Who Lives in New Housing?

We see lots of new housing going up in high demand places like Metro Vancouver. But are people moving in to that new housing? Well… yes.

We know it can take a while for new housing to fill up (try watching the lights start to come on in a new tower at night). But we also know housing doesn’t tend to stay empty for long. How do we know this? Well, we can check into empty dwellings via census comparisons, we can draw upon electricity use data, we can look to new empty homes tax data, or we can look to even newer speculation and vacancy tax data. The story is pretty consistent. Very few dwellings remain empty, and even fewer (generally around one percent) without a decent explanation providing an exemption from our vacancy taxes.

So who lives in our new dwellings?

Generally the census provides our best information on residents. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have public-use micro census data from 2016 that includes the year in which buildings were constructed. But we DO have this data from the National Household Survey of 2011 (replacing the long-form census that year). So for 2011 we can separate out buildings constructed in the last five years (from 2006-2011). We can also break this down by major types of new housing built. Unfortunately this means setting aside most purpose-built rental apartments. When it comes to low-rise and high-rise apartment buildings, all we’ve got reliable data on are condos. But we can also look at the many single-family detached buildings constructed during this time period, as well as suited houses and rowhouses (both condo and non-condo).*

First let’s ask: Where did the people moving into newly constructed dwellings live before they were built?


Nifty. Most of the people moving into new housing between 2006 and 2011 already lived in Metro Vancouver before their move, either in the same municipality or a different municipality within the region (colored green here). So new housing is mostly serving locals first and foremost. No surprise given that most moves are local moves. A much smaller proportion of people moved from outside of Metro Vancouver, some from elsewhere in BC, some from another province, and some from outside of Canada (in blues and purple). Yay for Gateway Vancouver!**

So what would’ve happened if this new housing hadn’t been built? Where would these people have lived instead? Maybe they would have lived in the old housing that the new housing replaced, especially in the case of single-detached houses, where new often simply replaces old, just at a higher price and quality. But often new housing is built more densely, enabling more people to share the same parcel of land, as with condominium apartments and rowhouses. Without this new housing, would the people who moved in have left Metro Vancouver entirely? That’s unlikely. Instead, they would have competed with everyone else trying to move into older housing. And because those moving into newer housing tend to have higher incomes than those moving into older housing, families further down the income ladder likely would’ve been pushed out. We can demonstrate differences in market position by comparing adjusted after-tax family income decile distributions. That’s a long way of saying, how do “economic” families rank in incomes compared to other families (here including non-family households), in particular, how do those moving into new housing compare to those moving into older housing?



As suspected, those moving into newer dwellings tend to be of higher income ranks than those moving into older dwellings, just as those moving into condos tend to be of higher income ranks than those moving into non-condo apartments and rowhouses. Without new dwellings, these movers don’t go away. Instead they join the competition for older housing stock, where they tend to push out those further down the income ladder who might be attempting to move at the same time. In some cases, they may directly displace families who didn’t plan on becoming movers, as when buyers claim tenanted condos and secondary suites for their own use.***

Finally, let’s visualize who might be living in new housing a bit more by giving them some ages.


Are there children involved? You bet there are. Add any of the kinds of dwelling tracked here, and you’ll also be providing homes for kids (in green). That said, condo apartments, both low-rise and high-rise, tend to house more young adults (in blue) and retirees (in yellow). All kinds of households need places to live, including the lower-income households likely displaced when we stop adding new housing. So when you see someone make a claim like:

There is no point to housing construction in Metro Vancouver. It’s almost all unaffordable & it’s being sold overseas where the market price gets set…

Remember that the data we have suggests this is wrong on basically every count. The details of what new housing replaces matter, as does whether the new housing includes condos, purpose-built rental, or non-market social housing. But when we build housing in a place like Vancouver, it gets lived in. In general construction of new and denser forms of housing does double duty, giving real people real places to live and protecting lower-income folks from getting displaced.


*- I dropped new building types where I had less than 10,000 estimated dwellers for data quality issues.

**- Some people show up as non-movers, meaning they probably moved into their new dwelling in the window in 2006, just after it was built, but before triggering a move recorded in the last five years from the date of the census. Or they just misreported, which also happens!

***- Always important to remember both that income and wealth are related, but different measures of market position, and that there is a lot of wealth collected here in Vancouver!