Priced out of downtown Vancouver, millennials are building ‘hipsturbia’


Gabi & Jules offers homemade pies by the slice, à la mode with a scoop of small-batch Rocky Point ice cream. The year-old bakery and shop also sells granola and brownie mix in mason jars, preserves and organic loose-leaf teas.

It sources its products as locally as possible, only uses real ingredients such as butter and operates out of a bright, airy, hip-looking place in the old part of town, around the corner from a new taco place called Taps & Tacos that serves locally made beers at high-top tables. Down the street is a new pizzeria that serves thin-crust Neapolitan pizza.


This enclave of artisanal urbanity is not in Vancouver’s Gastown – it’s a one-hour SkyTrain ride away, in the small suburb of Port Moody, which sits on Burrard Inlet, surrounded by mountains.


“Growing up here, it was not the desirable place to be, so now we find it funny and kind of cool, to see how it’s changed,” says Lisa Beecroft, who co-owns Gabi & Jules with husband Patrick.


“We are now seeing that sort of mentality take shape, with people looking for that craft and authenticity in what people are making.”


Port Moody used to be the place you’d pass through on your way to Buntzen Lake. But in the past couple of years, the city has transformed from strip malls to locally sourced mom and pop shops – and the hipster culture that entails.

The new SkyTrain Evergreen line, which opened in December, also opened up major possibilities. Now, Vancouverites make day trips into Port Moody for its popular Brewery Row, with craft breweries along an industrial three-block stretch.


It helps, too, of course, that buyers get more for their buck in Port Moody. The benchmark price of a condo in the municipality shot up 25.4 per cent in the past year, but buyers can get bigger condos in more desirable locations compared with what they get for the same price in Vancouver. And that’s the case for other areas of Metro Vancouver, which are seeing a boost in the all-important 25- to 39-year-old demographic, as a result.


An urbanizing of the suburbs is under way. In Langley, Port Moody, Burnaby and New Westminster, the millennial cohort is finding, and creating, urban pockets that fit a lifestyle demanding transit, affordability and walkability.


In municipalities where those criteria exist, the number of millennials has shot up. In areas where those qualities are lacking, their numbers have plummeted. Simon Fraser University City Program director Andy Yan analyzed new Census data from 1996 to 2016 that show a dramatic 31-per-cent drop in their numbers in both West Vancouver and North Vancouver District; a 31-per-cent drop in White Rock; a 25-per-cent drop in Delta; and a 14-per-cent drop in Port Coquitlam. Conversely, their numbers grew by 18 per cent in New Westminster; 14 per cent in the District of Langley; 11 per cent in Vancouver and Burnaby; and 10 per cent in Port Moody and 9 per cent in  Richmond. Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows had marginal 2-per-cent and 1-per-cent gains, while Coquitlam has flat-lined.

The average for Metro Vancouver was a 9-per-cent gain in 25- to 39-year-olds.


The migration is putting pressure on the development community to come up with more creative options than a residential tower with generic retail space at ground level. Potential residents want community. They want their neighbourhood barber, pub, bakery, library and bank within walking distance.


For the typical millennial, whether buying or renting, sprawl is anathema.


“If you look at random condo towers thrown up a decade ago, it now doesn’t make sense,” says Curtis Scott, market-intelligence manager for Colliers Western Canada.


Mr. Scott is also a millennial who grew up in the suburbs. He says mixed-use developments that blend family living with retail and work environments are becoming more common because of the shifting demographic.


“Now, you see developments that are strategic … and there’s incentive to build higher with larger floor plates in areas where they want to encourage other uses, such as retail, industrial and commercial. It’s that connectivity between neighbourhoods in a city that is their focus.”


The phenomenon of “hipsturbia,” as it was called in a 2013 New York Times piece, is happening throughout North America. As speculation drives home prices upward, millennials seeking affordable housing must move outward until they qualify.


Realtor Alison Bernstein saw an opportunity to target that market when she launched Suburban Jungle throughout North America last year. Her business model began with New York, where millennials had been priced out of Brooklyn and went searching for housing in nearby towns. Today, she’s helping locate buyers outside of expensive cities such as San Francisco. Each client is assigned a realtor and a local town adviser who helps potential buyers get acquainted with town amenities. She’s also launching a commercial division to help the small businesses that are following them.


“I think it’s happening all over the place, young people are migrating outward,” Ms. Bernstein says.


However, she says the cycle is a transient one. Buyers go outward to raise families but often return to urban areas once the kids are grown, and their wealth has increased.


“When our parents left the city, they were looking to move to suburbia and never look back,” Ms. Bernstein says. “Now, there’s that more transient feeling of, ‘we’re not here forever; we’re here to raise our kids.’”


When Ali and Neil Grayston returned to the Lower Mainland after five years living in Los Angeles, they were shocked to discover they’d been priced out of the Vancouver market. When they went looking for a place with their $1,750 budget, they discovered that they’d have to live in subpar conditions, with or without roommates.


“It was ridiculous, not just the lack of affordability, but the lack of availability,” says Mr. Grayston, 36, an actor. “We wanted a one-bedroom and that was completely out of the picture.”


The couple viewed a microsuite in Gastown that was less than 400 square feet and cost $2,300 a month.

“Basically, we would have been living in a hallway,” he says.


One landlord posted an ad that said, “Cats preferred, preferably with mousing experience.”

“We passed on that one,” he says, dryly.


They looked to Brentwood, in Burnaby, which, Ms. Grayston says, is “exploding with people our age.” “It was one of our top places, not just because we knew it was becoming a hip neighbourhood, but it was on the SkyTrain,” she says. Ms. Grayston works at Fluevog Shoes in Gastown.


But they were already priced out of Brentwood as well, so they chose New Westminster, where they had owned a condo at one time. Ms. Grayston says her brother, a diehard Vancouverite, had initially opposed their choice of New Westminster – but he’s now looking at Port Moody.


The Graystons rent a spacious apartment for $1,100 a month and can get downtown by SkyTrain in a half-hour.

“It is one of those places that is perpetually up and coming,” Mr. Grayston says. “It’s a bit of a bedroom community, but it seems like things are open a bit later now, and new restaurants are popping up every day.”


A farmers market, outdoor movie night and the Westminster Pier Park are added bonuses, Ms. Grayston says.

“It’s really important to me to have walkability,” she says. “We didn’t want to be stuck in a subdivision of houses. We wanted a place where there is a lot of community involvement, where we could almost have a Vancouver lifestyle. “And if we wanted to stay within 30 per cent of our income [toward housing costs] and be comfortable; we had to be out in New West.”


Greg Moore, mayor of Port Coquitlam and chair of Metro Vancouver, says his city might have seen a decline in millennials because they’ve simply aged in place, which is a good thing, because they’re not moving away.


“At one point we had the youngest average age in Metro Vancouver, which was 39 years old, and that was just over five years ago. I remember, because I was the average age,” he says.


But he sees anecdotal evidence that young families are again moving into to Port Coquitlam and he points to the growth of its downtown, as well as festivals and events, as part of the draw. The city has also recently approved two microbreweries – always a sure sign of pending hipsturbia. He’s also seen an additional 5,000 residents in the downtown core in the past 10 years.


“We’re looking at adding more three-bedroom condos because more families are gravitating toward living in a condo near a transit station,” he says. “But at the same time, some still do want that backyard.”


Millennials, especially those in their 30s, grew up in the single-family home, and the expectation to own a house is generally still there.


But as house prices increase, that would mean further migration outward.


On a sunny Friday afternoon, I met up with 32-year-old Jennifer Calabrigo who works in sales for a Burnaby-based dairy company. Her husband, Matt Wallace, 31, who moved eight years ago from Boston, works for a tech firm in downtown Vancouver.


Ms. Calabrigo is like a lot of Lower Mainland millennials. She and her husband had rented in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood but wanted to buy. Although they loved Vancouver, they couldn’t afford it. Their list of priorities included somewhere near the SkyTrain as well as walkability, with a great lifestyle. But competition in the condo market is fierce, so it took a year of searching and six occasions when they were outbid by up to $100,000.


They discovered Port Moody through friends who’d already moved there. Last summer, they put in an offer of $590,000 on a 1,100-square-foot, two-bedroom-with-den condo in Suter Brook Village, with views of water and mountains. It was listed for $545,000. They got it and moved in last August. Ms. Calabrigo says they never would have found the spacious-view condo in Vancouver, where the new condos are too small and cramped.


“We had been looking at tiny, little one-bedrooms that hadn’t been updated, and you’d have to renovate the whole thing, spend more money. And we wanted more space because we want a family,” she says, standing in her galley kitchen. “And we didn’t want to start with a one-bedroom and have to move again and again. Everything they are building is 500 square feet. They aren’t for young couples and people starting families.”


Her building is surrounded by a village-type retail area, a five-minute walk to the SkyTrain and within walking distance of Brewery Row, where they go on Fridaynights. On that particular Friday night, there was a rib fest happening at Rocky Point Park, on the water.


However, once they start a family, Ms. Calabrigo is less sure that condo living will still appeal.


“We’ll stay in a condo for a bit, and then in order to buy a house we will probably have to move further out,” she says. “A lot of people are moving to Maple Ridge or Mission.”


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