Finding affordable housing in Vancouver has become an impossible dream for many

Roslyn Kunin: Finding affordable housing in Vancouver has become an impossible dream for manyAffordable housing in Vancouver has become an oxymoron – one of those statements that is in itself a contradiction.

Finding any available housing is challenging. Even if one has modest expectations, finding the quality and quantity of housing one would like in a preferred location at a manageable price level has become an impossible dream for almost everyone.

This is true for those hoping to buy a house. Even smaller, older homes in neighbourhoods that used to be considered middle- or lower-income now cost over a million dollars. For those who do not aspire to buying but just hope to rent so that they have a roof over their heads, the situation appears desperate.

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KEEP AN EYE ON BC 

The old rule about spending no more than 30 percent of one’s disposable income on housing has become a sick joke. Even families with two good incomes are having trouble keeping their housing costs that low.

Where does that leave lower income people such as those trying to make do on the minimum wage? Too many such people fall through the cracks and end up couch surfing, living in their cars or even on the streets. We need to remedy this situation.

One remedy has been suggested by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Its study compares average rents by province for one- or two-bedroom apartments with a full-time minimum wage income. In every case, rents are more than 30 percent of such incomes. BC is the highest, and Vancouver is the most expensive place in British Columbia – two full-time minimum wage workers could not afford an apartment on the 30 percent rule.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has calculated what the minimum hourly wage would have to be to allow full-time workers to rent an average apartment for 30 percent of their income. For Vancouver, it would be $27.54 an hour for a one-bedroom apartment and $33.10 for a two-bedroom.

Employers would have few choices if people could not be hired below $27 per hour. The first is to try to raise prices to cover the increased labour costs. Going out for coffee could now cost $10 a cup. Restaurant meals, which are already so expensive that they have become a special treat for many, would be totally unaffordable. The cost of many needed goods and services would rise proportionately. Ordinary people would no longer be able to afford them. Many businesses would be forced to close, leaving their staff with no wages at all.

Automating workers is one option, making them more efficient, thus justifying their higher pay. This option, however, takes capital which is usually only available to the larger firms, most of which already pay more than the current minimum wage. The resulting jobs generally require high skill levels.

A better option is to increase the supply of affordable housing. This can be done by adjusting zoning regulations and building codes. The former would allow more densification providing more homes in any given location. The cries of the NIMBYs at such changes must be weighed against the needs of the un- or under-housed.

Adjusting building codes would allow us to use new, different and much less costly ways to assemble a home. Michael Geller is an architect and long-time creative contributor to the housing supply in the Vancouver area and beyond. Think UniverCity at Simon Fraser.

Geller has proposed many ideas to provide homes that will cost much less than a million dollars each and rent at reasonable rates. One such idea is converting shipping containers into stackable apartment units. These ideas will undoubtedly generate howls from the firms and unions that now do traditional on-site construction.

Another option puts the solution in the hands of those now earning the minimum wage. Invest in yourself to get a better job. Get some training that will make you more productive and worth more to an employer. It will take work, time and even some money. It will not be easy, but combining work and learning has never been easier, given all the online options. I know because I got my first university degree entirely through evening courses while holding down a full-time job and raising two babies.

For example, a woman under 30 has just bought a house in Toronto, Canada’s second most expensive city. She recently graduated in electrical engineering and earns far more than the minimum wage.

Dr. Roslyn Kunin is a public speaker, consulting economist and senior fellow of the Canada West Foundation.

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