Metro Matters

Canada's most elderly city has a 20-year-old on council — and he wants housing his age group can afford

When you're young enough to be the grandson of most voters, you get a few quips on the campaign trail.

Qualicum Beach continues to be a retirement mecca — but homes that fit young workers are needed

'If I'm old enough to vote, I'm old enough to run,' said Robert Filmer during a campaign debate. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

When you're young enough to be the grandson of most voters, you get a few quips on the campaign trail. 

"It was more or less, 'oh, you're too young for this.' They're trying to make a joke out of it," said Robert Filmer.  

Qualicum Beach's median age is 66.9. More than 52 per cent of people were seniors as of the 2016 Census, the highest in the country.

But Filmer was elected in October's municipal elections, becoming a councillor at the age of 20.

"My big line where I got a standing ovation at the first debate was, 'if I'm old enough to vote, I'm old enough to run,'" he said.

Now he's focused on an issue near to his heart — getting more housing built that people his age can afford.

"Single apartments. We don't want to be right in the core of town, and I say we, because I'm in that group. I want a place too," said Filmer, who remembers the elementary school in the middle of town being closed after years of declining enrolment.

"We want to be in the town borders, so we still have the place in the community." 

More workers needed

Filmer's push for more diverse housing isn't born out of self-interest but out of economic reality for the region.

As more and more seniors from around Canada have flocked to the temperate, coastal neighbourhoods in the middle of Vancouver Island, the need for more workers has grown, while the availability of homes for young families has shrunk.

Qualicum Beach Mayor Bryan Wiese said his parents moved here in 1985 when they retired, and he did the same in 2013. 'Each time I came here, I didn’t want to go home. When I could finally retire and make the move here, there were no regrets.' (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Brian Wiese, the new mayor of Qualicum Beach, says while the town is mostly made up of retired people, it still needs workers to provide the services.

"Sooner or later, we're going to need to find some place for diversity in our town, to make sure the young families get there and have a place to stay and join our community."

It's a sentiment shared by Parksville Qualicum Beach Chamber of Commerce president Kim Burden. The chamber released a report last month arguing that the region has a "dramatic undersupply of the workers employers need."

"It's been an issue for some time, but it seems to have become more prevalent over the last few years," said Burden, who also says the region needs to be smart about what sort of developments it will approve.

"A lot of those … are going to be filled by people who are coming here to retire. When you can sell a house for $2 million in Vancouver, and buy property here for less than half that and put the rest in the bank, that's not a bad plan."

Parksville and District Chamber of Commerce executive director Kim Burden looks at a report outlining the shortage of workers in the region. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Generation anxiety?

At the same time, there are plenty of people who believe Qualicum Beach is well situated for the future precisely because of its demographics.

"Providing retirement homes, providing retirement entertainment, retirement sports and activity, is a very clean and productive industry," said Pat Weber, president of the Qualicum Beach Seniors Activity Centre.

"Tourism provides a good basis for incomes in the area but so does the retirement community. They have disposable income, and they have the time to utilize those local services, and they tend to be a little more loyal to local business than people in their 30s and 40s. A little less use of Amazon."

During the last year, Qualicum Beach's council voted against banning residential condo projects restricted to seniors only, while in neighbouring Parksville a supportive housing project has divided the community for months.

With that history in mind, Wiese is avoiding dramatic pledges.

"The town is not against affordable housing. They're against tall, more than four storeys, close to the waterfront. But I think downtown we can get away with four storeys, probably," he said.

As for Filmer, he has friends living with their parents while going to Vancouver Island University — and hopes that after they graduate, they're more enticed to stay in town.

"People think of Qualicum Beach as 'oh, people go there to retire. It's God's waiting room,'" he said.

"But the shock aspect to people [of] you're only 20, and you've managed to get yourself into office, it's created that interest of people saying OK, we can finally start moving forward."

Metro Matters: On The Road is exploring how new city governments throughout B.C. are approaching age-old issues (some political, some not) in their communities.

One of the many beaches in the Qualicum Beach area. (Justin McElroy/CBC)

About the Author

Justin McElroy

@j_mcelroy

Justin is a reporter for CBC Vancouver, covering political stories throughout British Columbia.