Small towns feel the pinch as Vancouver real estate madness spreads

Dawn Mortensen lived in Squamish for two decades. She married a born-and-bred local man, raised a son, and delighted in the easy access to outdoor adventure.

As prices rise dramatically in cities like Squamish, locals head farther afield to find homes

Lillooet has become a hot destination for former Squamish residents. (Dawn Mortensen)

Dawn Mortensen lived in Squamish, B.C., for two decades. She married a born-and-bred local man, raised a son, and delighted in the easy access to outdoor adventure.

But then, something shifted.

"We've just seen a change with all of the people moving there from the city — going from small-town Squamish to more like a city centre," Mortensen told CBC News.

And so she and her husband Peter packed up and left for Lillooet, B.C., where she opened up shop last year as one of only two real estate agents in the picturesque town of about 1,500 people.

She loves the easy access to lakes and mountain biking trails, and the housing business has been brisk. Mortensen says most of her clients are people like her, referrals from places along the Sea-to-Sky corridor that have been flooded with Vancouverites on the hunt for more affordable places to live.

"The majority of people who are moving here are young families, actually, who are priced out of the market in Squamish ... or people our age who are selling out because the prices are so high," said Mortensen, who is in her 50s.

Dawn Mortensen moved to Lillooet because she felt Squamish had become too much like a big city. (Dawn Mortensen)

These clients belong to a second wave of real estate refugees rippling outward from the Lower Mainland. Even in Lillooet, nearly a four-hour drive from Vancouver on narrow mountain roads, people are feeling the secondary effects of the Lower Mainland's out-of-control real estate market.

Residential assessments in Lillooet jumped by an average of 15 per cent between 2016 and 2017, and Mortensen said she's taken some heat for that.

"Some people are upset with me here in town, saying I've changed the whole dynamic, I've increased the price of real estate because the whole demand has increased prices," she said. "I can't take personal responsibility for sharing what a wonderful place this is."

Dawn Mortensen says the lakes around Lillooet were a major attraction for her. (Dawn Mortensen)

It's still possible to buy a detached home on an acreage in Lillooet for less than $350,000.

In Squamish, on the other hand, the benchmark price for a single-family home was more than $1 million in April, still well under the $3.4 million someone might pay for a house on Vancouver's West Side, but far out of reach for many young families.

Housing crunch on the Sunshine Coast

And Lillooet isn't the only place feeling the effects of Squamish's overheated market.

Some Squamish émigrés are choosing to head west instead, according to Neil Frost, president of the Powell River Sunshine Coast Real Estate Board.

"We've had a lot of purchasers from the Squamish area who are priced out of their own market, either their second home that they were hoping to buy, or their first home," Frost told CBC.

Powell River has long been a destination for retirees from the Lower Mainland. (Denis Dossman/CBC)

Powell River is seeing new arrivals from the Metro Vancouver area, too, in addition to the retirees who've long sought the quiet life on the Sunshine Coast.

"People being forced out by Vancouver sprawl in bedroom communities come looking at Powell River," Frost said.

He's watched a growing demand for real estate in the area, and as a result, Powell River's average home price was $352,724 in April, up 16 per cent from a year earlier.

In all, about 50 per cent of Powell River homebuyers currently come from what the real estate board calls the Lower Mainland, broadly defined as the area from Hope to Squamish.

Frost doesn't see the demand easing up any time soon.

"We're not completely dependent on what happens in Vancouver, but obviously if there's a correction or changes there, we will feel it — but it'll be a little bit down the road," he said.

A 'precarious' life for renters

The situation has left some on the Sunshine Coast feeling helpless.

Beth Jay has rented a two-bedroom rancher in Halfmoon Bay since she moved to the area four years ago for a teaching job. In the beginning, she hoped she'd be able to retire somewhere in the area in five or six years.

"I think if things keep going the way they are here, I won't be able to afford to live here. I had thought about buying, but then the prices just went crazy and there's so little availability," she said.

The average home price in Powell River rose to more than $350,000 in April. (James Blake/cc 2.0)

She describes her current living situation as "precarious" — an investor owns her home, and she's heard rumours he'll eventually want the property for himself.

She's not alone in feeling squeezed. 

More than half of households in Sechelt spend more than 30 per cent of their income on rent and utilities, and close to a third spend more than 50 per cent, according to the Canadian Rental Housing Index, a measure developed by the B.C. Non-Profit Housing Association and Vancity.

Jay has accepted that things might not work out as she planned.

"I've lived here [in B.C.] since 1982 but I might not be able to live here much longer. But you know what? That's just reality. Things happen and people have to move," Jay said.

If you are interested in housing affordability, check out CBC's new podcast, SOLD! Host Stephen Quinn explores how foreign investment in real estate divides community, class and culture. Find it at CBC Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Reach me at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.