Industrial Strength Zombies: Vancouver Edition

(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?

Before we get to that we should mention that there is another way to look at industries, instead of using the census to look at people and their jobs, we can look at money (GDP). There is no GDP data for small area units like municipalities within a CMA, but CMA level (and higher geographies) GDP data is available from StatCan and we have written extensively about the size of the Real Estate Industry in terms of GDP before.

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.

Note

An earlier version of this post had a problem with graphs for multiple categories not stacking properly which has been fixed now. The previous version can be accessed in the GitHub version control.

Bartholomew’s Dot Destiny

(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-winning thesis 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.

Rethinking the “Foreignness” of Owners Living Abroad

(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.

Upshot

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.

Five Years of Home: Free Sociology!

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.

Drumroll…

2016 Top Posts

(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)

2017 Top Posts

(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)

2018 Top Posts

(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)

2019 Top Posts

(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!)

2020 Top Posts

(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.

Two Years of BC’s Speculation and Vacancy Tax Data!

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.

Learning to Not Fly

Updating my miniseries on flights and exposures through YVR airport in Vancouver. No particular reason

Here’s passengers on flights in and out in and out of Vancouver. Unfortunately the series I get from YVR still ends in November, so we don’t have the full update on how many holiday trips we should be enraged about for those of us avoiding non-essential travel. But we can see that since the arrival of COVID, passenger travel dropped dramatically, then slowly rose in what looks like some combination of a response to lessening restrictions / fears and seasonal patterns.

Speaking to the persistence of seasonal patterns, we can see that August 2019 was the pre-COVID peak for travel, just as August 2020 represents a post-COVID peak for travel. Since then, travel has eased off, which may also reflect the second wave of COVID. The combination of seasonal patterns and renewed COVID concerns might be seen a little more clearly looking at year-over-year passenger patterns in 2020 explicitly compared to 2019. For Domestic passengers, in particular, it looks like travel recovered up to about one-quarter of pre-pandemic levels by August, and pretty much stayed at that level through October, but we may see some evidence of a fall-off in response to the second wave of COVID in November. That said, I have to imagine that once December figures come out, we’ll see a jump in travel, just like in 2019, pointing to the continuing persistence of seasonal patterns.

International travel patterns are different, and more than a little troubling, insofar as they don’t seem to be at all responsive to the second wave of COVID. Though the progress has been much slower than for Domestic travel, International travel just keeps rising back toward historic norms, led, in November, by a sharp jump in travel between YVR and Europe. Yikes.

But how much is all of this jetting around really contributing to the spread of COVID? Unfortunately, we don’t know. Our surveillance system, data consolidation, and transparency game is still pretty weak here in BC. But we can get a very conservative sense of the changing scale of the contribution by just looking at the BC CDC Flight Exposure data (full pdf). There we see a remarkably steady upward rise in flight exposures, despite the leveling off in the overall number of passengers carried. Yikes, yikes!

Once again, posted exposures represent a very conservative estimate of how air travel is contributing to spread of COVID. Obviously, given the combination of asymptomatic cases and our lax testing regime, the BC CDC still isn’t catching all cases. We also don’t get the actual number of confirmed COVID cases per flight, just whether or not there’s been an exposure, and corresponding rows assessed as being at risk. Sometimes there are multiple seat sections, suggesting multiple, and potentially unrelated COVID cases aboard some flights. But the big takeaway is that even before holiday travel, airlines were already jetting around more COVID cases than at any other time in the pandemic.

I’m not sure it’s as useful, but for consistency’s sake, I’ll also post the exposures per 100,000 passengers, which I played around with in my last post. Last time I didn’t include the Miscellaneous International flights, because there weren’t very many, but they included a lot of exposures, and also because I wasn’t entirely clear on the reporting of flights to Mexico, which is where nearly all the exposures occurred. This time I’ll add those flights back in assigned to my best guess of how to combine the data, in part because Mexico seems to be where a lot of non-essential vacationing is occurring. Unfortunately, once again, we only go up to November data. The data highlight just how risky travel to common vacation destinations in Mexico has been, especially back in July, though by November the US and Europe had moved into riskier positions. That said, the chart really obscures the steady rise in risk of exposure for domestic travelers within Canada, still representing most of our travel.

Overall, though data remains poor, we appeared to be flying around an increasing number of COVID cases through 2020, significantly complicating efforts to contain the virus. Particularly worrisome, despite Public Health orders to avoid non-essential travel, lots of people – including politicians and other public figures – took to the skies on recent vacations. For now, folks, it’s probably time to learn to NOT fly. Maybe stay home and watch a video instead?

************* UPDATE January 27, 2021

Still no updated YVR passenger data for December! But lots of discussion about travel restrictions. So I’m posting a comparison of BC CDC flight exposures to overall exposures by month below, running up to January 22 (latest flight exposure notification data). The scales are set to 1 flight exposure = 500 cases reported, though of course I make no claim for direct causality there! The figure merely enables a comparative analysis of trends.

Feel free to grab the spreadsheet behind the figure containing downloaded BC CDC data from Jan 27 here:

What to Expect from an Empty Homes Tax

Joint with Jens von Bergmann and cross-posted at mountainmath

Empty Homes Taxes are back in the news!

In a very short time period, we’ve got Vancouver raising its Empty Homes Tax rate from 1% to 3%, based in part on a report from CMHC about a sharp rise in condos on the rental market, we’ve got Toronto eyeing its own Empty Homes Tax, and now reports suggest that even Ottawa is considering getting in on the game.

We’ve long argued that Empty Homes Taxes are a pretty good tax. Consider it as equivalent to a bump up to property taxes (which cities like Vancouver could really use!) paired with a principal residency exemption, kind of like BC home owner’s grant, but also applicable to property owners who rent out their properties on a long-term basis, hence providing incentive to keep housing occupied.

The incentive is real. But we have questions about whether Empty Homes Taxes are being oversold as solutions to the broader housing crises facing Metro Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa. To start with, as we’ve demonstrated previously, none of these metro areas rank particularly high in North America in terms of vacant housing stock on census day. Indeed, all Canadian cities appear to be on the low end, implying relatively few of the abandoned homes and vacation pied-a-terres that seem to push up vacancies in many US cities.

Vancouver and Ottawa appear high for Canada, but somewhere between low and middle-of-the-road for North America as a whole. Toronto is definitely on the low end. Of note, a scan of the data for the US, which includes reason for vacancy, suggests that regular housing processes (dwellings up for sale or rent, awaiting new residents; dwellings caught in temporary legal limbo after the death of an owner, etc.) account for a substantial portion of vacant homes overall. For metros at the high end of vacancies, these numbers are boosted by abandoned homes and/or pied-a-terre vacation homes. This suggests that abandoned homes and pied-a-terres just aren’t that common in Canada.

With some caveats, we can test this by looking at Vancouver’s Empty Homes Tax and BC’s Speculation & Vacancy Tax data. Most homes that appear as if they might be empty qualify for exemptions from these taxes, reflecting regular housing processes. After exemptions, there just don’t seem to be very many empty dwellings left. In the most recent Vancouver EHT data, declared vacancies range by neighbourhood from 0.08% (in Sunset & Grandview Woodlands) to 1.26% in the West End, roughly matching the City of Vancouver’s 0.7% of properties non-exempt from the tax in the provincial SVT data (excepting out “Satellite Families”, which would bump the figure to 1%).

Of course, taxes may be bringing dwellings back into the rental market that weren’t there in 2016, meaning our EHT and SVT data might be reflecting big declines in empty units. What about that CMHC study showing a bump of condos being rented out after the Empty Homes Tax was imposed? Well, funny story… first it’s important to know that the study is based on condo managers reporting from their Form K, which are meant to be filed when condo units are rented out, but in the past have been largely inconsequential. Indeed, in previous work we have highlighted that the CMHC estimate of rented condos in Metro Vancouver differs significantly with census estimates.

Here it’s notable that the first year of the EHT’s existence did not see a great many condos added to the rental market. But after the Speculation and Vacancy Tax came into place, the number of condos being rented out seemed to grow quite a bit. Was this a real change, perhaps because the added taxes became higher? Or did this represent a reporting change? Due to a variety of policy changes (including SVT), suddenly failure to file Form K has more teeth. As a result, it’s likely the reporting compliance for From K has gone up significantly. In other words, we’re not actually certain that a slew of condo units recently came onto the rental market. It may be, instead, that a slew of condo units already on the rental market were suddenly reported correctly. Overall, it is hard to get robust estimates of how many units have entered the market in response to the tax, but there’s no doubt some have. Looking at City of Vancouver data on homes that are either exempt or pay the tax, and cross-referencing this with the Ecotagious study estimating vacancy by electricity usage, we can arrive at a very rough estimate of the number of homes returned to the market being roughly double the number of homes that end up paying the tax. Which is a sizable achievement.

So what should Toronto and Ottawa expect from an empty homes tax? We have previously used City of Vancouver data to give fairly accurate projections for the Speculation and Vacancy Tax, and we can apply the same method to Toronto and Ottawa at the city level. The estimate is quite crude, it simply scales the units “unoccupied” on census day to match the City of Vancouver Empty Homes Tax numbers. So let’s take a quick look at what kind of dwelling registered as “unoccupied” in the Census.

While there is some variation across the regions, the duplex category, which generally captures houses with basement suites, comes out universally with the highest share of unoccupied homes. We have written about this at length before and it should not be surprising given the flexible nature of secondary suites that they are used flexibly, which frequently means that they aren’t rented out. Of course, these suites also aren’t taxed as empty, since they’re considered part of one residential property and can so easily be reabsorbed into the main dwelling. The high prevalence of basement suites in Vancouver is a big part of what drives up its vacancy rate in the census.

Taking account differences in housing stock we can apply a crude formula from the City of Vancouver Empty Homes Tax experience, assuming exemptions are structured similarly. Accordingly we can project that an Empty Homes Tax would capture around 2,000 units in Ottawa and 6,000 in Toronto. Roughly twice that number might be induced to re-enter the rental market in each city.

So should Toronto consider an Empty Homes Tax of its own? Relative to the size of Toronto’s housing market, we probably shouldn’t expect an Empty Homes Tax to a) find very many empty homes, or b) create much new revenue. We’re likely looking at shifting over no more than a single percentage point of units into the market. But adding any new units to the market is good. And we like Empty Homes Taxes overall. Just insure expectations are set accordingly!

What about Ottawa? Similar wisdom pertains. Set expectations accordingly! At the same time, Ottawa is instructive to consider insofar as it’s the centre of government for Canada. We actually kind of expect a certain number of properties will be empty a substantial portion of the year. Why? Well, Members of Parliament and Senators are both expected to represent other parts of the country in Ottawa. In other words, they’re expected to split their time between Ottawa and elsewhere. Indeed, Senators are still required to own at least $4,000 worth of real property in the province they represent, though there’s currently a bill to repeal that requirement (property requirements for MPs were abolished with the 1920 Dominion Elections Act). Again, not to say an Empty Homes Tax is a bad idea for Ottawa, and why not tax politicians a bit more? But Ottawa is also uniquely well positioned to demonstrate why some people, including – but not limited to – MPs and Senators, maintain some form of residence in multiple places. And Empty Homes Taxes necessarily tend to hit hardest for anyone who finds it difficult to choose just one.

As usual, the code for this post is available on GitHub for anyone to reproduce or adapt for their own purposes.

Henderson’s Guide to Pandemic History

What will happen when the Pandemic ends?

Will pre-Pandemic patterns, like people moving to Vancouver, go back to normal? Or will small towns, far-flung suburbs, and rural areas see a boost at the expense of cities, reflecting perhaps a new aversion to density and/or embrace of the rise in telecommuting acceptability? (we’ve seen such speculation in certain corners of City Hall).

Or indeed, might we see the opposite? Will people flock to cities like Vancouver as we return to mobility (including newly amped up immigration along with outreach to Hong Kong) and enjoyment of all the urban pleasures we’ve given up during the pandemic?

It’s all speculation at this point. But it’s got me curious about the past. What happened after the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic? And here I struggle with two things: 1) there was a LOT going on during and prior to the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, making it hard to isolate any response, and 2) the census data skips right around the two key years, with timing gaps too large for zooming in.

I can’t fully fix the overlapping events (WWI, and prior to that a big speculative economic crash), but I can kind of get around some of the data limitations of the Census by playing with some historical data sources I’ve been meaning to give more attention, in particular, the brilliant collection of BC City Directories archived by the VPL, including especially Henderson’s City and Greater Vancouver Directories and Wrigley’s BC Directories.

First, a couple of quick notes about the 1918-1919 Pandemic, brought to you by Margaret Andrews (1977) enlightening research in “Epidemic and Public Health: Influenza in Vancouver, 1918-1919” open access in BC Studies vol. 34. According to Andrews, the Pandemic hit Vancouver especially hard relative to other cities in Canada and the USA. It was also very different from today’s Pandemic in targeting mostly young and middle-aged adults.

At the same time, it was similar to today’s Pandemic in arriving across multiple waves, though the first (in 1918) took the greatest toll.

So what can we add by looking at City Guides? Well, we can compare them to Census results to get a more fine-grained sense of how the City responded to and potentially bounced back from the Pandemic of 1918-1919. The guides include, especially, the Henderson’s City of Vancouver Directories and related Wrigley’s Guides (which swallowed up Henderson’s in 1924), all providing listings of businesses (and households) across Greater Vancouver. I estimate the number of listings for each year, folding businesses and households together. While this isn’t a perfect match for population, or even households, it provides a relatively consistent method for a fine-grained look at how Greater Vancouver businesses and households together experienced the concentrated events piling up between census years (more details below!)

What’s our fine-grained examination of directory listings in combination with census data tell us? It appears we really do miss a lot with census data alone, especially between 1911 and 1921, where we saw a gigantic speculative bubble crash in 1913, followed by the Dominion’s entrance into WWI in 1914, and the Influenza Pandemic itself in 1918.

Where Census data from 1901, 1911, 1921, and 1931 make Vancouver’s growth look relatively steady and nearly linear, directory data demonstrate the enormous upset and losses of 1913-1915 in Vancouver, followed by a bottoming out and start at recovery during WWI (when many otherwise unemployed men went to fight in the war), finally interrupted by effective stasis during the Pandemic of 1918-1919. Then boom! Vancouver was off to the races again, climbing rapidly in listings from 1919-1923 and again (jumping different guides & methods) from 1924 seemingly only slowing a bit in 1926. From there, the trajectory of growth seemingly carried right through the beginnings of the Great Depression to 1931, when the next census was carried out.

Is past prelude? If so, Vancouver looks set to recover quite spectacularly from the Pandemic once it ends, as people flock back to the joys of the city. Maybe we’ll get our own Roaring 2020s!

But of course, for now we’re still here in the middle of the damn thing. So I’m still singing “Come On Vaccine.”

You know the tune…

APPENDIX

A couple quick methods notes for my beloved nerds. Historical census data was taken from Norbert MacDonald’s “Population Growth and Change in Seattle and Vancouver, 1880-1960” from Pacific Historical Review 39(3): 297-321 (unfortunately paywalled). MacDonald combines South Vancouver and Point Grey into the City of Vancouver boundaries for 1921, but I believe he considers the populations of these municipalities effectively too low to matter in earlier years. Henderson’s Directories were released on a yearly basis with a pretty standard, two column format, from 1905-1923, and seemingly covered all of Greater Vancouver during this time, with listings showing up in North Vancouver, New Westminster, and Burnaby, for instance (though North Vancouver was sometimes also reported separately). Ads were placed somewhat randomly within the text, rather than as full pages. In 1924, the Henderson directories were absorbed by Wrigley’s directories, using a new three column format (and smaller type) with interspersed full page ads. I attempted to estimate the listings for each year of these two different sources by gathering page numbers for alphabetized listings (of resident households and businesses) and multiplying by an estimate of the number of listings per page, excluding full page ads where possible. I estimated ~95 listings per page for Henderson’s and ~184 listings per page for Wrigley’s, based upon a quick count on what seemed representative pages (the second A listings), but this estimate could certainly use further checking.

BC Housing Platforms!

It’s election time in BC! And housing is back on the agenda, even if not quite as centrally as in past elections. Here I want to provide a quick basis for comparing each party platform, adding in a short bit of my own analysis. My quick take is that when it comes to housing there are things to like in each platform, and I hope the parties work together to keep housing on the agenda!

I’ve drawn housing proposals from the platforms of the BC NDP, the BC Liberals, and the BC Greens. It’s possible that housing-related items show up in other parts of the platform, but I’m focusing on the sections linked. For anyone following along outside BC, the NDP are a provincial labour-oriented left-leaning party, affiliated with the federal party, the BC Liberals are a centre-right amalgam, combining sympathies for both federal Liberal and Conservative parties, and the BC Greens sympathize with the federal Greens. We’ve had a governing coalition of the NDP and Greens since they managed to cobble together an alliance booting out the BC Liberals in 2017.

I tried to compare based on broad categories of proposed action in housing, highlighting more concrete proposals over vague suggestions where possible. Here’s what I get, divided into two parts below, the first covering COVID-relief, Taxation, Strata Insurance, and Social Housing, and the second covering Development. Click on each graphic to blow them up!

In terms of COVID relief, the NDP have offered to freeze rents until the end of 2021 (optimistically forecasting the end of the pandemic). After that, they propose to limit rent increases to inflation, in line with their application of rent control provisions in BC to date (under the prior BC Liberal administration, rent increases were generally capped at inflation + 2%). The BC Liberals suggest their COVID relief proposals will be targeted at tax relief for home owners (most of whom can already defer their property taxes). The Greens, who’ve had the least time to develop their platform thanks to a leadership contest followed almost immediately by a snap election, don’t suggest any specific COVID-relief related housing policies.

Taxation & Strata Insurance!

Restructuring of tax policies more broadly has been a persistent theme in BC’s recent history, with the NDP’s establishment of an Additional School Tax on high value ($3m+) properties and Speculation and Vacancy Tax (SVT) hitting mostly vacant properties, but also those occupied by “Satellite Families” at the end of 2018 following the BC Liberals imposition of a Foreign Buyer’s Tax (FBT) in 2016. This time around, the NDP are re-upping a promise from last election, the $400 Renter’s Rebate tax credit for renters to complement the existing home owner grant reducing annual property taxes (the BC Greens famously opposed said rebate).

The BC Liberals hope to scrap the SVT, and replace it with a capital gains tax targeted at condo flipping (not yet well-defined) and higher property tax rates for non- residents of Canada (a slippery concept). The BC Greens want to keep the SVT but close “loopholes” allowing exemptions for “Satellite Families” and foreign owners. It’s not clear what exemptions the BC Greens are talking about, but here are the ten most common claimed. Of note, the SVT currently applies to very few properties (<1%). If all declared foreign and satellite families exempted in the last tax data were forced to pay the tax, then just over 3% of properties would pay. The BC Liberals also propose creating a new property tax category (along with lower rates) for purpose-built rental buildings containing three or more units (a cut-off that could include some subdivided detached house properties in Vancouver!)

All parties have responded to rapidly rising strata insurance costs, suggesting reforms to bring down costs, but in a few key different ways. The NDP suggest providing a public option in case costs don’t come down. The BC Liberals are pushing for lessening insurance requirements. The Greens are… proposing a task force to look more into the issue.

Social Housing

All of the parties pay at least some lip service to adding to BC’s stock of affordable social housing. As the party in power, the NDP have the most developed proposal in the continuation of their Homes for BC plan, promising 114,000 new affordable units through partnerships over 10-years. The NDP have also proposed new transitional supports to renters moving from supportive housing into the private rental market. The BC Liberals and Greens offer more vague support for social housing investment, especially promoting cooperatives (UPDATE: more specifics from BC Liberals just released today!). The Greens also propose applying $500 million toward a new renter’s grant, aiming to bring rental payments for tenants down to no more than 30% of their income. It’s not yet clear whether this is simply an expansion of the current Rental Assistance Program offered by BC Housing, or meant to apply differently, but the potential pool of applicants in BC remains quite large.

Development

All of the parties offer something in the form of acknowledging the limited range of housing on offer in BC. Both the BC NDP and the BC Liberals place at least part of the blame on sluggish BC municipalities. Both parties push for streamlining municipal and provincial permitting processes that have slowed up and added expense to the development of new housing. The BC NDP also make a welcome proposal to eliminate parking minimums for projects near transit.

The BC Liberals add a variety of other proposals, pushing to match municipal zoning more directly to official community plans and potentially waive rezoning hearings for projects complying with plans. Similarly, the BC Liberals suggest strengthening and enforcing municipal adherence to regional growth targets. To match these “sticks” the BC Liberals would apply to municipalities, they also suggest “carrots” in the form of an incentive fund offered to municipalities expanding supply. Other welcome suggestions include digital tracking for development projects, enabling the identification of hold-ups in the approval process. Interestingly, the BC Liberals also suggest mixing a cautious approach toward rental zoning (recently enabled by the NDP) with provincial restrictions requiring replacement of rental apartments (which many municipalities already require). Finally, they suggest upping the mandated number of disability-accessible units for new developments. The BC Greens call for encouraging a “missing middle,” but offer the fewest specifics on development reform for getting there. Yet they embrace two proposals for reforming development that many in the non-profit housing sector have long called for, including both a capital fund to acquire old rental buildings when they come up for sale, preserving affordability, and the establishment of a land bank to support cooperative development.

Mix and Match!

Overall (and staying positive) there’s a lot to like in mixing and matching the housing platforms on offer. I like many of the NDP’s taxation and social housing ambitions (though I don’t like targeting satellite families and I’d up property taxes and social housing construction further); I’m happy with the Green’s embrace of supporting land banks for cooperatives; and it would be great to see many of the BC Liberals plans for reforming and improving the municipal role in approving housing development implemented (also shout out to the NDP here: yay for lifting parking minimums!) Let’s hope everyone keeps their good ideas on the table after the election’s over!

Return to the Airport!

A couple of months ago I took the blog for a visit to the airport to check out historical passenger data and see what’s happened since COVID. Today I want to return, both to provide an update and to pull YVR Passenger data (enplaned & deplaned pdf) together with BC CDC Flight Exposure data (full pdf), providing a check on air travel’s contributions to spreading COVID.

First the update!

We can see that through August (last month of data available as of today), flights are still gradually rising toward a return to 2019 levels, but they’ve still got a loooong way to go. Mostly the rise has been led by domestic air travel within Canada. We can zoom in, looking at monthly passenger totals for 2020 as a percentage of passenger totals for 2019.

Sure enough, by the end of August we’re back up to over a quarter of the Domestic air travel from the same month in 2019. International flights still remain far below 2019 levels, with the biggest drop in Transborder trips between Vancouver and cities in the USA. Miscellaneous International trips that mostly cover Latin America and the Caribbean have seen a recent decline from slightly higher numbers in June and July. Passengers to and from Asia Pacific destinations never dropped as much as other international passengers and have bounced back a little, and passengers to Europe appeared to rise through July and August.

So how are we doing containing COVID exposures on these flights? The BC CDC lists exposures by flight number, origin and destination, and affected rows, and as of today includes exposures through September 30, though given lags in reporting it’s possible the September listings aren’t yet complete (none have yet been listed for October). Here I separate inbound and outbound flight exposures for Vancouver by Origin/Destination Stream roughly matching YVR categories (I remain less certain exactly how flights to and from Mexico fit in, and have included them here as Misc. Intl).

Overall, it’s clear that COVID exposures on flights have declined and then risen again with flights overall between March and August, with the pattern likely continuing into September (again, we don’t yet know if September data is complete and we don’t have YVR passenger data for September yet). Domestic exposures dominate flight exposures overall, especially the rise in August and September.

Finally, we can combine the two sources of data to provide a rough estimate of the inbound and outbound specific risks associated with exposures. How many exposures do we see per 100,000 passengers for different streams of travel? Here I’ve given outbound exposures negative values, and inbound exposures positive values, which tells us something about the direction COVID is traveling relative to YVR during exposure events on flights. I’ve proxied September passenger data with August passenger data to match with September exposure data, and I’ve dropped International Miscellaneous flights, which mostly involve flights to and from Mexico and harder for me to confidently link to passenger data.

A few takeaways:

  1. We get the sense that risks of exposures per 100,000 boardings are real, but generally pretty low, at least as discovered and reported by the BC CDC (where are there have been occasional transparency issues).
  2. We can also see that while most YVR related COVID exposures are happening on Domestic flights between Vancouver and other Canadian cities, the risks of exposure on these flights tend to be lower than the risks of exposure on inbound international flights.
  3. We get a peek at the gateway pattern by which international exposures tend to arrive at YVR from elsewhere, while YVR has tended, in recent months, to send more exposures to the rest of Canada than it receives from Domestic flights.
  4. Finally, while all inbound international travel remains risky relative to domestic travel, European and Transborder (USA) flights generally alternate the lead for most risk, with Asia Pacific flights trailing. That said scanning the international exposure data reveals that European and Transborder risks are generally diverse across cities, while most recent Asia Pacific exposures seem to relate specifically to flights to and from Delhi.

Big takeaway: the tentative and on-going return of air travel will likely continue to contribute to the on-going return of COVID infections, both Domestic and International. Air travel provides a key link between the rise in cases elsewhere and what happens here, potentially turning visitors into vectors. Definitely something to keep an eye on as we continue into Fall!