Vancouver's housing costs won't be solved just by desperate tweets
Young professionals taking to social media to protest high house prices need a political lobby
As calls to arms go, "I don't have a million dollars!" hardly rivals "Viva La Revolución!" or "We Shall Overcome!"
And, admittedly, the sight of young disaffected professionals tweeting their despair at being priced out of Vancouver's housing market comes across as more Portlandia than Selma.
But the man who coined the term "Generation Squeeze" says Canadians should pay attention to the #Don'thave1million hashtag all the same.
"I think we are at a sea change moment," says Paul Kershaw, a policy professor at UBC's School of Population Health.
"It's not that they don't have a million bucks — it's that they can't afford to live where they grew up."
'If I could only plant a money tree'
Support, indifference, mockery: the reaction to Eveline Xia's Twitter campaign has run the gamut.
At 29, with a master's degree in environmental studies, Xia speaks for a lot of young professionals. They've spent years pursuing post-secondary education only to watch the supposed reward of home ownership slip out of reach.
Communications consultants, engineers and registered respiratory therapists have all picked up the torch.
"If I could only plant a money tree instead of bok choi, kale or mustard," tweeted one follower.
They have a point.
By Kershaw's calculations, a 25- to 34-year-old making median full-time earnings from 1976 to 1980 had to work five years in order to save a 20 per cent down payment for a house.
By 2006 to 2010, that number had changed to 10.1 years.
And that's Canada as a whole.
"My heart just weeps at the thought of calculating Vancouver," Kershaw says. "Because it's probably closer to 20 years."
From war to bell bottoms
But every generation has its challenges. Some had to go to war. Generation X saw low entry-level wages and the advent of the McJob.
And survivors of the 1970s have all those pictures with bad hair and bell bottoms.
Sociologist Nathan Lauster calls the current clash the "intergenerational drama of urban house ownership as a life goal."
"It produces this sensation for a lot of people like you're trying to make a home on quicksand," says Lauster, who is part of UBC's urban studies department.
"So you're trying to do everything that you think is right, everything that your parents have done, and it's still not going to be enough."
But home ownership hasn't always been the ultimate goal for a family. In Germany, for instance, renting is the norm.
And in Vancouver, in recent years, it seems people don't just want a home, they want a perfect home, tearing down old stock to build new mansions, ripping rather than renovating.
"There are a lot of different ways to live. But a lot of policy and a lot of our intergenerational culture has encouraged only one way, and that's the single family house," says Lauster.
"And these things are exclusionary, they're super expensive, they're not especially sustainable. So maybe we should be trying some other arrangements."
The lucky ones
With three out of his four children in their 30s, former Vancouver city councillor Peter Ladner has a lot of sympathy for prospective homebuyers.
"I have some acquaintance with the thoughts of people in their 30s," says Ladner.
"Yes, they're unhappy, but for every one of them there are probably more people who are very happy about the way things are going because they're making a lot of money on their houses."
For all the empathy most Vancouver property owners can muster for the not-millionaires, their support comes off like original Apple investors commiserating over the price of an iPhone.
Co-founder of Business in Vancouver, Ladner noted in a recent column that 70 per cent of all sales in Metro Vancouver between 2007 and 2013 were rated "unaffordable" by the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver.
He says other jurisdictions have acted to curb speculation, limiting foreign investment and cracking down on absentee buyers.
"Could you do something that would make it significantly more affordable?" he asks.
"If you did, I keep coming back to the political challenge of dealing with the people whose home value would therefore be less. And those homeowners, I think, most of them would be unhappy."
A political champion?
Kershaw spent Tuesday in the federal budget lockup, representing Generation Squeeze.
He's sensitive to accusations of entitlement and the potential for mockery of the tweeters: a family of six tweeting #dontneed1million from the "house we can afford" in Prince George.
Their issues are real. But Kershaw says they lack political champions.
"Society has to recognize the shifts that are facing younger Canadians. Our politicians are not paying attention to that," he says.
"Younger Canadians act locally and globally — yet don't think much about provincial and federal politics."
Voting might be a start.