Sorry, Vancouver. The grass really is greener on the other side (of the Salish Sea)

Even after almost a decade of living on a conservative budget — with a well-paying job and no student debt — I’m no closer to being able to afford a home in Metro Vancouver.

I moved to Vancouver from Pakistan in 2007 with a bachelor’s in computer science. I was working with a major tech company and felt like I was off to a really great start, as I’d always been very disciplined about saving money. I didn’t drink or go out clubbing. I didn’t buy a lot of new clothes or the newest gadget. And most importantly, I didn’t have any student debt or loans to pay. I always had at least six months of rainy day funds and I never asked for EI, even though right now I’m not working. I always thought I would do really well because I’m disciplined, hard-working, and have a skill which is in high demand. One day, I’ll get a chance to get in the housing market.

But today I'm further from Vancouver homeownership than I was a decade ago. Between 2001 and 2014, house prices in Metro Vancouver increased 63 percent while salaries rose just 36.2 percent — and that was before the remarkable run-up in prices of homes since 2014. When I first moved here one could easily get a single family home for less than $500,000 in East Vancouver. Now there are only a handful under $1 million. The more I saved up for my dream home, the higher the prices rose, always faster than my saving. I switched jobs for better paying one and saved more aggressively, but price tags would rise further still.

All this time my friends were leaving Vancouver to get better jobs in cities like Seattle and San Francisco. Just like them, I also had that chance. My company wanted me to move to the U.S., but I stayed because I knew Vancouver was where I want to live and start a family. I had to fight to stay in the city, and in 2011, I give up my job so we could stay in Vancouver.

For a while my wife and I were able to comfortably rent a small downtown Vancouver condo (would you know, our old condo recently came up for rent again — the exact same one but for $500 per month more). But with a child on the way and plans to have my parents move in one day so they can help us save on daycare costs, we needed something larger with room to grow. The affordable rental options would have added 2.5 hours to our daily commute (time we could spend with family), and still not enough saving to buy a home in a family friendly neighbourhood. It would have required digging into savings, taking us even further away from homeownership. It soon became clear that buying in Vancouver would not offer enough room for our family.

These figures come from our Code Red: Rethinking Canadian Housing Policy report, based on average full-time earnings for 25-34 yr olds and average home prices (all housing types), adjusted for inflation.

So in 2015, I made the difficult decision to quit my job in Vancouver, take a hefty pay-cut, and leave the city. Now we live in Sidney, B.C., just north of Victoria. Even though Greater Victoria has a smaller tech sector, overall the economy is very stable. Most importantly it is safer than most municipalities in Metro Vancouver. We bought a single family home for what we paid for rent in Vancouver. Here, we have room for our family to grow.

Ours is becoming a common story. Many people who started out with me at the major tech company left Vancouver because they couldn’t make the city work for them financially. Hundreds of other young professionals are moving out of Metro Vancouver, which puts the long-term future of the region at risk

When you come over from another country it can be hard. There are much worse stories out there than ours — as ours had a happy ending. We had our unique challenges: my wife, who presently stays home to look after our daughter, has a degree in psychology and counseling from England, but she needs to go back to school before she can work again in her field in Canada. We will have to pay for her extra education, as well as childcare costs, if she decides to work (something we hope that my parents moving in will help with).

We gave up a lot in salary to move here, but I still felt that Victoria was a better option than Vancouver. The cost of living is so different it feels like you could probably take tens of thousands less in salary and still be better off living in Victoria.

There are certain times we miss Vancouver. There are lots of ethnic options, things are open later at night and there are more travel options. The situation forced us to leave all of our friends and start from scratch once again. When you’re in school there are more people around than when you’re job hunting or working on a startup. It’s taking us a long time to build our social circles back up. But there are overall positives. I’m not worried about my family as our new neighbourhood feels a lot safer. It’s nice to have neighbours who you can ask for help. We still love Vancouver and we come back over a lots. Vancouver does have a lot more opportunities.

Driving people away from cities like Vancouver is unsustainable. On one hand what Vancouver is trying to do is attract the very best and brightest people in the world. They want to bring in more companies from the Silicon Valley to create the Pacific Northwest innovation corridor, but there’s not enough affordable housing to make this a reality. You’re only ahead in Vancouver if you’re in the financial industry or real estate. If you’re not in that inner circle then you’re struggling. People here are very smart, and they can see through things.

These figures come from our Code Red: Rethinking Canadian Housing Policy report, numbers adjusted for inflation.

I've spent a some time looking at the housing crisis, and I've believe there are potential solutions: better transit investments to connect areas where families can afford to live where the jobs actually are, and higher taxes on speculative real estate investments. The housing market needs to be directly targeted to people who are directly contributing to the economy. That is if you’re living here and you are paying your taxes, then the policies should be there to protect you not people who are just here as real estate tourists. There are simple things. Modify some of the laws to make it less prone to exploitation.

We just need to get our politicians to step up!

UPDATE FROM RAZA:

I moved to Victoria in 2015 when I accepted a role with a startup, but unfortunately the company ran into some financial trouble a few months ago. I got a generous severance so I wasn't immediately worried about the financial situation. After a couple of months of talking to people and interviewing for a few senior roles, I had a few options, from Senior Software Engineer to V.P. of Engineering, but I didn’t find a company where I could work for the next three to five years. So I expanded my search and interviewed with a few companies in other cities, and finally settled on a role at another startup in Vancouver. Since we cannot buy in Vancouver, we are back to square one and renting once again.

Speaking of solutions, Raza was one of 50 participants at our recent “Building Housing Common Ground” event, during which housing sector leaders and squeezed individuals co-created a set of 10 principles for housing policy reform. You can read the report here.

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Sorry, Vancouver. The grass really is greener on the other side (of the Salish Sea)
Sorry, Vancouver. The grass really is greener on the other side (of the Salish Sea)
New national lobby group seeks to increase influence of Canadians in their 20s, 30s and 40s
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