Home ownership in the Lower Mainland: a diminishing prospect

Central Pitt Meadows, 2017

A report on housing from VanCity, a member-owned financial institution, finds a continuing decline in housing affordability in the B.C. Lower Mainland.

Home ownership costs are rising across the region as buyers look beyond the City of Vancouver. In the background, the report suggests that home ownership is a lost cause for an increasing number of British Columbians.

Housing affordability matters for a bunch of reasons. When downtown workers are pushed to live in the outer suburbs, it puts increased stress on transportation systems and it reduces (trust me) both quality of life and engagement in community life. As signalled by the Vancouver Board of Trade, high housing costs create a barrier to immigration from other parts of Canada for creative and capable talent. And, obviously, a shortage of affordable housing can push families and individuals into financial distress and even into the street.

“Home Stretch,” released on June 6, charts the rise in Vancouver-area housing prices from March 1, 2016 through February 28, 2017. The affordability calculations correlate median sale prices in given municipalities with median household income on a regional district basis (Vancouver or Fraser Valley.) The cost of purchasing a detached home in West Vancouver in February 2017 was more than 200 per cent of median income, and more than 150 per cent in Vancouver, both clearly unaffordable for most consumers.

Brentwood district, Burnaby, 2017

Purchasing a townhome in Maple Ridge or Abbotsford involved a commitment of about 25 per cent of median income, supportable if that’s where you want to live. However, the affordability of all housing  in the outer suburbs — detached, attached, or apartment — is quickly eroding. In fact, the long-time price advantage of apartments and townhomes is eroding across the region. The official property value assessment on my own Maple Ridge townhome flatlined after the 2008 financial crash, but it jumped in 2016 by more than 25 per cent. The provincial government’s 2016 foreign buyers tax may have cooled the speculation on detached homes in the most expensive markets, but demand for other housing is building.

Suburban apartment prices were almost dormant for several years; they rose in 2016. And looking at the most recent three-month data from the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board, apartment prices are now on an even more rampant rise than the VanCity report anticipated.

The authors of “Home Stretch,” Landcor Data Corp., state that consumers should “seriously consider” whether a new home purchase in southwest B.C. is a Good Idea. They do not discuss the benefits of renting, quite possibly because the rental housing market is also difficult. There’s an almost complete lack of modern, purpose-built rental housing, as in all of Canada; most renters must rely on amateur landlords, with reduced security of tenure and uncertain property standards.

In the end, after 15 pages of data on home purchase costs, the VanCity consultants present recommendations to government that are weighted towards building rental housing supply, rather than trying to defend home ownership. Their recommendations to local and provincial governments are provided here in full, complete with the coveted approval of Fraseropolis.com.

Governments (all)

  • Place publicly owned land into a trust to deliver purpose-built and affordable rental housing. These may provide affordable rentals, allowing renters to save for a down payment (if home ownership is a goal).

Municipal government

  • Increase zoning for high-density multi-unit buildings and stipulate that new condos must include a set percentage of affordable rentals. Create incentives for developers to build affordable workforce and family housing.
  • Design growth centres with a dense core, with secured sites for affordable rental housing in proximity to mass transit and improve transit from suburban areas to central Vancouver, as well as inter-city transit throughout the region.

Provincial government

  • Encourage every municipality to have an affordable housing plan that is tied to providing safe, decent and affordable housing to its residents.
  • Encourage communities to permanently zone land (similar to the Agricultural Land Reserve) to provide capacity for affordable housing development in conjunction with regional housing trusts.
  • Dedicate a portion of the Property Transfer Tax annually to support the creation of perpetually affordable home ownership options across the province.



Revisiting the Heights

Confederation Park, Burnaby Heights, Friday morning

At the suggestion of a Fraseropolis.com reader, I returned to Burnaby Heights this past week, five years after my first visit to the community.

Hastings Street in northwest Burnaby is the city’s most interesting commercial strip, with an array of ethnic food outlets, cafes and specialty shops. The urban trees have grown up quickly, providing cover for architectural flaws. The border with the City of Vancouver is just blocks away, with frequent bus service to downtown. Burnaby’s city government has laid on excellent services such as playing fields, an aquatic centre and a big library. All this makes a great foundation for an urban village, if you’re prepared for the heavy traffic and noise as you shop or stroll.

The direction for the future is clear. Older one-storey commercial structures on Hastings are disappearing, replaced by low-rise complexes with storefronts below and three floors of apartments above. The former Royal Canadian Legion property is newly vacant, along with much of the north side of Hastings between Rosser and Willingdon, including the site of the old Dolphin movie theatre. As with other high streets in a region where there’s extreme upward pressure on property values, we have to wonder whether any locally-owned retail business can survive this transition.

As I noted in my 2012 post, the designated Burnaby Heights development area is long and skinny. This can be observed on the ground or picked up from the City’s development plan.  You’ll see evolving mixed use along Hastings Street from Boundary to Gamma. Albert Street, running parallel to Hastings one block to the north, provides densified housing that will help to support storefront business, although none of it is new except for a few duplex houses. Several rental apartment buildings from about 1970 are in decay.

South of Hastings and north of Albert, the City of Burnaby appears to prohibit the construction of anything other than detached houses, although there are doubtless a growing number of secondary suites within these houses.

To sum up, there is less housing choice in this otherwise attractive urban village than there could be, unless you’re interested in renting a basement suite or purchasing a five-bedroom house for a price of two to three million dollars.

Newly completed mixed-used complex, Hastings near Alpha

Duplex housing in Vancouver Special style, early 1960s (?), Albert Street

Fewer than 21 per cent of dwellings in Burnaby are single detached homes,  meaning that all others are either apartments or attached houses (i.e. duplexes or townhomes). The city government clearly accepts the demand for apartments, but is stacking them in highway-oriented towers (see my post on Brentwood Centre) rather than low-rise buildings in the neighbourhoods. Feel free to correct me if I’m mistaken, but Burnaby Council appears determined to view the city’s broad tracts of single-use housing as a privileged ecosystem.

Our friends at Metro Conversations hosted a forum on May 17 called “The Sacred Single Family Home: What are we trying to protect and why?” They drew a packed house at a venue in Lynn Valley, North Vancouver. As reported in Business in Vancouver, planners and developers spoke in favour of increased housing choice across the region, at least to the extent of permitting duplexes and townhomes. Urbanist and developer Michael Geller suggested that city governments are standing in the way. “Most builders will build that single-family house and sell it for $3.5 million,” he said, “Rather than go through the aggravation and heartache to build something that’s more creative and perhaps much more needed.”

Co-tourist R.J Smarz and I had breakfast at the Chez Meme Baguette Bistro on Hastings Street. It was charming.

[Burnaby Heights was originally posted as #6 in our Urban Villages series. We have reviewed the area’s 2011 index score and left it about unchanged.]

Hastings, corner of Gilmore, with a rare mixed-use survivor from the 1920s

Postwar detached house, Albert Street

Hastings, corner of Rosser

Back on Kingsway

South side of Kingsway one block east of Knight

A few years ago, the launch of a lone high-rise project at Kingsway and Knight Street provoked debate over the City of Vancouver’s management of tower development.

A Parisian touch? The inner lane at King Edward Village, with designer lamps, a public library (coloured letters) and animal gargoyles overhead.

Critics protested that  King Edward Village would ruin the character of the nearby communities of Cedar Cottage and Kensington. Optimists predicted that the development  would become the heart of a “lively, attractive shopping area.” A few grumpy urbanists saw a future dead zone, and this, arguably, is the current state of affairs, although in my view the design could have been worse.

I visited this part of the Kingsway with co-tourist Nathan Gowsell because a young nephew of mine is sharing an apartment close by and says the district is cool. In fact, it’s hard to see a pattern. The influence of King Edward Village is hard to see beyond its perimeter. The detached housing on the south side is untouched, a row of Vancouver specials dating from the 1970s. There is one-block jumble of commercial uses on Knight, with two condo-commercial combos added in recent years. Northwest on Kingsway lies “Little Vietnam”, where Asian shops and cafes take advantage of some of the last remaining low-cost real estate in the city.

character reduced

Housing on King Edward Ave. facing King Edward Village

Kingsway is a 19th-century highway that connected the Granville waterfront and the colonial capital at New Westminster. With the automobile it became a very patchy affair, featuring low-rent motels, car repair services and strip malls. In Burnaby, to the east of Vancouver, city government has promoted tower-dominated redevelopment, especially in the Metrotown and Edmonds precincts. Change along the Vancouver section of Kingsway has been more low-key, possibly related to the King Edward Village experience. However, the truth is that most of the older one- and two-storey structures aren’t very good. They will likely be replaced with generic four-storey apartment buildings.

Early-20th-century triplex housing, 21st near Knight

We stopped for brunch at the Lion’s Den, a mile or so from Knight Street at the corner of Fraser. Sitting at a retro video game table, I ordered an English muffin with egg and tomato. Nathan chose a scrambled egg, sausage and white toast. When the food came, I mentioned to the server that we had waited close to an hour. It would have been gauche to point out that Tim Horton’s could produce the same bland fare in two minutes. As we paid at the counter, the manager said, “This isn’t a restaurant. Don’t come in here expecting a restaurant. It’s an eat-in.”

Typical Kingsway land use just east of King Edward Village

Abandoned shop next door to the Franks building

Shop display, Kingsway west of Knight

Property restoration, Kingsway west of Knight

N. Gowsell

A remnant of the time before Little Vietnam

Returning from Fraser to Knight, we passed through quiet residential streets with plenty of architectural interest. As in Kitsilano, the City-sponsored densification south of Kingsway is occurring mostly by stealth, with every major home renovation leading to the creation of basement or top-floor apartments.

I was reminded of an argument presented by Sam Sullivan, a former mayor of Vancouver (2005-2008), at a housing forum I attended on April 26. He insisted that the extreme cost of housing in Vancouver is entirely due to a shortage of supply; and the short supply is due to can be blamed city residents and a city government that have blocked high-rise development. Whether the argument is true or not, I don’t expect to see many towers built along these leafy streets.

East 15th Ave.

Renovated vintage apartment building, Windsor St.

Kingsway 4 reduced

Kingsway near Glen. “I bet those condo apartments are tiny,” said Nathan.

Development sign reduced

New development, Fleming St. off 21st

Blossoms reduced

Looking south on St. Catherines St.

Pitt Meadows 2 – Uptown (aka Downtown)

An apartment/commercial complex at Harris Road and Ford Road in Pitt Meadows. This was built in about 2010 on the site of a failed shopping plaza

Pitt Meadows City Hall, at the southern end of the commercial zone

Municipal governments in B.C. have a limited menu of responsibilities. They send delegates to regional bodies to haggle over various things, but their direct control is restricted mostly to fire protection, local streets, community recreation space and urban land use. And policing, in the odd handful of municipalities that have opted out of using the federal Mounted Police… Continue reading

In the shadow of Vancouver’s traffic viaducts

Vacant lands next to False Creek in downtown Vancouver. The city government’s plan will see the removal of two elevated roadways, the extension of a waterfront park and up to 20 new residential towers.

The first Georgia Street automobile viaduct was built in 1915 as a bridge over railways and industrial lands. The current Georgia and Dunsmuir Street viaducts are orphan remnants of a failed plan to run a freeway from Highway 1 into downtown Vancouver.

2011 study reported that the viaducts carry about 40,000 vehicles every day. However, Vancouver Council voted in 2015 to tear them down and tidy up the underlying street network. The viaducts are ugly, and they’re a waste of land: it’s estimated that their removal will enable the development of housing for as many as 10,000 people. Continue reading

Pitt Meadows 1 — Osprey Village

The recently completed commercial core of Osprey Village. The brick-faced structure in the foreground was approved as a live-work development, with shopowners living above their businesses.

The city of Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, population 18,500, has shown how a small municipality can function effectively in a large urban region. Residents enjoy relatively low property taxes and much the same services as  Surrey, a nearby city with a half a million people.

Osprey Village, a Pitt Meadows neighbourhood overlooking the Fraser River, was built over the past decade with patience and (I think) good taste, at least compared with the competition in other Fraseropolis suburbs. The commercial zone pictured above is short on everyday services and heavy on dog spas and craft galleries, but it’s attractive and cozy, and is now a mini-tourism destination for cyclists and for families looking to walk along the river. (Osprey is at the western end of a regional pathway network, and not far from the Golden Ears Bridge; cycling links to Coquitlam and Langley are excellent.) The 2009 land use plan adopted by City Council in 2009 provides for up to 25 live-work units on the main street or immediately behind, and the community hall by the river park acts as a regional conference centres, so there’s continued pedestrian traffic in the Osprey village centre even on weekdays. Continue reading

Transit funding and election speculation

Focus on Surrey: the B.C. government’s $2.2 billion transit announcement, March 31, 2017. Transit minister Peter Fassbender, MLA for Surrey Fleetwood, is flanked by Marvin Hunt, MLA for Surrey-Panorama, first elected to Surrey City Council in 1988; and by technology minister Amrik Virk, MLA for Surrey-Tynehead, formerly a prominent RCMP officer in Surrey. The photo by Arlen Redekop is clipped from the Vancouver Sun.

British Columbia’s Liberal government took a surprising step late last week with a rapid transit announcement that exceeded most expectations.

The Province will match the federal government’s $2.2 billion pledge toward Phase 2 of the 10-year transportation plan put forward in 2016 by the Metro Vancouver Mayors Council. This phase includes construction of a Clark Street to Arbutus SkyTrain extension in Vancouver, and the Newton-Guildford light rail line in Surrey. Continue reading