In elementary school, I was not sure about many things, but I could picture every aspect of my future home in extreme detail.
It was the mustard-coloured 1910 farmhouse at 3861 Duval Rd. It was simple, yet strong. It had a front yard filled with wildflowers. In short, it was perfect. As an elementary-schooler, I’d tell my parents over and over that I would live there someday.
As a teenager, I found myself mesmerized by the plethora of “for sale signs” throughout my city. As I drove to school, familiar realtors’ names raced through my head as I contemplated how some listings seemed undervalued. I barely knew the value of a dollar. Only a million bucks? Seems like a good deal to me. $5,000,000 for a three-bedroom with a pool? That would surely cause a bidding war.
As my childhood neared its end, my parents packed up the only home I had ever known — a modest, four-bedroom, two-bathroom stucco in the heart of North Vancouver, B.C. — and moved us into a West Vancouver house they had built from scratch. I remember watching as my parents painstakingly picked out paint swatches and tiles as if their lives depended on it. They drew out the fireplaces and sketched out the stairs. This place was theirs, through and through.
It dawned on me that I would never again live in a home like this.
While the new place mattered a lot to my parents, I never felt an urgency to make myself at home. I should have liked the house. It was bigger, closer to school and objectively nicer than my childhood home, but I couldn’t get behind it. The builders forgot to insulate my room. It was perpetually cold. It never got dark as the bright street lamps shone through the wooden blinds. To this day, the window seat in my old room remains half-built, and its grey walls are free of anything approaching sentimental decoration.
Sitting in that barren room, just a few months before heading off to university, it dawned on me that I would never again live in a home like this. Not this house, not my childhood home, and certainly not the beaut at 3861 Duval. I would never live up to these whimsical childhood dreams of owning a house, but I wasn’t about to extend my stay just because I may never have it that good again.
I promised myself I wouldn’t stick around long enough to set down roots. I wanted to carve my own path. I was ready to make my own space, even if that meant renting dismal room after dismal room.
It was a sound strategy. My dream home recently sold for $1.3 million. I should be disappointed, or at least sentimental, but I have come to realize that not being able to afford a house in the city I once called home isn’t a devastating loss.
Sure, the social pressure to desire buying a home is real. Buying a home was long considered a coming-of-age marker, and in some circles represented a valid retirement plan. But now, young people are swimming against the current amid a fractured, low-paying gig economy. Trying to make it in a job landscape where full-time employment with benefits is rare means we need to be able to pick up and move across the country at the drop of a hat.
All I am really looking for is safety and security, when so much seems out of my generation’s control.
I have moved more times than I can count in the last few years. Sometimes school-based leases were up, other times adventure called. I’m about to move to my fourth city, and apartment, this year. And I like that. With the rise in minimalist lifestyles, I finally have permission to admit that I care far more about experiences than I do possessions. The thought of a brick-and-mortar building causing me to miss out on an opportunity, like a job or vacation, terrifies me.
The big illusion
Never mind securing a spot in the housing market — all I am really looking for is safety and security, when so much seems out of my generation’s control.
Perhaps the biggest illusion sold to my generation is that we are failing if we don’t buy a home with a white picket fence with the odds stacked against us.
In 2018, the urban institute showed that I’m not alone. Significantly fewer young people are buying homes compared to their 1981 counterparts. While 65 per cent of those millennials either live at home or rent, 40 per cent said they have no desire to own a home or see no clear path to affording one. The 2017 version of the study noted how millennials regret buying homes.
According to Dr. Kristjana Loptson, a political scientist at the University of Saskatchewan, homeownership wasn’t always a status symbol. In the 1930s, people rented and owned homes at the same rate in every income bracket, says Loptson, whose dissertation focuses on the political economy of housing in Canada. Homeownership was not representative of an income level until the government pushed new homes as a way to create jobs and boost the economy. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation mortgages were only available to those who bought a new home — the upper-middle class — kicking off a cultural shift that made homeownership desirable.
Today, owning a home and having a lot of money are far from one and the same. Granted, homeowners still receive preferential treatment through tax breaks that people with lower incomes cannot benefit from, but financial advisors are not sure homeownership is actually all that smart an investment these days. Renters have a fixed yearly cost, whereas homeowners may encounter the breakdown of household appliances or natural disasters that are costly to repair — difficult if living paycheque to paycheque. Some homeowners forgo emergency funds or severely limit the amount they are comfortable with saving just to secure a mortgage.
The crisis is that having a place to call home at all is a privilege.
While the reasons young people may not want to own homes may vary, what is unequivocally clear is that the prospect of home ownership for minorities is even more bleak. With so many cities still attempting to gentrify, the most vulnerable are left fighting even harder for space the way they do in every other aspect of their lives.
According to a study by the Urban Institute, 39.5 per cent of white millennials own homes while Black home ownership is only 13.4 per cent. Asian ownership is 27.2 per cent, and Hispanic is 24.6 per cent. The Urban Institute attributes this to the greater pay-gaps for visible minorities.
I cannot begin to understand the difficulties racialized people face in the housing market, but I know what it’s like to be terrified that you won’t have a place to live. Navigating the housing market with a service dog has left me in precarious housing environments. What do you do when everyone turns you away? What do you do when the houses that do suit your needs are so far outside of your statistically lower income?
You go into survival mode and take whatever residence you can secure. I choose not to give myself false hope in an attempt to lower the stress and anxiety.
I don’t think the housing crisis is that young people cannot afford to own homes; rather, the crisis is that having a place to call home at all is a privilege. Why would I dream of owning a house if I am struggling to even find my way as a renter? Vancouver residents are paying $2,130 on average for a one-bedroom apartment. How is anyone expected to be thinking about saving for a house when so many of us are struggling to pay for a dark basement suite in East Vancouver?
If you want to own a home, go for it, but don’t knock those of us who have given up on the idea entirely.
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