Douglas Todd: Housing emergency is Metro’s worst crisis since WWII
Warren ‘Whitey’ Bernard remembers the war years in Metro Vancouver being tough for several reasons — his dad heading off to battle, a dire shortage of money and his mom struggling desperately to find a room to rent.
Bernard — the blond boy, now 82, reaching out to his soldier father in the historic photo of B.C. troops departing New Westminster in 1940 — remembers “living in a storefront, other people’s houses and being boarded out from time to time.”
Eventually, after the Second World War, Bernard said, his struggling, extremely hard-working mother and father not only found places to rent in Vancouver, they were able to live out their lives in houses they purchased.
There is little doubt the Second World War was the biggest crisis that Metro Vancouver has endured in the past 80 years. Not only was much housing substandard, tens of thousands of young men went overseas to fight against Nazis and Japanese Imperial troops. It was an era of food rationing and blacked-out windows, of fear and crushed hopes.
Yet, even though I put out an online call a few weeks ago for counter-arguments, no one has so far convinced me that what Metro Vancouver is going through now is not the city’s biggest social crisis since the Second World War: The Royal Bank says our soaring housing costs have reached “the worst affordability levels ever recorded anywhere” in the country.
It’s clearly worse to have to head off to an armed conflict (with a high risk of being killed or maimed) than it is to not be able to afford a decent place to rent or buy in the city in 2018. But since the war, the city’s housing emergency might well be the hardest thing that the most residents have faced.
When I conducted a highly unscientific poll on Twitter, 63 per cent of respondents said they believe housing affordability is the city’s “worst crisis in 50 years” (which doesn’t go back to the Second World War). Internet statistics reveal that seven of my 10 best-read articles in 2018 have been on housing. To add to my thesis, the Angus Reid Institute found in a scientific poll that 50 per cent of British Columbians say housing costs are the province’s biggest issue. (I assume the portion would have been significantly higher if only Metro residents had been surveyed.)
Of course the housing crunch is not hitting Metro residents equally. Just as a few Canadians profited from the Second World War, a portion of Metro Vancouver real-estate players and owners are growing rich. As for the rest, RBC says owning a home in Metro now requires an “astounding 85 per cent of a typical household’s income.” The federal government considers 30 per cent reasonable.
Vancouver realtor David Hutchinson makes the case that the dire recession of the early 1980s posed another calamity for Metro Vancouver and beyond. He knows he was not the only one in that era struggling for work. But Hutchinson pointed out that, even with his low-earning job in a Vancouver restaurant, he could afford $265 a month to rent an apartment 15 minutes from his worplace.
Hutchinson’s anecdote points to what is so insidious and sweeping about this critical point in the city’s history: Housing costs, fuelled by speculation, are not only hammering those on low incomes, they’re battering the middle classes and the upper-middle classes — indeed anyone who hasn’t somehow already nailed down affordable shelter by dint of timing, luck or inheritance.
“The way I see it, affordable housing has always been a crisis for some Metro Vancouverites,” says Nancy Henderson, a housing professional who recalls how rents in Burnaby were, a few decades ago, more affordable, even while wages were modest, as they continue to be in Metro compared to other Canadian cities.
“But this is probably the first time the housing crisis has cut across such a broad spectrum of incomes, when families with two good incomes, good jobs and good prospects see only a future where they will never be able to own a home. That is going to have staggering consequences. I think it’s a pretty dangerous social experiment.”
Scott McRae, a 30-year-old Metro resident, finds it odd so few are publicly protesting housing unaffordability.
When B.C. soldiers returned from the Second World War, they carried placards calling for places to live. They even occupied the Vancouver Hotel, which had been boarded up, urging politicians to turn it into housing for ex-servicemen. The federal government soon built tracts of homes in the city for them and their families.
But, as McRae says, Metro Vancouver people nowadays put more energy into protesting the proposed oil pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby. Among other things, says McRae, “the ‘Stop Kinder Morgan’ campaign is fairly well financed, while no such capital seems to be rushing in to support ‘Keep Housing Costs Down.’”
It’s a pity.
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