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Will Vancouver ever stop eating its young?

When Jessica Barrett penned her farewell letter to Vancouver, she hardly anticipated the response she'd receive.

She wasn't the first person, after all, who had publicly said goodbye to the city she loved because she found trying to make a life in it too much of a grind. But something about the way in which the 35-year-old detailed her decision struck a chord.

Her essay for the Tyee, an online news magazine, was profound, heartbreaking and sadly all too true. Titled: "I left Vancouver because Vancouver left me," her piece was also beautifully composed, likely another reason it has become something of an internet sensation. Tales about how Vancouver has become a city that eats its young have now become routine, but this one was different.

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Read also: Costs of raising children in Vancouver can be a scary math equation

"It's a Vancouver story but it's also not just a Vancouver story," Ms. Barrett told me this week. "It's a generational story. It's a story that's happening to people my age all over the place."

An Edmonton transplant, Ms. Barrett has lived in Vancouver for 15 years. Like many, she was initially wooed by its innate beauty, mild climate and phlegmatic lifestyle. A successful journalist and magazine editor, she was honoured with a fellowship a few years ago that took her out of B.C. for a year. When she returned, she sensed a change. It seemed like the cost of living had gone up overnight, especially for housing.

She and her boyfriend found a desperately run-down, one-bedroom apartment for $1,700 a month. (Average rent for a one-bedroom in Vancouver now exceeds $2,000 a month). Still, the prospects of owning something one day, the hope we all have when we're young, seemed bleak. "I can't live in a city where the definition of success is 'I'm not drowning,'" Ms. Barrett wrote in her piece. "My entire life felt like a struggle."

Ms. Barrett is now moving to Calgary, a place that is welcoming many of Vancouver's millennials. So are a lot of cities across the country. What bothers Ms. Barrett is the indifference with which this phenomenon is being greeted by our political leadership.

"I mean, you're really okay with this? Honestly? This is the kind of society we want to build here?" Ms. Barrett told me.

It certainly seems to be, with no end in sight to the market insanity we are witnessing in Vancouver and Toronto.

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Recently, the Vancouver development community gathered to listen to a presentation from Michael Ferreira of Urban Analytics, a firm that monitors the march of real estate costs across the metropolitan region. His analysis seemed to shock those in attendance, although that seems hard to believe. They are the very ones charging the outrageous prices for which condos, in particular, are going.

He talked about a "new normal" in which 475-square-foot condos in Vancouver sell for $750,000. Equally sickening, he said the escalation in price between the time many of the condos are presold and built increased 82 per cent in some cases. This is why so many lucky insiders who get on the presales list through connections with developers – or are wealthy foreign investors – are making a mint flipping them just before they are ready to be moved into.

How are the Jessica Barretts of the world supposed to compete with that?

I know there are a lot of reasons prices are so high: land costs for one. And of course there's supply. That's all developers ever talk about: if there were more condo towers, prices would come down. What a cruel joke. There are lots of condo towers going up in Metro Vancouver and Metro Toronto and prices are doing only one thing: going up.

People are frustrated and angry and want our politicians to take bold moves, not timid ones. Last year, B.C. introduced a foreign-buyers tax that seemed to cool things down for a while, but not for long. And now, according to recent figures, off-shore buyers are returning. I realize they aren't the sole problem here, but they shouldn't get a chance to own a home before a Canadian living here, and paying taxes here, does.

New Zealand, which has been experiencing the same housing crisis as Vancouver and Toronto, recently announced it was banning all foreigners from buying existing homes in the country. Kiwis, the government said, should not be outbid by people who don't even live there.

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I'd love to see governments here display that same type of political courage. And I'm sure Jessica Barrett would too.

Editor’s Note An earlier version of this column incorrectly said New Zealand was banning foreigners from buying homes in the country. In fact, it is for existing homes. Also, an earlier version of this column stated Ms. Barrett left Vancouver for six months; in fact, she left for a year.
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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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