photos: Photo by Aaron Scott Hildebrandt

Island Bound

I love Vancouver, but it doesn’t love me

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By Aaron Scott Hildebrandt


When I first moved to Vancouver, it felt like living in the future. I mean, a lot of TV shows and movies set in the future use Vancouver as their backdrop. It just feels like a place where so much is going right—the buildings shine, the water glistens, and the grass is green year-round. The city cares about social justice, about the environment, and about the day-to-day lives of the people who live in it. There’s a progressiveness and thoughtfulness that permeates everything.

Vancouver isn’t just beautiful. It’s beauty overkill. You can stand on the seawall and watch the sun set gloriously over the mountains while otters play in the water next to you. Sometimes, it just feels absurd.

For six years, my wife and I lived in the West End. I loved it there. We had an apartment overlooking English Bay—it was tiny, but I grew to love that, too. I could walk to work, grab groceries on my walk back, and then eat a hot dog on the beach.

It was great. I wanted it to last forever.

I love Vancouver.

There’s only one problem.

Where did we go wrong?
It was about a year ago the city calmly told me it didn’t love me anymore, and wanted to see other people.

Younger people, I’m sure. That jerk.

You see, when it was just my wife and I gallivanting around the city, things were great.

Then, we decided to have a kid. To the surprise of no one, Vancouver has top-notch facilities and resources for this sort of thing. We had two excellent midwives and, when our daughter was born, we spent several days in a beautiful private room at one of the best women’s hospitals in the world.

When we returned home, the three of us crammed into our tiny one-bedroom apartment, knowing that our love affair with the apartment couldn’t last. We loved the West End and tried to find a place nearby, but six months after our daughter was born we were still coming up empty.

Do you know how many two-bedroom apartments are available downtown right now for under $1,500/month? I just counted.

There’s one. And it’s spam. If you can manage $2,000/month, there are eight to choose from. But not many families can float $2,000/month on a single income.

But this is 2016, the age of the working family, the era of dual-incomes! Problem solved! My wife had been in school for a few years and was itching to get back to work. We could double our income, nuke our debts, and live like goddamn royalty, complete with an heir. It was a brilliant plan, and one that would have worked flawlessly if it had any basis in reality. Trust me when I say the plan was doomed from the start.

Hoping to finally get our daughter her own room, we ended up moving to Oakridge. Ironically, despite being one of the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods, it’s also the place we found the cheapest rent—probably because it’s a suburban wasteland. You can’t even find coffee within walking distance, never mind Vancouver’s standard shoulderto- hand distance. This almost disqualifies it from being considered Vancouver at all.

Anyway, fine, we had to trade a tiny downtown apartment for a tiny Oakridge apartment. That’s not the end of the world.

Vancouver has one of the highest costs of living in the world—it makes sense that the city core is a little inaccessible.

But the truth is, it’s hard to find a two bedroom apartment anywhere in the city limits. They just don’t exist. And we all know that the three-bedroom apartment is an urban legend.

Piling costs
So, it was time to execute the dual-income plan. The first step involved looking for a daycare for our kid—and I can tell that you’re already laughing—and I don’t appreciate it.

We put our names on the waitlists of 50 daycares. Oh, how I wish I was joking. The number was actually 50. We could show you our spreadsheet. In two years, slots became available for us in two of those.

Asking around, it seems the average wait to get into a full-time daycare anywhere in the city is two to three years.

This presented two problems. Number 1: Vancouver doesn’t have enough daycares to keep up with demand.

If you want to have a dual-income family after you’ve had a kid, you need to wait a few years before that’s even possible, which means you’re trying to survive on a single income in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

But we did get a slot. Remember when I told you that you could get a twobedroom apartment if you’re willing to fork over $2,000/month? Well, that’s how much daycare costs, too.

Just let that sink in.

If you do some digging, you find that there are cheaper options and $2,000 is definitely at the high end, but if you want anything cheaper than that, you have to wait for years to get a slot.

In order for us to afford it, my wife had to be working—and in order for her to work, our daughter had to be in daycare. That meant we had to eat $2,000/month while she looked for a job. The job market here is tough, especially for a new grad, and our window to make it work quickly vanished. We had to give up daycare before my wife could find a job.

Living in Vancouver is like living in the future, but it’s a future where families don’t exist.

Cheaper pastures
Each year, the Vancouver public school system loses between 600 and 700 students as families leave the city—and these are only the children whose parents managed to make it to kindergarten before throwing in the towel. Living in the city as a young family is just a game of trying to see how long you can hold on while the city tries to kick you off.

A lot of people try to stay close by, to stay part of the Vancouver zeitgeist—Burnaby, or Coquitlam, or New Westminster, or Richmond, or North Vancouver. We considered all of these. But it rarely works to stay friends after a break-up.

So we made the decision to go farther, to Vancouver Island. It’s a stunningly lovely place that, in many ways, feels like Vancouver’s opposite—a place that’s quiet and steeped in history (versus Vancouver’s shiny, new gleam). But it’s also a place that retains a lot of what we love about Vancouver. It has mountains and an ocean.

Affordable daycare means my wife can start her own business. We even found a rental that includes a studio space for her. It’s an oasis of Vancouver expats, and they brought some of the best pieces of the city with them—including, thank God, decent coffee.

But most importantly, it’s a place that wants us to be there.

Maybe, one day, I’ll have my $10 million to buy a penthouse in downtown Vancouver, and I’ll return to live as a God among Vancouverites. Maybe I’ll find that mythical three-bedroom. Maybe I’ll find a way to make life in Vancouver work.

But even if I could, would I want to? Do I really want to spend my life trying to win the affection of a city that doesn’t love me back?

I don’t know. All I know is that I gave it a shot, and now it’s time to spend some time apart.

Goodbye, Vancouver.

You were the best. I loved you.

I just hope that one day, you’ll learn to love in return.

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