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The housing onion

Peeling back the layers of Squamish’s residential real estate boom
District of Squamish planning director Cameron Chalmers. Photo by Dave Buzzard

Boom and Bustle

There’s a difference between house and home. The former is just a structure, a construct of wood and concrete, insulation and siding, shingles, nails and glue, something picked over by inspectors and showcased by realtors. It’s an early stop on the often expensive, always exciting and potentially defining continuum of personal success that typically fulfills itself through property ownership.

A home, meanwhile, is still a house, still has those fundamental characteristics. But it’s a house in full. Embellished by décor, charged with life and aglow with the resulting experience, a well managed and responsibly purchased home is a reflection of its inhabitants, a vehicle for their commune and sanctum for their happiness.

Jill and Dave Daniels are making their way down that spectrum. They’ve been in their home at the foot of Garibaldi Highlands for a year, but have owned it on paper for only a couple weeks. Together, with their 17-year-old son and their dog Kona, they made their way to Squamish from Ontario, renting at first and then wading into an explosive housing market, striking up a personal bond with their realtor and zeroing in on their $300,000 piece of the family dream. They’re not sure if they’ll stay, what with David’s career path lush with transfer opportunities, but, just the same, they make up a portion of Squamish’s shifting demographics, a good chunk of which are owed to the housing boom of the past several years.

As with much of British Columbia, the boom in Squamish has been heady and hectic. Were there a choir soundtracking the whole thing, its chorus would be the pounding cacophony of pneumatic tools and heavy machinery, backbeats drummed out by the incessant pacing of buyers, sellers and the brokers that move between them.

In 1998, the town’s residential tax base was worth $9,237,526. That number is now $15,376,234. In 2001, there were 3,688 single family detached homes in Squamish. Now, there are 3,935, and they house over half the town’s population. Strata stock grew from 909 to 1,679 during the same timeframe.

According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, there were 54 housing starts in the year 2000; in 2007, there were 240. Between 2000 and June 2008, there have been 1,289 housing completions. Single family dwellings are driving much of the new construction, with 95 of 117 residential building permits in 2007 issued for that type of housing. All that building was a symptom of intense demand, and prices surged in tandem, rising from an average of $307,260 in July 2003, peaking at $567,896 in January 2008 and falling to $467,590 in July, according to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver and Realty Link Online.

“Back in 2000, when I was living in Whistler, the Squamish real estate guide had two sections,” says Jess LaFramboise, an agent with Macdonald Realty. “It was under $200,000 and above $200,000. That was it. Now you can’t get anything for $200,000. Back then, there would be detached homes all over the place you could get for that.”

Denise Salmon is the Remax Masters agent that found the Daniels their home and became their friend. Like LaFramboise, she’s borne witness to a remarkable turnaround in the market.

“When I came into the market, it was at a 20-year low,” she remembers. “By my third year, business started to pick up. What we found was people were starting to discover Squamish. There was still an overall impression that it was a logging town, a blue collar town, but that perception was starting to change. People were migrating down from Pemberton and Whistler. They were the forerunners of the recognition that Squamish was a lot more than they initially thought.”

Perhaps the biggest agent of that change was the province’s plan to overhaul the highway in time for the 2010 Olympics, thereby altering the realities of every community established on its shoulders. Product, suddenly, was much closer to the bustling market in and around Vancouver.

“That was the big push,” says LaFramboise, “the cause of momentum in Squamish.”

Managing Momentum

If you could peer over the fence into the Daniels’ backyard, odds are you’d see Jill wandering their grassy expanse with a garden hose, her tightly wound curls pulled straight back into a ponytail. Chatty to the nines, she’ll detail the work she and David have planned for the inside and out of their home. For his part, David will probably be in the city. He fires up his car in the wee hours of the morning and strikes out to Vancouver, where he works as a product supplier. They could’ve settled in Langley or Abbottsford, and, indeed, they trawled both markets for a suitable abode. But neither place offers the staggering views and endearing recreation that is coming to define Squamish. Painting a fence in the shadow of the Chief, with Mount Garibaldi enriching the opposite horizon, is infinitely more appealing than doing the same in the gloom of some industrial edifice standing amid the sprawl and snarl of the TransCanada Lower Mainland.

Of course, the momentum doesn’t stop with the Daniels. A strata development proposed across the street, for example, threatens their view of the Chief.

“You can’t be a dog in a manger,” says Jill. “We got our piece of paradise, and who would I be to say that’s enough, now that we’re here, no one else can be?”

Neither she nor David is enthusiastic about the development across the street. They have similar feelings about other proposals around town. But they trust in town council to manage growth to the benefit of residents.

And that’s no easy task. According to numbers crunched by transportation consultants commissioned by the town, the current population is 16,106, with an additional 17,000 people anticipated by 2031. During the same timeframe, an additional 8,800 homes are expected to join the stock. Further, 3,365 additional jobs are projected, also by 2031.

Based on existing trends, those figures beget a slew of questions and concerns about the composition of Squamish. Who are the new inhabitants? Where will they come from? Where will they work? Who will develop their homesteads, and how will that development be planned? Will the boom be a benefit? Or will it become a bane?

The man managing many of these concerns is Cameron Chalmers, the intelligent and articulate director of planning with the District of Squamish. With four people working under him, he helms a ship bobbing in a busy sea. They’re the ones interfacing with developers, negotiating amenity packages, writing policy and steering land use strategy.

To Chalmers’s mind, the boom has so far been a benefit to the community. “In the last two years, there’s been a much greater effort on trying to secure additional amenities. We’ve been quite successful. When we have external firms do an analysis of our amenities packages, they’ve come out favourable.”

A good example, he says, is mirEau. Given third reading in June, it’s a 52-unit project undertaken by Westmana. It’s been described as a forerunner for the new downtown and the new waterfront, and it came complete with a celebrated gift to the Howe Sound Women’s Centre and the Sea to Sky Community Services office. Given that the project is proposed for lots once occupied by those two organizations, Westmana donated $20,000 to Community Services and $180,000 to the Women’s Centre, money pledged for relocation and renovation.

Aside from the growth in its tax base, the district also benefits from the collection of development cost charges, which it can levy under the auspices of the Local Government Act. In 2000, that fund, which also draws on commercial and industrial developments, was just $2.8 million. It’s since grown to $10.2 million. Those dollars are typically spent on infrastructure projects, less than exciting undertakings related to sewer, water and roads. At the same time, some of that money does find its way into parks and trails. In 2005, for example, $2 million was spent on parks development and $1 million on trails.

There’s also the district’s affordable housing strategy, which it fuels through residential developments, either in the form of cash contribution or discounted units.

Lay of the land

Councillor Greg Gardner watches all this activity intently. When the transportation consultants delivered their presentation to council, the growth figures gave him something of a jolt.

A bedroom community is the nest of the commuter and the culture he or she represents. The bulk of its identity is residential, and its inhabitants flock elsewhere to earn their keep. With this reality comes a number of social, economic and environmental byproducts, and Gardner would prefer they not take a strong hold in Squamish. But those growth figures, he worries, are nudging the community in that direction anyway.

“I certainly think we have to ensure that we have a balance of land uses going forward, and that information confirms my belief that we haven’t been developing in a balanced manner in the past few years,” he says. “And the imbalance is that there’s a disproportionate amount of residential development versus commercial development. And that’s very troubling from a community point of view.”

A father in gridlock, the logic goes, is less likely to blow a coach’s whistle. Parenting from an office on the far side of interminable automotive congestion is no easy task. Further, dollars earned are often dollars spent, and there’s ample opportunity to unfold a wallet throughout the workday. Finally, commuter culture necessarily seats itself behind the wheel of a car, and this is, after all, the most green-conscious age we’ve known.

And then there’s that tax base.

“I’ve just seen information that’s said that in the city of Vancouver, the amount of taxes paid by residents pays for 60 per cent of services consumed by those residents, where as commercial taxpayers pay well in excess of the amount of taxes over the amount consumed,” says Gardner. “So what that means is that if you have community that’s 100 per cent residential, your taxes would be twice as much as they are now.”

The planning department is absolutely hammered with residential applications. The press is a result of the boom rattling much of the Lower Mainland, and, even though the market is slowing down, there’s still a raft of ongoing projects.

Another crucial change in the Squamish environment, notes Gardner, is the closing of Woodfibre and the loss of B.C. Rail. Heavy industry, he says, can make condo development less appealing. As a result of these and other factors, it’s become much easier for developers to turn a buck producing residential, while commercial is a bit less enticing.

Gardner sees these things balancing out in the long term. Just the same, he figures the district’s role is to keep them balanced in the short term — and the planning department is the apparatus to manage that balance. Meanwhile, part of what skews the equilibrium are the very amenity packages the planning department successfully negotiates.

“There is a concern here from my personal point of view,” says Gardner. “If the developer is offering a significant community amenity, then I think the public — and council is a reflection of the public — is excited about receiving that benefit for the community. And I think because of that we sometimes might lose sight of what the real issue is.”

That issue is sustainability. The concept is enshrined in a number of planning department documents, especially the new Downtown Neighbourhood Plan (DNP), which revolves around the live, work and play principles of sustainable development.

Take mirEau. While it is a mixed commercial and residential building, the commercial component is far from grand, something noted during third reading by Greg Fischer of the downtown business improvement area.

For his part, Chalmers isn’t worried about tipping the town into bedroom status. He notes a slew of commercial projects in various stages of development, whether up and running or taking root.

According to his records, total approved commercial square footage was 500 in 2005, while industry was 14,885. In 2006, approved commercial square footage blossomed to 65,028; the following year, it shot up another 43,362. Industrial square footage, meanwhile, grew first by 15,389 and then by 65,978. Currently, there’s hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial space before the planning department.

“When we did the Official Community Plan review,” recalls Chalmers, “we knew that people would probably come first, and that’s the number one thing that will drive commercial. It’s very difficult to attract viable commercial enterprise without a strong population.”

Tom Lancaster worked with the planning department on the DNP. He’s the manager of advisory services for Smart Growth B.C., an organization born from academic circles to propel sustainable development. To Lancaster, the numbers that so jarred Gardner aren’t necessarily the four horsemen of the traffic jam apocalypse.

“You could have a community with those growth numbers and it could be the worst community in the world,” he says. “Or you could have those exact numbers and have incredible growth.”

He does agree that Squamish’s identity is partially that of a commuter culture. A third of the workforce earns its income beyond the district’s borders, and the highway isn’t relieving any of that pressure. But he points to planning documents like the DNP as transformative guidelines that aim to mix residential with commercial in a number of innovative and environmentally sound ways.

“What we strive for in Smart Growth is to build amazing downtowns supported by amazing neighbourhoods,” he says.

Add to that employment strategies devised at the desks of the Squamish Sustainability Corporation, where visions of a knowledge based industry are a primary focus, and the potential for significant job growth within the district seems more promising still.

It’s built, so who’s coming?

Gavin Foster is a live and work type of guy. He does both in downtown Squamish, and, while he does enjoy playing in Whistler, Foster gets recreational in town as well. A small business banker with RBC, Foster moved to Squamish to settle in the recently completed Artisan, which blends townhouses, condo units and an art gallery. He got a transfer, and LaFramboise found him the space, which, with its two bedrooms and 900 square feet, came with a $300,000 price tag,

“I like the idea of being downtown,” he says, comfortably reclined in his office chair, looking dapper in pin stripes and a three-hued tie. “I like walking to work. And I like the views. The views are awesome. I look at Atwell, and at night it’s all lit up with an alpine glow.”

According to Statistics Canada’s 2006 Census, when the population of Squamish was 14,710, there was just shy of 1,000 people who moved to Squamish in 2005 from some other municipality in B.C. Having just recently moved down from Whistler, Foster is a new addition to that category. Travel back to 2000, and that number more than doubles.

Mobility status statistics, as these are called, tell some of the story about who the new residents are and where they come from. Take the Daniels: Having moved from Ontario about a year ago, they make up three of 320 new residents from different provinces. Go back to 2000, and the same doubling effect appears.

People arriving from other countries numbered at 100 in 2005, down from 620 five years before. Immigrants make up 21 per cent of the town’s population, less than the provincial average, but still a big enough group to be felt on the market.

“The international market has become a significant factor in Squamish,” notes Salmon. “When I first started in this, they drove right past and onto Whistler and wouldn’t stop in Squamish other than for coffee. So now we have a significant international population. I have a number of clients who don’t live here full time, but they come from all over. I have one gentleman from Dubai and some from the Netherlands. And then I have the international group that has moved here permanently. They have young families.”

Families are appearing in greater numbers, a phenomenon that will reverberate in schools, rec centres and parks. Though he’s a bachelor, Foster’s brother isn’t. The sibling recently moved to Squamish, too, bringing with him his wife and kid, also as a result of LaFramboise’s agenting. At the same time, and for many of the same reasons, singles like Foster are here to stay. “In the long term, as far as my career goes, if my next position is in North Van or West Van, I can drive down there. Once this highway is done, it’ll be a 45 minute drive to Lonsdale.”

Peering past the boom

Lancaster can’t shake the odd anxious pang. As all these houses become homes, change rushes the town at a terrific pace, and it’s obvious there’s no bluff behind the charge. A significant and permanent personality makeover is already underway at all corners of the district. Managing it in government and academic circles is one thing; understanding it on street corners and in living rooms is something else entirely.

“The thing I’m a little bit scared about is the housing,” he says. “You’ve got almost a tripling in the housing stock, and that’s a terrifying thing. I knew Squamish when it was a small logging town. It’s a completely different thing today and it will be more so in the future. And that’s a terrifying thing for people.”

But a slowdown is underway, and it offers a chance for everyone to collect themselves, to sedate their jackhammering hearts and take stock of the work they’ve done and the work that remains.

“The biggest contributor is the United States and what’s going on there,” says Salmon. “I have clients who come from Britain, from the Netherlands. Their families and friends back home are seeing the same thing, and they’re all watching what’s happening in the U.S. There’s definitely going to be spin-off.”

In the long term, says Salmon, the market will be healthy. But it won’t be the steroid-driven beast it has been. Prices have gone down a few percentiles, and the market is correcting itself, moving into a phase she calls “normal,” a state of being it should achieve by 2009.

Meanwhile, as LaFramboise points out, a lot of the projects that first required rezoning haven’t come on line yet. When they do, even more pressure will be taken off the supply, an effect that will relieve the manic urgency so many buyers have been experiencing.

“There’s increasing supply and very limited demand,” says LaFramboise, “and we’re seeing prices fall just because of that — and they’re falling dramatically.”

As for managing the social, economic and environmental impacts of the boom, Jill Daniels has her worries. The day’s watering done, her son fed and partner just home from his commute, she considers it over a glass of red wine. “Our impression of Squamish is many things,” she says. “It’s a quickly growing community, and we’re concerned about that. Everyone is.” Are they worried for their quality of life? Do they feel secure in their decisions? “As long as the city council has a direction and has a plan.”