[*updated with better Vancouver income stats*]
As I noted yesterday, Vancouver really doesn’t look so unaffordable in comparative context if we use “renting a two bedroom apartment” as our base standard rather than “purchasing a single-family detached house.” Standards really matter, and the single-family detached house is a bad metric in this case – especially for a metropolis that is gradually moving toward a more sustainable alternative that might ultimately serve as an example for the rest of North America.
But I had some lingering concerns about the comparability of the data I used, especially for getting at median rents. To get at rents across the USA I used data from Zillow, which as I mentioned is not an entirely disinterested data provider and also gathers data based upon listings. This provides a nice snapshot of current conditions for prospective renters, but may dramatically overstate the rents for existing renters, who are often protected by contracts, rent controls (in some places), and relatively inattentive or otherwise satisfied landlord relationships. To get at rents across Canada, I used the CMHC’s primary rental market measure, which suffers from its own biases and is based largely on surveys of purpose-built rental building managers.
I wanted to check on my results by looking at something at data that might be a little more readily comparable, so I went back to census figures, drawn from microdata samples of the Canadian Census in 2011 and the American Community Survey (ACS) from the same year. I analyzed the data on-line using CHASS (unfortunately a subscription-based census analysis service I can reach through UBC) and IPUMS (a wonderful organization at the Minnesota Population Center, where I used to be a post-doc – anyone can get access to this data so long as you promise to use it for good and never for evil, which is an actual box they make you tick in your application). I obtained median rents for renters of two bedroom apartments in 2011, then I went back and compared these to the same median income figures for Households (from 2012, close enough!) [updated for better CMHC median household pre-tax total income figures] that I used in my last post.
On the whole, I’d call this similar information to what I produced yesterday, but there are some important differences. When we look at estimates based on all existing renters (including public & private rentals) rather than listings, there is a LOT more compression in the median rents, which don’t jump around nearly as much as the rents charged for new listings on the market. But Vancouver hasn’t changed positions much in this chart relative to its position (in 2011) in the Zillow/CMHC-based longitudinal chart. LA, Miami, San Francisco, San Diego, and NYC all remain at the top in terms of the unaffordability of 2BR rentals. Other metros, including Seattle and Portland, look cheaper in this chart. But it’s worth noting that many of these cities also looked cheaper in 2011 in the old chart too, which only moved many of them ahead of Vancouver based on more recent data. My big takeaway: more data provides a better overall comparison, but still gives us the same basic story about Vancouver’s unaffordability crisis. Using metrics beyond ownership of a single-family detached house makes us look much more affordable in a comparative sense.