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What happens when people can't afford to work in Vancouver?

Vancouver’s streets are a lesson in disconnection: many people simply can’t afford to work in the most prosperous city, in the province with Canada’s lowest unemployment rate


If a young person in Vancouver accepts a $20 an hour job, it equates to less than $2,500 per month in net take-home pay. But the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver is $2,090, and rising.

Little wonder that city retailers, restaurants, construction companies and some of the biggest tech companies in the world are begging for low-skill, low-pay workers and can’t find them.  

In reality many people simply can’t afford to work in the most prosperous city in a province with the lowest unemployment rate in the country. The disconnect is not only undermining the economy, it threatens the societal fabric of the city.   

More than half of Metro workers say they are already struggling paycheque to paycheque, according to 2016 Canadian Payroll Association survey. Many of those who can’t make it number among Metro’s 3,600 homeless.   

Within three years, there could be 61,500 more jobs in the province than people to fill them, according to B.C.’s most recent Labour Market Outlook.

The 2017 study also forecast that B.C. will produce one million job openings by 2025, half of these in the Lower Mainland.

Yet 73 per cent of B.C. restaurants say they’re already facing an immediate labour shortage. One restaurateur told Business in Vancouver that he has tried everything, without success, to retain staff at his eatery in downtown Vancouver, including offering $20 an hour to entry-level employees.

Upcoming B.C. construction projects, not counting residential, are estimated at $325 billion. But the industry is facing a shortage of more than 14,000 workers right now.

This year only one in 70 B.C. high school graduates went into the construction trades, the lowest level in at least four years. Even Amazon, the giant online retailer, is running employment ads in local newspapers as it desperately tries to fill scores of low-skill positions at its Metro distribution centres. Amazon is offering $15.75 per hour.

 Employers say they can’t afford to pay a living wage, and for many that is likely true. But that leaves few options for workers.

Governments and the private sector appear witless in slowing Vancouver home prices or delivering enough affordable rentals, the main barriers for even mid-income city residents.

Many young families are already fleeing Vancouver and the hollowing out is forcing school closures and will further drain the labour pool.

So what is the answer? It is not mandatory minimum wage increases. It will require unified action and rare sacrifice by industry, government and real estate owners to both raise wages and reduce housing costs.

The chances of success are doubtful. The options are even worse.