Do Families Live in Condos?

Controversy recently erupted over a new condominium housing complex being proposed in The Annex neighbourhood of Toronto. Ho-hum, pretty run of the mill situation, except that one of the complainants about the condominium was Margaret Atwood, who actually (and to her credit) responded to the many YIMBYs attacking her on twitter for NIMBYing new housing. A golden media moment!

One of the complaints launched during the ensuing debate was that “condos are not for families.” Now this provides us an empirical question, and one near and dear to my heart. So I went ahead and ran the numbers using appropriately weighted 2011 National Household Survey data. I did this quickly on my first pass, mostly because I was listening to a cranky kid who wouldn’t take his nap in the room next door (in my condo). Here’s what I got and hastily posted to twitter as my public sociology for the evening:


Most condominium dwellers (over 70%) are members of families. So as a first pass, it’s ridiculous to say families don’t live in condos. That said, it is true that condos support greater diversity in household members, including more people living alone or with roommates, than other kinds of tenure arrangements. It’s also true, of course, that people living alone and with roommates need housing no less than families.

What do I mean by saying other tenure arrangement? Condos, of course, are a legal category of ownership, not a type of building. Towering apartment buildings can be condos, but so can low-rises, rowhouses (like mine), and even single-family detached houses. Condo units are mostly split – pretty evenly – between the first three of these housing types, covering about 90% of condominium units.

But by the time I posted, the complaint had already turned away from ALL condominiums. The real problem is the NEW condos. New condos are (no doubt) more expensive, on average, than old condos. And often they’re built to maximize the number of units, minimizing the space in each, to provide lots of 1BR and Studio apartments, which appeal to investors, and relatively few 2BR+ apartments, which appeal more to families. These are all fair complaints. Indeed, a variety of cities (including Vancouver) have taken to mandating inclusion of 2BR+ condo units in many new developments.

So here’s my updated chart. Do families live in NEW condos? NEW 1BR condos? NEW Studio condos?


The answer is YES! Most NEW condo residents are family members (almost the same percentages as all condo residents). What’s even more striking is that most NEW 1BR and studio condo residents are still family members. That’s even a little surprising to me! But goes to show the adaptive ways people are doing family these days, even if often out of need rather than adventure. Even new 1BR and studio condos are supporting mostly residents who live in families. So if you’re keeping 1BR and studio condos out, you’re also keeping families out.

But once again, and it bears repeating, residents who don’t live in families ALSO NEED PLACES TO LIVE! Along these lines, I also fixed an issue with my first figure, where “Person not in census fam” was treated as non-family. What this category actually represents in the Census is people who don’t live in an “official” census family according to the census (defined as parent-child or partner), but still live with family members. So for instance, siblings living together, or grandparents with grandchildren. I’ve moved residents in those kinds of households down to consider them as part of the “family” category here, because seriously… those are still families!

One other note: NEW = built in the last 5 years (2006 and 2011, for purposes of the 2011 data at-hand)

“Buy a house for my daughter [or] I’m not going to let her marry you!”

Some of the people who I talked to for my book spoke directly to cultural differences in how they saw the importance of buying a house. A Chinese-Canadian interviewee, originally from Hong Kong, thought “Asians” in general were more likely to link home ownership to marriage. As she humorously described it:

They think that before you get married you have to buy a house. They’re like, “Oh, you don’t have money? Buy a house for my daughter [or] I’m not going to let her marry you!”

Of note, in Hong Kong (and across much of urban East Asia), very few people actually live in houses, and lots of people live in various types of public housing (covering about 30% of the population of Hong Kong, for instance). But setting that – and the selectivity of  just who immigrates to Vancouver – aside, the association between partnering patterns and access to housing is really interesting. In fact, changing the setting to Sweden, it was the topic of my dissertation! (See some of my old research here, here, and here)*

At some point, I hope to return to this kind of detailed research in North America. But in the meantime, I can work a quick metropolitan comparison. We all know that buying a house is pretty much impossible for most people in Vancouver. So how does it affect marriage and partnering patterns here, if at all, compared to other metros?

Here’s a comparison of partnering patterns across four big metropolitan areas in Canada, based on 2011 National Household Survey** results:


Effectively, Vancouver fits somewhere between Toronto and Calgary. Hardly the position one might expect if access to ownership of a house was really limiting partnerships. On the whole, all three of these major metropoles look pretty similar. But looking carefully reveals that people tend to partner a little later in Toronto, with a greater gap between the late twenties and early thirties, than in Vancouver. By contrast, Calgarians tend to partner earlier, with over half of those ages 25-29 no longer single. Torontonians are also less likely to spend much time in non-marital cohabitations than either Vancouverites or Calgarians. Interesting little differences which I’d guess speak as much to the multicultural mixes of Vancouver and Toronto as to housing conditions (though, as noted above, it might be the interaction between these that really matter!)

How about Montreal? As always, it’s kind of off doing its own thing. Non-marital cohabitation has been a much stronger feature of partnerships in Quebec since the Quiet Revolution, and it really shows up here. (see, e.g. LaPlante 2006). Lots of material for another dissertation, if anyone’s looking for ideas!


*- with apologies for the paywalls – drop me a line if you want access, but can’t get it!

**- basically our best substitute for the Census that year – thanks Harper!

Seattle Conferencing – ASA & SSSP

Just putting this up for anyone interested in the two talks I’ll be giving at the two professional Sociology conferences being held simultaneously in Seattle this week!

At the American Sociological Association (ASA), I’ll be presenting a paper related to (but distinct from) my book project on the Death and Life of the Single-Family House.  It will be part of the Regular Session, Performing Parenthood in Social Context, convening Saturday at 2.30pm in the Seattle Sheraton (4th Floor, Seneca Room).  (see here for other events going on that day). Title & Abstract:

Housing Parenthood: Performing a role on an unsettled stage – N. Lauster

How do people construct the social role of parenthood?  What gets enrolled as part of the performance?  What are the implications of unsettling expectations?  In this paper I pay special attention to how housing relates to the performance of parenthood, drawing upon qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews with 50 residents of Vancouver, Canada.  Frequently depicted as the most unaffordable metropolis in North America, Vancouver offers a culturally “unsettled” environment where single family homes, in particular, have moved rapidly out of reach for the vast majority of residents.  In general terms, analysis of interviews illuminates how housing provides a material scaffolding for the role of parenthood; offering up both a stage for the performance of parenthood and a crucial retreat from the stage.  More specifically, I call special attention to how people treat ownership of a single family home variously as: 1) a pre-packaged co-requisite, 2) a prerequisite, 3) inconsequential, or 4) a foil to performing the role of parenthood.  In addition to shaping the role of parenthood, the balance between these four treatments of single family home ownership has important implications for how housing policies and markets influence both childbearing and mobility.

Meanwhile, at the conference next door, The Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP), I’ll be presenting a very different paper based on my musings (working with my co-authors) concerning hoarding disorder and its relationship to broader discourses about how people are understood to normally relate to their environments.  This will be the first time I’ve ever presented at SSSP!  My paper here will be part of the Session on Health and the Environment, convening Sunday at 4.30pm (absolute last panel of the conference) in the Westin Seattle Hotel (Mercer Room). (Full program here) Title & Abstract:

Making Room for Thought: Contrasting Models of Human-Environment Relations in the Conceptualization and Diagnosis of Hoarding Disorder – N. Lauster, C. Bratiotis, S. Woody

Hoarding behavior, at first glance, bridges academic worlds concerned with health and environment insofar as “hoarders” seem to exemplify just how rampant consumerism can lead us all awry.  Yet at least a few commentators have suggested the opposite: by virtue of saving rather than discarding, those labeled hoarders often view themselves as rejecting consumerist logics and instead fostering sustainability.  The psychiatrists and psychologists who actually study hoarding focus less on the broader social and cultural implications of the phenomenon than on its impact as a mental disorder affecting the well-being of the individuals involved.  We argue here that this is both laudable – hoarding has real impacts on well-being that are too often overlooked – and a fundamental mistake.  The debate over how people should and do relate to their environments is of central importance to the conceptualization and etiology of hoarding as a disorder.  We demonstrate how one position within this debate, that people’s relationships to their environment are best modeled along the utilitarian lines of consumers (see also, homo economicus) has been implicitly adopted within the psychological and psychiatric diagnosis of hoarding.  We contrast this position with an alternative; what might be learned by basing conceptualizations of hoarding in the model of people as builders and dwellers?  This model takes seriously home-making as a collection of human orientations toward the environment.  Its adoption could offer up new implications for the etiology and conceptualization of hoarding as a disorder.



The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: available for pre-sale!

Did you know that Vancouver has moved the fastest and the furthest away from reliance upon single-family houses of any metropolis in North America?  Only Montreal competes for the title of least house-dependent.  I have a new book coming out that traces the history of Vancouver’s dramatic transformation and describes its effects on residents, as detailed by interviews with locals. More broadly, the book makes the case that this is mostly a positive development, primarily dependent upon regulatory innovation, that has many lessons for other metropolitan areas across the continent.

The book, The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, hits shelves on October 16th, but I’m happy to announce that it’s now available for pre-sale!  It will be part of the broader series by Temple University Press on Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy.


Click on the image link to see the promotional flyer, complete with a pre-sale discount code!  Please feel free to distribute the flyer widely!  The book is also now available for pre-sale via Amazon (Canada) , Amazon (USA), Bibliovault, and other related book sites, but you may not get the discount via these locations!

Is the Lifeblood of Vancouver Leaving?

The rising unaffordability of housing is a real concern in Vancouver.  But we should be clear about how and why.  Summarizing the concerns of many, The Globe & Mail’s Gary Mason writes of “A crisis in Vancouver: The lifeblood of the city is leaving.” As I noted previously, scares about the depopulation of Vancouver are easily dismissed by examining migration and mobility figures.  Both the City and the Metropolitan Area of Vancouver are growing, not declining.

So just who are we talking about as the lifeblood of Vancouver?  For that matter, what are we talking about as Vancouver?

Let’s start with the latter question.  The City of Vancouver, of course, lies at the heart of the Metropolitan Region of Vancouver.  Should we be concerned about anyone leaving the City of Vancouver?  Maybe.  But if they’re just crossing Boundary Road to go live in Burnaby or even catching the SkyTrain down to Surrey, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.  Indeed, to stick with the metaphor, if Vancouver is the heart of Metro Vancouver, so long as our lifeblood keeps flowing in and out and all around the larger region, we shouldn’t have a problem.  That’s kind of what we want it to do. The bigger problem, it seems, is if our lifeblood is leaving the region altogether.  This suggests we should be most concerned with patterns of migration and mobility pertaining to Metro Vancouver as a whole.  Or maybe it’s worth keeping an eye on both Vancouvers: City and Metro Area, but keeping in mind that different issues are involved with each.

So who are we talking about as lifeblood?  After all, both the City and Metro Area just keep getting bloodier and bloodier as they grow in size.  Gary Mason tells us to pay special attention to those in their 20s and 30s.

 For many young adults, however, the city increasingly represents a place of which they no longer can afford to be a part. Consequently, Vancouver faces an almost existential threat; what happens when the lifeblood of any community, those in their 20s and 30s, decide to leave? … Frustrated over the inability to find even a condo at prices their salaries can accommodate, many young people are saying goodbye.

Really?  Are more of these young folks leaving than coming?  Using Canadian Census data, I ran the numbers for the most recent time period I could get a handle on: 2006-2011.  There’s a simple technique in demography of gathering age-specific net migration figures by breaking down the population by age-group in each year, aging them forward (giving them babies at appropriate fertility rates and killing them off at appropriate mortality rates – here I used age-specific death rates for Canadians in 2008), and then seeing how many of them you’d expect to be around.  If you subtract this figure from the actual figure you see in the next census, you get an age-specific net migration rate (expressed below in percentage form).  Here’s what I get for both City and Metro Region:


For the greater metrolitan region, Vancouver’s lifeblood doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.  Many more people in their 20s and 30s are pouring into Vancouver than are leaving.  This is an important point to keep in mind, if only to set the record straight about the implications of the region’s unaffordability.

What about the City of Vancouver?  For those in their late teens and early twenties, the phrase “pouring in” is simply inadequate.  We have a tsunami on our hands.  Why?  Probably in part because Vancouver is a university town – in fact it’s MY university town.  But also because central cities tend to attract young people, provide them with jobs, and provide the diverse kinds of housing stock able to support them.  It’s true that the balance shifts between the City of Vancouver and the rest of the metropolitan region as people age.  The City of Vancouver is a net loser for people in their thirties and beyond.  No doubt many of them are looking for more spacious and affordable housing, and they would stay in the City if they could find it there.  But crossing the border into Burnaby, or down to Surrey, or out to Coquitlam, seems like pretty normal circulation.  The type experienced by central cities everywhere (yes, I checked, and Toronto experiences it too).

2016 is upon us, and soon we’ll have a new census.  We’ll all be eagerly awaiting the results (well, anyone who has bothered to read this far, anyway).  Who knows?  It’s possible patterns will have shifted by then.  But it’s also worth holding on to a healthy dose of skepticism.  Vancouver has at least 99 problems associated with housing affordability, but losing our lifeblood ain’t one.


Zika in Perspective (not so scary)

Having a baby is scary enough, for oh-so-many reasons.  But the recent Zika virus explosion has made it even scarier.  How scary should it be?  The Washington Post has an article on the difficulties of confirming Zika-related microcephaly cases in Brazil.  As of last week, 4,180 cases had been reported since October, but few had been confirmed by experts.  So a sample was explored in depth, and…

After experts scrutinized 732 of the cases they found that more than half either weren’t microcephaly, or weren’t related to Zika.

To be precise, just 270 cases of the 732 examined seem to be confirmed as related to Zika or something similarly infectious.  If that ratio holds, of the 4,180 cases reported since October, only about 1,542 will prove substantiated.  A bit less scary… but still a big number.

Except, in the context of Brazil, that’s actually not a big number at all.  I can’t readily find births data covering the period from October, 2015 to the present.  But I can easily find data on how many infants there were in Brazil in 2010.  Not a perfect proxy, but close enough for a rough estimate.  There were 2,713,244 infants, implying at least that many births.  Now THAT is a big number, and a good reminder that Brazil is the 5th largest country in the world, just two spots behind the USA.

The estimate from 2010 is a year’s worth of births, of course.  To make that comparable with reports from October, let’s make a heroic assumption that we’ve got about four months worth of reporting in (October through January).  So how many Brazilian babies would likely be born in four months time?  904,415.  Still a very large number.  What percentage of those babies look like might have Zika related microcephaly?

I get somewhere between 0.17% (using the ratio of confirmed cases) to 0.46% (using reported cases).  That’s between 1.7 cases per 1,000 births to 4.6 per 1,000 births.  Less scary.

But again, everything is scary to prospective parents.  What helps, perhaps, is perspective.  The pre-existing infant mortality rate in Brazil is estimated to be 19 deaths per 1,000 births (according to Population Reference Bureau data).  By contrast, the infant mortality rate in the USA is an estimated 6 deaths per 1,000 births, and for Canada, 4.8 deaths per 1,000 births.

These kinds of statistics lead me to ask: why don’t Canadians have a travel warning issued for pregnant women (or for mothers of infants) visiting the USA?  After all crossing the border to spend a year in the USA would appear to add an additional risk of dying of an extra 1.2 deaths per 1,000 births.  This is pretty close to the low end 1.7 cases of Zika-related microcephaly per 1,000 births we might be seeing in Brazil.

Not really so scary after all.

Of course there are two caveats here.  1) It would appear this is just the start of the Zika outbreak, and knowledge about its size and ultimate effects remains in flux, as witnessed by the shifting case count, and 2) We shouldn’t really equate the risks of microcephaly (Zika-related or otherwise) with the risks of infant mortality, as suggested by this CBC report.