Never mind the yuppies: Vancouver’s wealthy elites driving away workers who keep the city safe

Photo by Heydrienne (Flickr)

Vancouver’s business community often bemoans affordability challenges faced by middle-class professionals in the upper echelons of the tech and corporate sectors. However, a more alarming consequence of the city’s housing crisis — caused in large part by federal underinvestment in social housing and real-estate speculation from wealthy international elites — is placing enormous strain on local healthcare workers and first responders.

City paramedics make a median annual income of $55,852. For registered nurses, that figure is $77,167, while firefighters make $83,424. A 2018 study by Zoocasa found the minimum annual income required to buy a typical Vancouver property is $163,000 — nearly three times a paramedic’s median annual salary and close to double what firefighters typically make in a year.

This year’s Demographia International Housing Survey revealed median house prices in Vancouver were 12.6% higher than the city’s median household income, meaning Vancouver ranks as the second-least affordable city in the world (behind Hong Kong). Meanwhile, the city’s average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,130 per month, making Vancouver Canada’s second most expensive city for renters (behind Toronto). Rental lawyer Nathalie Baker recently pointed out that in order to make rent in a recently-approved “affordable” Kerrisdale development, a tenant would need to make at least $150,000 per year.

According to a CTV report last month, sky-high rents and housing costs force some paramedics working in Vancouver to commute from as far as seven hours away to get to work in the city. Some of those workers even sleep over in the city in motorhomes and RVs. Yet the City of Vancouver appears to be trying to cut off that option for workers as well, after local authorities recently announced they would clamp down on motorhomes parked along residential streets.

But long commutes aren’t just an inconvenience: they also increase the risk of fatigue for workers responsible for keeping essential public services running.

Christine Sorenson, the head of the BC Nurses Union, pointed out many nurses work 12 hour shifts, with some staff regularly working overtime.

“If you’re commuting an hour, there’s not a lot of time,” she said. “That’s a challenge for nurses to get enough time to rest and recover so that they can return fresh for the next shift… The nurse will be the one that makes the sacrifice. We see a lot of physical fatigue wearing them down, moral distress, less ability to cope with the emotional turmoil and stress that they’re exposed to in their job, and burnout.”

Housing unaffordability also makes retaining employees more difficult, and squeezes the availability of retired nurses who help cover shifts amidst staff shortages.

“It’s difficult to recruit and retain nurses to work in the city,” Sorenson said. “There were ten resignations last fall out of the emergency room, and a number of those nurses cited housing affordability as one of the factors.”

“I do hear from nurses regularly that when they retire, they will be leaving Vancouver, they will sell their home,” she added. “The casual work that we rely on from our retired nurses may not be available.”

For first responders, meanwhile, living outside the communities they serve means they are not available to provide off-duty assistance in the event of a crisis or natural disaster.

Gord Ditchburn, president of the BC Professional Firefighters’ Association, pointed out that Vancouver is overdue for a massive earthquake that will likely cut off access to the city from the suburbs.

“High costs of housing makes it prohibitive for firefighters to live in the communities in which they serve,” he said. “It’s a factor for communities to consider if and when disasters occur. They’re not going to have firefighters living in their communities that are able to respond to these incidents.”

March 24 March 24 rally organized by Vancouverites for Affordable Housing

The influx of global capital from wealthy international elites is a key factor behind Vancouver’s affordability crisis. According to Josh Gordon, a professor of social policy at Simon Fraser University, current regulations allow the world’s wealthiest to take advantage of Vancouver’s amenability to real estate investment, displacing the city’s working class in the process.

“We have a tax system that needs updating,” he said. “Wealthy people who earn their money abroad can often avoid paying income taxes in Canada.”

“[They] can get all the wonderful amenities and social services that Canadian society provides and pay minimal income taxes. It means that local working people don’t have much of a chance of competition with that money.”

Decades of sustained federal underinvestment in social housing programs have also played a significant role in the city’s housing crisis. Brian Clifford, policy manager at the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, noted that since the Chrétien Liberal government cancelled all federal co-operative and non-profit housing programs back in the 1990s, a large and unfulfilled demand for affordable social housing has emerged. The Trudeau government’s ‘National Housing Strategy’, which promises to invest a total of $40 billion in affordable housing across Canada over 10 years (or around 790 units per year in BC), is insufficient to that end.

“In terms of the need [for British Columbia]… we’re looking at a total investment annually of about $1.8 billion to be cost matched by the federal and provincial governments,” Clifford said.

A recent report commissioned by the BC government also found money laundering in the province’s real estate sector may have jacked up housing costs in Metro Vancouver by as much as 20%. This month, the government announced it was launching a public inquiry amid reports that suggested cabinet ministers in the old BC Liberal government turned a blind eye to the matter despite receiving multiple warnings about the issue.

To the current BC government’s credit, measures to curb real estate speculation like the Speculation and Vacancy Tax, which levies 0.5-2% of a property’s assessed value on unoccupied second homes, do appear to have made a minor impact at the top-end of the housing market. Bedrooms in some lavish mansions which would otherwise remain empty are now reportedly being rented out at “rock-bottom prices.” However, the province still had the highest rate of rent poverty in Canada last year, meaning it had the highest proportion of people spending more than 50% of their gross income on rent and utilities.

Solutions to Vancouver’s unaffordability crisis from the city, provincial and federal governments should prioritize accommodating the city’s working people and emergency service staff.

Ditchburn pointed out that cities like San Francisco provide affordable housing grants for first responders, allowing those public service employees to live where they work.

Sorenson, meanwhile, said nurses are continuing to seek better compensation from the provincial government, which offered only modest health care service spending increases in the most recent budget.

“Nurses were very frustrated by the offering by the provincial government, and I think they are looking for a bigger pay increase,” she said. “We can’t continue to run a health care system on the backs of nurses, not only physically, but also financially.”

Will the city, provincial and federal governments continue passing the burden of unaffordability in Vancouver onto nurses, paramedics, firefighters and other working people? Or will they take decisive steps to end the destructive inflow of speculative international capital, properly invest in social housing and adequately raise the pay and conditions of workers who keep the city’s essential services safe and operational?

Alex Cosh is a PhD student and journalist based in Powell River, BC.

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