Vancouver’s real estate story is not about houses – it can’t be.

I promised I would start blogging again this year, so I’m finally doing it!

Vancouver has long been notorious for having expensive and unaffordable real estate.  I’m not going to try to convince anyone that’s not the case, since affordability here is demonstrably a very real problem.  We need to speak out more about the problems the city has with homelessness, underhousing, and the ability of younger generations to have access to the housing market.  These are all real problems, and some people are discussing them very sensibly and urgently.

But over the last year I’ve found myself throwing my arms up in frustration at an endless barrage of reports and infographics portraying a Vancouver that I don’t recognize at all as the one I live in.  Everything from the #DontHave1Million campaign, to this HuffPost infographic, to this $2.4 million teardown. All the reports from this crazy place portray Vancouver’s real estate story, its housing story, as one of million-dollar single-family homes that naturally no one can afford.  I find most tend to be dishonest (or silent) about one fact or another to yield more-sensational-than-reality results – frequently things like geography (how you define “Vancouver”), home type, calculation type, sales period, and others are misrepresented.

There has been some more nuanced coverage, for sure, but it seems like all anyone wants to talk about is houses and why young middle-class people can’t afford them. Most people would have you believe there is a crisis of epic proportions resulting from the fact that only a small minority of people can afford single-family homes in a dense urban area.

When I hear things like “Don’t have 1 million” (and its many variations – I don’t mean to single out any one campaign), what I hear is people insisting that the houses that are selling for a million dollars right now are the kinds of homes that should be affordable to middle-class people (however you define that).  That kind of thinking – that single-family houses are the crisis point – is distracting from the (very real) problems that we actually have.

Single-family houses are not where the crisis lies.  In fact, single-family houses are simply not a realistic urban dwelling – at least not in Vancouver.  This isn’t because I want to take away everyone’s suburban American dream, or because I think younger generations are less deserving of single-family home-ownership than our parents’ generations.  There are simply more of us – some basic math can show why it’s not practical to expect anyone to live in a single-family home in Vancouver. There’s simply not enough space.

I ran a search on realtor.ca of homes in the City of Vancouver listed around the $1 million mark, that magic number everyone likes to scream about.  I selected all homes (which by no small coincidence were all single-family houses, exclusively in East Vancouver) listed between $990,000 and $1,010,000 – there were six of them.  From the listing I summarised the street addresses, prices, and square footage of the land:

Average

This yields an average lot size of 3,266.46 square feet (apologies for using imperial measures, but it seems to be standard in real estate). Dividing into Vancouver’s total surface area of 44.39 square miles (1,237,522,176 square feet), this means that if everyone lived in a million dollar home, and the city had no parkland, commercial or industrial space, or even streets or roads, we would have room for 378,857 single-family homes.  If we subtract only the 2,997 hectares [11.57 sq mi] of roads (this [page 17] is the best link I can find – the number is cited several places but the original source is a dead link), that leaves us with 32.82 sq. mi, or 914,969,088 sq. ft. Doing the math, we get space for 280,110 lots.

Even with the ludicrous assumption of turning the entire City of Vancouver into one huge jobless and parkless suburb (remember, those numbers above don’t account for any land use other than single-family homes and roads), that’s not a lot of homes for our 532K+ people, especially giving shrinking family sizes.  As of the last census, the City of Vancouver had 264,575 households, an increase of 4.4% from 2006. Assuming a similar increase to this census year (2016), that gives us 276,216 households today – just barely shy of the 280,110 number above.

So, the way I see it, we have a few options. We can continue to demand single-family houses for every single household, and use some combination of reducing the population of the city and converting parkland, commercial, and industrial lots to residential in order to achieve it. Or, we can start addressing the real issues, and tackle the issues of affordability at the other end of the spectrum, and give up the expectation of average people (or any people, for that matter) owning single-family houses in the City of Vancouver.

I choose the latter. I know I’m very privileged to own the modest condo I own. I know that many others are less fortunate, and I do believe they should be entitled to participate in home ownership.  Houses will become consistently more expensive as their supply goes down and demand (via population growth) goes up.  It will mean that houses become unaffordable for more and more people – this is an unavoidable reality.

So, let’s focus on the real issues. Let’s look at the price of family-sized apartments and question whether those are affordable for average families (generally, they’re not). Let’s look at the ability of young people to afford starter homes (not the average house, but the low-end condo). And let’s look at how renters are affected. Let’s look at near-zero vacancy rates for rental housing in Vancouver. Let’s look at the impact of how rental housing is structured (a complex mishmash of rented-condos, build-to-let buildings, partial-house rentals, co-ops, and social housing). Let’s look at the shortage of social housing across the city. Let’s look at the large numbers of homeless people in the city who can’t even afford to rent any home.

But please, let’s give up on the urban single-family house.

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