Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Family Friendly Cities or Why Can't I Find a 3rd Bedroom Out Here?

As a family renting in Vancouver you get a constant sense of dread that you will never ever ever be able to afford to buy a home.  Despite earning good money and being reasonably diligent (but far from perfect - we really need to tithe more) with it, we constantly felt that dread, particularly with home prices rising incessantly for the last five years.  So it was a bit of a surprise at the beginning of 2013 when we looked at our finances and realized - hey, we could potentially afford something that would work for us.

Our challenge was we were fairly specific in what we wanted.
- Walking distance to the skytrain (we don't have a car)
- Walking distance to grocer and other common stores (we still don't have a car)
- At least 3 Bedrooms, preferably with a den (3 kids and 3 adults gets crowded quickly)
- At least 1250 square feet (still crowded)
- At least 2 bathrooms (it's the only way)
- Under $400,000 (at pre-approval our banker offered a much larger sum. I asked if he was sane.)
- North of the Fraser (we've done Surrey and will not be doing it again)

If you search for this at mls.ca you will find very little - a few condos in Downtown/Quayside New West, and a few south of Lougheed Mall.  So we checked out the neighbourhoods.  I wasn't a big fan of the Lougheed area - it's crazy with the highway there, and a lot more mall than anything else.  We also looked a bit around Port Moody where the Evergreen Line is going.  The neighbourhood was nice, but it was getting a bit far out and the units available in our price range weren't that impressive.

So that left Quayside.  I loved New West in from when we lived in Uptown, but among other things that neighbourhood was too far away from the trains for us.  Quayside offered a remedy to that.  It's an easy walk to the skytrain.  Quayside Drive, despite being all multi-family units, is very quiet and feels nicely residential.  With the New West station development and River Market, most of our daily needs are easily walkable. There are three playgrounds within easy walking distance. There were some nicely sized units available in our price range.  And (I don't know why but this constantly slips my mind) it is literally across the street from the Fraser River.

We poked into an open house at Quayside the spring and were quite impressed with the unit.  The building had some great amenities for the whole family.  Also surprising us was how friendly everyone in the building was.  So we did some more research on the neighbourhood, hung out at it several times, investigated the building, looked into schools, all the usual stuff. We found a few things wanting:

1. The units we were looking at were facing directly over the rail yard.
2. It's a hike to the elementary school (John Robson.  That is a BIG hill)
3. The building was built mid-nineties and uses an Exterior Insulated Finishing System (technical speak for it has the potential to turn into a leaky condo.  Or a pumpkin after midnight)
4. Certain amenities are farther away than we would like (swimming, skating, library)

But those seemed manageable given the positives.  We weren't ready to buy that spring, but come fall we were in position and it became a waiting game.  A unit we had noticed previously got relisted at price that looked good to us, so we jumped on it.  (totally random - it was owned by the parents of a girl we knew at our church.  Small worlds).  We've been there just over a month now, and are still very happy with it.  The train noise doesn't bother us (though an explosion might), the strata is well managed and on top of building maintenance, I get some exercise taking the kids to school, and we can all fit inside the place at once without feeling like we're in a clown car.

All that is a long winded way to say we bought a home at Quayside because it is family friendly to us.  It has the mix of a good size home near the things we need to live, eat, work and play. And it has the bonus of being a unique neighbourhood on a river and relatively affordable.

At the December 2nd Committee of the Whole meeting, Council received a report with a title longer than my post - the Child and Youth Friendly Community Strategy and Family-Friendly Housing Policy for New Westminster. This report was developed out of a partnership with the Society for Children and Youth of BC to help with their initiative on developing strategies for creating child and youth friendly communities. The report identified a few things.

1. New West has a low percentage of children and youth compared to the rest of Metro Vancouver
2. The percentage of children relative to the city population is decreasing
3. Compared to the rest of Metro Vancouver, New West has a higher percentage of 2-bedroom housing and much lower percentage of 3+ bedroom housing and ground oriented housing.

The report is effectively calling for a Family Strategy, along the lines of what cities like Surrey and Burnaby have already developed.  The intent of the strategy is to inform development of neighbourhoods to meet the needs of children and families in an effort to attract and retain families in New West.  It will look at several areas (Employment, Housing, Childcare, Education, Belonging (I have specific questions around this), Transport, Parks and Rec, Participation and Inclusion (and this))

The goals are typically governmental wishy-wash, but a few concrete things are in there, primarily get input from families and children, develop a family housing policy, and develop a draft overall policy.

Most of the discussion on the report (and I apologize, I didn't catch the name of the staff member who presented it - he did a great job) was around housing.  That's understandable, as it is a major concern and something which the city has a lot more influence over.  It's also a peeve of mine - look at all the new development going on in Metro Vancouver, and see how much of it is 3+ bedroom.  Even when you can find a unit with 3 bedrooms, the overall size is still tiny, or as Councillor Cote pointed out, a penthouse unit and not necessarily family oriented.  I am totally in favour of driving more family oriented housing as part of the development deals/variance bribes/community amenity deals we make on new buildings, as Councillor Puchmayr (it took me three tries to get your name right) proposed.

The issue appears quite neighbourhood specific as well.  Queensborough has relatively more families, but it has relatively more ground oriented high bedroom housing.  Councillor McIntosh said she saw lots of families moving in, taking over their parents homes in Sapperton.  Great for those families with parents who own houses in Sapperton, but doesn't help anyone else.  The intent is to look at the ratios of children and families at a neighbourhood level.  This will be needed to drive specific requirements in each area.

As my extended-cut edition of our house buying process showed, family-friendliness is more than just housing and this was discussed.  Many tangibles and intangibles come into deciding whether a family will move to a home, a neighbourhood, a city.  The eight items listed above all play into it, and cover much of what is needed.

The report identified three descriptions of success for the sustainability implications of moving this direction.

1. Opportunities for residents of all age to engage with the community and be valued for it:  Absolutely. Why isn't this the case already?
2. Few children being driven to school: 100% agree.  So why are we replacing one giant high school for 60,000 people at the edge of town with a second giant high school for 70,000 people at the edge of town?  NWSS needs a serious rethink in terms of this objective.  Councillor McIntosh made a good point on this where schools now offer special programming, which parents from all over town want to enroll their children in.  This leads to far more kids being driven to school and cross-boundary enrollment than a common curriculum would.
3. Affordable quality child care that enables parent to work and contribute to the local economy:  50% agree.  Not all parents want to work and contribute to the local economy.  Some want to stay home with their kids or pursue opportunities that are not work but are still valuable to the community.  How do we encourage and support those families?

Overall, I would like to thank Council for taking this report and encourage them to move forward with it.   Stronger families make for stronger communities - my vision for this blog and all I do in the city is to make New West a place that helps build stronger families.  If you value that too, please let Council know you support this initiative.

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1 comment:

  1. Very interesting read. We too might go down the "three bedroom road" soon. There is not much, even if cost were no object. I don't think those of us looking for 3 bedrooms are necessarily looking to live in opulence. A bit more space for two adults and two growing boys. I think cities must address this and ask for more from prospective developers. Often of the few 3 bedroom units in a building, they are the townhouse units and the most expensive in the project. Not exactly family-friendly...