Families face housing crunch

A tight rental market and skyrocketing house prices pose challenges to those looking for a new home

Jonathan Zawatsky and his family lived in their Mission duplex for seven years before it was bought sight-unseen earlier this year.

Jonathan Zawatsky and his family lived in their Mission duplex for seven years before it was bought sight-unseen earlier this year.

Last week, Sheena Zawatsky took out her phone and, in a post on craigslist, poured her heart out.

Zawatsky, her husband Jonathan, and their two children have lived in a tidy duplex near the hospital for seven years. Sheena and Zawatsky – who both work as hairdressers – have watched their son mature into a young adult, and their teenage daughter near graduation. The family got a dog, planted a garden, and got another dog. The home was rented at a reasonable and affordable rate, and although Sheena had doubts at first, the family made the home their own.

The duplex had been listed for sale for a decade, but until this year, its asking price and particular faults scared off suitors.

That all changed this winter. With the Lower Mainland housing market in a frenzy, the property was purchased by a foreign investor who never visited the home. And in February, an eviction notice arrived and the Zawatskys were plunged into a housing and rental market that has changed dramatically in the last year.

After years of work, the Zawatskys suddenly found their housing budget upended. Finding another rental unit seemed impossible, especially since, as Jonathan says, “Having pets is a death knell in this market.” The family also looked at buying, but most properties in the family’s budget were more expensive and less appealing than their current home.

So Sheena got typing, penning a passionate note about her family’s difficulty finding a new home.

“I don’t mind having to add hours to my weekly shifts,” Sheena wrote in her craigslist post. “I don’t mind working hard for what matters. I just want to put a roof over my family’s heads. Sounds simple, yeah? Well, it’s the opposite of simple.”

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Last October, the Abbotsford-Mission area’s apartment vacancy rate was measured at 0.8 per cent, down dramatically from 3.1 per cent the previous year and the lowest rate on record since 1990. Average rents had also increased by nearly three per cent – outpacing the allowable rent increases on individual tenants allowed under the Residential Tenancy Act. (Rental rates can increase beyond that limit when tenants move.)

House prices, meanwhile, have skyrocketed. The price of a typical Mission home has increased by more than 20 per cent in just the last year (see story on Page 3). High demand and a low supply of homes for sales means that many of those properties listed generate multiple offers, which has only helped drive up prices.

Real estate professionals say that as the price of housing has increased in Vancouver and surrounding suburbs, residents there have looked further east, driving up home values in the Fraser Valley.

“What happens is, as prices get too high in the city, [people] start to move out,” the Fraser Valley Real Estate Board’s Jorda Maisey said earlier this year. “When you start having more buyers and less inventory, it’s supply and demand. The activity starts to shift, and get further and further out.”

In the Fraser Valley, there are indications that at least some of the housing demand is tied to a booming economy.

Statistics Canada recently reported unemployment rates to be on a steady decline in the city, from 8.8 per cent in 2011 to 6.4 per cent in 2015. And the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has attributed demand to an improving labour market bolstered, in part, by a manufacturing sector aided by the low dollar.

The CMHC expects the Abbotsford-Mission area to welcome 1,300 new residents in each of the next two years, and predicts that the region will see total employment growth of 8.7 per cent from 2015 to 2017.

Evidence of increased demand for housing in the Central Fraser Valley is reflected in the Abbotsford and Mission school districts. Administrators in both districts had been expecting enrolment drops. Instead, both Abbotsford and Mission saw triple-digit increases in the number of students, with officials speculating some of those were a result of more people moving to the area, thought to be either from Alberta – which has seen its economic fortunes slump as the price of oil sank – or from farther west in the Lower Mainland, where home prices are even higher.

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Sheena linked to her post on the Abbotsford Rants and Raves Facebook page, and immediately got a response both from people hoping to help and those who have found themselves in similar situations recently. At the same time, she and Jonathan made it a habit of speaking about their search to their clients at Salon Picasso, where the pair work.

Through that networking, the couple found a few leads and, eventually, a short-term rental space – albeit for several hundred more dollars per month than they are currently paying. And just last week, they had an offer accepted to buy half of an Abbotsford duplex.

But the duplex comes with a catch indicative of the fierce demand for housing locally: the Zawatskys’ new home has a tenant.

“I have to do the same thing that happened to myself,” Jonathan said, ruefully. Unlike the Zawatskys, though, that tenant has a lease that extends into the fall. Jonathan said he hopes the tenant, who has no pets or family, will find housing easier than his family. To aid him, they’ve pledged to allow him to break his lease if he finds a suitable unit over the next seven months.

“The market got so hot, if you have a postage stamp with an address, you can sell it,” Jonathan said.