This op-ed is featured in today's Vancouver Sun. Links to referenced materials provided below.
Last month the Eighth Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Study was published, confirming what many Vancouverites already know. After Hong Kong, ours is now the second least affordable city to purchase a home in among 325 metropolitan markets in English-speaking countries.
To arrive at Vancouver's No. 2 rating, the Demographia study divided Metro Vancouver's median house price of $678,500 by a median house-hold income of $63,800. Overlooked in the media coverage was the fact the authors were using the data to make the case for more urban sprawl. They argue that policies like B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve are a "war on the dream" (Demographia's term) of home ownership because of their effect on house prices.
While many citizens and politicians agonize over the high cost of housing here, the second figure (income) troubles me at least as much. Here's an irksome statistic for a Vancouverite: Toronto's median household income is $73,800, or 15 per cent higher than Metro Vancouver's. Why are we not as concerned about our low median household income, and looking for ways to close that gap?
What if our politicians promised to fight for better paying jobs rather than the risky prospect of deflating the cost of housing? It used to be candidates for elected office promised a chicken in every pot. It would be a shame if we've given up on that dream.
The non-partisan Brookings Institution recently released its annual Global Metro Monitor study of the economic performance of the largest 200 city regions worldwide. It showed that Metro Vancouver, like other Canadian city regions, is not keeping pace when compared to developing economies in Asia, South America and the Middle East. Slow economic growth results in fewer jobs and lower pay, while making it harder to compete for the best and brightest business minds.
What are we doing about it? In truth, not nearly enough.
One of the Brookings study authors states, "Growth doesn't happen on the national level, it happens at the local level." In other words, metro areas generate disproportionately higher shares of national increases in output and employment.
So it might surprise readers to know there is no regional plan for economic development in Metro Vancouver. Instead, we have a hodgepodge of economic plans city by city, each of us vying for similar business and each with its own set of business permit regulations.
The City of Surrey built its economic plan around practical measures to strengthen job growth through tax holidays and reduced fees. The City of Burnaby set out a 15-year economic growth plan, mapping out sector strategies for film, high-tech and health.
Other plans, like the City of Vancouver's, are driven less by a business bottom line than by political outcomes. Their plan places heavy emphasis on building "green" business over traditional sectors such as our prominent port, forestry or mining. After struggling to understand what green business is, the B.C. Business Council has determined it amounts to a minuscule three per cent of our local economy.
Smart metro leaders, say the Brookings analysts, are crafting business plans that grow jobs from within, building on their distinct market advantages. In our case these advantages would be our access to vast natural resources, a first-class airport, proximity to Asian markets, and good universities.
When it comes to green tech Vancouver has a distinct market disadvantage. Thanks to some of the lowest power rates on the planet there's less incentive to decrease energy consumption. Do these eco-friendly start-ups have a chance for success, or are we spending millions in tax dollars chasing a green dream? Most of us would have greater confidence if business leaders, not politicians, chose the industries with the greatest potential for future growth.
Where our political leaders can make a difference is by championing a regional economic development strategy that focuses on our market advantages, and by seeking to harmonize business regulations throughout Metro Vancouver.
Only when cities such as Surrey, Burnaby, Vancouver and others in the region determine to work together will we see improvements in our economic performance. Then the higher median incomes follow and the prospect of affording a home here becomes much more real.
- post by Mike – email@example.com. Visit back soon for my comments on the 2012 Housing Affordability Symposium. Some great ideas and lessons for our cities!