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Home prices hurt young people’s income mobility

Paul Kershaw is a policy professor in the University of BC School of Population Health, and Founder of Generation Squeeze.

We all hope our kids will have it better than we did. That's the kind of progress we want for Canada, especially as the country celebrates its 150th birthday.

So many will take heart from a new, impressive big-data research project led by Professor Miles Corak, which The Globe explored in depth this past weekend. Prof. Corak maps the many places in our country where residents have the highest likelihood of earning incomes that surpass what their parents earned. Big urban centres such as the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and Metro Vancouver top the list of regions where intergenerational-income increases is most common.

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But this does not mean that the GTA and Metro Vancouver are the places where young adults are especially likely to enjoy better standards of living than their parents did when they were young. Quite the opposite. Income is only one driver of our standard of living. Rising incomes only improve our standard of living if major costs such as housing stay stagnant.

But we all know that home prices haven't been stagnant. After adjusting for inflation, Canadian Real Estate Association figures reveal that the average price for a Canadian home (including apartments, condos, houses, etc.) has increased nearly $300,000 since 1976 – the year around when the bulk of today's senior population were young adults. This dramatic increase in home prices is great for people who bought homes some decades ago because it means they are wealthier.

But the same skyrocketing home prices are frightening for their kids and grandchildren. Their fear only increases when we recognize that Statistics Canada data show how earnings for the typical 25 to 34-year-old working full-time today have fallen by more than $4,000 a year, in real terms, since 1976.

The expanding gap between home prices and full-time earnings is even more alarming in Metro Vancouver and the GTA, where average home prices have increased by more than half a million dollars.

As a result, hard work doesn't pay off for younger Canadians today by comparison with past.

Whereas it took five to six years of full-time work for a typical young Canadian to save a 20-per-cent down payment on an average priced home between 1976-80, it now takes 13 years on average. In the GTA, it takes 20 years. In Metro Vancouver, it's 27 years.

Even at historically low interest rates, it takes more than a month more work each year to pay the annual mortgage on an average-priced home in Canada, and several months more work still in Metro Vancouver and the GTA.

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These economic patterns are crushing dreams of home ownership for many young Canadians, especially in our biggest urban centres. The consolation prize is the invitation to work more each year just to pay rent.

We must therefore be careful when interpreting the findings from Prof. Corak's important work. It may be accurate to conclude that Vancouver and Toronto have some of the highest rates of young people earning more than their parents did. But so what? They are also the places where the cost of buying, or even renting, a home have grown most out of reach by comparison with what young people earn.

At bottom, we should judge an economy over time in terms of whether it requires more, or less, work from citizens to cover our major costs of living, and whether it is sustainable. Much of Canada has reason to worry our economy is failing younger generations in these regards, especially in Metro Vancouver and the GTA.

The Wealth Paradox - Wage gap
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