The lore and lure of the suburbs

May 06 2010


Kaia Jackson-Perez, Holly Jackson, and Ritche Perez. Photo by Kevin Coffey.

“Atlantic Canada’s fastest-growing community” isn’t hyperbole.

Like a real-life SimCity, the population of the town of Paradise has increased by about 280 per cent between 1981 and 2006. Between 2001 and 2006 alone, it swelled over 30 per cent.

Paradise is the most dramatic example of a major trend—all communities around St. John’s have grown at a breakneck speed. So much so that, combined, St. John’s suburbs have a population nearly as high as the capital city.

But while surrounding municipalities have grown, St. John’s proper has about the same number of people it had back in the early 80s.

The allure of the suburbs is considerable: Bigger lots, newer homes, newer schools, ocean views, and more privacy.

Up until recently, cheaper house prices could have been on that list of perks, but these days it depends on where you look. Homes in Paradise, for example, have become more expensive on average than those in the city.

Shelter is just one expense. While it doesn’t compare to a big city commute, the drive into town really does add up. And in areas where housing costs haven’t exceeded those in St. John’s, high transportation costs are cancelling out the savings.


FROM BEAUMONT STREET TO BAULINE LINE EXTENSION
Ritche Perez and his family took the plunge. A 36-year-old dad, husband, and musician who works in St. John’s, Perez bought a 3000-square foot house on Bauline Line Extension in late 2008.

He says he sacrificed the excitement and convenience of downtown life for a bigger place to raise his daughter, Kaia, in peace.

“Our previous neighbours were stealing my pressure washer, shovels, and trying to sell us stolen meat and cheese, stolen paper towels, jeans, and Axe spray,” he says.

Overall, with the crisp well water and the half-acre of land, he likes the new digs and the different mode of living.

“It takes time to get used to hermit life,” he says. “But it’s peaceful. I can now go out in my backyard and chop wood in my ripped underwear.”

“I find I can focus on family rather than the social nightlife that I was accustomed to when I played in bands and went to bars every weekend.”

He has even had the space to build a recording studio in his basement—“and no one complains,” he says.

Remax realtor Stephen Winters says it’s often second-time homebuyers—mostly families—who are most likely to leave St. John’s for suburbia.

For the househunters he’s helped, the privacy of a nice home on a cul-de-sac or in a wooded area is important.

“Families that are moving in want the privacy and want a piece of land, a bigger piece of land than your standard city size lot,” Winters says.

But that privacy, as well as the other perks of living outside the city, comes at an increasing cost.

“Price-wise, say to build something outside St. John’s, you’re at least on par, if not slightly over,” Winters says. “In my seven years, in the beginning it was always cheaper to go outside St. John’s.”

But times are changing.

With a burgeoning housing market, overall the cost of buying a home has skyrocketed—surging more than 20 per cent in the last year alone. Combined with limited vacancy, the rental market has followed suit.

House prices are climbing in areas like Paradise more quickly than they are in St. John’s, Winters says, as the houses people are building there are larger.

“I would probably say stats for outside St. John’s would have jumped a little faster than, say, houses in St. John’s.”

In the case of Paradise, it started when government bridged the gap between suburbia and St. John’s. Housing costs rose to the occasion with a new road.

“The Outer Ring Road was certainly a big help,” Winters says. “You can get from the East End of St. John’s to the turnoff in Paradise in about six, seven minutes.”

After the first section of the Outer Ring Road, from Donovan’s Industrial Park to Allandale Road, opened in 1998, average home value in Paradise surpassed that of St. John’s for the first time, according to the 2001 census.

The 2006 census suggests the average homeowner in Paradise paid nine per cent more in shelter costs than the St. John’s average.

“The physical distance hasn’t changed but the perception in people’s minds is that it’s not that far anymore,” Winters says.

The city has sprawled too over the years, meaning that people in the suburbs can have shorter commutes than those who live in some parts of the city.

“Kenmount Road now has Kenmount Terrace, which is basically bordering on Elizabeth Park, which is Paradise,” Winters notes.

DRIVING NOT A GOOD BARGAIN
“Hate” is a word Perez uses to describe his 20-minute commute to work as an A/V and graphics guy with Professional Development and Conferencing Services, a division of Memorial University’s Faculty of Medicine.

According to the latest census, he isn’t the only one making the daily trip. Nearly all adults in Torbay, Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s, Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove and Conception Bay South, Flatrock and Paradise work in another municipality within the same region.

At 25 per cent, the highest number of people who live and work in the same municipality can be found in Mount Pearl.

Almost all of those living in neighbouring municipalities drive or are driven to work, as public transit is unavailable, except in Mount Pearl. Statistics Canada says it is more than 90 per cent—compared to more than 80 per cent in St. John’s.

The financial cost of commuting is substantial. Perez spends about $40 a week on gas, compared to $20 every two weeks when he lived downtown, when he also used to bike and walk to work.

In response, he bought a motorcycle, which burns about $5 a week in gas, though he can only ride it when the weather co-operates.

He paid under $200,000 for his three-bedroom home. He figures with the commute, his cost of living is about equal to that of when he lived in the city.

Though he appreciates the quiet, its loneliness is exacerbated by the economics of rural living, and he suspects friends don’t like to visit because of gas prices.

He says he would move back to St. John’s if the right property came along.

“[I’m] not bashing living in St. John’s. I would move back in an instant if the house was right. But my preference is privacy and size.”

FROM FLATROCK TO GOSLING STREET
Liam Kavanagh, a 24-year-old business student at Memorial, has witnessed something of a transformation of scenic Flatrock.

He had lived in the town for all of his life—until he moved to the centre of St. John’s a few years ago.

“My dad is from Flatrock, my mom’s a townie. When they got married they built a house out there because my dad had a lot of land,” he explains.

When he was younger, and living with his parents, Flatrock was more of a rural town than a suburb. There weren’t as many commuters from St. John’s who lived in the community.

“There were a handful of fishermen, no more than a hundred I’d say, who moved to Alberta a few years after fishing was really no longer an option,” he says. “Now, that kind of area is being gentrified, they’re doing up the houses and people from town are buying them. They’re building a couple of subdivisions and it looks like they’re planning on building more.”

He laughs when asked if anyone who lives in Flatrock works in the town these days.

“Just the guy who runs the corner store, I would say,” he says.

Before Memorial, he attended St. Bonaventure’s College in St. John’s. The commute to town was 25-minutes, on average.

“It can be 15 minutes in the summer, or it can be 45 minutes in winter,” Kavanagh says.

He moved to St. John’s, renting an apartment, a couple of years ago for a variety of reasons. Everyone he knows lives in St. John’s, he explains, and money definitely factored into the decision as well.

“It was just more convenient not to commute twice a day.” He says it was fine for his parents, but he wasn’t able to afford it as a student.

Living a zippy five minutes from MUN has changed a lot for him.

“When I lived at home, I’d fill up my tank, and it would last me four, maybe five days. Filling up my tank in town and driving around, probably lasted about two weeks.”

His scenic hometown has its perks as well. He was reminded of Flatrock’s rural charm while house-sitting for his parents recently.

“I noticed it’s a lot quieter at night going to sleep. Where I live now, constantly through the night and through the day I hear ambulances—I guess because it’s close to the hospital—and police sirens going on at all times.

“Out there, it’s just animal noises once in a while, which is kind of nice.”

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6 responses so far

  1. I moved out of St. John’s to CBS a few months ago for a lot of the same reasons Ritche did. I don’t regret it for a second. My commute time is about the same (I don’t work in St. John’s), I’m paying the same amount of taxes for an acre of land as I did for a 50×100 lot (on town services), my kids have a lot more freedom, I can buy locally produced food more easily, have access to paper/cardboard recycling, trails and beach within walking distance, less snow to deal with.
    I spend a little more in gas but its worth it.

    I still love a lot of things about St. John’s and care about the city but I wanted something different for myself and my family that just isn’t available there.

  2. I hear the city vs suburbs argument all the time. When I get older I may end up in the suburbs, but as a guy in his mid-twenties, with no kids, I’d rather be in the city.

  3. I wonder if the city/suburb math is different in NL, with so many city people driving everywhere anyway (in other words, gas is the only real extra commuting expense for a suburban life). I’m lucky enough to live within walking distance of virtually everything I do. For me, moving to the suburbs would mean buying a car and paying financing, insurance, license, gas, maintenance, parking, repairs, tickets… the studies I’ve seen suggest that the total cost of owning a car in Canada averages $7K a year. You can buy a whole lotta house with that much extra money…

  4. Can the tiny communities outside St. John’s really be called Suburbs? and are they really, in all cases, more expensive, if you live relatively modestly? I bought a beautiful house on a large lot in a small community outside of town, and it was literally *half* the price of the ‘average’ priced home in St. John’s. We couldn’t afford to buy in town, plain and simple. What we paid for this house wouldn’t even buy a run down handyman’s dream on a tiny lot. The gas is negligible compared to all other benefits. But ‘suburban living,’ to me, doesn’t evoke images of the ocean, of hiking, gardening and farming, etc…makes me think more of cookie cutter houses right beside each other. So I dunno about that label.

  5. Good point gerard. When I lived in the city I drove basically everywhere, the bus system is so inefficient I took it to work once and never did it again (15 minutes by car, 2 hours by bus!). You are very lucky to live within walking distance to everything you need.

    I agree Elizabeth. The property I bought would cost more than double easily in the city. Agreed on the images that “suburb” evokes too. Certainly not what I see out my window.

  6. “The allure of the suburbs is considerable: Bigger lots, newer homes, newer schools, ocean views, and more privacy.”

    Have you been in Paradise lately? Or read the outrage from long-term residents who are increasing surrounded by 250 plus home subdivisions on 50 by 100 lots? Here’s a link to a story in The Telegram on the problems associated with the rapid expansion of Paradise. The picture speaks volumes. This is “rural” living at its best? Hardly.

    http://www.thetelegram.com/index.cfm?sid=182113&sc=79

    And check out the comments to see the problems, frustration and anger many residents have.

    Throw in traffic problems, lack of proper infrastructure such as water and sewer, next to nil recreational facilities, sky rocketing house prices and I’ll take St. John’s over Paradise any day.