2021 Real Estate Report: With a push from COVID, the B.C. property market is reinventing itself

With a push from COVID, the B.C. property market is reinventing itself. We explore this transformation through four themes.

Credit: Samantha Potyok

Lori Fell had to move into a trailer because housing is so scarce in Vanderhoof, of all places

We explore four themes: why industrial real estate keeps booming, where British Columbians will work post-pandemic, how that event changed housing patterns, and what First Nations’ rise as developers means for them and for the province’s shelter shortage

Lori Fell got a job a year ago as a human resources assistant at a major grocery and housewares store. The good, steady-paying work was a satisfying reward for having gone back to school in her 40s after being laid off from the telephone company.

It turned out that re-educating herself and finding work wasn’t the biggest challenge Fell would face. For a year after she was hired, she wasn’t able to find a place to rent. So she lived in a 4.5-metre trailer that she towed to the area with her 2002 Mazda, in the only spot she was able to find—a property 35 kilometres out of town. She had electricity but no water, so she had to haul that out in giant plastic bottles.

Fell isn’t a minimum-wage worker living on the fringes of Metro Vancouver or Victoria, forced there by the upward spiral of housing costs. She makes reasonable money at the Four Rivers Co-op that is a pillar of her community. And the place she was trying to find a home is Vanderhoof, a town of about 4,500 people an hour west of Prince George. Not where you expect the housing crunch to be. But it is.

“I’d really like to stay. I love the community. But I am feeling defeated at this point,” Fell said this past summer, after months of struggling to compete because she has two dogs, her only companions. That earns her an automatic off-the-island vote from many potential landlords. She found a trailer court at one point that was pet-friendly. But the owner got 50 applications, and she didn’t win that lottery.

Fell’s experience is just one of the many real estate stories in this province that are unfolding as patterns of living and working—the forces that ultimately drive property markets—continue to mutate under the pressure of long-term trends and short-term shocks, like the pandemic.

In many towns and cities besides Vanderhoof, outside the hot spots of Vancouver and Victoria, housing shortages that were chronic for years in the North and the Interior have morphed into more serious crises, with community leaders ransacking the policy world for solutions. That’s just one of the tectonic shifts happening. Some are shared by major cities in North America. People from Toronto to Austin, from Kelowna to Miami, are wondering how remote work will change both office and housing patterns. They’re also seeing that a boom in online shopping has turned industrial land into a prized commodity. Other real estate patterns are unique to B.C., like the fact that Indigenous bands and nations are now, collectively, the largest private developers in the Lower Mainland.

Credit: Wesbild Group

A rendering of Marine Landing, Wesbild Group’s planned mixed-use industrial site south of Marine Drive in Vancouver

Industrial land is the new hot property class

Malls, condos, rental apartments, office towers. Those used to be the prime types of real estate that people with money looked at first. Then malls started to struggle as retail began shifting to the virtual world. The apartment market in the larger B.C. cities and in Vancouver, especially, wobbled the past few years with the addition of vacancy taxes, speculation taxes and then COVID impacts. Offices started to see change with a low-key shift that had been happening with some employers, as companies found it cheaper and more practical to have some staff work other places than traditional downtown premises. That silent trend exploded during pandemic times.

“COVID exposed the flaws,” says Todd Yuen, manager of industrial development for Burnaby-based Beedie, B.C.’s largest company in that sector. “Apartments had rental freezes, a moratorium. Office buildings became vacant. COVID propelled industrial to be the premier asset class.”

Industrial space, it turns out, is a key asset in a digital world. It’s what everyone trying to sell you something online must have in order to store huge piles of products near where people live and get them to you quickly in the impossible delivery times promised. As well, says Jeff Miller, Toronto-based head of industrial development for Oxford Properties Group, the breakdown of supply chains during COVID drove that demand even higher, because companies felt like they couldn’t count on just-in-time delivery from container ships anymore. So they needed more space to store the furniture, laptops, ring lights, sports equipment, shoes, food and every other thing people were ordering from a website.

In Metro Vancouver, where the amount of industrial property is restricted because of the geographical constraints that limit every other type of land use here, as well as the fact that it’s the third-largest port in North America, the pressure has been intense.

As a result, industrial lease rates in the Lower Mainland have increased faster than at any time in the recent past, and space is ever harder to come by. Amazon is signing contracts for buildings before they’re even built. The vacancy rate in Port Moody, New Westminster and Tsawwassen First Nation was zero for the second quarter of 2021, according to a report from Colliers, while other communities ranged from 0.3 percent (Maple Ridge, Chilliwack) to 2.2 per cent (North Vancouver). Vancouver, at 2.3 percent, was slightly above that, mainly because the Molson brewery property near the Burrard Bridge sits empty.

That squeeze, which has created the tightest supply in North America, has produced secondary repercussions. Investors have started to show up in the market, outbidding end users. In a Colliers report on six recent industrial land sales in the region, just two buyers—a window manufacturing operation and a producer of vegan nutritional gummies—were end users, while the other four were developers or investors. Only 14 percent of industrial space was bought by actual users in all of 2020, compared to 31 percent the year before, according to numbers from Ray Wong, vice-president of data operations at Vancouver-based Altus Group. 

The intense demand for room has had one positive effect. Industrial land developers in the region have started planning a new kind of project—multistorey buildings. For a couple of decades, in spite of urging from Metro Vancouver planners to make better use of the region’s scarce supply of industrial land, developers hadn’t wanted to move from the model of single-storey buildings surrounded by a sea of parking.

Now Oxford Properties and Wesbild Holdings, a Vancouver company that was an offshoot of Future Shop, have projects in the works. Both say there’s a lot of interest in their developments, which have the advantage of being close to the major markets of Vancouver and Burnaby.

Oxford, the property arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS), is doing a two-storey project in its Riverbend complex, a 60-acre master-planned business park on the Fraser River in Burnaby. “Finally the rents are high enough to start going vertical,” Miller says. “And e-commerce is willing to pay for great locations close to population.” It costs two-and-a-half to three times as much to build multistorey, so those higher rents have been critical to making the equation work.

To the west, Wesbild is going up to six storeys with Marine Landing, south of Marine Drive near Main Street in Vancouver. “We see this as the way industrial users are moving,” says senior vice-president Lilian Arishenkoff. “They don’t want to be in a suburban tilt-up.” Being close to a rich pool of labour that can get to work by transit is important to many industrial operators, too. Arishenkoff’s team has spent some time working with potential clients on what they can and can’t do if they’re in an upper-floor space. No to car repair. But yes to furniture manufacturing.

One more trend that observers in B.C. are watching carefully: the conversion of anchor-tenant space in some struggling malls into logistics and distribution centres. That phenomenon has been popping up here and there in the U.S., as department-store anchor tenants join the endangered-species list even though midlevel retailers are doing well. Some companies are inquiring about it here, but it’s a less feasible option in Canada.

Eric Carlson, founder and CEO of Vancouver-based powerhouse Anthem Properties Group, says he’s looked at the concept but doesn’t feel like it will work for anything he owns. Unlike those in the U.S., malls here tend to be relatively more successful because they were never as overbuilt. Canadian malls are also more embedded in urban areas, not at the intersection of two interstates, so truck traffic and other issues would be harder to work with.

Still, others are considering it. “A lot of the anchors are having trouble finding their way in the post-Amazon world,” says Graeme Silvera, former VP of development for Montreal-headquartered Ivanhoé Cambridge, a significant mall owner, and now an independent consultant. “Some [mall owners] are looking at logistics, some at breaking them up to smaller boxes.”

Credit: Adam Blasberg

Dallas Fontaine, founder of ?The Perk Services, ditched his company’s Gastown space during the pandemic

The hybrid work mystery

If there’s a cliff-hanger in the popular ongoing series Vancouver Real Estate Tiger King Crown Gambit, it’s what will happen as work patterns change—or don’t—after the pandemic. Millions of anecdotes are blooming in the social media world about who’s doing what, along with statistical reports attempting to discern a pattern among early signals. Advocates for the various future solutions—the commercial brokers for the traditional office spaces, the remote-work cheerleaders—are fervently arguing their case in public, adding to the muddled picture.

So you hear it all. Downtowns will roar back. No, the suburban office market will take off. No, employees will now work everywhere around the world. Or: Subleasing is on the rise as companies try to bail out of their commitments. No, companies are taking them back as they decide to hang onto space. And: Everyone is moving out of the city. No, they’re just moving a little farther out, but not that far.

And what Vancouver’s ever-expanding technology industry—which grew by 36 percent in the past five years and whose talent infrastructure now ranks 11th in North America—will do is crucial. Typically, tech companies have wanted to be downtown or nearby, because that’s what their urban-loving, bike-riding, brewpub-visiting employees have wanted. And they’ve said it’s important to be together in person for collaborative innovation. But tech is also an industry where remote work is 100-percent feasible.

If downtown ceases to be the magnet it now is, that could spark significant restructuring in the whole region. That’s what a rather dire report from the Vancouver Economic Commission concluded last December. “Vancouver’s downtown core, or central business district, is particularly at risk of decreased economic activity post-COVID due to accelerating trends shifting the spatial characteristics of work, including shifts to remote work, potential shifts towards satellite offices, shifts to remote learning and increases in online shopping, as well as the downstream effects these changes will have on downtown service-industry businesses.”

Certainly, some developers see that the way of the future for them is mixed-use projects outside the central city, where people will be living and working in different ways than the 20th-century model. The suburbs have been changing for decades; the pandemic emphasized their transformation. “Mixed-use is an ongoing trend,” says Carlson at Anthem, which is developing such projects in the places that are evolving into much more complex urban pieces of the region, from Burnaby and Coquitlam to Squamish and Chilliwack.

But no one knows exactly how big the shift might be. At the moment, downtown vacancy rates are up slightly, but most noticeably in older, Class C buildings. In April of last year, many were predicting that companies would cut their office space in half. Now, says Wong from Altus, it looks more like it will be around 10 to 15 percent.

Meanwhile, developers keep planning new office towers in Vancouver. At BentallGreenOak, the giant real estate company that owns 24 office and mall properties just in B.C., along with managing others, gloom isn’t on the agenda. “With downtown, we’re pretty optimistic about a snapback,” says Phil Stone, head of the company’s research division. Even after a year-and-a-half of pandemic, he notes, Vancouver still has the lowest vacancy rate of the 30 largest downtowns in Canada and the U.S.

However, even the most relentlessly cheery from the “offices are going to come back” cohort say there will be changes. Wong predicts a different dynamic. Tenants will want shorter leases (three to five years instead of seven to 15). They’ll use short-term offices for temporary bulges in employee traffic or special projects. “They need that flex to shrink or expand,” Wong says. “Coworking spaces are kind of ideal.”

Everyone is talking about a hybrid work system—some days at home, some in the office. But hybrid means a different thing to each person and each company. Each choice means a potential different outcome for real estate.

Scenario 1: Some companies  are giving up all long-term offices and never going back. Like Dallas Fontaine. He had seven employees at a Gastown coworking space for his company, The Perk Services, which devises reward systems for employees working remotely. In March, everyone in his company was sent home, and they scattered—to Victoria, to Rossland, to Burnaby. (Three were downsized.) Fontaine tried working at home in Langley. With three young children, the 29-year-old dad found that things didn’t go so well: “If you have kids, you can’t think.”

Fontaine started renting an office five minutes away from his Willoughby house in a commercial building on 200th Avenue. It provided him with equipment, quiet and a group of adults to connect with occasionally. Now his plan is to keep renting that space from Regus, a division of the world’s largest flex-office company—in the business long before WeWork—called International Workplace Group (IWG). Fontaine will use other IWG sites for downtown meetings or to provide other employees with out-of-home office space. When he wants a company-bonding event, he organizes a lunch at a restaurant, usually about once a month.

That pattern is what Wayne Berger, CEO of the Americas for IWG, says the company is seeing everywhere. “Driving to one centric location doesn’t really make sense,” he argues. Although IWG has some downtown properties among its 30 B.C. locations, Berger says it will expand more in the suburbs.

But not everyone is choosing the ditch-all-permanent-office-space route.

Scenario 2: Best Buy Canada, the Vancouver-based company that now has 12,000 employees across the country, gave up its corporate head office in an industrial park in south Burnaby—140,000 square feet with room for all 1,200 employees. It’s now waiting to move into a new building in Vancouver’s hip Mount Pleasant industrial area, but where it will have half the space and only 300 desks. Staff will come to the office less frequently, but when they do, they’ll be in a more interesting place, with lots of meeting room, plus access to Vancouver restaurants and activities.

For Jerome Rodriguez, the new work plan is thrilling. Rodriguez, 53, is part of a team that designs learning modules for Best Buy employees, everything from policy compliance to product knowledge. He’d been doing hybrid work even before the pandemic, sometimes commuting to Burnaby from his home in Maple Ridge, sometimes working at home. The new system, put in place during the pandemic, will allow him and his team to continue that. “It changed our workflow for the better.”

Scenario 3: Other companies aren’t planning any substantial changes immediately. At the law firm of Young Anderson, with offices that were home to about 35 people near Vancouver’s downtown Supreme Court building pre-pandemic, it’s mostly status quo. “We’re not thinking of downsizing,” says partner Sukhbir Manhas. The firm had been planning a quarter-million-dollar renovation to create more internal offices in its 10,000 square feet. That’s not going ahead.

Some people do want to stay working at home, at least part of the week. But others don’t. “The clear message I’m getting is that they do want to be in the office and have the amenities associated with a full office,” Manhas says. Younger employees, in particular, want to get out of their tiny condos and have some room to work. The paralegal and clerical staff need access to printers and secure systems for legal documents. So they’re back.

Scenario 4: Some companies have always been work-from-home forward. Now, they’re increasing that. Telus Corp., one of B.C.’s largest employers, has pushed flexible work since 2010. Before the pandemic, the company had 25 percent of people in its offices, with the rest either on flexible arrangements or, for a few, completely remote. Post-pandemic, only 10 percent will have an office desk.

It’s meant rethinking the company’s space. The old layout was 65 percent workstations, 35 percent meeting rooms. That’s going to be flipped. Over time, there will be a slight reduction in square footage—and no wholesale move to a Surrey tower, as had been pondered. “We’re thinking of offices as places to go with purpose,” says Jennifer Anquetil, Telus’  director of people and culture. “Our spaces are going to be designed with more opportunities for connection.”

So where will everyone live?

Lise Oakley couldn’t imagine ever leaving Vancouver, after escaping from Chilliwack as a gay teen and finding a more sympatico world in the bustling city. Oakley, 38, and her partner and six-year-old son thought they were going to stay forever in their East Vancouver co-op. But shortly after the pandemic started, they started to look at moving. A year ago September, they bought a small house on farmland near Chilliwack for around $800,000—an amount that might have covered a small two-bedroom condo in the city.

“I honestly don’t think we would be here if COVID hadn’t happened,” Oakley says. She quit her full-time job and now works as a freelance consultant for communications, public engagement and social media, often with First Nations. When she needs to do work in Vancouver, she rents a work-share space in the old police headquarters at Main and Hastings streets, which has become a hive of organizations focused on social missions.

One of the most persistent stories from the pandemic has been about people fleeing the city for more space and a less stressful environment, as they worked from home and were coping with waves of anxiety. But like with the work-from-home trend, the picture is still coming into focus about what exactly has happened and will happen going forward. There’s not a housing specialist or realtor alive who thinks Vancouver will empty out permanently, though condo sales downtown did slow during COVID and some reported that women started moving out of areas that began to feel unsafe, like Gastown.

But the central city will fill up again, they say, as soon as the world is on the move again and the students, immigrants, tech employees and just regular people lured by the West Coast lifestyle start flooding in again. People like Bea Torrevillas and her husband, due to arrive here in September because they just want a city with a more robust economy and nicer weather. They’re willing to pay more and live in a smaller space, possibly the West End. “We are tired of Manitoba’s winter, and I believe there are more opportunities in Vancouver careerwise,” says Torrevillas, a 28-year-old veterinary tech originally from Spain whose husband runs a consulting business.

That’s the typical pattern for any city: The new arrivals, especially young people, come in on regular tidal waves. At some point, some of them ebb out—to the suburbs, to other cities and towns—as they get older. The pandemic slowed the incoming tides of new arrivals and accelerated the retreat of everyone planning a move out anyway. That bump of outward motion, after an intense several months, appears to have slowed as the majority of that group has made its move.

Stories about people fleeing to bucolic towns and midsize cities, far from the expensive coastal cities, abounded during the pandemic. However, careful studies in the U.S. have shown that most people who did leave central cities in the last year-and-a-half didn’t move very far. They mostly ended up a little further out in the region—like Oakley.

But the Vancouverites who did move further afield, even if they’re the minority group, still had a huge impact elsewhere. “We have so many new people,” says Susan Swan, the mayor of Clinton, a village of about 650 on Highway 97, which runs north from Cache Creek. That’s added to housing pressures that were already there. “Even when we hired our CAO last year, he had difficulty finding a place. There is nothing to rent here, and even when there is, the prices are so high.”

None of that is breaking news to Marleen Morris, who’s been researching the housing crisis in non-metropolitan Canada for years. It’s affecting small towns all over B.C., creating a downward spiral because housing shortages make it hard for those towns to attract teachers or doctors, stifles possibilities for economic growth and ultimately pushes people into the larger cities.

“The housing issues here are as important and critical as the metropolitan areas. They just aren’t as visible,” says Morris, co-director of the Community Development Institute at UNBC in Prince George. “The more this happens, the more social and economic momentum dies. It’s actually detrimental to the well-being of the whole province.”

Smaller towns that attract retirees—Campbell River, Osoyoos, Parksville, Penticton—have seen developers come in to build for the new population. But that doesn’t happen in many other small towns, where tradespeople have left for growing metropolises and developers don’t want to take a chance because they’ve been burned by previous booms and busts.

That’s how someone like Lori Fell ended up living the past year in her trailer in Vanderhoof, even though she has a relatively good job and can pay as much as $1,000 a month for rent—a reasonable amount for a place so far from a major metropolis. She was beyond thrilled when, this August, she scored a place to rent, beating out 50 others, including someone who offered $400 a month more. It’s still a trailer of sorts, and it’s still 35 kilometres from town, but this one is a manufactured home that’s big enough she can stretch out her arms without touching the walls, and it has a water connection. There was still nothing available actually in the town.

The only significant construction going on in Vanderhoof is a couple of projects funded by BC Housing, one of them a seniors’ apartment building. The mayor, like the mayor in Clinton with a similar seniors’ project, is hoping that will help by getting some older people out of the near-empty houses where they raised children and opening up those homes for others.

In the meantime, prices are going up as newcomers arrive. A young couple from Vancouver Island paid $279,000 for their house this March, $60,000 above the assessed value, while a geographic information system (GIS) specialist moving to town paid $254,000 last September—almost $50,000 over assessment. “People want to move out of the city, and during the pandemic, they decided now is the time,” says Mayor Gerry Thiessen, also a realtor. “But if you get eight or nine new people in a town like Vanderhoof, that’s pushing the limits.”

Credit: Adam Blasberg

Musqueam Chief Wayne Sparrow, shown near his band’s Lel?m? project at UBC, is now a key local developer

Are Indigenous developers the answer to some housing problems?

Chief Wayne Sparrow is one of the handful of Indigenous leaders in the Lower Mainland who may end up being a key part of the solution to B.C.’s never-ending housing squeeze. As the head of the Musqueam band, which now holds several large parcels of valuable property, including the land that River Rock Casino Resort sits on, two golf courses, two chunks in the University Endowment Lands and more, Sparrow now counts “developer” among his roles. But it’s a much more complicated job than that of a regular private builder. ?Sparrow is just one of several regional Indigenous leaders in the same position.

Indigenous bands and nations in the Lower Mainland are now the region’s biggest private developers, with potentially tens of millions of square feet of new construction on the way. The Sen?á?w development by the Squamish Nation is the highest-profile project in the works, with 12 towers planned for land around the south end of Vancouver’s Burrard Bridge, and construction due to start at the end of this year.

There’s much more. The Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-waututh, individually or jointly, have substantial holdings in many municipalities. In Vancouver, the three, operating together through MST Development Corp., are planning on 20 million square feet of development on the Jericho Lands in West Point Grey, the Heather Lands near Oak Street that used to be RCMP headquarters and the BC Liquor Distribution Branch site on East Broadway.

The Musqueam, besides their parcels in southwest Vancouver and north Richmond, co-own land with the Tsleil-waututh at Willingdon Avenue and Canada Way, the former site of addiction and youth-treatment centres. In North Vancouver, both the Squamish and Tsleil-waututh have extensive holdings.

All of them are working with some of the region’s largest developers—Ian Gillespie at Westbank Corp., Aquilini Development, Polygon Homes. They don’t see it as their job to solve all the housing problems created by NIMBYs in the non-Indigenous communities. Their focus is on providing economic benefits for their own peoples, either by providing them with housing within their developments (as is being considered at the Sen?á?w and Heather Lands projects) or using the profits from development for housing on reserve land.

In the Musqueam’s Lel?m? project at UBC, apartments will be rented or sold to whomever and the profits will be used for housing on the reserve, where it’s desperately needed. About 350 people are currently waiting for housing on the Musqueam reserve, and the list is only growing. Only five to 10 houses are built each year, even though 20 new households get added to the list in the same time period.

Credit: Revery Architecture

A rendering of the Squamish Nation’s planned Sen?á?w residential development in Vancouver

But the leaders are also saying they won’t take a standard approach to density, to design or to social mission. “I do think the nations want to do things differently,” says Khelsilem, the young Squamish councillor who frequently speaks for that nation.

Some of the Squamish developments, because they’re on property that’s considered reserve land and therefore not regulated by city governments, can be planned for very high density since they’re not restricted by any zoning. That’s what is happening with Sen?á?w, which is also being designed to reflect an Indigenous aesthetic in its architecture and will incorporate some Indigenous businesses and agencies in the complex.

The freedom from rules on density isn’t confined to the Sen?á?w