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?