Adults Only: How a Lack of Child Care is Forcing Families Out of Vancouver

Faced with crazy wait-lists and daycare costs that rival a mortgage, young families are fleeing for cheaper locales.

When we found out we were expecting, we assumed we’d raise our daughter exactly where we were—in our 450-square-foot apartment in the West End. Our place had an incredible view of English Bay and, thanks to an ancient lease that refused to die between tenants, reasonable rent. It was tiny, but it was our home. Yes, we’d have to upgrade to a larger place at some point, but leaving Vancouver was never an option. Parenthood is full of so many unknowns; the least we could do was not throw a move into the mix.

But there were many other reasons we wanted to raise our family in Vancouver. The city has educational and vocational possibilities that are hard to find elsewhere.There are excellent services to assist both new and expecting parents. (When my wife struggled with severe antepartum depression, the city produced support groups and people willing to help.)

And then there’s the lifestyle. During the six years we lived in Vancouver, I never stopped adoring it. I loved the people, the long walks on the seawall, the Sunday afternoons on the beach. I even loved the tension that seems to run under the surface of the city, this force driving people to punch above their professional weight.

My daughter adored Vancouver, too. Even before she turned one, she was an incredibly social animal, begging to be taken on the bus so she could wave and smile at all the people. She’s almost three now and still asks on occasion if we can take her on a bus.

Staying in Vancouver would mean we could keep our jobs and careers and friends. It was the obvious choice, until it wasn’t.

A lot of people were shocked last summer when a City of Vancouver staff report found that more than half of Vancouver’s families were thinking of leaving the city in the next two years. Not us—we read the news from our new home on Vancouver Island, early casualties of a brutal conundrum that is a fact of life for families in Vancouver: it’s nearly impossible to find child care. And if you do manage to find it, you almost certainly can’t afford it.

The Catch-22 of Child Care

To survive in the city, most families need to consistently pull in two incomes, making child care an imperative. Daycares in the city cater to this, offering lunch programs, early drop-offs and late pickups. Some offer evening care or weekend care, or can prepare supper to bring home with you. If you have to pull graveyard shifts, there are even places that will watch your kid overnight.

But many families don’t even get that far, because there aren’t nearly enough daycare spots in the city for all the children who need them. Wait-lists can be thousands of names long, and it can take several years to land a spot anywhere. A 2014 report by the Childcare Resource and Research Unit found there were 363,800 children across the province in need of some form of care, and only 106,719 licensed child care spots.

That means the majority of families looking for child care won’t find it. It simply doesn’t exist. They’re left to survive on a single income, find an alternative form of care—or leave. And leaving is a popular choice.

According to Statistics Canada, the city’s population is growing by about 5,000 people each year, but it’s mostly an influx of the young, single and childless. If you comb through census data, you’ll find that every year the city grows by only about 16 new families, while the Vancouver School Board reports that school enrolment is shrinking by roughly 600 students each year.

Janine Reid and her husband abandoned the city for Ottawa last year, in part due to the lack of child care in Vancouver. “I went to visit my first home daycare when I was 18 weeks pregnant,” says Reid, a 37-year-old registered veterinary technician. “I pretty much Googled any daycare that was close to me and added my name to their list.”

A lot of people were shocked last summer when a City of Vancouver staff report found that more than half of Vancouver’s families were thinking of leaving the city in the next two years. Not us.

That’s one of the tricks of expectant parents in the know—there are some wait-lists you can get on from the moment you have a doctor’s note confirming the pregnancy. If you wait until you have your infant physically in your arms before you start filling out forms, like we did, you’re too late.

Early registry gives you only a slight edge, though. A year and a half later, Reid has yet to get a single callback from any of the wait-lists. “My daughter is almost 14 months old and to date I have heard nothing from any of the daycares I contacted. Not even an email.”

But as much as finding a daycare spot in Vancouver can feel like a Sisyphean task, paying for it is another problem altogether.

A lot of the time, it’s mathematically impossible.

In addition to Vancouver’s dubious distinction as one of the most expensive places to live in the country, it also boasts some of the lowest salaries of any major Canadian city. The disparity between what you earn and what child care costs can be insurmountable. Statistics Canada data from 2014 show the median family income in Vancouver was $76,000—several thousand below much of the rest of the country—while the Childcare Resource and Research Unit found the median yearly cost of child care for preschool-aged kids is $13,320. Compare that to Edmonton, where the family income is $25,430 higher and daycare costs are $4,368 lower, or Montreal, where the median income of $75,000 easily covers subsidized daycare fees of only $1,824 a year. That means Vancouver families spend nearly 20 percent of their income on child care, compared to eight per cent in Edmonton and roughly two percent in Montreal.

And for a lot of families, even 20 percent is optimistic. Those who can’t wait two or three years for a daycare spot often pay double the going rate. Not surprisingly, the shortest wait-lists are often found at the most expensive centres, with some charging more than $2,000 a month—with two months due up front.

A Gendered Problem

Ultimately, the lack of child care spaces in Vancouver has a disproportionate effect on women. While we never set out to be one of those families where, by default, the woman ended up at home, economic circumstances led us to fall back on this tired cliché. Our daughter was born while my wife was in the middle of her grad project at Emily Carr. Even though she’d been working multiple jobs while a full-time student (and managed to win an international design award on the side), she hadn’t clocked enough hours to qualify for any sort of leave.

I took my paternity leave—nine months in total. We thought that would be plenty of time to figure out the next stage of life. But nine months and over 50 daycare waitlists later, we weren’t any closer to finding child care and my wife’s job prospects weren’t looking promising, even with a shelf of awards.

When my paternity leave ran out, one of us had to be earning money. I returned to my salaried job as a technical director in the visual effects industry, while my wife stayed home. When we finally got a call back from a private daycare with fees that amounted to double our rent, we started another countdown. This time, my wife had to find a job that could cover the cost of daycare before we ran out of money and had to pull our daughter out.

Three months later, there was no job and no more money. We packed up for the Island.

Given this reality, it’s easy to see how so many women end up at home. Even if you do have a job, your maternity leave will probably run out before you find child care. Years can pass before the stars align and you can return to work. In the meantime, educated women are either sidelined from the workforce or forced to get extremely creative—and, either way, women are almost always the ones tasked with figuring out the family balancing act.

For Diane Espiritu, keeping her career momentum going in the face of motherhood requires her to coordinate many moving parts.

Working out of her Chinatown studio, Espiritu has made a name for herself as a ceramics designer and consultant. When her daughter was born, she knew she’d have to work with her infant literally by her side, and that’s exactly what she did.

Espiritu baby-proofed her studio, devoting a corner to a crib, change table and play area. When things got too busy for her to keep one eye on her daughter, she hired a friend to come help. Once, when working on a particularly large contract, she flew in a cousin for a few weeks. It’s an arrangement that’s worked, but she wonders if their lives would be better somewhere else.

“We talk about moving to the Interior, to Kelowna or a smaller town to grow vegetables, raise sheep and have a ceramics studio,” she says. “We talk about living somewhere warm or where the cost of living doesn’t burn you out.”

A City Without Support

You can hear the frustration in Mary Clare Zak’s voice. As the city’s director of social policy, she’s been working hard to find ways to help new parents, and it’s an uphill battle. The City of Vancouver set a target of creating 1,000 new child care spaces between 2015 and 2018. They’re about 70 percent of the way there, but even that’s not enough.

“When it’s a shortage of roughly 12,000 spaces, what is 1,000?” says Zak. “My own staff—some of them have three different arrangements. They’ve got two days a week at the daycare, one day a week they have an arrangement with another family, one day a week they have a relative who can take care of the child. That’s stressful. That’s very hard on families.”

The need is exponentially greater than what the city can provide, says Zak, especially with very little support.

“As a city—and I know this surprises some people, but I have to say it every time I talk to anybody—social services are not our mandate,” says Zak. “That belongs to the province and the federal government. But the vast majority of the capital, I would say 90 percent, has come from the City of Vancouver.”

One successful local initiative has been getting daycares into schools. Empty classrooms are prime real estate for child care, and with attendance down at a lot of schools, it’s a brilliant use of space. It can also be cost-effective when the required renovations coincide with scheduled seismic upgrades. It makes these schools more desirable, too: enrolment sees a boost when daycares are added.

So far, hundreds of new daycare spots have opened at 13 different schools, and the benefits go beyond child care. Daycares foster a sense of community and support the city’s ecological goals—parents will travel less when dropping their kids off at a single location.

Considering all the pluses, you’d think it would be easy to get the province on board. But when the city decided to build two new in-school daycares, the province chipped in less than 10 percent of the funds. Over 90 percent of the infrastructure costs ended up being covered by the city, with non-profit societies providing operating funds.

“Until other orders of government step up, we’re not going to see the kind of impact we really need.”

A spokesperson for the BC Ministry of Children and Family Development explained the disparity: on large infrastructure projects like these, the province’s contribution is capped at $500,000, regardless of the scope. “The City of Vancouver is working on several large multi-million-dollar projects that require major capital investments. The large scope of those projects and the resulting high costs are a decision that the city has made and has no bearing on the maximum provincial investment allowed under our capital program,” he said.

Since 2014, the province has also invested $3.1 million toward new licensed child care spaces in Vancouver—but kept away from the city’s own initiatives. Over the last three years, the province has been directly responsible for the creation of just 343 new spaces in the city.

John Horgan, leader of the BC NDP, is unimpressed with this approach. He argues that child care in B.C. needs a massive overhaul, with a $10-a-day child care plan a key point in his party’s provincial election platform. (Read more on this below.)

“The Liberals, ironically, don’t get what this is all about. They believe that scraps here and scraps there to give the impression of an overall plan is a better way to go rather than having a concerted, focused effort in making sure that we’re providing spaces,” he says.

But the criticism goes beyond the province. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $7 billion  over 10 years for child care in March’s federal budget; however, it’s unclear how that money will be distributed among the provinces, and we won’t see the first of it until 2018. City staff move ahead now because they understand how important improving child care is to Vancouver’s future—even if they’re aiming for a goal they know they can’t reach alone.

Vancouver’s constant evolution has led to some unexpected opportunities, however. With fewer people driving into downtown each year, the Water Street parkade in Gastown has become increasingly empty. The roof has been slated for conversion to two new daycares. It’s a start, but Zak stresses that the city needs more help to make a real dent in the demand for child care.

“It’s not enough,” she says. “Until other orders of government step up, we’re not going to see the kind of impact we really need.”

The Cost of Staying

For those who stay in Vancouver, survival takes ingenuity—and luck. I’ve watched parents in the city attend business conferences with babies on their back, split nannies between multiple families, or work from home with a newborn.

While we hounded 50 daycares relentlessly in search of a spot, Espiritu and her husband eventually scored full-time care after only moderately harassing a long list of daycares on a daily basis.

Even so, Espiritu wonders if it’s all worth it.

“When you can no longer find the energy or time to enjoy the things that made you come here in the first place,” she says, “it makes it easier to contemplate leaving.”

Reid, meanwhile, has done more than contemplate. “Being able to send our child to daycare was like this magical dream that we’d likely never be able to turn into a reality,” she says.

When she relocated to Ottawa, within two months she was able to interview six daycares that could take her child. “I could choose one that I really liked, rather than just choosing one that had a space available,” she says. She might miss the beauty of Vancouver, but she has no regrets about leaving.

It’s been a little over a year since our own family left Vancouver. We landed safely in the Comox Valley, close enough to see the mainland, but far enough away that it feels like a different world entirely—the town smells like a campfire when the weather is cold, and you can’t leave your garbage can outside because it attracts bears.

We’ve been lucky. I was able to keep the same job I had when we left Vancouver, working out of an office here on the Island. It’s enough to keep us afloat while my wife finds a foothold with her career. We found multiple child care options within the first few months for a fraction of what we’d been paying in Vancouver. We found a daycare that our daughter loves. We haven’t undone the financial damage Vancouver inflicted on us, but we have stability again.

Still, I can’t help but feel displaced. I wanted Vancouver to work. At least there’s some comfort in knowing that we weren’t the first family to go through this. Sadly, we’re also far from the last.

Right before I sat down to write the conclusion to this article, my phone buzzed with an email from friends in Vancouver. They’ve lived in the city for a decade and recently found out they’re expecting their first child. Like clockwork: they’re putting their condo up for sale and starting to plan their move.


The $10 Dream

Both the City of Vancouver and the BC NDP have advocated for a $10-a-day child care plan put together by the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC. The plan seeks to establish a regulated, province-wide child care framework that includes:

• $10-a-day full-time care and $7-a-day part-time care; families earning less than $40,000 annually would pay no fees

• Before- and after-school care

• Extending parental leave to 18 months, up from 12

• Raising wages for child care workers to an average of $25 an hour and increasing educational requirements for child care workers

• Creating a provincial early learning and care division, which would operate under the Ministry of Education

The plan follows Quebec’s $7-a-day child care strategy, which has been in place since the 1990s and has been credited with huge economic benefits. A 2008 University of Toronto study found that the program allowed 70,000 mothers to participate in the workforce that year, resulting in a $5-billion boost to the province’s GDP—more than double the cost of the subsidy. B.C.’s plan would likely see a similar return. A study published by the Early Childhood Educators of BC found the program would initially cost $1.2 billion per year—growing to $1.9 billion annually over time—but would pay for itself in under three years. The resulting boost to B.C.’s workforce would yield a two-percent increase to the province’s GDP, or roughly $5.8 billion annually, by 2025.

What do you think of the city’s child care system? Let us know in the comments below!