“Political officials respond to those who organize and show up.”
That’s the message Paul Kershaw, a UBC professor and founder of Generation Squeeze, hit home in the opening address at Millennial Activate, an interactive panel discussion held October 25 as part of the City of Vancouver’s re:address week activities. The event’s purpose was to encourage younger generations to engage with government in order to influence housing policies.
“Canada’s economy is breaking down for people in their 20s and 30s,” said Kershaw. “We earn less today for full-time work even though we’re more likely to have post-secondary education. We have bigger student loans. We go to school longer to land jobs that pay less… Earnings are in freefall while the cost of housing is up from coast to coast.”
Kershaw acknowledged that nobody should expect buying a home to be easy or without struggle or sacrifice. However, according to his math, young generations who have no financial help from family would have to work full time and save for 23 years to afford the down payment on an average-priced detached house in Vancouver. Meanwhile, he said, boomers have “benefitted from the lottery of good timing and today are using their home wealth for a secure retirement.”
Kershaw said there are solutions, including taxes and how these are appropriated, changes in development zoning to improve supply, investments in purpose-built rental units, and influencing housing policy.
“There aren’t many elected officials who want to see house prices fall,” he pointed out. “We need policymakers to meet us halfway. Are there other costs that could come down? Student loans? Transit? Daycare? We need to better position the younger demographic; intergenerational trade-offs are needed to make this city work.”
Kershaw said he sees Millennials as having the unique opportunity to create a grassroots movement that can do for housing policy what was done in the 1930s for Medicare and in the 1960s to create the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security.
Focus on Housing Supply
Panelist and young lawyer Danny Oleksiuk of Abundant Housing Vancouver said he is calling on the city to increase density. Oleksiuk regularly attends council meetings and rezoning hearings to make sure his group’s point is heard.
“We need to organize renters and young people to go to these meetings,” he said. “Building more housing is part of the solution to our housing crisis. If there’s more housing for people, more people will have more housing.”
Oleksiuk is a champion of increasing density within Vancouver’s borders, and wants the federal government to tie infrastructure funding to density targets. He observed that the city’s zoning bylaws exert considerable power over the types of housing that are built, with apartments currently allowed on only 19 per cent of land within Vancouver, which severely limits where more affordable multi-family units can be built.
Long-term Effects of High Housing Costs
Generation Squeeze’s executive director, Eric Swanson, was another of the evening’s panelists. A homeowner who got his foot in the door thanks to a down payment from his grandmother, Swanson said locals must push for bold action.
“All three levels of government could have done a lot more,” he says. “Housing affordability is at crisis proportions. We need to tell our elected officials to rethink the housing system. To think about it holistically. It’s not just about housing.”
Generation Squeeze advocates for government policies that will allow younger generations to afford to start families, find good jobs, pay off student debts, save for retirement, reduce by years the time to save a down payment, and leave at least as much as they inherited.
Grappling with Overseas Demand
According to panelist Gary Liu, tackling the voracious demand for housing is key, and supply is not the problem. Liu represents HALT (Housing Action for Local Taxpayers) – a non-partisan activist group that is campaigning to see the housing needs of local tax-paying residents prioritized over demand from outside Canada.
“What’s happened in the past decade and this past year is not natural,” said Liu. “A 30 per cent increase in housing prices is not natural… We have been building more and more than ever before; supply is not the main problem. This is a crisis of epic proportions and government is dropping the ball.”
HALT supports implementing a property tax surcharge offset by income tax. Owners who are not contributing to Canadian public finances through their income taxes would pay more tax on their properties.
Advocating for Change
According to the panelists, affecting policy changes requires people to do more than discuss issues with their friends. They encouraged concerned Vancouverites to meet with their political representatives, join like-minded organizations, and to "think big" if they want to see significant housing reform.