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Vancouver the most unaffordable? No, says provocative talk

May 25th, 2011 · 50 Comments

Trying to get people to take a closer look at conventional wisdom is one of the hardest jobs around. One of the unshakeable beliefs Vancouverites have these days is that housing prices here are more disconnected from local incomes than almost any other city. I have to say, I’m prone to that thinking myself.

That’s why my ears went up when marketer Bob Rennie made it a central theme in his talk to the Urban Development Institute last week that the city is not as unaffordable as it’s often made to appear in headlines. He had his research consultants break out the numbers to look at the average price of housing when the top 20 per cent of sales — the outliers who are paying millions for houses on the west side of Vancouver or expensive condos in Coal Harbour — are excluded.

His numbers are in my story here. I’m still inclined to think that Vancouver housing prices are skewed high, for very particular reasons, but I’m putting this out here as a thinking point. I’m sure many of you will disagree for various reasons. (I see Judy Rudin is already packing counter-arguments into 140 characters on Twitter.) Perhaps some of you may find some merit in Rennie’s analysis.

I’d like to hear what you have to say, because this is an issue that I keep circling around with no satisfying answer. There are days when I think there’s something seriously wrong with the city and its housing prices. And other days where I think that we’re a city of people who want to have a big city but pay Saskatoon housing prices.

The reality is that, as cities grow, housing prices close to the centre or close to the most attractive areas get bid up. There’s a larger pool of people with money who will do what it takes to get those prime spots. And the rest of us have to go to other parts of the city. Those of us with okay but not spectacular incomes have to live in smaller places or put in a basement suite or otherwise compromise if we want to be close to the central city. If we insist on having the full house and yard, we have to move further out. (And, ironically, people who campaign to keep new housing out of their neighbourhoods in an effort to keep them as they are ultimately end up spurring their transformation — because those neighbourhoods then get bought up by the small pool of wealthy people able to afford them.)

But is there a large, economically prosperous city that doesn’t work this way? I’m actually working on a bigger journalism piece on this, so pile on.

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