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Vancouver’s island hinterland attracts affordability refugees

Nanaimo island copy

VANCOUVER / Bloomberg

Three times a week Neil Valsangkar escapes Canada’s most expensive real estate market by paying C$100 ($73) for a 20 minute float plane ride to his Vancouver office from his home across the Salish Sea.
The 50 kilometer (31 mile) aerial commute allows the father of three to live in Nanaimo, British Columbia where homes cost about a quarter of those in Vancouver, one of the world’s frothiest markets with average homes selling for C$1.3 million. He’s encouraging some of his employees to do the same.
“Raising a family in Vancouver is really challenging logistically,” said the 50-year-old chief executive officer of Sun Coast Consulting Ltd. “I made a lifestyle choice because of housing and the ease of raising a family here.”
Nanaimo, a formerly rough-and-tumble logging and fishing town of almost 100,000 people on Vancouver Island, offers the same stunning views of snow-capped mountains and rugged bays as its larger neighbor. With float planes taking off for downtown Vancouver several times an hour, a vehicle ferry, helicopter flights and a planned high-speed passenger service, the commute across the Salish Sea makes sense and can be shorter in some cases than commuting by car from Greater Vancouver’s eastern municipalities.
The cost of owning a bungalow in Vancouver now accounts for 87 cents of every dollar earned by the average family.
That has triggered protests by young professionals who complain of having to bunk with roommates into their 30s and forcing them to delay starting families. The provincial government will begin collecting data on foreign buyers who have been accused of driving up prices in the city of 2.5 million
residents.

World Away
John Winter fled Canada’s most expensive city six years ago, settling in Nanaimo with his wife after struggling with Vancouver’s sky-high cost of living. “I knew I’d never be able to afford a home there,” said Winter, 41, who runs Harbour Air Ltd.’s Nanaimo operations. “The average house price in Vancouver is out of everyone’s price range.”
Despite its proximity to Vancouver’s real estate frenzy, Nanaimo seems a world away. The town suffered a long, steady decline in the 1980s as lumber mills and fisheries closed and government offices relocated. It’s always been overshadowed by the better-known and larger Victoria, British Columbia’s capital, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, a Taiwan-sized island with a fraction of its population — 750,000 versus about 23 million.

Cash Out
“This was very much a fisherman’s town, a forestry town and had been a coal town,” said Ralph Nilson, president of Vancouver Island University, a “hinterland school” that’s helping to attract interest in Nanaimo with students from 88 countries, many of whom end up buying property, as part of the 2,000-student campus.
The city, which sells itself as a ”solution to Vancouver’s affordability and transit challenges,” is aiming to attract new businesses and their employees, in addition to people nearing retirement age who want to realize property price gains in Vancouver and downsize to Nanaimo, said John Hankins, chief executive officer of Nanaimo Economic Development Corp.
A single family home averages C$358,200, an increase of about 7 percent over the past five years compared with Vancouver’s 57 percent gain.

Transportation Hub
In addition to becoming a transportation hub for Vancouver Island, with a new cruise ship dock in one of British Columbia’s deepest ports and an airport that has had five years of record passenger growth, the town has a growing technology sector.

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