Urbanism Axis & IMBY Allies

Last post I talked about how Vancouver’s election provided possible insights into the relationship between Urbanism (or IMBY-ism) as a political axis running perpendicular to more traditional Left-Right axes. Now we have results!

But first: a clarification. Initially I drew from the Cambie Report‘s clever crowd-sourcing of placements for political parties and prominent independents in Vancouver along both a municipal urbanism axis and social and economic left-right axes (ultimately combined), as follows.


Positions were allocated (and defined) by the wisdom of crowds. Not surprisingly, I received some pushback for accepting this wisdom – not everyone agrees with crowds! And that’s fair. Many policy positions and histories, especially within my area of housing, were actually more nuanced. Here I’ll provide a – still very rough – breakdown of how I see the axes providing important information about different positions and histories, which may be of use both for interpreting Vancouver and thinking through IMBY coalitions more broadly.


Starting with the Urbanist Right in the upper-right quadrant, we have a relatively familiar market urbanism: anti-zoning and libertarian inspired. Pro-housing everywhere “the market” wants it. Market urbanists tend to extol the virtues of density and disruption. YIMBY everywhere.

Moving clockwise, below we have the Preservationist Right. To add a bit of nuance, this is a position that I’ve argued actually much better characterizes the North American tradition: Rigid zoning for exclusive single-family neighbourhoods and more flexible market allocation of housing within a constrained urban core. Right leaning municipal coalitions offer a grand bargain between middle-class detached homeowners’ relatively conservative desires to be left alone and developers’ interests in making money downtown. The mantra goes something like: “Strong protections for me and the market for thee.” Or NIMBY in the Great House Reserve, YIMBY in the Urban Core.

Continuing around the clock to the Preservationist Left, we move toward the left-leaning reaction against the North American tradition. Anti-poverty alliances frequently identify developers as villains. This makes sense insofar as many alliances have borne repeated witness to the displacement that can result from unleashing market development upon the marginalized neighbourhoods of the urban core. Anti-developer politics can seem like a progressive end in their own right and can sometimes also win over middle-class voters (think “All neighbourhoods matter”). For a farther left subset, the socialization of housing seems the best bet for protecting those marginalized by the market. Lots more social housing is in order – but often concentrated in and meant to preserve neighbourhoods viewed as under development pressure. The orientation runs from NIMBY everywhere to PHIMBY (Public Housing in My Back Yard).

Moving up to the Urbanist Left, we find alliances that often view urban growth as good, both in terms of promoting diversity and in terms of reducing environmental impacts. Many accept that disruption is part of living in a city. But it shouldn’t be imposed unequally and policies should work to avoid displacement. Those I’ve also termed Inclusive Urbanists set their sights on returning exclusionary neighbourhoods to the urban fabric by reforming single-family zoning. They look to introduce social housing and diverse rental options to every neighbourhood. The tendency is YIMBY, but reform-oriented, with an egalitarian emphasis directed at diversifying single-family exclusionary hoods and large helpings of PHIMBY.

Ok, now let’s get back to what happened in Vancouver, where we had parties occupying each of these quadrants. Who won? And what does it tell us about IMBY-coalitions?

Let’s start with mayor.


The mayoral race ended up a showdown between two strong Urbanist Left candidates (Kennedy Stewart and Shauna Sylvester) and the strongest of the Preservationist Right (Ken Sim from the NPA – historically the epitome of the grand bargain party: NIMBY for detached home-owners, YIMBY in the urban core). Stewart beat Sim by less than a thousand votes (half a percentage point) in a real squeaker of a race.

Broadly speaking, both the Urbanist Left and the Preservationist Right fielded strong candidates. But what happened to the Urbanist Right and the Preservationist Left? The Urbanist Right candidate was clearly Hector Bremner, and at 5.7% of the vote, his Yes Vancouver party failed to attract much support beyond its passionate young base of market YIMBYs. The Preservationist Left initially had a party-supported candidate in COPE’s Patrick Condon (who early on made clear he wouldn’t run if the Green Party’s Adriane Carr had decided to try for the mayorship). But Condon dropped out after experiencing a stroke. Late in the race he endorsed independent candidate Sean Cassidy, who failed to attract much other support. Even adding in support for the fringe candidacy of IDEA Vancouver’s Connie Fogal (widow of progressive hero Harry Rankin), the Preservationist Left failed to crack 2% in the mayoral race.

So can we collapse the field, calling YIMBYism a left-wing phenomenon and NIMBYism mostly driven by more conservative impulses? Not quite so fast… let’s turn to Council! Here I note the average % of total council votes accorded to candidates in each party, highlighting the parties that actually won council seats (no independents won seats, despite overall respectable showings). I also provide the range of averages for major parties in each quadrant.


While the mayor’s race seemed to reduce relatively neatly to a singularly important Urbanist Left – Preservationist Right axis, the council race sees a real and strong split between the Preservationist Left (COPE and the Greens) and the Urbanist Left (OneCity and Vision), with the Preservationist Centre-Left ultimately receiving the most support. Indeed, the new council will be made up of five members from the Preservationist Right (NPA), four members from the Preservationist Centre-Left (three Greens and one COPE), and one member from the Urbanist Left (OneCity).

So what does this all this tell us about IMBY coalitions?

First: it’s important to distinguish those BYs: the backyards of Single-Family House neighbourhoods are treated differently from the backyards of the Urban Core.

Second: Right-leaning coalitions tend to do well in cities only when they leave the back yards of Single-Family House neighbourhoods alone. So far there’s little evidence that a right-leaning YIMBY coalition can win, though this could change in the future, as single-family neighbourhoods continue to lose population.

Third: Most YIMBYs lean left by quite a large margin, and left-leaning YIMBY coalitions can win. A Lefty Urbanist won the mayoral race in 2018, despite the competition from an exceptionally strong contender in the same quadrant. Moreover, Vision Vancouver’s coalition held power for the last ten years until their organizational implosion in 2018, and still placed well ahead of most other parties even if they won no seats.

Fourth: There’s a real and consequential split between Lefty Urbanists and Lefty Preservationists. I think this is often about perspective. From the point of view of anti-poverty activists working in the urban core, developers almost always look like villains (non-profit developers MAY be exceptions). From the point of view of people feeling excluded from cities’ vast tracts of single-family neighbourhoods, developers look like potential allies. On the flip side, the path to political success often runs through middle-class homeowners, and it’s easier to get them on your side by promising it won’t inconvenience them much than by suggesting they might need to sacrifice some parking or sunlight on their gardens. Vancouver’s Green Party, in particular, has walked this line to great success.

Theoretically, this election should put to rest the notion that all or even most YIMBYs are mostly market-oriented. After all, if they were they would’ve come out in mass for Yes Vancouver. Instead YIMBYs seemed to support Urbanist Left candidates in numbers easily surpassing support for the Urbanist Right. But to be fair, this was also a really messy election, witnessing the organizational implosion of the reigning party (Vision) and a confusing profusion of new parties. This likely benefitted those older organizations that managed to avoid imploding (Greens, COPE, and above all the NPA, who recovered strong from a shaky start), above and beyond informed platform comparisons.

Final Question: Can those Urbanist Leftys who made it into office this year work with their Preservationist Left or Preservationist Right colleagues? I’m guessing efforts to Make Room in single-family neighbourhoods are going to slow down again after Vision’s successful last-minute drive to introduce duplexes (with suites!), opening up all nearly all lots to four potential dwelling units (2x owned, 2x rented) across the City. Given housing plans put forward by the NPA and Greens, maybe we’ll eventually get matching legalization of an additional main unit rental suite (1x owned, 2x rented, 1x laneway rented), legalizing what’s already happening on the ground in many places. It’s less clear what will happen in the urban core, where alliances may shift project by project (remember, NPA councillors look pretty market YIMBY outside of single-family zones).

Let’s animate that GIF:



Addendum: (preliminary) vote tallies from the City of Vancouver obtained here! Looking forward to the voting location breakdown we got from the 2014 election.



A Very Imby Election

Vancouver’s heading into an exciting municipal election!

Yes, yes, it’s exciting in all the normal ways elections are exciting: rah, rah, I really want my team to win! Strategy, strategy, wonder what messaging will work? Etc. (I’m a bit of a political junkie).

BUT this election is also super interesting to me as a major test of backyard building (-IMBY) coalitions and positioning. There are parties that tend toward Yes! build more housing in-my-backyard (YIMBY), and there are parties that tend toward No, No, No more building in-my-backyard (NIMBY). What’s great about this election is that there are SO many parties involved that we can actually fill out a scatterplot of IMBYism positioned within more traditional left-right coalitions. The folks over the Cambie Report did a bang-up job of illustrating this, with their crowd-sourcing of positioning for the parties (and major independent mayoral candidates). Borrowing from their crowd-sourced scoring of party and major mayoral candidate positions (but centering the scores and inverting the urbanism scoring), here’s pretty much what the political landscape looks like:


The election is very exciting because there’s someone in every corner! Assuming everyone shares these perceptions of the parties and they’ve been able to get their message out, we get a real test of how urbanist welcome (YIMBY) coalitions line up with more traditional left/right divides in terms of voting strength.

Do most (voting) free-market fiscal conservatives vote YIMBY? We’ll be able to compare the Yes Vancouver! vote relative to the NPA/Pro Vancouver/Coalition Vancouver vote to find out. Are most NIMBY voters progressive-leaning or conservative-leaning (or somewhere in the middle)? We can look to compare COPE to the N/P/C vote to the Greens. Do left-leaning YIMBYs outnumber left-leaning preservationists? Compare OneCity & Vision turnout to COPE/Greens.

And just who makes up YIMBY coalitions anyway? This, I think, is perhaps the most interesting question, primarily because debates sometimes frame YIMBYs as anti-regulation free-marketeers, when in fact there appears to be a rather large group of re-regulation socialist-friendly YIMBYs out there. This election should provide some insight into just how large these different facets of YIMBY coalitions might be by comparing OneCity & Vision votes to Yes Vancouver votes. Fun!

Of course, there’s also bound to be a lot of noise. The chaos in this election suggests that low-information voters, in particular, may fall back on familiar rubrics, perhaps benefiting parties that have been around awhile (NPA, Vision, Greens). The Greens, in particular, may benefit from their mixture of party recognition at other levels of government and progressive sheen mixed with centrist positions historically appealing to many homeowners (there’s a reason Carr was the most popular candidate in the last election). There are also real efforts underway to retain the strength of more traditional left-right divides, at least on the left, where the Vancouver District Labour Council (VDLC) has attempted to broker an alliance. (Does Labour have a stake in this election? Oh yes! Lots of contracts coming up…)


In order to form their slate, the VDLC had to choose between the two mayoral candidacies of Sylvester and Stewart (setting aside left-leaning alternates like Campbell and Condon, who’ve now dropped out). They chose Stewart, previously an NDP parliamentary politician representing nearby Burnaby. You can scroll through their fancy collector cards (cute gimmick!) on twitter.

In addition to the more organized efforts of parties and labour organizations, it’s worth noting that this year’s election is just a bonanza of independent candidates. Aside from Stewart and Sylvester, the two serious independent mayoral candidates, there’s just a ton of independent council candidates. I can’t fit them all on here, but just to demonstrate a couple of candidates (and a party) missed by the Cambie Report survey, I’ll estimate positions from following folks on twitter as below.


Bhandal has positioned herself close to OneCity. Cook and Crook are proud YIMBYs and look closer to somewhere between OneCity and Yes Vancouver. Blyth has mostly focused on calling attention to the opiod crisis (to her everlasting credit!) but also seems to have placed herself (or been placed) close to OneCity. Altogether, you could fill out significantly more quadrants using independent candidates. (I just don’t have the time or energy to do it!)

So… where do I fall? Relying heavily on my read of Iris Marion Young’s* brilliant Justice and the Politics of Difference, and in particular, her understanding of the City as an Ideal for Justice, I very clearly fall into what I’d call the “inclusive urbanism” camp, exemplified by OneCity (note: it’s possible I have a sign supporting OneCity out on my balcony right now). I swoon over their campaign slogan of Every Neighbourhood for Everyone. And what do you know, when you add in independents, there’s enough other candidates in that quadrant to fill out a whole ballot! This includes the reigning Vision party, who in my view does not get enough credit for tacking against the broader North American winds to move Vancouver in a more inclusive and urbanist direction.


That’s not to say there aren’t lots of other good ideas floating around out there in urbanist camps (hi Yes Vancouver!), and good energy in other left-leaning parties (COPE gets full credit for making politics built around fighting class inequities look like fun!) Speaking of fun, I’m gonna do an animated gif thing to round things off. Here you go.


Some Related Takes:

Cambie Report Data: google doc

Tom Davidoff‘s gradesheet approach: google doc

Christopher Porter’s (nicely done!): housing platform comparison

Allen Pike’s: breakdown


*- Worth noting: Iris Marion Young practically takes an anarchist stance on zoning: that it challenges the urban diversity she dearly wants to foster. As I discuss in my book, I’d rather reform zoning than abolish it, but overall she’s not wrong. She also thinks all planning should be done at a regional level (kinda like Metro Vancouver!).



Fall Talks

I’m talking about stuff this Fall! Here’s a quick run-down (in no small part to remind myself of what I need to be working on)

Richmond Public Library


I’m excited to be giving a lecture about my book at the Richmond Public Library on Oct. 27th, 2.30-4pm, as part of their local author events. From the listing:

Nathanael Lauster, author of The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, will be talking about how the single-family house came to acquire special protection across the Lower Mainland, why people are so attached to houses, and also how Metro Vancouver has moved further away from this specific housing form than any other metropolis in North America. In addition, he will also discuss two common questions with the audiences:

Why is acquiring a single-family house so important to so many people? What lessons, if any, does Vancouver hold for other metro areas?

Full listing and a registration sign-up here!


Pacific Housing Research Network (PHRN) / Housing Central Meetings

Turning to November, on Monday, November 19th, from 10.30-12pm, I’ll be speaking as part of the PHRN panels held within the annual Housing Central meetings at Vancouver’s Sheraton Wall Centre. I’ll be veering into my observations on evolving IMBY political coalitions and their role in inclusive housing provision.

Title: Backyard politics: A tour of evolving IMBY coalitions and rights frameworks supporting (and eroding) social inclusion
Abstract: NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) movements have been a longstanding concern for all housing developers, but especially those engaged in non-profit and low-income housing construction. Frequently NIMBY movements dominate and mobilize neighbourhood associations against developments that might “change the character” of “their” neighbourhoods. Recently a variety of YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) movements have been organized to support developments in response to a variety of concerns, including the exclusionary aspects of NIMBYism and its failure to represent the diversity and interests of both local neighbourhoods and cities as a whole. Other IMBY movements, like PHIMBY (Public Housing In My Backyard) or QIMBY (Quality in My Backyard), shift between more general NIMBY and YIMBY coalitions depending upon what’s being built or proposed. In this paper, I provide a brief tour of the IMBY zoo and also attempt to decipher how rights claims and concerns for social inclusion get built into or left out of different kinds of coalitions. Where possible, I draw upon examples to illustrate claims and coalition-building dynamics both in BC and abroad.


Let’s Talk Housing: CMHC National Housing Conference

Almost immediately after the PHRN panels, I’ll be going to the National Housing Conference in Ottawa for a panel on Nov 22, 11.15-12.30pm on building an affordable future for rental housing.

I’ll be presenting on an ongoing research project I’m working on with Jens von Bergmann (mountainmath) and Douglas Harris (UBC Law), attempting to get a better sense of Who Lives in Condos?

Submission Title: Who Lives in Condos?

Summary: Theoretically, condominium developments offer a relatively new and exceptionally flexible form of housing stock. By legal innovation and subdivision of land costs, they enable a broader range of people to enter home ownership. This makes condominiums competitive with purpose-built rental buildings in high land-value areas, but when rented out by investor-landlords condominiums can also contribute to rental markets. Yet the flexibility of condominium housing stock comes at the cost of making the rights associated with both ownership and rental tenures more precarious. Moreover, condominiums are often vilified in debates over development. In the urban imaginary, new condominium developments are often assumed to bring only gentrifiers, fail to meet the needs of families, or go empty, serving merely as safety-deposit boxes in the sky. It’s useful to establish who lives in condominiums, both in terms of understanding who’s at risk of condominium-induced forms of precarity and how condominiums respond to housing needs more broadly. In this paper, we explore the socio-legal flexibility of condominiums and draw upon a mix of Canadian census data and administrative data to investigate how who lives in them has varied through time and across different Canadian cities. Where possible, we provide comparisons with other forms of development (e.g., freehold, purpose-built rental), holding other features constant (e.g., age, structure, location, number of bedrooms), to evaluate how condominium residents differ from others.


Should be fun! I’d love to connect with folks interested in my research at any and all upcoming events – or just drop me a line!

From Vancouver With Love

The Old Arbutus Corridor Out of Town

Dear Leaving Vancouver,

It’s not that I’m not into you. It’s just that I’m having a hard time committing.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’ve made some big decisions in my short life. I decided I wasn’t going to be just another sprawling North American city back in the early 1970s. That’s when I ditched the freeway and put in place boundaries, like the Agricultural Land Reserve, meant to preserve my livable figure. I’m proud to say that despite splurging on a few mansions here and there, I’ve pretty much stuck with it. And good news! People like me! They really, really like me!

Urban Containment Boundary

But that’s part of the problem now, isn’t it? You feel like too many people like me, and since I’m not growing outward there’s just no room for you. Instead, it’s all about the bling. Like only the fast crowd can catch my attention any more.

I have to admit, there’s some truth to that. You see, I’m struggling with some family stuff. The olds aren’t always happy with the ways I’ve changed. And they’re terrible snobs. Like they think they should get to choose who I live with! And the only ones they think deserve me are those who can afford my most expensive tastes – fancy cars, detached houses, you know the drill. And, ok, I admit that with so many suitors my most expensive tastes have gotten really, really expensive!

Is it any wonder I’ve grown a little… high maintenance?

But I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to be rich! You don’t even have to be cool! It’s not you, it’s me, and I’m working on it. I really want you to stay. I do! As a matter of fact, I NEED you to stay. Someone’s got to work around here.

Reserving Land for Millionaires?

So what has to happen? If I want you in my life, I think my tastes need to change. A little public transit here, some social housing over there. If I raise my property taxes, I can cover it. I mean, have you SEEN how low my taxes are? Lots of potential there. Then I just need to stop reserving so much room for that fancy-pants in-crowd. Like, why can’t I have low-rise rental housing everywhere? If I just work on myself a bit, I know I could make room for you!

That’s what I want, you know.

So help me follow-through on my commitments. Like I said, I’ve done it before. I can do it again. I can be sustainable, livable, AND inclusively welcoming. So encourage me to be the city I want to be. Stick around. Vote.

As for me, maybe all I really need to do is… grow up.

Love and Kisses,


Fact-checking Vancouver’s Swamp Drainers

[co-authored with Jens von Bergmann and cross-posted with MountainMath]

Swampy facts: the dark, broken, and ugly side of housing talk in Vancouver.

Down south of the border, a politician who shall remain nameless campaigned on “draining the swamp” of Washington D.C., trafficked in countless conspiracies, and lied his way into office. His lies painted a picture of a United States turned dark, corrupt and menacing. He promised to fix it, Making American Great Again, mostly by shutting down globalization and kicking out the immigrants.

In Canada, we like to think we’re immune to this kind of rhetoric. But a strain has made its way into discussions concerning Vancouver, where the intersection of real estate, politics, and globalization are increasingly portrayed as a swamp in need of draining. We don’t believe most of those portraying Vancouver as swamp-like are intentionally lying (and in real life they surely favour the preservation of environmentally sensitive wetlands). Nevertheless many commenters are muddying the discourse with poorly sourced claims as a means of scoring political points and attacking various aspects of globalization.

It’s tricky to track down the spread of all the false claims out there. Fortunately a bunch of them were concentrated in a recent piece on “Dirty Money” in Macleans by Terry Glavin that views Vancouver as “a case study in the dark, broken and ugly side of globalization.” Recognizing that getting facts and interpretations right is often difficult for even the most well-intentioned, let’s work toward correcting a few misperceptions, line by line:

“At least 20,000 Vancouver homes are empty, and nobody’s really sure who owns them.”

Variations of similar statements permeate the media, with various degrees of factual accuracy. The most common misrepresentation is to refer to the 25k homes not “occupied by usual residents” as “empty”, which the above quote avoids by using an appropriately lower number.

The main issue with the above quote is that it’s portraying those “at least 20,000” homes as problematic vacancies, neglecting that that count includes moving vacancies around census day, empty suites (about 4000 of them), and units in buildings that completed around census time and did not have the time to fill in yet.

Accounting for these types of vacancies, we arrive at the ballpark of the Ecotagious Study based on BC Hydro data that found between 10,800 (for year-long vacancies) to around 13,500 (for four-month vacancies) and now the 8,481 empty homes through the Empty Homes Tax declarations, although some of those empty homes found via the EHT are outside of the universe Ecotagious reported on.

When quoting these numbers, the key question is what are the numbers supposed to be used for. If it’s to highlight “problematic” vacancies, then the Ecotagious numbers probably get us the best estimate for that point in time. Since then the number has likely dropped due to Empty Homes Tax pressure, we will have to wait until the repeat of the Ecotagious study to get confirmation on by how much.

And the reason we don’t know who owns them is not for some nefarious reason but simply because the methods we have for estimating empty homes (other than the ones caught by the Empty Homes Tax) do not allow for the identification of units.

“Another 25,000 residences are occupied by homeowners whose declared taxable household incomes are mysteriously lower than the amount they’re shelling out in property taxes, utilities and mortgage payments.”

That’s plain false, we have looked at this before. The 2016 census counted only 8,940 owner households with higher shelter costs than income. An additional 14,510 renter households paid more than their income in rent and utilities, making for a total of 23,450 households in the City of Vancouver that had higher shelter cost than income, most of which were renter households.

The wording of the sentence, followed by the next talking about tax avoidance in British Columbia real estate, seemingly suggests that the majority of these 23,450 households were cheating in some way. Let’s take a closer look at these households with shelter cost higher than income.

One of us (Jens) is partially responsible for bringing this stat into circulation and failing to provide more extensive context from the get-go.


Looking more closely, we see that the bulk of these households are non-census-family households, probably roommates in many cases. Students likely account for a lot of the data. Single parents are also common. While there are some indications of irregularities in the data worth investigating further, broadly suggesting all these households are tax cheats is irresponsible.

“Non-residents own roughly $45 billion worth of Metro Vancouver’s residential properties, and non-residents picked up one in five condominiums sold in Metro Vancouver over the past three years.”

The first part is fairly accurate, CHCP reports that $43 billion worth of residential properties in Metro Vancouver were owned by non-residents. Of course that’s less than 5% of the total value of $884.5 billion.

The second part is a prime example of making statements without understanding the data. We don’t have data on non-resident buyers, presumably referring to buyers with primary resident outside of Canada at the time of the sale.

Considering similar statements in an earlier article by the same author, our best guess is that the author was referring to non-resident owners of condos that were built between 2016 and late 2017. Owners of recently built condos could be taken as a proxy for buyers if one makes some assumptions on resales.

Except the ratio of condo units built between 2016 and late 2017 that were held by non-resident owners is one in 7.1 for Metro Vancouver, and for the City of Vancouver that the previous article was referring to the ratio is one in 6.5. (CANSIM 33-10-0003)

In summary it seems the original statement is the product of playing loose with definitions, Metro vs City mixup and aggressive rounding to pump up the numbers.

“But Transparency International reckons about half of Vancouver’s west-side residences are owned by mystery trusts or shell companies.”

Big if true, a claim so outrageous that it needs data to back it up. It seems that this is based on a transparency international report that the author also referred to in a February column, where the author characterized this as “Transparency International estimates that perhaps half of Vancouver’s high-end residences are now owned by shell companies or trusts”. Now this has morphed into “about half of Vancouver’s west-side residences”. It’s good to remember what the Transparency International study actually did, it looked at the 100 most expensive properties in Metro Vancouver and found that 46 of these were owned by companies or trusts (not all of which have opaque ownership).

Via StatCan’s CHSP (CANSIM 39-10-0003) we now know that 5.61% of Metro Vancouver’s residential properties are owned by companies or trusts (or “non-individuals”), roughly in line with most other Canadian metropolitan areas in BC and ON as the following graph shows. Needless to say, the 100 most expensive properties on Vancouver’s west side are likely quite distinct from the rest.

Even after adding the non-resident owners to the non-individual owners, Vancouver still looks a lot like most other metro areas. In fact, the only metro area that really stands out is London, ON. Otherwise it’s the non-metropolitan portions of BC and ON that have the highest representation of company and trust ownership structures.


“In Metro Vancouver, homeownership costs amount to 87.8 per cent of a typical household’s income”

It does not. Most people spend far less, as the following graph on share of income spent by owners on shelter costs demonstrates.


The author appears to be conflating running shelter costs of owner households with the RBC affordability metric which compares the cost of financing the typical home for sale in the region to the typical household income. The latter metric may (imperfectly) reflect some of the difficulty now facing those wishing to jump from renting to owning, but has little bearing on how much typical households currently spend in either category.

“Vancouver has also become a major global hub for organized crime networks based in China.”

Here the author immediately pivots to the opioid crisis and the suspicious transactions identified in the recent money laundering report concerning lax oversight of casinos, attempting to link these to broader affordability issues and to globalization. To be clear, both the opioid epidemic and money laundering are serious issues in their own right. The fentanyl crisis has killed way too many British Columbians. As a recent report by Sandy Garossino notes, the criminal organizations associated with money laundering through BC Casinos have also claimed multiple lives. We should be outraged by the crisis and the crime ring, but it’s wrong, as Garossino adds, that this, “mainly bugs us because we figure it’s driving up the cost of housing in Vancouver.” The opioid epidemic demands more sustained attention than it’s likely to receive as a prop for tarring globalization. That’s not at all what it’s about. It requires a comprehensive re-think of our health care systems, pain management strategies, and criminalization of drug use, and the biggest villain in the story so far appears to be a major American pharmaceutical company. As for money laundering, further reporting on its role within the real estate sector has been promised by the Attorney General, but so far it’s not clear that shady practices – while certainly present – have had much to do with driving up real estate prices. As multiple commenters have noted, even if all the $100 million so far reported to have been laundered in our casinos over 10 years was re-invested in real estate, it would represent at most tiny fraction of total real estate transactions. Property transfer tax data shows that Metro Vancouver averaged $5.2bn worth of residential real estate transactions each month in 2017, dropping to $4.4bn during the first 5 months of 2018. There are real reasons to be outraged over the opioid epidemic and money laundering. But the link between these issues and affordability remains tenuous, and insisting upon the link in the absence of further reporting diminishes the importance of the documented damage they’ve already generated without pointing toward any good solutions for affordability, the opioid crisis, or tackling money laundering.

“Freeland could have been describing Vancouver: ‘Median wages have been stagnating, jobs are becoming more precarious, pensions uncertain, housing, child care and education harder to afford.’”

This is plain false. To its credit, back in February the NDP government moved to make childcare much more affordable for British Columbians. Why ignore this progress? Moreover, Vancouver has seen strong jobs and income growth. To gauge wage growth, we look at full-time employment income for couple families, lone parent families and unattached individuals and compare the trajectories to Metro Toronto.


We see that Vancouver CMA has overtaken Toronto for non-family individual income and lone-parent median income, and almost closed the cap on couple family income.


This shows how Vancouver’s labour force participation rate has increased with respect to Toronto while the unemployment rate decreased. Lastly we can look at the regional job vacancy rate for the respective economic regions to see how Vancouver’s job market is much stronger than the labour force is able to fill.



In our hyper-polarized environment it is probably not enough to simply point out factual errors without further comment. So we take this opportunity to state that we strongly support stricter oversight and enforcement of money-laundering, as well as implementing measures to increase transparency in property ownership. We are also gravely concerned about Vancouver’s affordability problems. We’ve supported a number of housing policies recently put forward by local governments, including the empty homes tax, the school tax, and the boost to social housing investments, all aimed at fixing regulation and providing more housing to those most in need. It’s important to separate out what governments are doing right from where they might be failing. This is where swamp imagery fails us, blending everything together and dragging it all into the mud.

We think fixing our affordability problems is going to involve making tough choices and policy tradeoffs, and we should approach them with a clear sense of what’s at stake rather than mixed up facts, vague swamp-ish imagery and the sense it can all be blamed on the dark, corrupting forces of globalization. We’ve all seen where that last route can take us.

As usual (for Jens), the underlying R Notebook for this post that includes all the code for the graphs and numbers in this post is available on GitHub. Feel free to download it to reproduce the analysis or adapt it for your own purposes. Hopefully this kind of transparent and reproducible analysis can help establish a shared base of facts. And reduce the amount of guessing needed to make sense of people’s numbers and statements.


Update (July 27, 2018)

Several people have pointed out via Twitter and comments that inflation-adjusted income growth might be a better metric to use. And that’s a good point. In the context of housing we often have nominal housing prices in mind, so nominal income can be a good metric in this context. But inflation-adjusted incomes add another important perspective.


Here we used Canada-wide inflation estimates, Vancouver’s income growth looks even stronger when normalizing by CMA-specific CPI. (Digging into the reasons for this would probably make another interesting blog post.) The two graphs show the inflation-adjusted incomes, as well as change in adjusted incomes indexed to 2000. We can clearly see the growth in all categories, both in absolute terms, as well as in relative terms compared to Toronto. Despite this, the notion of “stagnant incomes” in Vancouver is quite pervasive in news stories.

Mother Tongues and Motherlands

Browsing around for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data, I stepped into their portal and stumbled across some updated “facts and figures” data on immigrant intake for permanent residents from 2007 to 2016. Tables included intake by nationality (15) and mother tongue (22).  Playing around with the data, I was struck by the way these two variables overlapped, but did not quite match. Pretty cool! So I thought I’d show off the matches for the BIG THREE Canadian migrant-sending countries: India, the Philippines, and China (in that order).

But first, it’s worth noting that the hold of the big three wavered in 2016. In a dramatic move, the upstart, Syria, actually knocked off China for third place sending country. This, of course, reflected a very real (and very welcome!) move on the part of Canada to accept Syrian refugees. Canada has taken in no where near as many Syrian refugees as many other countries, especially those nearby (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan) and Germany. But credit where it’s due, Trudeau’s Liberals stepped up to their campaign promises to do something to help.



Aside from the sudden rise of Syria, the big three continue to dominate migration to Canada, trading off for first place, though China has dropped considerably since 2013. Pakistan rounds out the top five in 2016, and I promise I won’t leave it behind.

So what about mother tongues! How do they match to nation-states?

Let’s start with China. While there are many dialects of Chinese, all are treated as Chinese by IRCC. When we map Chinese as mother tongue onto China as a sending country, we actually see more Chinese-speakers entering Canada than arrive from the People’s Republic of China (a.k.a. Mainland China). When we add in arrivals from Taiwan and Hong Kong, we’re very near total arrivals speaking Chinese as their mother tongue. Nevertheless, there are still a few Chinese-speakers to spare! The Chinese diaspora extends to other countries (e.g. Singapore), so this makes sense.


Let’s look at the Philippines! This was actually the case that motivated my post, insofar as I saw Ilocano listed as one of the top 25 mother tongues of arrivals to Canada in 2016, and in my ignorance, I must confess that I had never heard of the language before. If wikipedia is to be believed, it’s the third-most spoken language in the Philippines, after Tagalog (which I knew) and Cebuano (which I did not know). Unfortunately, only Tagalog and Ilocano are recorded as mother tongues in the top 25 for immigrants to Canada. But let’s see how well they cover arrivals from the Philippines…


It looks like Tagalog is the mother tongue for the vast majority of immigrants from the Philippines, but recently Ilocano has been added. A number of other Filipino languages probably make up the balance (there are twelve indigenous languages listed as per wikipedia, and English and Spanish are also commonly spoken). Though Tagalog is dominant, Tagalog alone will not catch all immigrants from the Philippines. Good to know!

What about India? Holy smokes! Talk about complicated! Due to the partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan (and then Bangladesh), there’s simply no easy way to contain languages within India. At the same time, there are a LOT of languages to deal with. Here I chart India, Pakistan and Bangladesh together against the many subcontinent languages to make up the top 25 for immigrants to Canada.


Once again, it’s a pretty good match. In the early years, it appears some migrants speaking the subcontinental languages involved arrive from outside India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Sri Lanka accounted for some of the Tamil-speaking migrants. More recently, it would appear I’m still missing some mother tongues by only tracking the languages in the top 25. India is a motherland with a lot of mother tongues!

What I also find intriguing is that the linguistic variation in migrants does not track the overall prevalence of languages in each sending country. What’s going on? Linguistic selection! We can see this especially insofar as Canada constitutes a real destination for Punjabi migrants from India. We can also see this insofar as the Philippines is increasingly sending migrants speaking its third (but not second) most common mother tongue. And of course selection has long been an issue for Chinese dialects (For instance, Cantonese is only now being replaced by other dialects here in Vancouver).

How to Become a Resort City

I think many people are concerned that Vancouver is turning into a “resort city” – a playground for the rich – rather than a diverse and thriving city for all. But is this really happening? Yes. And I’m concerned too!

Certainly we see a lot of luxury cars and retail outlets, but we don’t really track wealth very well in Canada. Nevertheless owner-occupiers report their home values in the census and that’s where most wealth ultimately lies for Canadians. We can ask a simple question: where do the millionaires live? By millionaires I’m referring to anyone who reports owning and occupying a home worth a million dollars or more – not a perfect proxy, but not bad. The census uses self-reporting to get at this, and Statcan Table 98-400-X2016232 – in conjunction with total household numbers from Census metro area profiles – enables me to generate the following figure.


Vancouver contains almost as many millionaires as Toronto, despite being less than half the size. Together the two metropolitan areas account for less than a fifth of Canada’s total number of households but over three-quarters of all owned dwellings worth on million dollars or more. To put matters differently, nearly 25% of Metro Vancouver’s households own a dwelling worth a million dollars or more, compared to just over 1% of the Rest of Canada (outside Toronto). We are literally concentrating the One Percent in terms of Canada’s wealthiest households.

Maybe Vancouver’s not quite a resort city yet, but it’s definitely in the neighbourhood!

So how did we get to this point?

In some ways Vancouver was predisposed to growth because it’s got lots of things people want: ocean, mountains, one of the mildest climates in Canada, a thriving port, a railroad line, lots of jobs, diverse ex-patriot communities, parks, strawberry-picking in the Agricultural Land Reserve, etc. This could explain growth overall. But everybody wants these things, not just rich people.

If it’s not just amenities that attract specifically rich people to Vancouver, then how are we becoming a resort city? Some people blame the fact that Vancouver’s amenities have been heavily marketed to rich people around the world in recent years. They have a point: this has certainly happened. But lots of other places try to market themselves to the rich as well. What makes Vancouver special?

We might not be attracting the wealthy so much as we’re systematically excluding everyone else who wants to live here. It’s about changing the composition of in-movers, so that wealthier and wealthier people tend to come (incidentally, this fits with research on neighbourhood change suggesting this is mostly how gentrification occurs).

How are we systematically excluding everyone who’s not rich? Easy! Under conditions of growth, all we have to do is preserve lots of urban land for millionaires and largely prevent anyone else from competing with them. Effectively this is what residential single-family (RS) zoning accomplishes in places like Vancouver, which we can see by comparing what proportion of detached and duplex housing is evaluated at over a million dollars.


Across Metro Vancouver, nearly 60% of detached or duplex housing is evaluated at over one million dollars, yet the vast majority of urban residential land is zoned to support only these forms of housing. This is how you get a resort city, fit only for millionaires (with a little bit of room for their servant-tenants living in basement suites below – which is what duplexes mostly consist of in Canada). This compares to around of quarter of detached houses worth over a million in Toronto, and just over 2% in the Rest of Canada.

We can flip the question around to ask what percent of million-dollar dwellings are single-family detached or duplex dwellings. Strikingly, the answer in Metro Vancouver, Metro Toronto, and the Rest of Canada is pretty much the same: almost 90%.

Luxury zoning is almost entirely detached zoning. Across Metro Vancouver, the converse is also increasingly the case: detached zoning is becoming luxury zoning, affordable only to millionaires.

In places with lots of amenities – including jobs! – where people really want to move, growth is mostly limited by housing. If we only make housing for millionaires, we’ll increasingly have a city of millionaires. If we want to keep Metro Vancouver from becoming a Resort City, we’re going to have to tackle the zoning issue.

For this and more: yadda yadda yadda… book.

Thanks to Frances Bula, Jens von Bergmann, and Chad Skelton for inspiring today’s post and/or snatching away my afternoon! And if you’re interested in what you can do about reforming zoning, look into the platforms of municipal parties, like OneCity, that advocate for inclusivity across our urban landscapes.