Unlike New York, Vancouver lacks the incomes to match the housing frenzy
When Tanya Marquardt lived in Vancouver, she shared a tiny one-room apartment in Gastown with a hot plate and a futon couch she’d roll out every night for her bed.
The rent was a few hundred dollars a month. That same place, she says, now rents for $1,100 a month. That typical price hike gives her pause when she considers returning home to Vancouver, which, she says, she might have to do if Republican candidate Donald Trump is elected president.
But she knows too that transitioning back to Vancouver might not be a wise career choice. The former Vancouverite is now living in Brooklyn, where she lives with her partner in an apartment that costs them $2,700 (U.S.) a month, including utilities. She teaches at Hunter College when she’s not working as a playwright or writing her book.
The artist has found success since her move to New York City six years ago, enough so that she and her partner have saved to purchase a home. They could afford a one-bedroom condo where they live, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for around $900,000, she figures. Her American money would buy them a nice condo in Vancouver, too. Although health care is a major advantage, she questions whether she’d make much of a living as an artist if she returned.
“I think about it,” she says. “But I worry I wouldn’t get work if I came back. I also think my work has changed. I don’t know if there’s an audience there for it.”
It’s become routine for political leaders and members of the real estate industry to cite Vancouver’s stature as a “world-class city” as one of the reasons for the region’s affordability crisis; all big, popular cities endure it. B.C. Housing Minister Rich Coleman has said that, compared to “other major cities worldwide,” Vancouver is “pretty reasonable.”
That may be true. But if a “world-class city” is defined as one with major arts and culture amenities, a financial district, a high-income jobs market, vibrant industries and efficient transit system, do we qualify? Or are we confusing “world class” with expensive housing and nice views? If we compare Vancouver to New York, which is also undergoing major gentrification, and rent and property increases, we see that New York is still much more affordable because it has higher incomes – and job mobility. It’s also got great transit for workers to get to those jobs.
Like Vancouver, it is also constrained by land supply, and then some. The population of New York is three and a half times bigger than Metro Vancouver’s population, and about one-third the land size. And yet, Vancouver’s price-to-income ratio is 10.6 compared with New York’s far more affordable 6.1.
Ms. Marquardt says she went to high school in Maple Ridge, and moved to North Vancouver at 17. She says her family was poor, and as a youth, she did a lot of couch surfing to get by. She attended Simon Fraser University and started working in theatre and dance, before obtaining a grant for a dance project in New York.
“I came here for two weeks and totally fell in love with New York,” the 36-year-old says, on the phone from her Brooklyn apartment. “I’ve been living here ever since. You either love it or hate it, there’s no in-between.”
If she and her boyfriend moved to a Manhattan brownstone, they’d be looking at around $2– or $3-million for a fixer upper, she says. In Soho, it would start at around $5-million for a loft.
“It’s a lot of money to live here,” she says. “But if I went to Queens, or if I were willing to move to New Jersey, it would be less. People are starting to move there because it’s cheap.”
“Living here is crazy, partly because it gentrifies so quickly.
“And so many people here are in such a concentrated space,” she adds. “You get on the train and you are smooshed by a million people. It’s a lot of stimulation. And everybody here is ambitious.”
Shannon Thornton is 29 years old and working in public relations at a Manhattan firm. We met for coffee at a Manhattan coffee shop late in May, along with her colleague, Brian Hyland. Ms. Thornton and Mr. Hyland are at different life stages. Both are from New Jersey, but Ms. Thornton is a single young urbanite that wants to live near her work. Mr. Hyland is a family man who needs a proper house, so he commutes every day from north Jersey.
Both are renting and both have plans to own a home within the next 10 years. Neither seem too concerned about the high price of real estate, and although they’d heard talk of foreign investment, they hadn’t personally seen signs of it.
Jobs, they said, were plentiful in their industry, which would, if the market took a downturn, be one of the first to be impacted.
“New York has so much to offer, especially for someone my age. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Ms. Thornton says.
Mr. Hyland adds: “The recruiter industry is very busy. If I called a recruiter, they’d put me in front of six or seven opportunities.”
Mr. Hyland lives on the first floor of a two-family building, with three bedrooms and a backyard. His rent is $1,800. He would never move to a more central area, even though his kids are almost in bed by the time he gets home. He pays $149 a month for a bus pass and about $100 a month for the subway.
And living in Jersey, he says a car is necessary, which adds about $400 a month onto his expenses. Mr. Hyland used to own a condo but it plunged in price after the 2008 downturn.
Ms. Thornton was having a tough time finding a central apartment to rent. She and her two roommates had been renting a big one-bedroom in Manhattan’s East Village for $3,500 a month. They’d had a wall built to divide the bedroom into two bedrooms, which they had to remove when they moved. It cost $2,000 to build the wall.
“It wasn’t ideal,” she says. “You don’t have privacy, but you save a lot of money on rent.”
She was having such a hard time finding a new apartment that she was considering separating from her friends and renting a room in a stranger’s apartment. But she and her friends eventually found a four-bedrooom in Williamsburg, on the first floor of a walk up. She stayed within her goal of spending no more than a comfortable $1,300 on rent, including utilities.
Ms. Marquardt says there are high paying jobs, which make New York possible.
“That’s the thing, if you can come here and if you need to make a lot of money you can make a lot of money,” Ms. Marquardt says. “That’s why people stay here. You can make tons of money doing what you do.
“Then there are the people not making that money and living a different lifestyle.”
Those people tend to move away, which means they are gentrifying other areas, such as Queens or New Jersey. New York’s huge transit system makes that kind of migration possible. There is a real estate firm called Suburban Jungle that specializes in relocating young families to towns outside of the urban core. The company, says founder Alison Bernstein, is expanding to other cities in the U.S. A New York Times piece nicknamed the trend “hipsturbia.”
Like a lot of popular cities, New York is feeling the pressure of growth, without a doubt. Old buildings are coming down to make way for denser ones. Rents have gone up. Neighbourhoods are quickly gentrifying.
But the mood, at least from an outsider’s perspective, is certainly more optimistic. Maybe that’s because they have career prospects.
If Vancouver’s frenzied growth were based on incomes instead of wealth, perhaps there would be a different tone to our conversation, too.