 per cent in 2018-19, but is up 68 per cent over five years.
  • In North Vancouver, across the water from the City, there have been major additions to apartment supply. Prices dropped by 8.8 per cent in the year leading up to May 31 2019, but still showed a 55 per cent increase over five years.
  • In Port Coquitlam, where (my theory, based on 2011/2016 income numbers) an outflow of people from the City of Vancouver created a temporary housing price bubble, the benchmark price for a detached homes dropped by 12.2 per cent from 2018 to 2019, but was still 60 per cent higher than five years previously.

If we look back over 10 years, detached home prices in the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board zone have doubled, or close to it, in most urban locations — except for, strangely, Ladner, an attractive enough area where prices are now inching up.  Townhome prices in the Greater Vancouver zone are 80 to 100 per cent higher than 10 years ago, except for Port Moody at 71 per cent. Outside of a soft market in South Delta (Ladner and Tsawwassen), apartment prices are 80 to 120 per cent higher.

In Fraser Valley Real Estate Board zone, detached home prices on April 30 are 100 to 115 per cent higher than 10 years previous, except for the fringe community of Mission. Townhomes are 75 to 110 per cent higher, with a low outlier (62 per cent) in Abbotsford). Apartment prices have risen by 95 to 130 per cent over 10 years except in Mission.

What happens next? Home prices have risen far beyond the local wage gains of the past 10 years, but there are other factors at play, even as governments try to discourage foreign investment. Retired managers and professionals continue to move to the west coast from other parts of Canada. Extended families continue to pool their wealth to acquire property for the long term.

In a recent commentary on CBC Radio, business analyst Mark Ting suggested that we may be past the halfway point in the downward trend for detached home prices.  The downward movement in apartment prices began more recently, and will be pushed along by a wave of apartment construction across the region, at the transit nodes (Brentwood, Lougheed City, Surrey Central) and in the urban villages (Langley City, Maple Ridge). This may result in a sustained decline in apartment values.

Mr. Ting’s guessing assumes a relatively health economy; a global recession would presumably add to the downward pressure on home prices.

Fraseropolis Port Moody condos


Landing at Marine and Cambie

Fraseropolis Marine Landing perspective

The towers at Marine Landing seen from the north, April 2019

The Canada Line went into service just about 10 years ago, as a rapid transit connection between the City of Vancouver’s downtown and the international airport in Richmond.

Fraseropolis Marine Drive station

Outside the Marine Drive transit station. Starbucks, Subway, liquor store… “Lots of places in Bangkok look like this,” said co-tourist Calvin Hutton.

Tower development along the new line has been significant, although Vancouver’s plan for how it should fit together (the 276-page Cambie Corridor plan) was only recently completed. Continue reading