Monika Qually misses Vancouver. The 30-year-old misses the lush North Shore mountains and the fresh West Coast air. But she does not miss the city’s sky-high housing prices and low-paying jobs.
“We couldn’t afford to start a family in Vancouver,” said Qually, so she and her husband decided to move to Toronto, where houses are cheaper and salaries are higher. Qually and her husband represent a growing number of people who feel that Vancouver is a tough city to raise a family.
While the numbers don’t represent a crisis yet, there is a growing concern that more families will leave the city. The most recent report from Statistics Canada on provincial population gains and losses seems to affirm this fear. B.C. lost 2,600 people through inter-provincial migration, mostly to Alberta.
That statistic doesn’t provide a breakdown on the numbers of families. But statistics show that the City of Vancouver, the expensive core of the region, had only 72,000 children under the age of 15 in the 2011 census. That’s a little less than 12 per cent of the population, far less than the 16 per cent that is the national average or even the 15 per cent for the Lower Mainland as a whole.
The evidence about families leaving is hard to assess because statistics about Vancouver, one municipality at the centre of a large region, are hard to compare to other Canadian cities, which encompass the suburbs in a way the City of Vancouver doesn’t.
Living in the city
But, in spite of the lack of statistical evidence, the declining number of children in City of Vancouver schools and census counts have definitely provoked anxiety at many levels. The Vancouver school board points to the lack of affordable housing for families to explain the declining rate of enrolment in Vancouver schools.
Similarly, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has identified affordable housing as a key priority for retaining families. The Vancouver Economic Commission echoes that with an economic action strategy that highlights the need to improve housing affordability for families and to increase daycare spaces for children in order to keep families in the city.
Sources elsewhere confirm the perception that Vancouver is a difficult place for families. In a report released last month by the magazine Money Sense, Calgary was rated “the best place to raise kids” in Canada. The report analyzed factors like average household income, average house price and the number of daycare spaces available.
Vancouver was markedly absent from that list, for a couple of simple reasons. The average household income in Vancouver is $81,066 and the average house price in the city is $882,00, whereas the average household income in Calgary is $125,733 and the average house price is $394 550.
“This is when some couples reach a breaking point”, says Heather Tremain, an urban sustainability consultant. “There are a number of people, who, when they are thinking about having their first child, make the decision to move to a more affordable place.”
Paul Kershaw, a University of B.C. professor, says that Vancouver families are at the epicentre of a “silent generational crisis.” Since the 1970s, wages in Vancouver have fallen from between 15 to 20 per cent, (when adjusted for inflation).
But the average cost of housing in Vancouver has skyrocketed by 149 per cent. Kershaw says that stagnant wages, high living costs and lingering student loan debts are “crushing [families’] dreams of ever establishing a solid financial foundation.”
He calls this phenomenon “generation squeeze” in polite company and generation screwed in other company.
In the last 40 years, the number of middle-income-earners in Vancouver has decreased by 35 per cent. In that same period, the number of low-income earners has increased by 21 per cent.
Those who stay, pay
Families that choose to stay in Vancouver, despite odds that are stacked against them, are having to lower their expectations about just what kind of a lifestyle they can expect to enjoy in the world’s second-least-affordable city. Demographia conducted an international survey on housing affordability and rated Vancouver as being second only to Hong Kong in terms of being amongst the least affordable cities in the world to live.
Colby Zaph and Lynda Fletcher met and fell in love in Philadelphia 13 years ago. They both have PhDs and they moved to Vancouver when Zaph landed a prestigious job as a professor at the Biomedical Research Centre at UBC. They had dreamed of a home with a big tree and a big yard where they could eventually bury the ashes of their beloved family dog.
Although that dog, Mr. Cool, has since passed away, they never did manage to move into that imaginary house in Vancouver with the big yard and the big tree. And Mr. Cool’s ashes still sit in a box on a shelf.
Despite Zaph and Fletcher sharing six university degrees between the two of them and a solid and steady income, they are still struggling to make ends meet. “We’re still spending more than we earn each month,” said Fletcher.
“We just threw Luke his second birthday party last weekend and, yeah, we couldn’t really afford it, but how do you not have a birthday party for your son?”
If the two little ones were in daycare and the two big ones were in after-school care, the family’s overall monthly costs for childcare would amount to $ 2,600 per month. “That’s almost much as I’d be earning as a post-doc, after tax,” said Fletcher. Because of those high childcare costs and because she wants to raise her own kids, Fletcher elected to be a stay-at-home mom, at least for now.
Tremain laments the fact that, when families leave, the city loses more than just skilled workers. The social fabric of the city frays and “there is significant structural fallout,” said Tremain. If that family has school-aged children, then a school is losing a pupil. When many pupils leave, there are fewer classrooms and, ultimately, fewer teachers required.
Then those teachers end up having to move. Jonathan Dillon, a kindergarten teacher and a father of two, is one such example. He moved up north to teach in the rural Peace River region of B.C.
“Even if I did find full-time work as a teacher in Vancouver, which is next to impossible, I still wouldn’t be able to afford a decent home there for me and my boys,” said Dillon. “Now I live in this gorgeous cabin with lots of space, and I have my own classroom, which would have taken me years to get in Vancouver.”
Dillon says his quality of life has dramatically improved since moving away from Vancouver. “I have more time to do things and I have more money to spend on trips away with my boys.”
Growth of Squamish and Fort St. John
Dillon’s decision to move north is one that many families are making, as they search for the balance of decent-paying jobs and reasonably affordable housing.
Another option is places like Squamish, just outside of the borders of Metro Vancouver, still accessible but far less pricey.
Those two regions saw the biggest growth in population in the province.
According to Ryan Berlin, director at Urban Futures, “families are spurring growth in these areas.” Berlin said Fort St. John has a higher population growth because “people are having kids there.”
Squamish is growing so rapidly because it is “attractive for families to move there and it is increasingly connected to Vancouver,” said Berlin.
In terms of Vancouver, Berlin said, “The question we need to ask is, ‘When those couples who have babies move out of their Vancouver apartments, who is moving into them?'” Berlin’s answer: most likely, couples who don’t have children.