Is Vancouver’s Real Estate Market Squeezing Out Singletons?

In a city where housing prices consistently tower over the incomes of even two-person households, some who are flying solo feel at a disadvantage.

Beth Porter* rang in the new year on a high: excelling in her career with a busy social life and plans to launch a business in the coming months, the Vancouver-based freelance writer felt, in her words, “hopeful.” But only three days into 2019, she was hit with news from her landlord that, after six years, her one-bedroom Mount Pleasant rental was being put up for sale. As any Vancouverite who’s scrolled through the soul-sucking vortex of despair that is Craigslist’s housing listings will empathize with, it was a hard pill to swallow—one made even more difficult for Porter because she’s, well, single. “My building now, I mostly see couples,” the 37-year-old says, “because the rent prices aren’t as much to choke on when you have two incomes.”

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the city with the country’s most expensive real-estate market is also notorious for having couples shack up within weeks of initiating a romantic relationship. Often, rent is just too damn high for one person to handle—the average rental price for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver is $2,080, according to a report released by PadMapper in February—especially for singletons who work in creative, non-profit and other middle-wage sectors, where they’re not necessarily struggling but not raking in six figures annually, either. “Most couples don’t seem to bat an eye at $2,000 and more ,” notes Porter. “But for me, that’s like, ‘What will I have left?’”

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It’s a stress that weighs heavily on Vancouver’s mature single set, a demographic that’s typically well past (or just plain over) the roommate phase but also reluctant to give up the community they’ve established in the city by relocating to relatively more affordable ’burbs. “There are challenges to being a single person and moving to smaller markets in terms of quality of life, the interactions you get, the connections you make,” says Porter, who’s lived in Vancouver for more than 15 years. “You would think if you were doing well in your career and you were in your late 30s, finding a decent place to live for a reasonable price wouldn’t be such an issue.”

Purchasing property while flying solo, as one would suspect, isn’t much easier. When Porter was informed that her rental condo was being listed, she toyed briefly with the idea of submitting an offer. But after doing the math on a potential down payment and mortgage, she realized that it “was not a wise decision,” not least because she wouldn’t be receiving any financial aid from family. 

Arya Singh,* a 28-year-old communications coordinator, had her heart set on entering Vancouver’s real-estate market, too. However, after months of house hunting, she eventually chose to settle in Delta, where, with a little help from her parents, she was able to afford a down payment on a new-build two-bedroom condo.

Singh, who works full-time on Vancouver’s west side, acknowledges that she’s fortunate to have had the opportunity to become a homeowner. But having to compromise on location and taking on a 90-minute daily commute—one way, without traffic—has affected her work-life balance immensely, she says. Given her income, renting in Vancouver isn’t ideal, either. “Salaries are not that high here,” she laments. “And then, when you consider what it costs to buy a property, it’s kind of an unfair balance. If I didn’t have support from my parents, I wouldn’t have been able to do it at all. So it makes you feel like you have to depend on someone—you can’t be independent in this city. And it’s really unfair to other people, too, because not everyone has support like that.”

Both Porter and Singh admit that, on more than one occasion, they’ve thought about how much easier renting and owning property in Vancouver would be if they had a long-term partner. To have ambitious, fully capable individuals—many of whom are successful in their own right—feel like they need the assistance of a spouse or companion to get ahead in the city is concerning, especially during a time when self-sufficiency is so greatly valued. “Certainly, given the state of both the rental and homeownership markets in the city of Vancouver, it has made living single a lot harder,” observes Andy Yan, director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University. “Unless one has access to wealth, living alone is hard to do.”

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Yan notes that there are singletons who are making it work in Vancouver, whether that be through increased job security or opting for more accessible living situations like rooming houses. However, problems arise when folks who are at or reaching the peak of their careers are driven to relocate from the region due to unaffordability, resulting in what’s been called “brain drain” or a loss of educated and skilled labourers.“I think it carries friction into companies and institutions,” explains Yan, who believes that housing prices have become “decoupled” from local incomes. “They can’t keep people just as they’re entering the apex of their working lives—and that ultimately has consequences for how businesses can or cannot grow in the city.”

For Porter, the effects go beyond the local economy: making space for singles—and, really, people of all backgrounds, ages and relationship statuses—is key to the fabric of society. “For a city to be interesting and vibrant, you need different people,” she says. “And when those people aren’t here because they can’t find a place to live—when you don’t have that diversity of families, singles and different races and incomes—then I think your city becomes less vibrant.”  

*Names have been changed