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Five places that are getting it right – by not being Vancouver

By Pieta Woolley

Vancouver is raising more eyebrows than crocuses this winter. 

In February, this grim teardown — situated in what was once a pretty, middle-class neighbourhood — listed for $2.4 million. It sold for $80,000 more than asking. And in March, this cute home in the same area listed for $7.8 million but sold for a whopping $1.17 million over asking price – and will likely face the bulldozer.

These are, of course, newsworthy because they’re extreme. But they represent a larger, scarier trend. Vancouver, with a median household income of just $67,090, is among the least affordable cities on the planet. Rarely does a single-detached house sell for less than $1 million, while less than one percent of rental stock sits vacant. Panicked locals blame unregulated foreign investment, lack of laws protecting existing rental units, poor zoning, minimal road and transit-building that would make suburban life manageable, and — quite often — immigration (Greater Vancouver’s population has nearly doubled in 30 years.).

Granted, the city, abutting the United States and facing the Pacific Ocean, has always funneled investment money and newbies. That’s not new. But Vancouver's refusal to solve its own housing crisis? That is. And, it’s pretty unique.

Here are five places that are showing Vancouver up by getting it right.

1. Moderate-income neighbourhoods, United States

Solution: Worker housing under the Federal Teacher Next Door Program

In the U.S., the federal department of Housing and Urban Development offers employed teachers a 50-percent discount on the price of their home in selected areas — plus a mortgage with a down payment as low as $100. Other public-sector workers are offered similar programs. 

2. Prince Edward Island

Solution: Want to buy property here? You gotta live here. Sort of.

The Land of Anne is attractive to off-Island buyers for lots of reasons, so legislators restrict foreign ownership. The average price of a home there? $165,505. Similarly, Australia requires foreign buyers to go through a federal screening process, which was introduced in 1989 and strengthened a decade ago. 

3. Whistler, B.C.

Solution: Civic home-ownership programs for local workers

The “resort municipality” of Whistler is a destination ski village just north of Vancouver — one largely owned by Intrawest. To attract and retain long-term service workers in the posh mountain getaway, the city created a housing authority. It offers rentals that are affordable and properties to buy but with a cap on re-sale in order to keep them affordable. Also, it allows workers to build equity. The goal is to house 75 percent of its workers in Whistler.  

4. Hong Kong

Solution: Massive local investment in social rental housing

About one third of Hong Kong residents live in government-owned rental flats — a program started in the 1970s. In addition, the island offers “subsidized sale flats,” which house more than a million others. Similar percentages exist in the Netherlands.

5. Global slums

Solution: Large, semi-regulated and semi-serviced tenements

I’m not advocating this, but it’s a “solution” in much of the world, from Cape Town to Calais, France, from Manila to Mexico City. In Vancouver, Victoria and Abbotsford, B.C., city councils have recently grappled with the legality of “tent cities” in public parks, as low housing stock and lack of shelters have driven people away from the cities. Will a Soweto-like tenement eventually crop up in Langley, B.C. or Etobicoke, Ont.? At this point, it’s not unimaginable.    

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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