I’ve been playing around with visuals to help get across how Vancouver acts as a gateway for the rest of BC. I’ve been meaning to do this for awhile. But I was recently inspired anew by a) a good article on Metro Vancouver’s updates to projected population growth through 2050, and b) the fact that I really should be finishing my grading.
The CBC article by Maryse Zeidler, kicked off the discussion of Metro Vancouver’s growth projections by interviewing a recent immigrant, Melody Haskell, who decided upon moving to Metro Vancouver after a single visit (“I almost just wanted to stay after my original trip here. It was so beautiful”) and in conjunction with some basic human rights issues (“as a trans woman, she felt Metro Vancouver was far more tolerant than what she had experienced in the U.S.”). The latter rationale dovetails with my recent argument in favour of a Human Rights YIMBYism. Freedom of movement is a fundamental right, and cities are especially important for enabling rights to those marginalized elsewhere (I’ve spent enough time in Indiana to appreciate where Melody’s coming from). But I also want to come back to Melody’s exposure to Metro Vancouver, and how she wanted to stay after a single visit. Metro Vancouver’s growth projections will ultimately contribute to local housing policy decisions. And it’s tricky to do growth projections well insofar as housing is likely a major constraint on local growth. Lack of housing is probably keeping out many Melodies who might want to make a home for themselves in Vancouver as well as encouraging local residents to seek their fortune elsewhere. Should we add more?
My general take, based mostly in human rights, but also in a host of other reasons (e.g. it’s probably good for the environment!), is we should definitely be adding more housing in Metro Vancouver. But I think many in BC, especially outside Metro Vancouver, feel like the provincial government invests too much in the Metro area, channeling growth there, when they should instead spread investments and growth across our beautiful province. This assumes that Metro Vancouver competes with the rest of the province for growth, stealing it away from elsewhere. The alternative, of course, is that Metro Vancouver acts as a Gateway for growth, often absorbing it as a “first stop” but then directing it out toward the rest of the province. Once people arrive in Vancouver, they become exposed to the beauty of other parts of BC, and many will subsequently seek out and take opportunities to move somewhere else in the province.
The easiest way to examine this, of course, is to have a look at net intraprovincial migration flows. Is Metro Vancouver mostly on the receiving end, or the sending end of the rest of the province? The answer, of course, is sending: Metro Vancouver leaks people to the rest of the province like you wouldn’t believe. It’s been doing so at least since the area became a principal gateway for staging mining expeditions up the Fraser River during the gold rush in the second half of the 19th Century.
Concerning present-day patterns, here’s a very simple schematic attempting to illustrate Vancouver’s Gateway role into BC using 2018-2019 components of population change estimates from Statistics Canada (StatCan 17-10-0136-01).
Of course, I couldn’t leave well enough alone. So I went and gathered all the components of change estimated since the last census (2016) and set them to an animated GIF alongside (and matched to) estimates of population (StatCan 17-10-0135-01). I’m still mostly interested in Metro Vancouver’s Gateway role here, but I wanted to place intraprovincial migration in context of other components of population change, showing how each contributes to growth (or decline). I start with migration from outside BC, international to the left and net interprovincial to the right. Note the table I’m using here doesn’t break down net interprovincial migration into its component streams, which is a shame, but you can see more of my attempts to visualize flows including component streams (or Metro Flows) in a different post. Next I turn to births and deaths and their joint effect on what demographers sometimes call “natural growth.” Finally I add in net intraprovincial growth. These components of population change are all taking place simultaneously, but I pull them apart here to demonstrate their independent effects on population change, and also because I think it’s cool to make it look a little like BC is breathing.
Most international migration to BC flows through Metro Vancouver. It’s Canada’s Gateway to the Pacific, and accounts for most of Vancouver’s growth. But a smaller stream of international migration also flows to other parts of BC. Nevertheless, the rest of BC gets more growth than Metro Vancouver from interprovincial migration (e.g. all those folks from Alberta who retire to Vancouver Island). Metro Vancouver’s growth is further bolstered by local births – many the children of immigrants – exceeding local deaths. The reverse pattern holds for the rest of BC, where deaths now exceed births, leading to population loss. Fortunately for the rest of BC, Metro Vancouver breathes new life into local populations through its massive net intraprovincial leakage of residents to the surrounding province.
Effectively migration from Metro Vancouver generally accounts for a little over one third of the growth of the rest of the province. That’s how Metro Vancouver operates as a Gateway specific to BC, as well as a broader Gateway to the rest of Canada.
What does this mean about provincial priorities? I think there’s ample reason to believe that investments in Metro Vancouver’s growth will contribute to growth across the province. The bigger the Gateway, the more people can move through! Flipping that around, constraints on Metro Vancouver’s growth will likely constrain growth across the rest of the province. Right now the scarcity of housing across Metro Vancouver is a problem for all kinds of reasons – and we should be welcoming a lot more Melodies – but local housing constraints are also likely limiting peoples’ exposure to the rest of BC. I think everywhere in the province has a stake in making Vancouver a bigger, more inclusive (and more sustainable) Gateway.
I canceled and stayed home, and shortly afterward everything fell apart (possible I should’ve gone with option 4). Fortunately we ended up trying again, and returning to a virtual “author meets critics” panel last month, giving us all just enough time to become intimately accustomed with zoom. Below I just wanted to post my presentation slides from the panel in case they’re useful for encouraging local or comparative research on mobile home parks, and also just to further advertise Esther’s great book.
My first substantive slide drew attention to a comment at the end of the book about the right to housing (which I’d recently been exploring as an orientation for YIMBY activism), unfavorably comparing the USA to other countries. There’s a tendency sometimes to overlook other countries’ issues and problems in critiquing our own, so here I just wanted to point out that Canada’s “guarantee” of a human right to housing is not so guaranteed.
Given the book’s focus on mobile home parks in the USA, I also wanted to open up space for comparing the US case to the Canadian case, starting with some figures establishing how mobile homes (and their parks) are less common here than in the US (where they make up ~ 6% of housing stock) but we’ve still got them!
Esther’s book is great for focusing on US state regulations and documenting how they matter, so I dove into BC’s regulations (guidebook here) to compare. I argued the comparison was especially interesting insofar as BC represented something of the ideal model of best practices Esther suggested US state regulations ought to emulate.
(Joint with Jens von Bergmann and cross-posted at MountainMath)
The new data release from CHS 2018 enables us to return to looking at mobility, with a special focus on forced moves. We estimate and compare the risk of forced moves for renters across Canada. We also provide some evidence for its sharp decline in BC in 2018, following protections put in place by the NDP. Finally, we compare risk of “forced move” to risk of “choice move” for renters. In BC, “choice moves” are low relative to the rest of Canada, illustrating how the high percent of moves that are forced across BC is in part a product of lack of rental options (given our low vacancy rates) and high rent penalties for moving.
New CHS Data
The 2018 Canadian Housing Survey (CHS) public use microdata file (PUMF) is finally out, time to dig deeper into the questions we explored when the first tablescame out and the second batch on data on ethnicity and core housing need was released. The first thing we get a nice look at is how recently people moved. Within the Census, this is binned into simple “within the last year” and “within the last five years” categories. Here we get finer grained data extending up to 10 years or more. While we don’t get people’s full moving histories, this is still pretty cool insofar as we can map timing of moves to different years. The survey was fielded from November 2018 through March of 2019, so we can start there and work backward to date moves.
Looking at how recently people moved, the distribution of residential mobility is fairly even across regions, except that rural areas stand out as having lower residential mobility. Part of the reason is that mobility is confounded by tenure. Renters move a lot more often than owners, reflecting a combination of factors including, for instance, demographics (renters tend to be younger on average and more open to moving), transaction costs (selling property is more involved than switching landlords), and power (renters can be forced out more easily than owners). Sure enough, comparing across regions generally less than half of owners have moved in the last ten years, compared to more than three-quarters of renters.
When conditioning on tenure of the current dwelling we still see slightly lower residential mobility in rural areas, but it’s reduced. The variation that remains can likely be explained by a variety of factors, like net migration and rental moving penalties. Net migration has mechanical effects on estimates of the timing of mobility for metro areas, even though most moves are local (migrants are added as movers in places where they arrive and subtracted as movers from places where they depart, boosting mobility rates in the former while decreasing them in the latter). But places where rent control maintains much lower rent for long-term tenants than new tenants (e.g. Vancouver & Toronto) tend to see renters staying in place longer, a pattern that only shows up when differentiating mobility by tenure.
We can tease this out further by looking backward to graph a set of “survival” functions by tenure, using years since last move to effectively look at what proportion of people remain in a given dwelling by how long they’ve lived in the dwelling. Here we’ll look at some of the larger metro areas across the country, with a special focus on BC.
As one would expect, owner mobility is much lower than renter mobility. The difference between regions is wider for renter mobility. For better comparison across regions we can flip the way we show the data and graph all regions on the same panel.
Renters tend to stay in place longest in Toronto, followed by Montreal and Vancouver. Renters in Calgary and Edmonton move around more often. As noted above, rental penalties and tenant protections may explain some of this variation. But to investigate further, it helps to know why people are moving. In particular, we want to know if they are moving by choice, or because they’ve been forced to do so.
One of the (many) great features of the CHS is that it allows us to look at why people moved. Including if their move was voluntary or if people were “forced to move by a landlord, a bank or other financial institution or the government.” This allows us a closer look at power differentials as a factor in moving. In our previousposts we noted that the proportion of moves that were forced looked quite high in BC, a pattern that, with some cautions, can also be examined with reference to reason for move in US datasets. With the PUMF data we can explore in more detail who these people are that were forced to move, and what their circumstances were, as well as getting a finer geographic breakdown within BC.
To start out, let’s reproduce what we previously knew about forced moves. Unfortunately the CHS PUMF does not come with bootstrap weights which makes it hard to derive confidence estimates. It has also been altered from the original data to preserve user privacy, so estimates are expected to be a little different from the ones derived from the master file. So it’s a good idea to see how well the PUMF data reproduces the previously released data on forced moves.
Comparing to our original graph we notice some slight difference, but overall things look good. We already hypothesized that the tenure of the previous home would have a large impact on the frequency of forced moves, with renters being particularly impacted. The legal process of eviction is likely far more common than foreclosure. With the PUMF data we can check this.
Not surprisingly, we see that forced moves were far more common among those renting their previous home. But there’s interesting variation here. BC, in particular, continues to stand out, with consistently high proportions of those moving from a rental dwelling describing their move as forced. Though Metro Vancouver leads in this regard, the rest of BC looks pretty similar.
Those owning their last dwellings are far less likely to describe their previous moves as forced, but forced moves still show up. Foreclosures seem the most obvious explanation, but events like government expropriations and condominium (strata) wind-ups may also play a role in dislodging owners. We also get a peek at a new category, those living “rent-free” in their last residence! The extent to which forced moves affect this group seems to vary widely. But it’s not as large as the other groups, so we’ll turn our attention to forced moves for renters, where it matters most. First we’ll simply pull out those who rented their previous dwelling from movers above to examine what proportion described their last move as “forced.”
Now we can think a bit about the limitations of this measure. Above we’re only looking at movers who rented their previous dwelling. We’re also only looking at those who have moved within the previous five years, and looking only at their last move to ascertain what proportion of last moves included “forced move” as a listed reason for move. It’s a funny measure, without a clearly defined risk (it includes all movers within the past five years, but not all moves, and says nothing about those who stayed in place). What we’re probably more interested in is what the risk of being evicted looks like for all renters, in which case the above graph can become confounded by general levels of mobility.
To understand this better, let’s first look at overall mobility for renters in the past year, that is the share of renters that moved during the past year.
We see that one-year renter mobility is indeed very low in Vancouver, roughly on par with Hamilton and Toronto. If not very many people are moving, this could inflate the relative proportion of those being forced to move.
So let’s create an estimate of the risk of being forced to move! We’re going to start simple by attempting to estimate the risk of being forced out of a rental dwelling within the past year for everyone who began the year as a renter. So we take the total number of movers from rental housing within the past year who describe their move as being “forced,” and we divide by the total number of movers from rental housing within the past year and the total number of renters who have not moved within the past year. Here’s the resulting one-year risk of being forced from rental housing.
The one-year risk of being forced from rental housing looks a bit different that the proportion of movers listing “forced move” as a reason for move. First off, the estimated risk of experiencing a forced move for renters drops to somewhere between 0.2% and 2.0%. Second, the variation really shifts. While most of BC remains at the upper end in terms of risk of forced move, the Vancouver CMA drops to the middle of the pack, fitting between Edmonton and Ottawa, and way below Saskatoon.
Overall, this is a pretty nice, readily interpretable measure of risk of eviction!
But maybe we want to see what happens if we go further back in time, giving us more moves overall to work with, and more time at risk of being forced to move. Unfortunately, the further back we go, the trickier it is to establish our denominator of renters and link them to discrete moves. We could be missing some moves (as when people move twice or more in rapid succession, leaving us with only information about the most recent move). And we could be missing some renters (as when young people leave home to become renters, adding to our denominator, but not showing up as a renter prior to their last move). Glossing over people possibly moving multiple times, and possibly being forced to move multiple times, we can extend our above graph to include most recent move in the past 5 years where the last move was forced, taking all renters as denominators.
With longer time spent at risk of being forced to move, the overall risk to renters increases over a five year period, now ranging from roughly 3% to over 10%. There are also some notable shifts in regional variation; in particular, Metro Vancouver rejoins the rest of BC at the highest risk of forced moves for renters. Looking back historically, this suggests evictions risks may have been higher in BC from 2013-2017 than they were 2017-2018. We’ll come back to exploring this. But first let’s use our longer time-lines to look at sub-populations of interest.
Demographics on forced moves
The CHS has also collected information on visible minority status of household members, which allows us to understand how this affects the risk of being forced to move. The PUMF data only breaks out a simple yes/no status on whether at least one household member belongs to a visible minority group, but give that the sample gets quite thin that’s probably the best that the PUMF can do.
To avoid small samples we are only breaking this down for broad regions. At this level there seems to be no strong signal that visible minority households overall are more impacted by forced moves, with the exception of the Atlantic provinces. Of note, this does not mean that the same holds for all subgroups of visible minorities. There weren’t enough households with visible minority members in the Territories to show meaningful data, and we chose to not show groups with fewer than 200 renters.
This is also a good reminder that people of Indigenous identity aren’t classified as visible minorities in Canada, and we should take a separate look at how they are faring in terms of eviction risks.
We again suppressed data with fewer than 200 renters, which only leaves the Territories and the Prairies, the latter exhibiting a worryingly heightened risk of being forced to move for households with household members of Indigenous identity.
Historical and Comparative Risks of Forced Moves and Choice Moves
Let’s return to comparing one-year risks to five-year risks. To better compare the one year and five year forced move risk, we can compute the 1-year equivalent risk for 5 year movers, assuming that the risk to be forced to move is independent of having been forced to move in the past and has not changed over time. Looking at the differences of the 1-year equivalent risk of forced move on the most recent move over the past five years to the in one year risk to be forced to move gives some way to compare risk from 2017-2018 to risks for the full period from 2013-2018 side-by-side.
In effect, where the blue bar (one year risk) exceeds the orange bar (one-year equivalent of five year risk), we might be looking at evidence of recent historical change where risks of eviction have risen in the past year. The high risk of forced moves looks quite recent in Saskatoon, for instance. Similarly, in Manitoba, New Brunswick, and rural Nova Scotia the repeated one year risk is substantially higher than the risk of being forced to move on the last move and the last move happening during the past five years prior to 2018.
On the other hand, wherever the orange bar vastly exceeds the blue bar, eviction risks within the past year seem to have gone down dramatically. Vancouver looks like potentially the biggest effect in this direction, though it also shows up outside of CMAs in BC, ON, and QC.
It’s tempting to describe these as straightforward historical effects, and the pattern in Vancouver, for instance, might suggest that changes to the Rental Tenancy Act providing more protections to renters and made effective in May of 2018 – about six months prior to our survey – might be showing up in the data. But it’s difficult to fully separate out these changes from other things going on in the rental market, or from potentially confounding selection effects (e.g. those evicted may face higher risk of subsequent moves, or may be especially prone to seek out more stable forms of housing in their next move). Still, we can refine this further by looking at the risk for forced moves (on the last move) over increasingly longer time frames, zooming in on BC and a handful of comparison regions and normalizing the risk as a 1-year equivalent, understanding the same caveats as in the previous graph apply.
This brings out more clearly how the risk of being forced to move dropped off sharply during the last year in Vancouver and the rest of BC, but stayed roughly flat in Toronto and Montreal, and increased in Saskatoon. This lends some further credence to the hypothesis that rental protections enacted in BC had an effect on forced moves. Well done BC NDP!
Flipping the analysis around, it may also be interesting to zoom in on choice moves, which here we’ll simply consider as all moves not described as forced. Let’s plot choice moves with forced moves.
The data confirm that the risk of choice mobility looks especially low in Vancouver and Toronto. This fits with the low vacancy rates and likely lack of adequate choices in these markets combined with the workings of rent control, often creating a moving penalty for renters that increases with length of tenure. And this answers the question we asked higher up why residential mobility is lower in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The answer is that it’s mostly due to fewer voluntary moves.
It’s the combination of a low risk of Choice moves with a moderate or high risk of Forced moves that creates the effect we’ve demonstrated in past posts, whereby we see a dramatically higher proportion of moves showing up as forced in Vancouver and the rest of BC relative to the rest of Canada. This has important implications, insofar as reducing the proportion of moves that are forced will involve both insuring more adequate protections (which we’re starting to see in BC) and insuring higher vacancy rates so people have better choices available to them about where they might move.
Overall, we can clearly see expected patterns between tenure and mobility. We can also construct a new and useful estimate of the Risk of Forced Move for all renters. For subpopulations, we see some evidence of heightened Risk of Forced Moves for indigenous tenants in the Prairies. There’s also good evidence that declining Risks of Forced Moves might be the result of a policy shift to strengthen tenant protections in BC in 2018. Combinations of moderate to high Risk of Forced Move, with low Risk of Choice Move produce the troubling patterns we have past documented in terms of Vancouver and BC’s much elevated proportion of all moves described as Forced. This suggests increasing the rental vacancy rate is important to enabling more renters to Choose where they want to live, in addition to continuing to protect tenants’ protections against being displaced.
As usual, the code for this post is available on GitHub, although people that want to run it will have to request a copy of the CHS PUMF data from StatCan. While PUMF data is now freely available, it still requires a special request to get the data.
Most years I take my students on a tour around City Hall, with a focus on showing off various aspects of how City Hall is working (or not) upon the landscape around it. This year, of course, I can’t do that with my classes! So I’m moving the tour on-line, where anybody can come along if they like. Also I’m making the slides linked below available as a PDF document, in case anyone wants to download them and bring them along to walk the route.
We begin the tour at the corner of 10th & Cambie (I usually wait for my class on the stairwell leading up toward City Hall). From there we hook South, East, and North and around City Hall, continuing North on Yukon till we turn West on 7th, slinking our way on down toward False Creek. Here’s what the route looks like mapped out on Google Maps, which is where anyone can follow along virtually.
I’d recommend toggling back and forth between street view and satellite view in Google Maps for best effect. The reason I carve this particular route has do with how it maps over top of various key zoning transitions within the City, directly governed by City Hall. So let’s substitute this map for another one, labeling the underlying zoning districts and laying out stops along the way. The base map I’m using comes from my joint project with Jens von Bergmann looking at zoning all across Metro Vancouver.
From here on out, I’ll organize the tour by number of the stop along the way.
Stop 1. 10th & Cambie
From the steps leading up to City Hall on the SE corner of 10th & Cambie, it’s worth looking to the North, toward downtown and the mountains beyond. How much is it worth? That’s a good question. For the City of Vancouver, its apparently worth quite a lot. This view is specifically protected by City policy, as first adopted in 1989. In fact, the entirety of our tour lies within protected view cones, with the largest one extending from Queen Elizabeth Park. View cones have distinct effects upon what can be built in Vancouver in terms of height and massing that might be considered as disrupting views, and these are layered over top of more direct zoning regulations. Shadowing policies can have similar effects, adding up to a complex set of regulations governing construction beyond simple zoning. But, as we’ll see, zoning is often not simple either.
From stop one, we’ll turn our gaze southward, away from downtown, the mountains, and the near Commercial buildings to our North. Then we’ll march along City Hall toward the intersection of 12th & Cambie. As we do so, we find ourselves passing through lands that have been “spot zoned,” or set aside on a lot by lot basis from the standardized zoning categories governing Vancouver’s development.
Stop 2. 12th & Cambie
Once we arrive at 12th & Cambie we find ourselves completely surrounded by spot-zoned Comprehensive Development (CD) lots. Indeed, the newest of these, at the SE corner of the intersection is actually called “The Spot” though it gets its name from the former White Spot restaurant that used to occupy the site rather than from its spot zoning. Initially CD zoning was employed to enable uses for lots deemed desirable, but not in fitting with standardized zoning categories (the Oak Ridge Mall was Vancouver’s first CD). Over time CD zones have proliferated dramatically, with each lot calling for its own bylaw passed by council, and Vancouver has become famous – or infamous – for its spot zoning practices. CD zones open up direct negotiation between developers and the City, with Community Amenity Contributions often being offered (not without controversy) as a developer gift to the City while CD zoning entails greater density or different uses for developers than allowed by standardized zoning categories. Working through a CD rezoning can ultimately be profitable for market-oriented developers, but the process can also be lengthy, onerous, uncertain, and expensive.
The lots at 12th & Cambie demonstrate both the proliferation of CD zones and their changing structure over time. City Hall was shifted to a CD-1 (46) zone in 1968, three decades after its construction, likely just to reflect its distinct use. Recent amendments added on-site “Public Bike Share” as an allowed use, but otherwise the bylaw governing City Hall remains sparse. If anything, the CD-1 (62) bylaw governing The Plaza 500 (passed in 1970) is even more sparse, simply enabling “Retail stores, Professional Offices, Restaurant, Lounge, Apartment and Hotel-model” uses on-site, including ancillary facilities like a “Beverage Room.” The City Square rezoning into CD-1 (187) from 1986, enabled the incorporation of the old heritage Model School and Normal School buildings into a small shopping mall, and contains somewhat more complex language and code, including a wider range of specified uses, and a maximum Floor Space Ratio and Height. “The Spot” was rezoned as CD-1 (602) in 2015, with the number indicative of the dramatic growth of CD zones over thirty years’ time. Code complexity has grown as well, incorporating Horizontal Angle of Daylight and acoustic concerns. “The Spot” provides an exemplary of what people often imagine CD zones are doing in combining Commercial (at grade) and Residential (above) uses, hence enabling a mix falling outside of codes separating these uses and adding much needed housing. In reality, as revealed by our Metro Vancouver zoning map, CDs are employed for all sorts of uses, with most of our largest by land area being institutional (e.g. the PNE Fairgrounds, Mountainview Cemetery, Major Hospitals).
Stop 3. 12th & Yukon
As we move off Cambie, walking Eastward on 12th, the landscape changes remarkably. By the time we reach Yukon, the SE corner of City Hall is surrounded by big old houses set behind leafy trees. Each corner of the intersection (including City Hall) is now recorded in Vancouver’s Heritage Registry. And we now find City Hall surrounded by the RT-6 zone.
We can see a high density of heritage registered properties extends further than the corners, across the RT-6 zoning nearby, here made visible through the Legacy (heritage) version of Vancouver’s VanMap. But we’ll encounter a few more later along our walk.
The overlap between RT-6 Zoning and Heritage Registered properties is no accident. Indeed, the RT-6 zone is practically a living museum zone, intended to promote the “restoration of existing residential buildings” and maintain “the historical architectural style and building form consistent with the area.”
The RT-6 schedule is worth perusing in full to enjoy the minute detail paid to limiting and guiding local redevelopment. This RT zone also has a lengthy set of regulations, including some rules, like Dwelling Unit Density, not commonly seen elsewhere in the City of Vancouver. Despite the broader range of uses theoretically allowed under conditional approval, these arcane regulations actually limit what can be built on a standard size lot in Vancouver to fewer dwellings than can now be built under the low density RS (“Residential Single Family”) zones that occupy the bulk of the further flung parts of the City of Vancouver. Though we’re not passing through it here, I’ve got a whole book on Vancouver’s RS zoning for anyone interested!
Stop 4. 10th & Yukon
Heading further North along Yukon, we come to the intersection with 10th, allowing us a peek at a tiny pocket of RM-4 (“Residential Multifamily”) zoning. Multi-family zoning has often been allowed and justified as a kind of transition or shield between commercially (C) zoned strips and lower density (RS and RT) zoning. Here we can see that while the zoning allows apartment buildings, it’s still only a conditional use, requiring approval from Vancouver’s Chief Planner.
RM-4 zoning allows for only relatively low-rise apartment buildings, maxing out at about three storeys (or perhaps four, with a sunken first floor). As we gaze Eastward along 10th,we see that the townhouses to the right fit just fine, though they likely obtained some extra density (Floor Space Ratio) in exchange for fixing up the heritage Grauer House behind them. Yet on the left we’re immediately confronted with a seven storey building: The Lutheran Manor. How did it get there?
As it turns out, Lutheran Manor was built during a relatively narrow window in time between 1961 and the mid-1970s, when the land it sits on had been zoned RM-3, and the maximum heights on RM-3 were lifted to 100 ft. Lutheran Manor narrowly escaped the great downzoning that subsequently swept across Vancouver’s RM sites under TEAM in the 1970s, lowering maximum heights to 35 ft, and ultimately rezoning many former RM-3 parcels to the more restrictive RM-4. So effectively, Lutheran Manor was built under different rules, and could not be rebuilt under its current zoning today. What’s great about Lutheran Manor is that it’s also Non-Market Social Housing, which relatively scarce across the City of Vancouver. Lutheran Manor’s non-conforming status, meaning it doesn’t meet its zoning, helps explain how our current zoning rules work to really limit the construction of new Social Housing.
As we can see via its listing linked to VanMap, Lutheran Manor exclusively serves Seniors, offering a mix of Studios and 1-Bedroom apartments to that end. Much of our existing Social Housing stock is similarly modest in size and serving specialized groups, like seniors and families with children. As a final note before moving on, the City of Vancouver has recently discussed a policy shift re-enabling buildings like the Lutheran Manor in RM-4 and related districts. The basic idea is that non-profit housing applicants could be enabled to build up to six storeys in these zones without going through an expensive, lengthy, and uncertain re-zoning (CD) process.
Here I’ll just return to our guide map to point out that we’re about to head North to Broadway, crossing definitively into the C-3A Commercial zone, and setting us off to our next stop!
Stop 5. Broadway & Yukon
And now we’re on Broadway! Vancouver’s primary Commercial Strip outside Downtown. In normal times, this was also purportedly the most frequently traveled bus corridor in Canada or the USA (who doesn’t love the 99 B-Line!) And the Broadway Subway is coming soon, initiating a new City Planning exercise for the area. Entering Broadway strip, we’re also entering the C-3A Commercial District. Let’s take a quick look at what kinds of uses are allowed.
The above is only a sample of outright and conditional uses. What a shift from RT and RM districts! At the same time, it’s striking that each potential use has to be directly specified to be allowed. This is how zoning works; by directly legislating what’s allowed and thereby forbidding everything else. It’s dramatically more conservative from the regulatory approach that dominated prior to zoning, where certain objectionable uses (e.g. tanneries) were specifically restricted, but all other uses were allowed by default. Here any new use has to find some old category to fit under or risk being defined out of code. Dwellings are conditional uses within C-3A zoning, but often not allowed on the first floor. Let’s take a look at the streetscape to the West.
The block running between Yukon and Cambie is largely older, low-rise buildings, most dating from either the 1920s or the post-WWII era. On the right (N) side of the block, the view from above reveals that the stubby little buildings are on very shallow square lots. These shallow lots run all along the North side of Broadway between Cambie and Quebec streets, and seem relatively resilient to redevelopment, likely reflecting the difficulty of building anything else upon them given the difficulty of addressing issues like parking by-law (6059)requirements within the small lot footprint. Parking requirements are typically layered beneath zoning requirements, like an underground garage in code form. As for the peculiarly shallow lots, these were produced by historical accident of the misalignment between the streets and lots on the West and East sides of Cambie, corrected at Broadway. On the left (S) side of the block, all of the normal-sized lots between Yukon and Cambie are actually owned by the City! They were likely purchased in planning for some combination of future City Hall and SkyTrain (or Subway) expansion. We can see all the City-owned lots in the area by mapping them out on VanMap.
As we cross Broadway, we’ll continue heading North on Yukon. As we pass the lovely mural on the side of the stubby little building on our left, we very quickly we encounter a split in our zoning, with the left side of the block still C-3A Commercial, but the right (E) side of the block turning over to I-1 Industrial. But before we get there, we’ve also got another little CD-1 (330) zoned parcel tucked in on the right, with one foot in continuing the Commercial strip with La Taqueria Pinche Taco Shop facing Yukon, and the other foot in Industrial, with Sherwin William Paints and Reliable Parts appliance part sales wrapped around the corner facing 8th.
Stop 6. 7th & Yukon
As we pass 8th and approach 7th & Yukon, our stop six, we get a better view of the Commercial – Industrial (E) split. On the Commercial (C-3A) side we see the back side of the boxy building containing Home Depot, SaveOn Foods and a variety of other stores.Up above the big box of assorted retail, somewhat strikingly, rest the rental live-work townhouses of The Rise, surrounding a central courtyard viewable from overhead (or from The Rise’s marketing website).
On the Industrial (I-1) side of Yukon between 8th and 7th we see the fenced off parking lot supporting Freeman Audio Visual, a company providing technical support for on-site events (apparently about to move locations), and a pink-ish building further down houses Van Bind manufacturing, which assembles a variety of promotional items. Let’s take a closer look at what’s allowed in the I-1 Industrial zoning.
There are a lot of outright and conditional uses specified for I-1 Industrial zoning, just like we saw with C-3A Commercial zoning. The same general principle applies, we specifically name all the uses we might think acceptable, and disallow anything not otherwise named. This conservative strategy, labeling established and past manufacturing uses, may end up at odds with the high tech intent “to permit advanced technology industry, and industry with a significant amount of research and development activity.”
Arriving at 7th & Yukon, we see a new conundrum on the Industrial (E) side of Yukon. What’s a bagel shop and an old house doing here? As it turns out, they both fit!
We can use the existence of the old house to jump back in time to 1912, when the old house was relatively new, but use-based zoning hadn’t been introduced to Vancouver as yet. I’m assembling this map of what our tour looked like in 1912 from two plates (26 and 28) of the Goad’s Atlas of the City of Vancouver, accessible through The City of Vancouver Archives.
On the map from 1912 Cambie Street wasn’t even Cambie Street as yet, but rather simply called Bridge Street. The misalignment between the East and West sides of Bridge Street is even more apparent, producing those shallow stubby lots we saw along Broadway. Before zoning, most of the area we’ve passed through so far looked pretty residential, though there are a few other buildings mixed in, like a bank on Broadway and the Model and Normal Schools that would merge into City Square.
Strikingly, even after zoning arrived to Vancouver in the form of preliminary bylaws passed through the late 1920s, the area containing and surrounding our old house wasn’t zoned Industrial. It was first zoned as a residential neighbourhood! But through a process of zoning change over time, Industrial zoning was expanded from False Creek up to Broadway, then retracted into the formerly residential parts of Mount Pleasant we’re now passing through on our tour.
Put slightly differently, mapping the history of this area’s Industrial zoning looks a bit like mapping the passage of an enormous slug heaving itself up from the waterfront and across Cambie Street between 1930 and 1990. What happened to the post-industrial land it left in its wake? Below we can see the timing of when various buildings in the area were constructed, relying upon Building Age as recorded in BC Assessment data, and helpfully mapped by Jens over at MountainMath. The trail of green left behind by former Industrial zoning definitely matches our slug imagery, and indicates that most of the buildings we’ll be passing by from here on out will have been built in the wake of Industrial zoning’s slow passage. Let’s head Westward into some post-industrial slug-slime!
Stop 7. 7th & Cambie
As we return to Cambie Street, we re-enter the C-3A zone, but recall that this zoning was only recently put in place on the East side of Cambie. On the West side of Cambie it’s been in place longer. Sure enough it tracks with the view! The Canadian Tire store appears in a building only constructed in 2004, and similarly new-ish buildings are visible further to the North. To the left (W), the building housing the Robinson Lighting & Bath Centre has had some touch-ups, but it’s been there since 1966, likely constructed just as Commercial zoning replaced Industrial.
As we cross Cambie, we also get a hint of the misalignment along 7th Avenue from one side to the other (it’s more obvious up on 8th). Sticking along 7th Westward, the post-industrial C-3A Commercial zoning continues off the Cambie strip. On the right (N), we can see a continuation of shops and related commercial uses on lower floors,with condominium apartments above. On the left (S) we finally come across another instance of Non-Market Housing!
The Glynn Manor social housing, run by Brightside, is (somewhat unusually) targeted at youth. It operates with support from the provincial BC Housing agency on land owned by the City of Vancouver and leased to the housing provider, demonstrating the ways that multiple governments often operate together to support Social Housing. More of this please!
Stop 8. 7th & Ash
We continue on down 7th toward Ash, with shop and office fronts following alongside the right (N) side of the block for at least half way down. But it’s notable that while it remains tucked within the C-3A guidelines, we also get some condo buildings (fitting within conditional uses requiring approval of the Director of Planning), and the on the left (S) side of the street we generally don’t retain commercial frontage at street level at all. Instead we get a condo building and a large office complex (housing the BC Cancer Foundation), up until we get to the little house at the end of the block containing the Caffe Cittadella.
On the North (R) side of the block, the zoning shifts at Ash to the neighbourhood-specific FM-1 Fairview zone, replacing a rapid turnover of previous RM, I, and CRM (early mixed use Commercial) zones. Most of the area was redeveloped in conjunction with the FM-1 zoning, ushering the close townhouse oriented developments characterizing the area today.
Stop 9. 6th & Moberly
We continue through the FM-1 zone as we make our way down toward False Creek, with some of the remaining mixed uses encouraged by the zone showing up here and there, as with the auto-repair shop (more characteristic of Industrial zoning) and the 7-11 in the mini strip-mall on 6th (more characteristic of Commercial zoning). The distinct “close together” look of the zone is emphasized by the lack of yard requirements or setbacks, unusual for a largely residential district.
As we turn the corner onto 6th, we arrive at yet another notable instance of non-market housing! This time it’s a co-operative: The Stan Stronge Noble House. I describe the basic features of co-operatives below, but head on over to the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC for more.
As we cross 6th Avenue, a street turned over to busy arterial use, we can see how it works as a barrier to False Creek and the neighbourhood where we’re heading. But it’s not the only barrier, we also cross some railway tracks linked back to an old CPR right-of-way, a short-term Olympic streetcar pilot, and a more contentious future (you can let Uytae Lee break it down).
Stop 10. Sawcut & Greenchain
On the other side of the tracks we find ourselves in a new zone, designed to operate kind of like a gigantic CD zone. Indeed, it’s literally called the False Creek Comprehensive Development District (FCCDD). The zone was created in conjunction with a massive effort in the 1970s to transform the post-industrial southern shores of False Creek into a new residential district, owned primarily by the City of Vancouver, and enrolling the federal assistance of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) in the effort. Somewhat incongruously, the CMHC still owns Granville Island! (And has also generously funded our efforts at keeping tracking of Metro Vancouver zoning).
Walking through the False Creek Development District is like stepping back in time, in this case very precisely to 1976, when all of the surrounding buildings we see on our walk were constructed. The particular vision was very much in keeping with a 70’s self-expression vibe, but also involved specific ideas about creating an accessible residential mix. The City retained ownership of the vast majority of the land across the FCCDD, leasing some sites to member run non-market housing provides, like the False Creek Co-op, while leasing other sites to private strata (condominium) buildings, in the hopes that lease-holds might lower barriers to ownership. Examining the Community Profile has raised new questions about whether the results reflect the desired aim in terms of social mix. As the leases are coming up for renewal, the City is currently working toward planning for how the neighbourhood should change in the future.
Finally, as our Virtual Vancouver Zoning tour comes to an end, we can look across False Creek toward the towering skyline of the Downtown peninsula. I’ve got another on-line tour of sorts set over there, taking interested parties (including my classes) back and forth in time and following the paths of Vancouver’s famous 1907 trolley ride video! But I hope this little jaunt around City Hall has convinced you that lots of interesting stuff is going on outside of Vancouver’s downtown core. More to the point I hope I’ve convinced you that all the stuff going on in City Hall, in terms of its zoning and related regulatory powers, is actually really, really interesting, with consequences you can see on the street!
Note: As always, please send me any corrections and fixes! Currently dated to March of 2021, I will likely return to update this post in the future in support of the tour and changing conditions on the ground.
TLDR: I attempt to articulate a Human Rights YIMBYism, rooted in supporting (and sometimes balancing) a set of key human rights and freedoms (housing, movement, association, property) within the city. While both push back against NIMBYism, broad Human Rights YIMBYism offers a different, and I argue more successful and ethical guide to action and coalition building than narrower Property YIMBYism.
There are many YIMBY (Yes In My BackYard) movements springing up across North America, as well as many detractors. YIMBYism positions itself directly in response to NIMBY (Not in My BackYard) activism, of course, with the latter aimed at preventing new construction, especially adding housing. NIMBYism occurs largely within municipal settings, where unequal participation in housing decisions and arcane regulatory contexts (including, but not limited to zoning) often tend to work against construction of new housing. Here I wanted to briefly set out a grounding of YIMBYism within a Human Rights framework. I’ll ground this discussion within Canadian (and at times specifically BC) Human Rights, as well as broader United Nations frameworks. Key qualifer: I’m not a lawyer! I only play one while blogging. By all means send me corrections where my interpretations fail the bar.
So how do we situate YIMBYisms within a Human Rights framework? Let’s consider the following key articulated human rights, recognized to some extent in most jurisdictions, but varying widely in terms of their legal entrenchment:
Right to Housing
Freedom of Movement
Freedom of Association
What I’ll argue is that what Human Rights YIMBYism brings to the table, and to cities, is an attempt to fulfill these (and other) human rights. In some cases this involves making decisions about balancing between these rights. But recognition of multiple rights is key to Human Rights YIMBYism, and grounds discussions between potential allies in shared commitments as well as specific legal tools and reasoning. At the same time, a Human Rights framework helps distinguish this form of YIMBYism from more narrow and less supported Property YIMBYism as well as from NIMBY approaches (and some related spin-offs and intermediaries). Below I elaborate on how each Right relates to YIMBYism.
The Right to Housing
The Right to Housing is the most obvious YIMBY-relevant right. Within Canada, the Right to Housing has long been recognized by UN treaty (1976) (ICESCR see article 11) and more recently made its way into official act (2019), included in Bill C-97, division 19‘s National Housing Strategy Act. But the actual language governing rights is limited, leaving UN comments (4 and 7) codified within a UN fact sheet (no. 21) and a Canadian Parliamentary Primer (van den Berg 2019) attempting to spell out and clarify actual obligations.
The UN Fact Sheet distinguishes between Freedoms and Entitlements arguing both apply to the Right to Adequate Housing, and also lays out a set of criteria describing what Adequate Housing includes, which I’ll screenshot here in full:
Support for YIMBYism is most obvious as a freedom in “The right to choose one’s residence” (which also speaks to Freedom of Movement). Granting people a choice over where to live necessarily entails building enough housing in places where people want to live to make choices available. Human Rights YIMBYism also appears as an entitlement in “Equal and non-discriminatory access to adequate housing,” which explicitly includes protection against segregation (including by property as well as by ethnicity and related categories) and “Participation in housing-related decision-making,” which effectively is what YIMBY activism attempts to achieve. Clear Human Rights YIMBYism also shows up in the definition of adequacy as containing a Location component, providing for access to “employment opportunities, etc.” For all of these reasons, I’d suggest YIMBYism should root itself within Human Rights. Realizing a Right to Housing entails making lots more housing available in places people want to be, striking directly against exclusionary segregation, pushing for broader participation in housing decisions, and insuring that housing is built near employment, various services, and transit centres. Good stuff.
But there’s more! In particular, while the Right to Housing, as articulated by the UN, explicitly denies that States have an obligation to build housing for their entire populations, they require States to effectively meet needs left unmet by private means of housing provision (e.g., those reliant upon private property). In short, the Right to Housing can be read to support and indeed mandate the addition of plentiful Non-market Housing where people cannot secure adequate housing without state intervention. In addition, “freedom from forced eviction” and “security of tenure” tie Human Rights YIMBYism to tenant rights. As stated multiple times in UN guidelines, these are not understood to be absolute rights, but rather reflect the necessity of various protective frameworks (e.g. rent control and the banning of “no cause” evictions) and access to courts in protesting evictions. In effect, according to UN interpretation the Right to Housing must protect tenants, but must also be situated within obligations to respect other existing rights (including the Right to Property, to which I’ll return), as well as support for state capacity to build – and legally expropriate – for the public good.
We can already see UN attentiveness to nestling a Right to Housing within other rights, both directly (in terms of movement, property, and arguably privacy – see freedom from arbitrary interference) and also indirectly (as with affordability considered in relation to peoples’ ability to secure all other rights). But so far this is all at the UN. As argued in the Canadian Primer, treaty obligations don’t fully translate into specific rights to housing. Yet as (finally) realized through Bill C-97, treaties obligate Canada to “further the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing as recognized in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.” Interestingly, they also inform and roughly map onto what the courts within Canada have distinguished as “negative rights” (where states avoid interfering with freedoms) and “positive rights” (where states provide entitlements). Prior to Bill C-97, Canada’s courts – especially in BC – have often protected the right to shelter as a freedom (or negative right) as it relates to “Security of Person” (s. 7 of Charter), for instance, protecting against forced evictions from homeless camps when no alternative shelter space has been made available (see Victoria (City) v. Adams in 2008; Abbottsford (City) v. Shantz in 2015; and British Columbia v. Adamson in 2016). But courts have been wary of supporting a positive right as an entitlement. There remains lots of room for Human Rights YIMBYism to advocate in support of recognizing housing as a positive Right to Housing within Canada, addressing all of the above. But also further room for Human Rights YIMBYism to push for a negative right, insofar as municipal processes are interfering with peoples’ Right to Housing.
Freedom of Movement
Like the Right to Housing, the Freedom of Movement is an internationally recognized right. In addition to being included within the Right to Housing, it also has an older and independent grounding, in this case, within article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). To whit, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.” For Canada, these rights have also been more directly included within the Canadian Charter (s. 6) since 1982. Specifically, “Every citizen of Canada and every person who has the status of a permanent resident of Canada has the right (a) to move to and take up residence in any province; and (b) to pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province.” While Charter rights explicitly refer to inter-provincial mobility, I think there’s a strong case for extending them to inter-municipal mobility on multiple grounds. First, since municipalities cover most parts of provinces where people might desire to take up residence, the collection of municipal restrictions upon housing can effectively work to prevent freedom of inter-provincial mobility. Second, since municipalities – as echoed in the words of BC’s attorney general in a recent Supreme Court filing – are “creatures of provincial governments with no constitutional status,” then provinces have a special duty to prevent their creatures from hampering freedom of movement. This duty would appear to be further heightened for the key municipalities at the heart of “gateway” metropolises, through which most inter-provincial migrants would be likely to arrive (e.g. Vancouver). Finally, of course, a more expansive reading of Freedom of Movement within the Charter to include inter- and intra-municipal mobility would better match international recognition of the right.
To be sure, valid questions remain about the scope of this freedom. Does a full enactment of Freedom of Movement and Residence entail a positive right to live by the beach near downtown Vancouver? Probably not. But a Human Rights YIMBYism should press upon governments their obligation to work against exclusivity in choice of residence, whereby neighbourhoods and municipalities actively prevent equal access. Perhaps Vancouver’s OneCity party puts it best with their slogan: “Every Neighbourhood for Everyone.”
freedom of association
Within sociology and urban studies, people often refer to a Right to the City, linked explicitly (in a sprawling sort of way) to French sociologist and intellectual Henri Lefebvre. Unfortunately, the Right to the City is not well recognized (or even well explained by Lefebvre), but we do have Freedom of Association, which might be considered as accomplishing something similar. Freedom of Association is directly protected in section 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as (indirectly) a number of other sections. Like Freedom of Movement, Freedom of Association also carries over into the Canadian Constitution via the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s. 2(d). Mostly Freedom of Association has been interpreted (and fought over) as protecting things like rights to unionization. But as outlined by the Canadian Department of Justice, its purpose is far more encompassing.
Freedom of association is intended to recognize the profoundly social nature of human endeavours and to protect the individual from state-enforced isolation in the pursuit of their ends (Mounted Police Association of Ontario v. Canada, 2015 SCC 1 (“ MPAO”) at paragraph 54). It protects the collective action of individuals in pursuit of their common goals (Lavigne v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union,  2 S.C.R. 211 at 253). It functions to protect individuals against more powerful entities, thus empowering vulnerable groups and helping them work to right imbalances in society (MPAO, supra, at paragraph 58). It allows the achievement of individual potential through interpersonal relationships and collective action (Dunmore v. Ontario (Attorney General),  3 S.C.R. 1016 at paragraph 17).
As I read it, for many people Freedom of Association necessarily entails a Right to the City. This is especially the case for those who would otherwise be isolated in the pursuit of their ends, or in pursuit of common goals, as often occurs for minorities outside of cities. For instance, GLBTQ folk have been drawn to cities as the best places to gather and pursue their collective rights. By virtue of the density and diversity of people on offer, cities hold out the best prospect for realizing Freedom of Association across a broad range of interest and identities. Indeed, it is only in protecting access to density and diversity that the Freedom of Association within cities inevitability generates new interests and identities, and in turn protects the potential to translate these into collective action and the empowerment of vulnerable groups.
Where municipalities restrict the addition of housing, they also restrict this Freedom of Association. Taken together with the duty to prevent discrimination, codified within the BC Human Rights Code as targeting “race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or age,” this suggests a Human Rights YIMBYism paying special attention to how cities work toward guaranteeing the Human Rights of a wide – and increasingly diverse – set of minorities. More specifically, a Human Rights YIMBYism should take care to support urban neighbourhoods that meaningfully offer minorities access to Freedom of Association in forms unavailable elsewhere. In other words, care should be taken to support majority-minority neighbourhoods (e.g. Chinatowns, Gaybourhoods, etc.) and other neighbourhoods of difference as a fundamental expression of supporting the Freedom of Association, especially as they tie back to “empowering vulnerable groups and helping them work to right imbalances in society.” Returning to a theme, this duty of care should be clearly situated within a balanced framework of support for other rights and freedoms.
Finally we come to property! A Right to Property is laid out within the UN’s 1948 Declaration of Human Rights (article 17), and also makes an appearance in Canada’s 1960 Bill of Rights (Article 1a). But interestingly, neither the UN, nor the government of Canada have enshrined a specific right to property in more recent key documents, including the UN’s ICESCR Treaty (1976) and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982). Indeed, there’s a whole Government of Canada explainer on the history of why a Right to Property failed to make its way into the Canadian Charter (mostly due to confederation and party politics). Of note, one argument forwarded by the Primer against enshrining property rights within the Charter is that they might “affect municipal zoning rules.” Regardless, as also explained by the Primer, Canada’s Property Rights are protected by its common law traditions, even if not specifically entrenched within its Constitution.
A Right to Property does not fully describe the content of Property Rights. The discussion of what is included in Property Rights in Canada is vast, and I won’t be able to take it on in its entirety here. But I want to lay out, in brief, the key argument that Property Rights extend from state delegation of sovereignty to owners (as per Cohen 1927). Initially, this delegation of sovereignty provided all manner of legal powers to real property owners (entitled as if they were literally landed lords), especially in terms of setting the future agenda for their properties and building upon them as they would, enabling them to build and lease out, say, big rooming houses. But powers to set the future agenda for properties were gradually rolled back – or re-delegated – to municipalities. This handy piece by Sarah Hamill (2015) lays out some further basic conceptions of Property Rights in light of their typical reception by courts in Canada now. In effect, property owners are now mostly granted rights to exclude others from their properties and to continue to use them as they have been primarily used (or be compensated for their loss). But property owners no longer get to determine different future uses, nor can they rely upon calculations based on potential future uses to argue for appropriate compensation when potential uses are changed (as established, once again, by a local BC court case involving the Railway, and detailed by UBC’s Douglas Harris 2012).
I find this stuff fascinating, and I’m only scratching the surface of it here. Property Rights are interesting for all sorts of additional reasons, including both how they’re often (correctly) treated skeptically by many working for broader social justice aims, and how they’ve also often been overlooked as a protective force (e.g. for minorities at risk of state mistreatment or those working toward the restoration of indigenous sovereignty). But overall, it’s clear that the Canadian interpretation of Property Rights remains limited relative to municipal regulations curtailing the addition of housing – especially zoning powers. While it’s possible this interpretation could change, and indeed this was raised as a potential objection to enshrining property rights within the Charter, so far Property Rights, by themselves, provide only limited grounding for YIMBY activism.
human rights typologies of yimby & nimby
I argue this sets up an interesting disjuncture, creating two streams of YIMBY activism: narrow Property YIMBYism and broader Human Rights YIMBYism. These can be contrasted with one another as well as with various streams of NIMBYism on the basis of the Human Rights framework discussed above.
Property YIMBYism might be best understood as pushing for a maximalist interpretation of Property Rights, stripping delegation of the right to build and set future agendas for properties away from municipal governance and returning delegation to property owners. This remains a real stream of broader YIMBYism, reflecting what’s also been called a “market urbanist” approach. But while markets may be understood as the means by which a restoration of more complete agenda-setting powers to owners will achieve YIMBY aims of adding more housing, it’s worth noting that Property YIMBYism doesn’t by itself require market distribution. Indeed, Property YIMBYism, all by itself, could benefit property owners looking to build social housing as well as property owners looking to build market rentals or construct condos (subdividing and selling off ownership claims). Still, Property YIMBYism runs the risk of entrenching Rights to and in Property at the cost of broader Human Rights. Such entrenchment could ultimately work against the construction of more housing and the broader Right to Housing as well as other fundamental human rights, for instance to the extent local property owners attempted to benefit from monopolizing access to land and excluding others from it.
Human Rights YIMBYism embraces a the broad constellation of rights described above. As such, it advocates for Property Rights to be reconfigured vis-a-vis municipalities primarily in support of the related Right to Housing, Freedom of Movement, and Freedom of Assembly. Where Property Rights interfere with the Right to Housing, as with protections against evictions, tenant protections like rent control, and rights to non-discrimination, different Human Rights YIMBYs will take differing positions, but all will recognize the need to either defer to the Right to Housing or seek a reasonable balance, rather than seeking to maximize Property Rights. Similarly Property Rights should not enable owners to prevent Freedom of Movement and Freedom of Association in ways that might replicate the effects of housing shortages currently enforced by municipal agenda-setting. For that matter, a Human Rights YIMBYism need not be hostile to delegating agenda-setting powers for properties to municipal governance. But to legitimately exercise these powers, a Human Rights YIMBYism pushes municipal governments to recognize, internalize, and work to further key rights and freedoms. In particular, municipalities must incorporate commitments to a Right to Housing, Freedom of Movement, and Freedom of Association within their planning and legal structures, insuring enough housing is built to welcome those who wish to join.
NIMBYisms will persist. But a clear commitment to a broad set of Human Rights offers clarification for debates with NIMBY activists. Which key human rights and freedoms would they dispense with, and by what rationale? For those content with their current residence, Freedom of Movement seems dispensable, as it has also often been deemed expendable by certain Marxist inspired theorists and governments. Others remain happy to toss Freedom of Association to the extent it evokes tall towers or smacks of urbanism and hipster innovation. Still others focus only on the protections against displacement required by a Right to Housing without also recognizing what’s required in order to enact the freedom to choose one’s residence when moving. Generally speaking, when shifted to the context of human rights, many NIMBY objections fail to persuade. And rights arguments necessarily carry weight with governments. How do municipal obligations toward aesthetic character weigh against their obligations to support – or at least not actively oppress – human rights and freedoms? How do provinces insure their creatures are respecting constitutional law?
As I’ve argued in the past, it appears that most YIMBY identified folks are Human Rights YIMBYs. We see this, for instance, in the wide support more Inclusive Urbanist parties and platforms receive relative to narrower “Market Urbanist” Property YIMBYs (see my analysis of Vancouver’s 2018 election here), as well as the success of justice-oriented YIMBY alliances across the USA. Human Rights YIMBYs also have more tools at their disposal in being able to speak to more than (often abstract) economic reasoning in support of their positions.
Returning to provincial, state, and federal governments, a Human Rights YIMBYism should press here to affirm that these have both a positive duty to provide housing (Right to Housing) for those otherwise unable to secure it in places they want to live (Freedom of Movement ; Freedom of Association) and – at minimum – a negative duty to prevent their municipal creatures from undue interference with those exercising their Property Rights in ways to further Rights to Housing, Freedom of Movement, and Freedom of Association for others.
Finally, its worth circling back to the simple point that Human Rights YIMBYism offers perhaps the most firm grounding for forging enduring alliances. Housing politics are notoriously fractious (and don’t get me started on housing twitter). It’s valuable to start with agreement on common principles like basic Human Rights. It makes it easier to work through and set aside strategic differences and legitimate disagreements over how competing rights should be balanced without burning bridges. In short, Human Rights YIMBYism offers the kind of sturdy foundation you need to build a lot of new homes.
(Joint with Jens von Bergmann and cross-posted at MountainMath)
The “real estate has swallowed Vancouver’s economy” zombie is back, with wild claims by a City Councillor that
“If you look at the long-form census data going back to 1986 every 5 years, […] we went from selling logs to selling real estate […], major shift from resource extraction to real estate property development and construction as the primary driver in the local economy.”
Here we want to try and put the zombie out of our misery (again!), but also use this moment to ask some interesting questions about Vancouver history and what we can get from the long-form census. Mostly what we get from the census, of course, is what people list as their jobs. We can use this to ask a series of questions, including:
Just how many people work in the real estate industry in Vancouver? Is it growing?
What about finance? Are we turning into a “Global City”?
Have these activities truly replaced selling logs (or other extractive industries) as the basis for Vancouver’s economy in terms of jobs?
How about manufacturing? Didn’t we used to make things?
What about retail? Or health care and social services? Are we mostly relegated to being a regional commerce and service centre for BC?
What about the “creative class”? Is it growing? And what even is that?
But here, for jobs, we got some nice longitudinal data to answer these questions, looking at the Industrial classification of our workforce via Census running back to 1971! The biggest trick is making the industrial categories speak to our questions above and to one another across time. There were three major shifts in categories, going from SIC 1970 to SIC 1980 and finally to NAICS (and various refinements of NAICS, which are relatively minor). We can also break out interesting municipalities within Metro Vancouver. Here we’ll explore the City of Vancouver, Surrey (its largest suburb), Maple Ridge (an outlying working class suburb), and West Vancouver (its wealthiest suburb), providing some sense of geographic variation in the structuring of the labour force through time. Some of those city geographies changed through our timeframe, for consistency we will use 2016 census subdivision boundaries throughout.
Let’s start with an overview of our categories for each of the periods covering the major categories.
Let’s start to tackle the real estate question by examining two general groups: those engaged in building (construction), and those engaged in sales & leasing (real estate agents, managers, etc.). In 1971-1981, we get categories for “Construction Industries” and “Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate” so we can’t entirely pull out real estate. But this is a start. By 1986-1996, we still get “Construction” separated, but we pull “Real Estate operator and insurance agent” apart from “Finance and insurance.” From 2001-2016, we get consistent categories with “Construction” separated from “Real estate and rental and leasing.”
So let’s start with construction work.
Construction work looks either stable or cyclical, with low points in 1986 and 2001 rising to high points in 1981, 1991, and 2016. Of note, only in the outlying suburb of Maple Ridge do we see our most recent census year (2016) eclipsing previous high points in terms of construction labour force. This reflects a dearth in building through recent decades across much Metro Vancouver, leaving us with our present housing deficit. We’re only now approaching the levels of construction that were prominent in past cyclical peaks. In general, we can think of construction work as varying cyclically and geographically, but occupying about 5%-10% of the workforce.
What about the rest of the Real Estate Industry? All those realtors and property managers?
These folks are not as big a part of the workforce as the construction industry, occupying about 2%-3% of the workforce in most municipalities. This appears to be remarkably stable through the decades. But there’s one big exception, and that’s in West Vancouver. The metro’s ritziest suburb is the only one with more people engaged in the real estate industry than in the construction industry, with the former reaching up to 7% of the workforce.
What about Finance? This is often grouped in with Real Estate, but extends more broadly into banking. As we recall from above, Finance is mixed up with Insurance and Real Estate in 1971-1981, but separated into “Finance and Insurance” from 1986 onward. By some definitions, a rise in Financial occupations and related services helps differentiate the world’s “Global Cities” from the rest. Does Vancouver look like an emerging Global City? Let’s take a look…
If we’re a rising Global City, we appear to be getting there very slowly. Indeed, there’s not much change in Finance in the City of Vancouver proper, with a bit more evidence of a rise in the suburbs. Geographically, Finance generally tracks with Real Estate, occupying the most people in West Vancouver. But the peak Finance year there was in 2001, when Real Estate was at its nadir.
We can combine Finance back with Real Estate and Construction to get perhaps the most comprehensive look at what’s sometimes termed FIRE (Finance Insurance Real Estate) industries. This allows us to go back to our full time-line, from 1971-2016, though we should still be wary of changing definitions through the era.
Overall, we get the sense that even this widest possible categorization of the Real Estate related sector generally provides around 15% of our municipal jobs. Fewer in the City of Vancouver and more in West Vancouver. Vancouver and Surrey show a fairly stable share of jobs in these sectors, Maple Ridge and West Vancouver show an increasing trend. The reason for the variation is diverse, Surrey and Maple Ridge have more construction workers, West Vancouver is heavier in Finance.
Just to send the zombie home, let’s put this on a map. Here’s the full geographic distribution of Real Estate and Construction as a proportion of the labour force in each municipality. We start the map in 1986, where the quote above begins (and where many critics trace Vancouver’s turn toward real estate as arising after Expo 86). So let’s see how is started and how it’s going.
Overall the picture is… not much change. Definitely not in the City of Vancouver. Maple Ridge got more construction workers and West Vancouver got more high-end realtors. The tiny communities of Belcarra and Anmore traded places in seeing slightly higher proportions in the sector. But nowhere do we see real estate and construction as dominant. For a fully interactive map, head over here.
Huh. So did the quote above get it backward? Did we actually go from selling real estate to selling logs?
As it turns out, logging and forestry have been a very small part of Vancouver’s labour force for a long time. Indeed, in newer years this category is so small it gets lumped in with agriculture. In 1970, back when Maple Ridge remained at its most remote, it still only recorded just over 2% of its work force in the forestry industry.
But maybe we’re still extracting! What about mining? Mining makes up a similarly small portion of the labour market, and the consistent categorization makes for an easier way to track this through to the present.
Somewhat strikingly, the biggest proportion of the population engaged in mining is in West Vancouver, reaching all the way up to 1.5% in 2011. Are these rough-and-ready miners, back from working their tunnels? No. These are mostly mining executives, living in Vancouver’s swankiest suburb.
We can combine the above two industries with agriculture to get a fairly consistent picture of the combined categories through time, tracking SIC Divisions A, C, and D and NAICS 11 and 21. Together these speak to the “Staples” of the Canadian economy insofar as the country’s history has been linked to international trade. These industries have always been exceedingly small in Vancouver proper. But Surrey and Maple Ridge have seen marked declines as they’ve gradually shifted from more rural primary sites of timber and agriculture to more integrated positions as metropolitan suburbs. That said, even if the workforce remains small, the Agricultural Land Reserve insures agriculture continues to be a defining feature of the metropolitan landscape.
So if most of us are neither selling logs nor selling real estate, then what are we doing? Are we… making things? We’re certainly no Detroit or Hamilton, but the idea doesn’t seem too bizarre. After all, the rise of manufacturing drove the rise of big cities through the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. So let’s take a peek at manufacturing! Fortunately for us, it’s been pretty consistently defined since 1971. How’s it doing?
Woof! Back in 1971, manufacturing really had a claim in the region, accounting for more than one in five jobs in Surrey. It used to beat the Construction industry! But it’s declined precipitously – by roughly two-thirds – enabling the Construction industry to pull ahead. Hello North American de-industrialization!
So we don’t mostly sell real estate, we never mostly sold logs, and we don’t manufacture very much. What do we do? A big answer is Retail. Retail alone is nearly as large as Finance, Real Estate and Construction combined and surpasses Manufacturing. And it’s pretty evenly distributed across municipalities (even if it increasingly pays too little to get a place in West Vancouver).
What else do we do? We take care of people! Let’s have a look at Health Care and Social Services. Here we see a widespread rise over time across the Metro Region. Health and social services are now remarkably evenly distributed across our four exemplar municipalities.
Retail, health, and services are basic city functions, providing hubs for their surrounds. When it comes to more specialized services (e.g. Women’s and Children’s Hospital) Vancouver helps serve and take care of the entire province.
Finally, and perhaps trickiest to define, let’s briefly touch on the “Creative Class” as those often considered the drivers of our new, post-industrial economies. Popularized by Richard Florida, they’ve been understood as those “involved in the creation of new knowledge, or use of existing knowledge in new ways” (e.g. Cliffton 2008, p. 68). This is often defined rather loosely (those working in science, and maybe arts, and information and stuff) or via occupation. How could we think about it in terms of industry? Let’s smash together some things and see what happens. In our most recent era, 2001-2016, we can combine “Educational services” with “professional, scientific and technical services” as constitutive of a knowledge core with “Information and cultural industries” and “Arts, entertainment and recreation” as representing more of our aspirationally Bohemian, Hollywood North-type creativity. Unfortunately, back in the 1986-1996 period, we lose most of these categories, “Educational service” is there, but the rest is gone, probably absorbed into “Other services.” In 1971-1981, we don’t even get “Educational Service” broken out. What do we see across the Twenty-First Century so far? Is Vancouver increasingly creative?
Kind of! We can see a definite rise in the City of Vancouver itself, as well as in its largest suburb of Surrey. For Maple Ridge and West Vancouver, the historical patterns are less clear, but we get a real sense of geographic sorting. West Vancouver, in particular, seems to be a place that many of our “creative class” aspire to live. At least the ones that make money.
We note that in the City of Vancouver and in West Vancouver the creative class on it’s own clearly outperforms our widest possible categorization of the Real Estate related sector, whereas the situation is reversed in Surrey and Maple Ridge.
Overall, there is no evidence to support the zombie narrative that Vancouver once sold logs and now we sell real estate. Instead, we get the sense that Vancouver has a relatively diverse economy. It’s solidly backed by the supportive role in retail and services that the metropolis plays for the province as a whole. But its growth is arguably also supported by a rising “creative class” replacing older manufacturing jobs. Our industrial strength diversity leaves the region in a pretty good economic position. But adding a few more construction workers would really help with our housing shortage!
As usual, the code for this post is availabe on GitHub for anyone to reproduce and adaped. That data we used for this post is a custom tabulation that we have made use of before on several occasions that only covers the Vancouver and Toronto CMAs. Interested analysts can tweak the code to break out their own municipalities and industries.
(joint with Jens von Bergmann and cross-posted on mountainmath)
How did early planners envision Vancouver’s future growth? Fortunately for us, they left a prediction in dot-density map form! Here we compare their prediction to a dot-density map from today. Let’s check out how our dot destiny unfolded!
Vancouver grew rapidly from its incorporation in 1886 right up to the great crash of 1913, followed by WWI and a raging influenza epidemic (which we all know way too much about now). Growth returned through the 1920s, but an appetite for planning also met with a newly professionalized planning profession during this era. The City of Vancouver, in the process of amalgamating with the surrounding municipalities of Point Grey and South Vancouver, initiated a town planning commission, adopted interim zoning by-laws, and hired American planner Harland Bartholomew to consult. Bartholomew’s team kept Vancouver planning in conversation with evolving practice in the USA, where he was a central figure in transforming many municipalities’ explicitly race-based zoning (outlawed by courts) into use-based zoning that would have the same effect (see local planner Stephanie Allen’s award-winningthesis for more). Bartholomew’s report, while not adopted in its entirety, is widely credited as having a profound effect on the shape of the City. Here we want to take a quick peek at his prediction for the City’s future.
Looking forward from 1929, Bartholomew both suggested and predicted that Vancouver further amalgamate with nearby Burnaby and New Westminster, consolidating the peninsula. The combined population was about 280,000 at the time (reaching 289,681 residents by the 1931 census). Based on a variety of rudimentary forecasts, Bartholomew predicted that the peninsula containing Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster would reach a population of one million residents by 1960. He even plotted out the expected distribution of this population in a lovely density dot-map on p. 94 of his report.
As it turned out it would take much longer than Bartholomew forecast to reach the one million mark. Indeed, we’ve probably reached it only within the last couple of years. As of 2016, Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster remained unamalgamated, and together with UBC/UNA/UEL and Musqueam 2 (also unamalgamated) they totalled some 952,779 residents. We wanted to see what that distribution actually looks like today, using the same sort of dot-matrix map hand-drawn by Bartholomew’s team. Of course, we’re going to assemble it in R instead of drawing it by hand, allowing anyone to reproduce our work. Here’s what it looks like.
Comparing the two maps, a similar overall pattern emerges that reflects, in no small part, the enduring legacy of zoning enacted through the planning process itself. The forecast was that Downtown Vancouver and the West End would remain the most dense, reflecting the least restrictive zoning. The surrounding neighbourhoods would offer a middle density, with apartment buildings going up to three stories. Everywhere else would be dominated by relatively low-density (mostly single-family residential). The big picture today is broadly similar to the forecast from ninety years ago. In particular, all that zoning to protect low-density neighbourhoods remains stubbornly in place! But a few key differences in the map stand out.
Downtown, Bartholomew’s team forecast a fairly even distribution of high density. The actual distribution is far more variable! We see fewer people than forecast within the Central Business District (CBD) itself, but many more within the high-rise apartment buildings surrounding the CBD. Notably, people also show up along the north side of False Creek, which Bartholomew forecast remaining industrial. Guess he didn’t foresee de-industrialization, Expo 86, and Li Ka-shing!
Outside of Downtown Vancouver, some areas became more dense than anticipated, while others became less so, and these patterns are pretty interesting! On the more dense than anticipated side, we see regional town centres emerging as hotspots of density in Burnaby and New Westminster, and being linked together through transit-oriented development accompanying SkyTrain lines. We also see Kerrisdale and Marpole showing up as outposts of density. And then, of course, there’s the universities: SFU and UBC and surrounding Endowment Lands. Though large portions of the latter were set aside as Pacific Spirit Park, we see the towers housing an increasing portion of the community, as at Wesbrook Village.
What of where density appears lower than forecast? Select portions of Fairview and Mount Pleasant (as surrounding Jonathan Rogers Park), were re-zoned as industrial land after Bartholomew’s plan, and their population correspondingly failed to grow. More intriguingly, Strathcona, Commercial Drive, and Kits Point also appear far less dense than forecast, due in part to downzonings over the years, making building in these locations increasingly restrictive.
Of note, other factors also play a role in divergent forecasts. In particular, declines in household size from 4.4 in Bartholomew’s day to 2.4 in 2016 mean it takes significantly more housing now to contain one million people than when Bartholomew made his projection. This helps explain why the low-density, house-oriented portions of the map look even less dense than forecast by Bartholomew’s team.
Overall, it’s a fun exercise to compare ninety year old forecasts in dot-density form to what we see today. And now is the perfect time to do it given we’ve finally matched the predicted population size! This is a great example of a self-fulfilling prophecy where much of the density distribution was enshrined in the zoning. But this exercise should also remind us that we’re still building our cities based on planning decisions about urban form coupled with misguided forecasts made by long-dead men operating in a very different – and more discriminatory – era. We can probably do better.
As usual, the code for this post is available on GitHub if others want to reproduce or adapt this for their own.
(Joint with Jens von Bergmann and cross-posted at Mountainmath)
TLDR: Combining our two major sources of data on the “foreignness” of property owners suggests at least half of those owning property in high demand parts of BC but living outside of Canada are Canadian citizens or permanent residents.
How Foreign Are You?
BC housing discussions have often focused on various aspects of “foreignness” – foreign buyers, foreign owners, non-resident owners, foreign capital, home owners with non-anglicized last names, out of province buyers, buyers on 10-year entry program, foreign landlords – the list goes on in bewildering variety, and each category comes with it’s own range of interpretations and definitions. Thanks to BC’s Speculation and Vacancy Tax (SVT), and Statistics Canada’s attempt to consolidate ownership records through the CHSP dataset, we now have pretty good data on at least two definitions of “foreignness” for multiple years. This is especially great insofar as the latest data allows us to compare and contrast these definitions and possibly take a look at a group that rarely gets talked about in our housing discussions: Canadians who live abroad but still own property in BC.
Let’s start with our two different definitions of “foreignness” at the property level. “Foreign Owned” properties, as defined via the SVT, are those owned by a person who isn’t a Canadian citizen or permanent resident of Canada. “Non-resident Owned” properties, as defined by the CHSP, are those where the owner is a person whose primary dwelling is outside of Canada. In both cases, where multiple owners exist, definitions can be narrowed (e.g. including properties as foreign owned only where all owners are foreign), expanded (e.g. including properties as foreign owned if any owners are foreign), or differentiated (e.g. setting aside properties where only some owners are foreign as “mixed”) accordingly.
The matchup between the two definitions of “foreignness” offered by SVT and CHSP is not perfect. By definition, SVT Foreign Owners includes non-citizen or non-PR holders living in Canada as well as abroad, and the CHSP Non-resident Owner category includes all owners thought to be living outside of Canada, but excludes non-citizen non-PR holders that live in Canada. But this variation is potentially useful! If SVT Foreign Owners are larger than CHSP Non-Resident Owners, we might get a peek at the lower bound for how many Resident Owners are not Citizens or Permanent Residents. By contrast, if CHSP Non-Resident Owners are larger than SVT Foreign Owners, we get a peek at the lower bound for how many Canadians (citizens or PRs) abroad might still own property in BC.
So let’s take a peek! But before we get started it’s a good idea to get a clearer picture how these two data sources compare. After all, the two definitions are constructed by two different government agencies drawing upon slightly different (but related) data, and using slightly different inclusion criteria. In particular, properties are excluded from SVT if they’re worth less than $150,000 CA, or located on First Nations land (or, peculiarly, in the Village of Lions Bay). Additionally, in 2018 the SVT excluded residential properties without structures on them. As a result, we might expect CHSP to have more properties. But CHSP is based on assessment rolls, generally assessed as of July 1st, where SVT is levied in January for properties owned based on the prior year’s assessment (from July 1st). As a result, properties added (e.g. via development) between July and January may show up in the SVT database, but not in CHSP, leaving SVT with more properties. So we can start our analysis by comparing the total number of residential properties for each municipality as listed in the two data sources.
The graph is done on a log scale so we can more easily compare and view small municipalities like Belcarra and large ones like Vancouver on the same graph. In general, the two data sources agree quite well, but there are some differences. The log scale visually compresses differences, and we can look at the ratio of the estimates from the two sources to get a better picture of the differences.
We get a mix, with some municipalities having more CHSP than SVT properties, and other municipalities the opposite. The variations are never especially large, but large enough that we probably shouldn’t treat the two data sources as identical. While the administrative variations in excluded properties and new developments may account for the variations in total properties, we should be careful in interpretation – even moreso given some revisions in SVT data between 2018 and 2019 Technical Reporting. In particular, it seems prudent to avoid deriving new variables by differences in counts across datasets, for example subtracting the SVT “Foreign Owner” count from the CHSP properties owned exclusively by “non-resident owners”.
A more robust strategy would be to compute the shares of each of these properties within their respective universes and compare shares.
This gives us a clear way to assess how these levels of “foreignness” compare. Here we can see that CHSP “Non-resident Owners” is a much larger category than SVT “Foreign Owners.” Their shares differ by roughly a factor of 2, generally a little less in 2018, but more (sometimes significantly) in 2019. In other words, it appears that roughly half of BC property owners living outside of Canada are Canadian citizens or Permanent Residents. This may surprise those who’ve taken CHSP “Non-residency” as a straightforward indicator of “Foreignness.”
Overall, SVT “foreign owned” properties have grown more scarce between 2018 and 2019. Of further note, in both years only a small fraction of “Foreign Owners” are considered “problematic” and then taxed by the SVT. The vast majority are exempt, most likely either renting out their properties to an arm’s length tenant or living in the property as a primary residence (far and away the two most common exemptions, as visible in comparisons across SVT reporting years).
If about half of “Non-resident Owners” aren’t showing up as “Foreign Owners,” then where are they showing up in SVT data? That’s a much trickier question to answer. The SVT data establishes a variety of categories, as demonstrated below.
Unfortunately, from the documentation we have so far, we don’t know whether Canadian citizen and PR property owners abroad get lumped in with “Other Canadians” or end up in “Mixed” or “Other” or even “Satellite Family” categories. Most likely they appear in some combination of these categories, reflecting the complicated assignment of owners to properties.
Regardless of which categories Canadian citizen and PR property owners abroad get assigned to, we do know that most homes in all categories were deemed to be exempt from the Speculation and Vacancy Tax. Again, far and away most exemptions stem from properties serving as the primary residence for an owner or tenant, though properties can also be exempt for a variety of other reasons. In nearly every municipality, less than one percent of properties paid any Speculation and Vacancy Tax. The standouts differed between years, with Richmond and West Vancouver topping the list of proportionately most taxpaying properties in 2018 (reaching nearly two percent), shifting to Saanich and Belcarra in 2019 (neither of which had enough foreign owners to break the category out).
Overall the share of properties paying the SVT has almost universally gone down between 2018 and 2019, which should be expected as owners adjust to the new taxes by selling or renting out their property or making other changes to qualify for one of the exemptions.
Caution in Comparison
Unfortunately, while we know that the vast majority of “foreign owned” properties are exempt from the Speculation and Vacancy Tax, we don’t know how many are exempt because they live in the property as a principal resident and how many are exempt because they rent out the property (or for some other reason). It sure would be nice if SVT technical reports broke out exemptions by category of property ownership! Anecdotally, it has not been uncommon for those on work permits or student permits (hence not yet permanent residents) to own a residence that they live in as a principal resident while working or studying in BC, suggesting that some portion of “foreign owned” properties likely qualify for the principal residence exemption from the SVT and would likely not be counted as “non-resident” owners within the CHSP data. Following the logic of our calculations above, the larger the proportion of “foreign owned” properties containing their owners as principal residents, the larger our estimate would be of “non-resident” properties owned by Canadian citizens or permanent residents living abroad. In effect, Canadians abroad could account for even more than roughly half of “non-resident” owned properties in the CHSP data.
On the other hand, it may be that the CHSP data simply overestimates the number of “non-resident” owned properties by virtue of flaws in their data matching across various administrative sources. We know that matching remains imperfect and the shares may get revised over time as already happened twice with 2018 data. Maybe some of their “non-resident” owners are actually resident, but just not discovered as such by Statistics Canada. In this case there would be a smaller “real” number of properties owned by “non-residents” of Canada than reported by CHSP, approaching something closer to the “foreign” owned properties in the SVT data, and accordingly our estimate of half of properties owned by those abroad being owned by Canadian would be a little high.
So our estimate that about half of BC property owners living abroad are actually Canadian citizens or permanent residents might be a little low or a little high. But it’s a reasonable estimate given the combination of SVT and CHSP data and the countervailing sources of possible error.
Finally, just to round out our exploration, let’s take a look at the CHSP non-resident owner data that also has information on properties that are jointly owned by residents and non-residents. With more careful and detailed breakdowns from the SVT data, we might be able to track how jointly owned “mixed” properties tracked with CHSP “mixed” properties. As it is, we still find a full exploration too tricky.
The CHSP non-resident participation categories have remained even more stable than the SVT declarations between 2018-2019. That said, both datasets continue to be subject to revisions. In most cases these adjustments have led to a reduction in the overall shares of foreign owners and non-resident participants.
Drawing upon both CHSP and SVT data and their differing deinitions of “Foreignness,” we combine the two to estimate the size of a new category of interest: Canadians (citizens and PRs) living abroad who still own property in high demand areas of BC. This category appears to account for roughly half of property owners living abroad as estimated by CHSP data for included municipalities. That such a large portion of BC property owners living abroad are likely legally Canadian casts a rather harsh light on the extent to which “foreignness” has played such a strong role in our housing discourse.
As usual, the code for the graphs is available on GitHub for anyone to reproduce or adapt for their own purposes.
I started this blog back in January of 2016, which makes five years ago this month. So obviously it’s time for an anniversary post!
First a very short history. Home: Free Sociology followed a now-defunct earlier blog (meant to be multi-author in support of the now-defunct Department of Social Work & Family Studies at UBC – but mostly me) and, if you want to go back far enough, my old Geocities page from my graduate school days (also now-defunct). Hahaha! I’m Geocities old.
In 2016, I decided I wanted to give it a go again, coinciding with both my adventures as faculty lead in supporting the Sociology Department at UBC’s website and social media outreach and my attempt to roll out my book. What really appealed to me with the blog was the chance to make contributions to broader public and policy discourse, with more thoughtfulness, data exploration, and transparency than could fit in twitter (where I also became more active), but less work and gatekeeping than papers in academic journals. I played around with names before choosing Home: Free Sociology as an attempt to allude to my housing focus and open-access commitment while also allowing me to wander a bit. My goal quickly became to contribute at least one post a month. I’ll be the first to admit that they haven’t all been bangers, but I did it!
How did I do in terms of public engagement? I’m not sure I fully trust the metrics WordPress provides, but my posts have apparently received some 40,000 views over five years (or roughly sixty times the number of students I’ve taught and nearly one hundred times my google scholar citations over that time). To that can be added the viewers of some of my cross-posts with Jens von Bergmann (whom I suspect has a deservedly much larger readership!), but I don’t know much about the folks visiting Jens’ blog. Below is an example of some of the information I get about my readership from WordPress (here just across the first three weeks of January 2021).
Over here most viewers appear to be Canadian, with the USA a distant second. Other countries in the top five have varied over the years, with the UK, Australia, and Hong Kong (SAR), occasionally swapping places with Germany, the Netherlands, India, and China. Referrers have also varied, but Twitter (where I tweet out my posts under the hashtag #homefreesociology) has generally led. People have also come to the blog through Reddit and Facebook, where I’m not active, but others have linked to my posts. Increasingly search engines and Android’s WordPress app seem to be directing traffic my way, displacing the above, which probably arises both from my blog’s longevity at this point and from new apps. I could also talk about other indicators of policy-making engagement and impact with greater meaning for me (as when my posts show up in media reporting or government working papers, invite collaborations, and direct policymakers, NGOs, and other inquiring minds my way), but for the rest of this anniversary piece, I think it will probably be more fun if I just quickly run through what the metrics from WordPress have tagged as my most viewed posts for each year so far.
(The blog mostly took off with me attempting to correct rampant media narratives about young people leaving Vancouver, but also some forays into re-thinking metrics and my book! Also, like anyone paying attention, I predicted bad things from Trump and that prediction held up pretty well)
(Lots of response to a piece misusing census data to suggest housing supply didn’t matter – see also Jens’ work – plus book follow-ups on how housing in Vancouver has changed and a piece critically examining the notion that educational gradients in the US election were indicative of a left-behind working class)
(Lots of posts critiquing the ever-popular “foreign buyer” narrative in Vancouver, one co-authored with Jens, but also fun explorations of the 2018 Civic election in Vancouver and the surrounding IMBY narratives)
(Doing public sociology comes with risks of public attacks and my account of one – tied to the wind-up and sale of my former condo complex to a developer – led off the year’s most viewed posts. Next up came a bunch of co-authored pieces, exploring the prevalence of empty dwellings across North America, looking at condo use, and speculating about what BC’s new taxes would find. Also more net migration analyses!)
(It’s been… a year. Top posts included de-bunkings of the “pandemic crime wave” and “the homeless are all moving to Vancouver” media narratives, often being pushed by opportunistic politicians and police departments. But I also attempted to explore who lives in new housing and how the new BC rent benefit was targeted at specific household types. One of my beloved historical posts also did well, mapping the progress of an 1907 early movie through Vancouver streets using old insurance maps (in conjunction with a pre-COVID tour I provided for my Urban Sociology class)
Recent also-rans that didn’t quite make the top ten cut-offs, but still got respectable viewings include…
Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the blog so far, and after five years I’ve no plan to quit. I even began paying WordPress a small annual fee for hosting so they’d drop their advertisements directed at readers (for academics, I’ll just note that it’s significantly cheaper than most journal submission fees – especially for Open-Access). Aside from public engagement and opening up exciting new partnerships (as with the UBC Sociology of Zoning project I began with Jens), I frequently return to my own posts to track down links and resources I want to use. Summing up five years of blogging experience so far: four stars, would do it again.
Last week, the BC Government dropped a press release linking to 2019’s data from the NDP’s Speculation & Vacancy Tax (SVT), leaving us with two years of data (!) and including a brief analysis of what happened to properties taxed in 2018! Maybe you didn’t notice? It was a busy week. I’ve been looking through the data and comparing across releases, and here are my big takeaways so far:
Overall, tax liability remains very rare (< 1%), and seems to be getting more so
The 2019 Technical Report revises some of the 2018 taxpaying figures, generally downward
The SVT may have added some rental in 2019, but probably not as much as claimed
Best guess: probably because we never had much “toxic demand” to begin with…
There’s some hint the SVT might have promoted divorce a bit & probably also migration
Some errors and lapses in SVT reporting make interpreting the data harder than it should be!
Before expanding on these takeaways, a quick re-cap is probably in order. The BC’s Speculation & Vacancy Tax (SVT) is effectively an additional property tax on empty dwellings (set at a higher rate for non-Canadian owners) coupled with an additional property tax on transnational families (a.k.a. “satellite families”) where the primary income earner files their income taxes outside of Canada. The SVT was brought in by the NDP government in 2017 as a means of combating “toxic demand,” with the idea that investors were leaving residential properties empty and driving up housing costs for BC residents in selected areas of the province (mostly Metro Vancouver, but also further up the Fraser Valley, inland in the Central Okanagan, and on the Island around Greater Victoria and Nanaimo). The SVT was layered over top of the Foreign Buyer Tax (a property transfer tax paid only at point of sale) brought in by the BC Liberals in 2016. Within the City of Vancouver the SVT was also the layered over the Empty Homes Tax (a simple additional property tax on empty dwellings), also from 2016.
Here are the SVT Technical Reports I’m comparing from 2018 and 2019 (with a separate file broken down by municipalities in 2019). So what does a second year of BC’s Speculation and Vacancy Tax data show? First off, the big finding: for the second straight year in a row, the data demonstrate there’s little “toxic demand” to be found in high demand parts of BC. In both 2018 and 2019, significantly less than one percent of properties fall in taxed (non-exempt) categories.
In all property categories created by the SVT, the vast majority of properties are exempt from the tax, regardless of ownership. Those not exempt from the tax provide us a measure of “empty dwellings” except for the “satellite family” category, where residents may owe the tax even when they live in the property. Overall, less than half a percent of properties are empty or owned by satellite families in 2019. The biggest decline in taxed properties by category appears in the “Foreign Owned” category, though taxed “Satellite Family” and “Mixed” ownership properties have also declined.
We can turn from properties to look at owners paying the SVT. These are somewhat easier to track insofar as properties can have multiple owners (with multiple statuses, leading to some of the complicated categories above). Looking at owners fitting into different categories across SVT reports, we get our first hint that the 2019 update also includes revisions to the 2018 data. In nearly every case, the number of owners owing tax in 2018 were downwardly revised by 2019. For the 2019 data, the number of owners owing tax dropped further.
The gradual decline in owners subject to the SVT, both across revisions to the 2018 data and across years extending into the 2019 data, suggests that the more closely we look at files, the fewer owners owing tax we find. This is the opposite of what we’d expect if close scrutiny of files revealed a great deal of evasion. If that were the case, revisions would be expected to increase the number of taxpayers.
The vast majority of exemptions from the SVT are in the form of either “principal residence” (for people who live in the properties they own) or “occupied by tenant” exemptions, either indicating the property is lived in (or at least contracted for living in) for at least six months of the year. A close look at both SVT reports reveals that those claiming these two exemptions have gradually risen, both through revisions to the 2018 report and through the 2019 calendar year.
The rise in exemptions from the tax due to occupation by a tenant between 2018 and 2019 offers one measure from the SVT data of how many dwellings might have been brought back into the rental market through the incentives of the SVT (Table 5). But exemptions are tricky, insofar as multiple exemptions may be applied to the same property. Another measure of how many dwellings were brought back into the rental market by the SVT could be found in directly examining how many properties paying the tax in 2018 were subsequently rented out in 2019 (Table 10). Interestingly, the 2019 SVT Technical Report does not draw upon either of these measures, derived from SVT data contained. Instead the report (p. 3) references a CMHC Report on the Secondary Rental Market in Metro Vancouver examining existing condos newly added to the CMHC’s rental universe in 2019. Lining up different estimates of how many dwellings might’ve been induced back into the rental market by the SVT suggests why… the CMHC report’s estimate – even focusing only on Metro Vancouver – is the highest. Unfortunately, it’s also probably the most flawed as a measure of SVT effects, both insofar as those effects aren’t measured directly, and insofar as the bump in units entering the rental market may have arisen from changes in reporting to CMHC rather than changes in actual rentals.
Overall, it’s likely that the SVT induced more dwellings into the rental market in 2019, but probably not as many as claimed. That shouldn’t be too surprising given that the tax was already in place in 2018. Most units rented out in response to the SVT were probably already rented out prior to 2019. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the big rise in vacancy rates we might expect if a lot of dwellings had been added to the rental market in 2018 either. Nor can I discern sizable increases in dwellings offered for sale prior to the imposition of the Speculation and Vacancy Tax in 2018. Though it’s difficult to fully analyze the effects of the SVT on patterns prior to its arrival, there’s little to suggest much in the way of a great deal of “toxic demand” suddenly released as supply back onto the market. That said, and regardless of its effects on existing patterns, the SVT could still operate as a powerful prophylactic, preventing Vancouver from becoming a resort town of half-empty pied-a-terres for the wealthy. (As a potential future, it’s not so far-fetched – it looks kind of like Miami).
Let’s round out SVT reporting comparisons by looking at other exemptions claimed. These are magnitudes less common than exemptions for principal residence or occupancy by a tenant, plotted above. But they’re quite interesting nevertheless, often revealing the main reasons why dwellings get left empty. Most commonly, it appears, they’re just between residents, as when a property is newly acquired, being renovated, or under construction. Exemptions for “recent acquisitions or inheritances” rose between 2018 and 2019, likely simply reflecting annual variation in sales. Other properties actually have no residence built on them. An exemption for stratas with rental restrictions remains in place. Less commonly, special circumstances are granted to those where ownership remains in flux, and perhaps under dispute, as with divorces and deaths of an owner.
Divorces are especially interesting insofar as the initial 2018 release listed “separation or divorce” as the #8 most common exemption. In the 2019 release, “separation or divorce” no longer made the top ten, and had been scrubbed as an exemption in the 2018 revision as well. The scrubbing of “separation or divorce” from the revision probably reflects a simple process of drawing upon the top ten exemptions in 2019 and comparing backward (though this produces an error, insofar as the 2018 “separation or divorce” figures don’t appear to have been added back in as an “other exemption” update for 2018 revised figures, which is concerning). What’s the substantive impact of this little reporting glitch? Unfortunately it means we only get a hint at a possible effect of the SVT: a bump in separations or divorces. We have ample reason to expect such a bump for 2018. After all, the logic of the SVT as applied to “satellite families” is that it’s fine and totally forgivable to be separated from a spouse who jointly owns your home due to irreconcilable differences. But if one is separated from a spouse instead simply by their work in another country, that’s a “satellite family” and you’re subject to the tax. No surprise people might re-evaluate the nature of their relationships to their spouses in response to the SVT, temporarily bumping up separations and divorces. As with rentals, we might expect this response to be strongest in the first year of the SVT, subsiding (and hence moving down the list of exemptions) by 2019, which appears to be what we see above. Though trickier to establish, we would also expect immigration and migration as potential responses to the SVT, with owners moving to (or returning to) BC to avoid the tax. Many of these plans might simply speed up processes already happening anyway. Of note, more careful and consistent releasing of data would be needed to study these kinds of responses more closely.
Errors in the 2019 SVT report also plague the study of properties by ownership category. In my first chart (at the top), I use “non-exempt” figures from Table 7 in the SVT 2019 report rather than “total” non-exempt figures from table 8. Logically, these two figures should map perfectly on to one another (as the corresponding tables do in the SVT 2018 report), but in the SVT 2019 report they diverge quite a bit with respect to how properties were assigned into “other Canadian”; “foreign”; “satellite”; “mixed”; and “other” categories. Via comparison to 2018 figures and to Table 10, Table 7 looks like it contains the correct breakdown into categories. But here, too, errors in the 2019 SVT report make it difficult to confidently analyze the data. As noted above, the complicated matching of multiple owners to properties likely explains potential mismatches across tables, but it sure would be helpful if SVT reports took a consistent view of the matter!
Below I use figures from Table 7 in combination with Tables 10 and 11 to try and follow properties that were taxed in 2018 over time into 2019, to see what happened to them next. Though I’m critical of the SVT reporting errors (as above), it’s great that they provide this ability to follow properties for us! Here’s what I get…
Overall, it appears that most of the properties paying the SVT in 2018 were no longer paying it in 2019. Mostly the owners in 2018 either moved into their properties by 2019, rented them out to someone else, or sold them off (or otherwise removed their name from the title). Selling or renting were the most common strategies for Foreign Owners, accounting for most properties, but a minority simply held onto their property and paid the tax for another year. Satellite Families were more evenly split, between claiming as a primary residence in 2019, selling, renting out, or simply paying the tax again in 2019. Some of the difficulties in classification here continue to plague a full understanding, but the fact that satellite families were the most likely to transition into a primary residence exemption likely reflects some combination of marital and migratory responses to the SVT, as discussed above. Other Owners (here including BC Residents, Other Canadians, Mixed, and Other categories) mostly rented, sold, or paid the tax again. Way more Other Owners paid the tax again than for other categories, likely reflecting, in part, the lower tax rates they generally paid under the SVT structure. For similar reasons, we see many more Other Owners – reflecting mostly BC Residents – added as new taxpayers in 2019 than for other categories. The tax seems to have been most effective at driving out the (relatively rare) “empty” properties of Foreign Owners, but new “empty” properties with domestic owners seem to have replaced at least some of those Foreign Owners as tax-payers.
Overall, it’s great to see more Speculation and Vacancy Tax data out, warts and all! It probably continues to be our best source of data about “problem empties” across high demand regions of the province, and also potentially – with a bit more care – could give us new insights into underlying housing, migration, and family processes.