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While politicians fiddle, home buyers get burned

My in-laws bought their first home on the west side of Vancouver in 1954 for the princely sum of $15,500.

It's a figure forever lodged in my mind. I easily recall shaking my head in mock disgust when my wife's father revealed the number to me. We were pondering the purchase of our first home at the time, roughly 30 years after my in-laws had bought theirs, and were disconsolate by how expensive everything was in Victoria.

Eventually, however, we scraped together a down payment for a mortgage and bought a modest two-bedroom abode for $80,000.

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Plugging these numbers into an inflation calculator, while not a perfect science, does offer a perspective that is educational in terms of the debate taking place today about the high cost of housing in Vancouver and Toronto.

For instance, $15,500 in 1954 dollars was worth $68,864 in 1985, the year I purchased my first house. In other words, housing in Vancouver in the mid-1950s wasn't that much cheaper than it was when I first bought, even though it seemed so at the time.

What about today? Well, $15,500 in 1954 is $143,817 in today's dollars. The $80,000 I paid for a house in 1985 would be $167,000 now. That wouldn't buy you a parking spot in Vancouver, let alone a house. The difference between what I paid for my first home and what a similar place would cost today, in Victoria or Vancouver, is a gap measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. As it turns out, I had very little to complain about when I was a young 30-something looking to break into the market. Today's young people, on the other hand, do.

How did it get this way? How, in a country where the Bank of Canada so vigilantly monitors the price of the Canadian food basket and steadfastly maintains policies intended to keep the annual rate of inflation from climbing much above 2.5 per cent, could housing costs be allowed to spiral completely out of control?

I'm not blaming the Bank of Canada. I just wonder why housing inflation didn't set off the same alarms that a 5-per-cent increase in the price of asparagus or butter would until it was far too late. Now governments in British Columbia and Ontario, where the problem is particularly acute, are completely stuck as they try to grapple with this issue.

They don't want to bring in measures that are going to hurt the current value of homes. A lot of young people jumped into the market in the last couple of years believing it was only going to continue rising. Worried about being shut out for good, many mortgaged themselves to the hilt. Now, any action that suddenly decreased home prices significantly would put the mortgages of many families under water. It would also likely set off a wave of protest from boomers upset over the dwindling value of their wealth.

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But I have far less sympathy for them. Boomer homeowners in Metro Vancouver and Greater Toronto won the lottery and many are going to pass along those winnings to their kids. And that will grant them, in turn, a massive head start in terms of getting into the market. This is creating what Vancouver urban planner Andy Yan calls a "society of incumbents."

"And that is the polar opposite of the society of the newcomer which once existed here," Mr. Yan told me the other day. "Canada, Vancouver, this was once the land of opportunity. This is the place where you could build yourself up and not be the victim of entitled incumbency. Now, incumbents are at a distinct advantage and this is fundamentally reshaping the core of what we are as a city."

This is a tragedy that has many fathers. But spineless politicians deserve much of the blame for a mess they are now trying to clean up. It won't be easy. The best we can hope for is that governments find the resolve to at least contain the rate of house-price growth to something we can recollect being normal.

Thirty-per-cent price increases, year over year, is not normal. It is obscene and dangerous. House inflation should more closely resemble wage inflation, which would help us build the kind of communities we want to live in: societies where everyone has a chance.

Video: Foreign buyer tax, expanded rent control in Ontario housing plan (The Canadian Press)
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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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