Census shows Vancouver’s housing problem persisting

VANCOUVER—The number of people in who need better housing in Metro Vancouver has increased by more than 20,000 over the past decade, according to the latest census figures.

While the percentage of those in what’s called “core housing need” actually dropped, Andy Yan, the director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, said the numbers still show the city not meeting the needs of many residents.

“What it really covers is the ongoing financialization of housing in Vancouver,” Yan said.

Core housing need refers to people who live in homes that stretch their budgets, are inadequate, or unsuitable for their circumstances.

In 2011, Yan said, Metro Vancouver had nearly 145,000 people living in such conditions. A decade later, the 2021 census revealed, the number had increased to more than 166,000.

Given the city’s population increase over that decade, this did mean the latter number represents a smaller share of the public (16.9 per cent, down from 17.7) but Yan said that perspective ignores the severity of the issue.

“We’re far from affordability in our time,” he said. “The majority of people in core housing need really face the affordability issue, as opposed to living in a home of poor repair or overcrowding.”

Numbers released Wednesday by Statistics Canada said growth in renter housing across Canada was outpacing the growth in home ownership by 3.8 per cent. Yan said the Vancouver region clearly has not built enough housing for certain income brackets, and in part he blamed speculators’ lust for profits and rigid city planning refusing to adapt.

In the city of Vancouver itself, nearly 40 per cent of renters are spending more than the recommended 30 per cent of pre-tax income on housing. Around 26 per cent of homeowners, too, are spending more than 30 per cent.

Yan worries that the pressures in the housing market risk expanding the “underclass” in the city. There’s always been a certain percentage of society who are impoverished or going through housing needs, he said, calling it the “injustice of our system.”

But the number appears to be growing now, he added, causing fear for how bad it could get in the future. He said there is a disconnect between policymakers and what residents see around them.

David Hulchanski, a professor of housing and community development at the University of Toronto, said the growth of such an underclass has been happening since the late 1980s.

Hulchanski said many people are struggling to pay rent or buy food and medicine, the trend eased during the pandemic when the federal government distributed financial aid, but overall the situation hasn’t improved.

“There’s lots of people struggling that way. There have been lots and there will be more,” he said. “Where do we see anything reversing?”

He placed the blame on society and government policy for the increase, pointing to the lack of rental housing in Canadian cities as one consequence of government priorities. Hulchanski said financialization of the housing market — people making money by speculating on real estate — has seen a boom encouraged by governments, and that’s been a great contributor to problems today.

Hulchanski pointed to figures from StatCan showing the rate of home ownership in Canada, after peaking at 69 per cent in 2011, has fallen to 66.5.

He said the difficulties for first-time home buyers aren’t likely to be fixed soon.

“It’s a hard thing to change because it’s been set up this way for decades and with the growth in inequality there are more players making a lot of money,” he said.

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