Must Vancouver resign itself to an aging demographic and a high cost of living?
Vancouver like many cities around the world is getting older, thanks largely to low birthrates but increasingly because it is simply too expensive to live here. Declining birthrates in the west have had a profound domino-effect that can hardly be explored in a single blog post. It has forced changes in immigration policy, taxation, public education, infrastructure development and urban planning. How cities will address the affordability question is not yet clear, but it's clearly on Vancouver's radar.
Vancouver Sun reporter Chad Skelton has been blogging as Curious Dad, and digging up some stats about where the kids are (and are not) around our city. Skelton promises to provide expert views on the causes for disparity between neighbourhoods in upcoming posts. Until then you have his commenters' observations on where the kids are in our city.
Some think that their neighbourhoods have lots of kids, others decry the lack of children on the streets around them. Good neighbourhoods exhibit signs of generational change, so it's pleasing when you see lots of kids around.
What is clear from the statistics is that the $1,000,000+ purchase price for a Westside home, and scarce affordable rental, is ensuring that only a privileged few may reside there and raise a family. People who bought homes on the Eastside before a few years ago may be scraping together the mortgage thanks to today's low interest rates. The plain fact is without significant equity going in and a very strong household income, you can't buy a house in Vancouver when the median price is over $700K.
There are other uncomfortable realities that will explain why there are so few kids growing up across the city, and what the stats Skelton dug up might mean for Vancouver's future.
I live in the Eastside borough named Kensington-Cedar Cottage, which if you observe the stats provided by Skelton, rates among the highest neighbourhoods for number of babies, pre-schoolers and elementary school kids. I can vouch that over the last five years or so, there does appear to be an increase in the number of pre-school age children in my community. However, it's still to be seen if they will actually enroll in local schools here, or in other neighbourhoods.
This last comment may sound odd, but if you know anything about the recent history of Vancouver schooling, it's understandable. Parents will always try to find the "best" education for their child, and it doesn't always mean staying within catchment where they live. Many families will choose alternative schools for completely valid reasons. However, there are costs - for the child and the community - that may not be so apparent when sending kids out of a neighbourhood for schooling.
Keeping kids in their neighbourhoods, I believe, is the surest way to create healthy, vibrant communities. When both parents are working to help pay the mortgage, playmates close at hand are a godsend. Nothing like a little free babysitting, too, especially when they're young. Children also bring together parents, who become bound by their common goals for safe streets, and good local schools.
Show me parents who send their kids to schools out of their neighbourhood, and I'll show you a household that typically spends more money for basic child care, and adults more exhausted by after school responsibilities. It's no wonder that the biggest beef of parents is the cost of daycare - they're stretched to the limit paying for housing and other needs.
These are some of the findings that statistics might not pick up. As one commenter states, "A neighbourhood having the most babies does not mean it is automatically 'baby friendly'." What makes a neighbourhood a truly great place to raise a family is often other families and their connection to a local school.
School Choice, or the enhanced ability to choose schools outside of your catchment, was instated as a principal of the education system under the current BC government in this decade. On the face of it, School Choice sounds like a laudable concept. Give children the opportunity to prosper in schools that better suit their needs and the needs of their families.
But the reality is that communities are undermined with every child and family that choose to leave local schools. That creates another one of those vicious circles, where neighbourhoods lack the critical mass to support programs and services that enhance local livability.
Why do we have School Choice? Partly due to demand, partly due to the growing strength of private educators, and in part because of the power struggle between the Ministry of Education and a tough teacher's union. There is also immersion schooling, whereby kids leave neighbourhoods ostensibly for language training, but in part for the perceived higher quality of teaching in bilingual schools.
So it's not just the tough economic realities of living in Vancouver and, for many, the near impossibility of owning a home here. Communities are sometimes affected by the unintended consequences of government policy.
So how do we address these challenges, and ensure that most of Vancouver's neighbourhoods remain as a "good place" to raise a family?
Density (the D-word), which single-family neighbourhoods especially on Vancouver's Westside seem to abhor, is one way we can preserve the vitality of our neighbourhoods. Creating lots more housing choice, and tax incentives for purpose-built rental, will spark some life in our greying communities.
And School Choice must be reviewed with an eye toward increasing support for communities. It won't be easy to navigate the difficult politics raised by these issues, but the status quo simply won't work if Vancouver doesn't want to someday become only an elite retirement community.