Adaptation key to affordability

Written by Econ’s Dalit Holzman and originally published by North Shore News June 2013.

Vancouver and our beautiful North Shore are expensive. Not really news right? We’re all fully aware of the ranking that puts our lifestyle-rich region almost at the top of the world’s least affordable in which to own a home, of the trade-offs we make in order to wake up each day in this most special of spots. But really how do all the stats and figures translate into relatable bits across the generations who constitute our community? Well, let’s bring out the apples and compare them shall we?

When my parents were my age (almost 40 in 1986), the price of a bungalow in Vancouver was $117,100 and the median total income for a family of 2 or more was $30,660. Simply put, the 1986 bungalow cost 3.8 times the annual income of the average family. Fast forward to 2013. The same bungalow now costs $786,200 and the median total income for the 2+ person family hovers around $57,000. This constitutes a whopping factor of 13.8 (up from the 3.8 back when I was dreaming sweet dreams of Expo ’86).

Simply put, either the price of a detached bungalow in our area needs to drop to $216,600 or me and my partner need to get more than hefty raises to make a combined $206,895 per year in order for things to be akin to how my dear parents had it. Adaptation has now become key and though some do contort themselves to fit within the financial strain our present in-affordability creates, at some point, many just give up trying for blood from stones. Many downsize (think Surrey’s newest micro-lofts at 297 square feet for $109K), many move ($220,400 buys that same detached bungalow on Canada’s other beautiful coast), many rent (opting for greater liquidity, private education, retirement savings). And then there’s a surprisingly growing number who are “moving back to Mom’s”.

Now, when I say intergenerational cohabitation, don’t think couch surfing, joblessness, and a nutritional regimen centered on cereal and instant noodles. Imagine instead sunny backyard afternoons with the grandkids, gaining an onsite handyman, sharing some meals, many stories and laughs together. Zoning varies depending on where you live on the North Shore; however, in every area, a secondary suite for family members is allowed. The details on the shape it all takes from there, of course, vary widely depending on the family members’ needs. A home may mean the young family of 4 downstairs with full and easy access to the backyard and all its opportunities. Or it may mean Grandma and Grandpa downstairs with no more stairs to climb and less space to maintain. Regardless of the iteration (and there are so many to explore), one thing is indisputable: 2 families contributing within a big house makes living a whole lot cheaper for everyone.

The financial model the new relationship creates also is a point of consideration, fully customizable to your family’s unique needs. Will it be a straight “standard rent” arrangement? Will there be an element of “rent to own” or perhaps an element of barter for property upkeep and maintenance? Might it constitute part of an early inheritance? As stated, the specifics will make themselves known as your family’s conversation evolves over the course of time, and it is time you should give it. The move toward living under one roof is not to be taken lightly; sharing space (even if the spaces are fully self-contained) can create challenges after having lived separately for a decade or more.

But homes are usually incredibly adaptable to the desires we all share. Even hundred-year-old Heritage Homes can be lifted to accommodate full-height, light-filled suites and soundproofed to keep conversations contained. Even across our generations, in a culture that holds “self-made” so high, we can lift ourselves toward sharing space and embracing community.

finished home sign

Affordability in Passive Housing

In 1977 the Saskatchewan Conservation House was built in Regina as a demonstration project. According to the Canadian Passive House Institute, this (right here in Canada) was the birthplace of Passive House science. Yet it was not until 1986 that the Passivhaus movement began to gain momentum within Germany.

Since then, the German building community has honed its methods over time and, at this point, there are over 20,000 Passive Houses in the world (source: CanPHI).

In its 2010 economic analysis of Quebec’s Montebello Passive House, CanPHI reports that the total incremental costs required to reach the Passive House standard within a new 1550 sq. ft. single-storey detached house were $26,000. However, due to cost-savings resulting from its remarkable energy performance (80-90% more efficient that a home built to code), $26,000 was saved in heating costs within a mere 16.5 years (assuming a modest annual fuel price increase of 3%).

Merging the Greens: looking longer at Vancouver housing affordability

It’s no news that Vancouver’s average monthly carrying costs for a new home far exceed the 30% of household income mark of housing affordability. As RBC’s Economics Research arm reported in March 2012 owning a home at current prices would still take up a huge chunk (86% in the case of a bungalow) of a typical household budget. And while it is astonishing that Canada is still the only G-8 country with neither a National Housing Strategy nor a coordinated strategy on affordable housing, we are pleased at our City’s recent reinvigorated efforts to tackle housing affordability.

As a modern residential contractor doing business in Vancouver, Econ Group is well aware of the financial challenges in not only owning a home, but also in the underlying process of its construction. We live and work in a place where labour is not cheap, construction regulations are time-consuming and climate constraints are structurally demanding. In a nut-shell, and as elementary as it may seem, what is inexpensive to build in Regina might never be inexpensive to build here in Vancouver.

However, thanks to Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan we now all have a shared mandate which we must meet in order to even move forward with homebuilding. From 2020 onward all new buildings constructed in Vancouver will be required to be carbon neutral in operations. With 55% of Vancouver’s greenhouse gas emissions caused by the electricity and natural gas that buildings use, this requirement will be of enormous positive impact. What’s more is that while some may see this (“yet another”) requirement by the City as a further financial burden negatively impacting the bottom-line of affordability, Econ Group sees it all as an incredible opportunity to merge the two greens: dollars and ecology.

As with all other building materials, the costs associated with the wares of environmentally responsible construction are determined by the laws of supply and demand. The quicker that early adopters (both home-owners and home-builders alike) of the carbon-neutral mandate fully embrace utilizing materials standard to Passive House and Net-Zero building methodologies, the quicker the costs will come down to light the way to a future we all can truly afford.