Scorching house prices scare workers (Editor's Notes)

Some employers considering providing affordable housing to attract talent
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/06/2016

This is a battle. A war. And the casualties could be your hearts and minds.”

That’s a phrase uttered by John Keating, the character played by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. He was talking about the importance of free thinking. But having just purchased a home in one of Canada’s hottest real estate markets, I feel his words are far more applicable to real estate.

Because buying a house is exhausting — and I’m not talking about the packing, tape guns or the move itself. That’s child’s play.

Multiple offers, no inspections, modest houses going into the low seven figures and losing your dream home to another buyer who decided to go in $150,000 over asking — it can be mind-numbing and soul destroying. 

For those not addicted to Realtor.ca, perhaps that sounds a bit like hyperbole. But for those on the hunt in a tight market, Keating’s words will strike a chord.

This headline from the Globe & Mail this week summed it up perfectly — “Universities struggle to attract professors amid soaring housing prices.”

At Vancouver’s University of British Columbia (UBC), the school lost out on 18 new hires in 2015 because of the city’s notorious housing prices. A 1,000-square-foot condo on campus sells for $800,000, and the average price for a detached home in the city is $1.8 million.

We’re not talking about minimum wage fast food workers struggling to put a roof over their heads. We’re talking about highly paid professionals. The median salary for a post-secondary professor in Canada is nearly $94,000, according to PayScale.

Run that salary through a mortgage calculator and that professor could afford a maximum mortgage of about $550,000. And a half-a-million dollars won’t get you a shoebox in Vancouver. 

This quandary has led some universities in Ontario to approach the government to see if they can get laws changed to allow them to build “affordable long-term housing for faculty,” according to the Globe.

The notion of employers providing housing is hardly a new phenomenon. Over the last decade, oilsands employers in and around Fort McMurray, Alta., have built camps to house workers because housing construction couldn’t keep up with demand. 

In resort towns such as Banff, Alta., employers often have to offer housing to workers because there aren’t enough accommodations.

But those are extreme examples driven by a booming remote industry in one case and a lack of housing in densely populated resort areas in another.

It reminds me of a history lesson I was taught in high school about the town of Walkerville, Ont. Today, Walkerville is a neighbourhood in the City of Windsor. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was a town of its own, founded by Hiram Walker, the renowned whisky maker. Its purpose? To house the workers at his booming distillery.

A story in the Walkerville Times summed it up this way: “After 25 years of existence, the village of Walkerville had a population of 600 people. Most of the inhabitants of the village were Walker employees. They were offered a lease to a Walker-owned cottage in the village, none of which were privately owned by the workers.

“In this way, Walker could control the type of individual who lived in his village. The inhabitants used and drank water pumped through pipes laid by the Walkers. They received police and fire protection at Walker’s expense. They attended St. Mary’s Church constructed by Hiram Walker and named after his late wife. The children of the village attended school on a site donated by Hiram Walker.

“In the absence of a commercial bank, the Walker employees could deposit their savings in the Walker bank. Walkerville in the 1880s was a wholly owned family principality and it had been developed with great care.”

The quandary facing universities today goes far beyond the ivory towers. The average Canadian job pays far less than a university professor earns — throwing up some plywood and shingles on campuses may ease the crunch for this relatively elite group, but it does nothing to solve the issue for other Canadians for whom home ownership is a mere pipe dream.

Employers in smaller communities, with relatively affordable housing, may suddenly have a recruiting gimmick to attract top talent: Start including MLS listings, and average selling prices, in job postings.

The rest of us, toiling in “cities filled with the foolish,” to quote Walt Whitman (well, to quote John Keating reading Whitman), are left to wonder: “What good amid these, o me, o life? Answer: That you are here. That life exists, and identity.”

That, and a lifetime of debt if you’re actually lucky enough to win a bidding war.

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