Basement Confidential: Vancouver’s Informal Housing Stock

(Joint with Jens von Bergmann and cross-posted at Mountainmath)

Informal housing

While housing is highly regulated via zoning bylaws, building code, and fire code, in situations of housing scarcity we often get informal housing that exists outside of – or only partially covered by – the existing regulatory framework. We often associate slums or shantytowns with the term informal housing, but it also applies to more organized settlements like Kowloon Walled City, or, in the context of subterranean Vancouver, a good portion of our secondary suite stock.

Secondary suites in Vancouver span the spectrum between formal and informal housing. While secondary suites have long been a part of Vancouver’s housing market, they only acquired a route to formal legalization across most of the City in 2004. However, to become fully formalized secondary suites still have to clear a number of regulatory hurdles, ranging from minimum dwelling size to minimum ceiling height and other building code and fire standards. Then, after paying a small fee, they can receive a city permit as a secondary suite rental unit. The vast majority of secondary suites still remain part of the un-licenced (and largely un-permitted) informal housing sector.

Even permitted and licensed secondary suites lack some of the regulatory tools that apply to other forms of housing. For example, neither the City of Vancouver Empty Homes Tax, nor the provincial Speculation and Vacancy Tax apply to suites. The flexibility of suites, which in most cases maintain an internal doorway to the main unit, mean they can easily be re-absorbed into the main dwelling unit. This weakens how the Residential Tenancy Act can be applied to tenancies in secondary suites, for instance by leaving landlords ready access to the “own use” rationale for eviction.

In general the informal market of secondary suites is mutually beneficial to owners, who can draw on additional rental income, and to tenants, who can access housing that is generally more affordable than what is available in the formal housing sector. The benefits don’t accrue evenly though, and the interests of homeowning artisanal landlords and secondary suite tenants do not always align, as evidenced by landlords looking for ways to circumvent the residential tenancy act by e.g. using suites as short-term rentals.

Of course, informal basement suites are not a uniquely Vancouver form of informal housing, but they play an important role in Vancouver’s housing market overall and, for better or worse, Vancouver housing discussions.

The size of Vancouver’s informal secondary suite market

Estimating the size of the informal housing market tends to be difficult precisely because the housing evades regulation, and Vancouver is no different in this regard. There have been a variety of attempts to quantify the number of secondary suites in the city, ranging from using census data, to roll data from BC Assessment, to MLS listings data (see Metro Vancouver’s last round-up estimates here). Other potential sources of information include rental listings data.

The Canadian Census has attempted to classify single family homes with secondary suites as two “duplex” units, the main unit and the secondary suite. In cases where the census determined there might be more than one suite the homes have been classified as “apartment, fewer than 5 storeys.” But it’s not always easy for Census workers to find suites or determine if or when they’ve been re-absorbed into the main dwelling. Nor is there a clear mechanism for residents filling out Census forms to make corrections. We can see how the Census has struggled to identify informal dwelling units by observing the shift from “single-detached” dwellings to “duplex” units over time.

The majority of the observed growth in duplex units is due to re-classification of existing units as the census got better at identifying secondary suites, initiated by the change in census methods between the 2001 and 2006 censuses and again between 2011 and 2016. Half these units were generally understood to be the main units in suited houses, the other half are the secondary suites. The census does not give us a straight-forward way to distinguish between the two. We note that a high share of duplex units register as “unoccupied” in the census, and we strongly suspect that many of these are secondary suites that have been re-absorbed into the main unit.

Understanding homes with more than one secondary suite through the census is hard, one way to get at this is to mix assessment and census data and look for “apartment, fewer than five storey” units in areas which are exclusively covered by “single family” homes (SFH). We have done this in the past, and while this necessarily paints an incomplete picture, it can still reveal a general sense of the prevalence of heavily suited homes and their geographic distribution. We have previously estimated that there are around 7,000 SFH with more than one suite, which come on top of the roughly 30,000 SFH with a single suite. We should probably revisit this estimate at some point with newer data and a more rigorous methodology.

To better understand who lives in these units we can again turn to census data, focusing in on duplexes (SFH with a single suite). This is only looking at the occupied units, and within these the units “occupied by usual residents”. Splitting these units by tenure and age of the primary household maintainer, we notice that the maintainers of owner-occupied units skew older while those of rental units, likely mostly our secondary suites, skew younger.

We also notice a curious pattern in that there are more owner-occupied units than total number of SFH of this type. Given that suites in the City of Vancouver cannot be stratified (and hence easily divided into separately owned properties), we might expect a more even division of owner-occupied to rental suites. We might even expect more rentals, to the extent that some houses are split into suites where both are rented out by landlords who live elsewhere. To find the opposite – that owner-occupied units dominate – can be interpreted multiple ways, speaking in part to the ambiguity of secondary suites.

  1. The census may be counting suites re-absorbed by owner-occupiers as still separate, but empty. This would boost owner-occupation rates.
  2. Rented secondary suites could simply turn over more often, leaving them temporarily empty around Census time, as when rented out to students.
  3. Or there may be other reasons those renting secondary suites may be less likely to respond to the long from Census.
  4. On the other side of the ledger, owner-occupying families and households may divide themselves up into suited homes and list themselves in the census in complicated ways. Children (or parents or other relatives) living in a secondary suites may not be paying rent or think of themselves as renters, but instead understand themselves to be part of an owner-occupied compound, even when reporting as a separate household from their parents within the Census.
  5. Alternatively, those spread across multiple suites may still report themselves as part of the same Census household, in some cases leading to the reporting of complex household types.
  6. A small number of “duplex” units may be stratified and allow for more than one owner.

Points 1, 2, and 5 only impact the renter/owner share, but can’t explain why there are more owner households than overall buildings. Point 3 may lead to overreporting of owner households, but probably can’t explain the discrepancy on it’s own. Points 4 and 6 likely contribute to this. All of these points highlight the complexity of capturing information on informal housing.

We can examine the household types that occupy these units directly within the Census.

We notice the elevated portion of non-census family households in secondary suites, which are either one-person households or roommate households. The “Complex census family households” are comprised of multi-generational households as well as households of census families with additional people living in the household. The prevalence of these on the ownership side probably speaks to suited homes being used by multi-generational households.

For comparison purposes, here is the same breakdown for single-detached homes, so those SFH where the census did not identify a secondary suite. This form still has a sizable portion of “complex” households, but at a lower share than what we see in suites SFH.

The formal portion of secondary suite housing

To understand the formal portion of the secondary suite stock we can turn to City of Vancouver secondary suite rental licensing. There is a broad spectrum here between licensed units and those that have no hope of complying to building code because of e.g. ceilings that are too low. Some units may be easily permittable, but have not obtained a license for other unspecified reasons, including simple ignorance. While the City of Vancouver has a relatively straight-forward webpage describing the licensing process, the necessity of obtaining a license isn’t widely advertised, and some of the categories remain ambiguous. Have a look at the license application form.

Here we’ll stick with secondary suite licenses, which is where landlords are supposed to go to formalize their rental suites. Looking at the number of licenses over time we note that the city has been successful in gradually bringing more secondary suites into the formal housing sector. But comparing to the Census it appears the overall share of formalized licensed suites is still quite low at around 10% of all rented suites.

New suites

Suites in newly constructed housing will be up to building code, so there won’t be any barriers to integrating them into the formal building stock. But how many new houses have suites? And how many suites get lost to teardowns. The latter question is hard to answer with publicly available data (and still difficult with non-open data sources like BC Assessment roll data and MLS data). But the answer to the former question, how many new homes have suites, can be obtained from building permit data. We have looked into this question a couple of years ago, this is a good opportunity for an update with newer data.

The addition/alterations data reflects the makeup of the SFH stock being formally altered and pulling a building permit for the work. Here we see that the majority of these homes do not have a suite, but the overall mixture of suited to non-suited homes roughly matches our expectation of the overall building stock. It is not clear how representative homes that take out a building permit for modifications might be. Owners of properties with existing code violations that might be expensive to fix may choose to forego a building permit as to avoid a building inspector visiting the house (and any casual investigation will reveal a lot of informal alterations in Vancouver).

Demolitions, as well as salvage/abatement permits (most demolitions require both types of permits) give an indication of the suited lots in the redevelopment process, although this may under-estimate the suites that are getting lost as unpermitted suites may not be declared prior to demolition. Homes that get demolished tend to be older. There is no information on how many homes with multiple suites get torn down, which would indicate a higher loss in suites than the data suggests at first sight. The jump in the distribution of units with and without suites between 2017 and 2018 looks suspiciously like a change in accounting methods, it will take more work to look into this.

Overall it would appear that new buildings tend to come with suites more often then not, and these suites will automatically be up to building code and easily permittable, if the owner wishes to rent them out. This indicates that the City of Vancouver is likely still gaining suites on net, but not at a high rate. Census data suggests that the addition of suites, and laneway houses has barely managed to counteract the loss of population due to shrinking household sizes in many parts of Vancouver.

Before wrapping up, let’s quickly look at how the formalized addition of a suite relates to the building value of permitted houses constructed.

Though the mismatch is diminishing, it’s clear that SFH without suites tend to have more expensive building values, and are likely in more expensive parts of town. This is something that we have generally seen in the distribution of suites, they tend to cluster on the East Side of Vancouver, with houses on the West Side remaining more exclusive and exclusionary.

Upshot

Suites are great, and the flexibility of this type of housing adds relatively low-barrier options for households that can’t find other places to live in low vacancy cities like Vancouver. For owners this means the ability to gain rental income to support their mortgage payments. For renters it means finding housing that – while often below building standards – often rents cheap. (The lower rent and sub-standard nature of suites are of course connected.)

This indicates that there is indeed a need and a market for housing that falls below the current building standards, where people are willing to trade centrality of location and lower rent for lower-standard dwelling units. Correspondingly, we may want to adapt our building code to:

a. enable more secondary suites to become permitted and transition into the formal housing market, and

b. allow people to make some of these trade-offs in the formal housing market.

On the other hand, there is a large portion of suites that won’t ever become part of the formal housing market because they still won’t be permittable after reasonable modifications of the building code (and don’t forget the fire code!). These suites exist because of a profound lack of alternatives, and policy should aim to build enough abundant rental options so that these units become unnecessary, as with similar strategies to replace Single-Room Occupancy with more livable, supportive, and affordable forms of housing. In the context of Metro Vancouver, this will likely be a long-term strategy. The housing shortage is too large to envision fully formalizing or replacing our informal housing stock anytime soon.

As usual, the code for this post is available on GitHub.

Visualizing Gateway Cities: Breathable BC

I’ve been playing around with visuals to help get across how Vancouver acts as a gateway for the rest of BC. I’ve been meaning to do this for awhile. But I was recently inspired anew by a) a good article on Metro Vancouver’s updates to projected population growth through 2050, and b) the fact that I really should be finishing my grading.

The CBC article by Maryse Zeidler, kicked off the discussion of Metro Vancouver’s growth projections by interviewing a recent immigrant, Melody Haskell, who decided upon moving to Metro Vancouver after a single visit (“I almost just wanted to stay after my original trip here. It was so beautiful”) and in conjunction with some basic human rights issues (“as a trans woman, she felt Metro Vancouver was far more tolerant than what she had experienced in the U.S.”). The latter rationale dovetails with my recent argument in favour of a Human Rights YIMBYism. Freedom of movement is a fundamental right, and cities are especially important for enabling rights to those marginalized elsewhere (I’ve spent enough time in Indiana to appreciate where Melody’s coming from). But I also want to come back to Melody’s exposure to Metro Vancouver, and how she wanted to stay after a single visit. Metro Vancouver’s growth projections will ultimately contribute to local housing policy decisions. And it’s tricky to do growth projections well insofar as housing is likely a major constraint on local growth. Lack of housing is probably keeping out many Melodies who might want to make a home for themselves in Vancouver as well as encouraging local residents to seek their fortune elsewhere. Should we add more?

My general take, based mostly in human rights, but also in a host of other reasons (e.g. it’s probably good for the environment!), is we should definitely be adding more housing in Metro Vancouver. But I think many in BC, especially outside Metro Vancouver, feel like the provincial government invests too much in the Metro area, channeling growth there, when they should instead spread investments and growth across our beautiful province. This assumes that Metro Vancouver competes with the rest of the province for growth, stealing it away from elsewhere. The alternative, of course, is that Metro Vancouver acts as a Gateway for growth, often absorbing it as a “first stop” but then directing it out toward the rest of the province. Once people arrive in Vancouver, they become exposed to the beauty of other parts of BC, and many will subsequently seek out and take opportunities to move somewhere else in the province.

The easiest way to examine this, of course, is to have a look at net intraprovincial migration flows. Is Metro Vancouver mostly on the receiving end, or the sending end of the rest of the province? The answer, of course, is sending: Metro Vancouver leaks people to the rest of the province like you wouldn’t believe. It’s been doing so at least since the area became a principal gateway for staging mining expeditions up the Fraser River during the gold rush in the second half of the 19th Century.

Concerning present-day patterns, here’s a very simple schematic attempting to illustrate Vancouver’s Gateway role into BC using 2018-2019 components of population change estimates from Statistics Canada (StatCan 17-10-0136-01).

Of course, I couldn’t leave well enough alone. So I went and gathered all the components of change estimated since the last census (2016) and set them to an animated GIF alongside (and matched to) estimates of population (StatCan 17-10-0135-01). I’m still mostly interested in Metro Vancouver’s Gateway role here, but I wanted to place intraprovincial migration in context of other components of population change, showing how each contributes to growth (or decline). I start with migration from outside BC, international to the left and net interprovincial to the right. Note the table I’m using here doesn’t break down net interprovincial migration into its component streams, which is a shame, but you can see more of my attempts to visualize flows including component streams (or Metro Flows) in a different post. Next I turn to births and deaths and their joint effect on what demographers sometimes call “natural growth.” Finally I add in net intraprovincial growth. These components of population change are all taking place simultaneously, but I pull them apart here to demonstrate their independent effects on population change, and also because I think it’s cool to make it look a little like BC is breathing.

click image to blow up

Most international migration to BC flows through Metro Vancouver. It’s Canada’s Gateway to the Pacific, and accounts for most of Vancouver’s growth. But a smaller stream of international migration also flows to other parts of BC. Nevertheless, the rest of BC gets more growth than Metro Vancouver from interprovincial migration (e.g. all those folks from Alberta who retire to Vancouver Island). Metro Vancouver’s growth is further bolstered by local births – many the children of immigrants – exceeding local deaths. The reverse pattern holds for the rest of BC, where deaths now exceed births, leading to population loss. Fortunately for the rest of BC, Metro Vancouver breathes new life into local populations through its massive net intraprovincial leakage of residents to the surrounding province.

Effectively migration from Metro Vancouver generally accounts for a little over one third of the growth of the rest of the province. That’s how Metro Vancouver operates as a Gateway specific to BC, as well as a broader Gateway to the rest of Canada.

What does this mean about provincial priorities? I think there’s ample reason to believe that investments in Metro Vancouver’s growth will contribute to growth across the province. The bigger the Gateway, the more people can move through! Flipping that around, constraints on Metro Vancouver’s growth will likely constrain growth across the rest of the province. Right now the scarcity of housing across Metro Vancouver is a problem for all kinds of reasons – and we should be welcoming a lot more Melodies – but local housing constraints are also likely limiting peoples’ exposure to the rest of BC. I think everywhere in the province has a stake in making Vancouver a bigger, more inclusive (and more sustainable) Gateway.

Manufactured Insecurity: author meets (friendly) critic

So back in the before time, by which I mean somewhere toward the end of 2019, I happily agreed to join an “author meets critics” panel at the Pacific Sociological Association meetings to discuss Esther Sullivan‘s book Manufactured Insecurity: Mobile Home Parks and Americans’ Tenuous Right to Place. The meeting would’ve been in Eugene, Oregon at the end of March in 2020. By February I was already reading the tea leaves and doubting it was going to happen.

I canceled and stayed home, and shortly afterward everything fell apart (possible I should’ve gone with option 4). Fortunately we ended up trying again, and returning to a virtual “author meets critics” panel last month, giving us all just enough time to become intimately accustomed with zoom. Below I just wanted to post my presentation slides from the panel in case they’re useful for encouraging local or comparative research on mobile home parks, and also just to further advertise Esther’s great book.

My first substantive slide drew attention to a comment at the end of the book about the right to housing (which I’d recently been exploring as an orientation for YIMBY activism), unfavorably comparing the USA to other countries. There’s a tendency sometimes to overlook other countries’ issues and problems in critiquing our own, so here I just wanted to point out that Canada’s “guarantee” of a human right to housing is not so guaranteed.

Given the book’s focus on mobile home parks in the USA, I also wanted to open up space for comparing the US case to the Canadian case, starting with some figures establishing how mobile homes (and their parks) are less common here than in the US (where they make up ~ 6% of housing stock) but we’ve still got them!

Esther’s book is great for focusing on US state regulations and documenting how they matter, so I dove into BC’s regulations (guidebook here) to compare. I argued the comparison was especially interesting insofar as BC represented something of the ideal model of best practices Esther suggested US state regulations ought to emulate.

Esther also wrote about how mobile homes get rezoned for development and zoned out of municipalities altogether, and zoning is like my favourite topic ever, so I took the opportunity to show off our integrated Zoning Map of Metro Vancouver and highlight a City Council report on Mobile Home Parks, Zoning, and Redevelopment in Surrey.

Next I dove a little further into Surrey’s zoning and policies, which sought to go beyond provincial protections vis-a-vis conversions at the time.

I was able to track down one such conversion to walk through as a case study, exploring a prior sale and various conditions imposed upon the rezoning.

Still, even following what seems like Esther’s suggested best practices for such conversions, there remained many unhappy former residents.

I noted a few other relevant issues, including a recent court case affirming tenant rights for RV owners in BC, Nick Chretien‘s thesis on informal van and RV living around Vancouver (successfully defended just weeks later, and soon to be posted free on-line!), and Vancouver’s Temporary Modular Housing program.

Finally I offered a few questions for Esther, all of which she answered quite capably, but which I’ll keep live, in part because I’m still wrestling with my own answers.

And of course I’ll end where I began, by plugging Esther’s award-winning book!

Forced Out in Canada: New Data from CHS

(Joint with Jens von Bergmann and cross-posted at MountainMath)

TL;DR

The new data release from CHS 2018 enables us to return to looking at mobility, with a special focus on forced moves. We estimate and compare the risk of forced moves for renters across Canada. We also provide some evidence for its sharp decline in BC in 2018, following protections put in place by the NDP. Finally, we compare risk of “forced move” to risk of “choice move” for renters. In BC, “choice moves” are low relative to the rest of Canada, illustrating how the high percent of moves that are forced across BC is in part a product of lack of rental options (given our low vacancy rates) and high rent penalties for moving.

New CHS Data

The 2018 Canadian Housing Survey (CHS) public use microdata file (PUMF) is finally out, time to dig deeper into the questions we explored when the first tables came out and the second batch on data on ethnicity and core housing need was released. The first thing we get a nice look at is how recently people moved. Within the Census, this is binned into simple “within the last year” and “within the last five years” categories. Here we get finer grained data extending up to 10 years or more. While we don’t get people’s full moving histories, this is still pretty cool insofar as we can map timing of moves to different years. The survey was fielded from November 2018 through March of 2019, so we can start there and work backward to date moves.

Looking at how recently people moved, the distribution of residential mobility is fairly even across regions, except that rural areas stand out as having lower residential mobility. Part of the reason is that mobility is confounded by tenure. Renters move a lot more often than owners, reflecting a combination of factors including, for instance, demographics (renters tend to be younger on average and more open to moving), transaction costs (selling property is more involved than switching landlords), and power (renters can be forced out more easily than owners). Sure enough, comparing across regions generally less than half of owners have moved in the last ten years, compared to more than three-quarters of renters.

When conditioning on tenure of the current dwelling we still see slightly lower residential mobility in rural areas, but it’s reduced. The variation that remains can likely be explained by a variety of factors, like net migration and rental moving penalties. Net migration has mechanical effects on estimates of the timing of mobility for metro areas, even though most moves are local (migrants are added as movers in places where they arrive and subtracted as movers from places where they depart, boosting mobility rates in the former while decreasing them in the latter). But places where rent control maintains much lower rent for long-term tenants than new tenants (e.g. Vancouver & Toronto) tend to see renters staying in place longer, a pattern that only shows up when differentiating mobility by tenure.

We can tease this out further by looking backward to graph a set of “survival” functions by tenure, using years since last move to effectively look at what proportion of people remain in a given dwelling by how long they’ve lived in the dwelling. Here we’ll look at some of the larger metro areas across the country, with a special focus on BC.

As one would expect, owner mobility is much lower than renter mobility. The difference between regions is wider for renter mobility. For better comparison across regions we can flip the way we show the data and graph all regions on the same panel.

Renters tend to stay in place longest in Toronto, followed by Montreal and Vancouver. Renters in Calgary and Edmonton move around more often. As noted above, rental penalties and tenant protections may explain some of this variation. But to investigate further, it helps to know why people are moving. In particular, we want to know if they are moving by choice, or because they’ve been forced to do so.

Forced Moves

One of the (many) great features of the CHS is that it allows us to look at why people moved. Including if their move was voluntary or if people were “forced to move by a landlord, a bank or other financial institution or the government.” This allows us a closer look at power differentials as a factor in moving. In our previous posts we noted that the proportion of moves that were forced looked quite high in BC, a pattern that, with some cautions, can also be examined with reference to reason for move in US datasets. With the PUMF data we can explore in more detail who these people are that were forced to move, and what their circumstances were, as well as getting a finer geographic breakdown within BC.

To start out, let’s reproduce what we previously knew about forced moves. Unfortunately the CHS PUMF does not come with bootstrap weights which makes it hard to derive confidence estimates. It has also been altered from the original data to preserve user privacy, so estimates are expected to be a little different from the ones derived from the master file. So it’s a good idea to see how well the PUMF data reproduces the previously released data on forced moves.

Comparing to our original graph we notice some slight difference, but overall things look good. We already hypothesized that the tenure of the previous home would have a large impact on the frequency of forced moves, with renters being particularly impacted. The legal process of eviction is likely far more common than foreclosure. With the PUMF data we can check this.

Not surprisingly, we see that forced moves were far more common among those renting their previous home. But there’s interesting variation here. BC, in particular, continues to stand out, with consistently high proportions of those moving from a rental dwelling describing their move as forced. Though Metro Vancouver leads in this regard, the rest of BC looks pretty similar.

Those owning their last dwellings are far less likely to describe their previous moves as forced, but forced moves still show up. Foreclosures seem the most obvious explanation, but events like government expropriations and condominium (strata) wind-ups may also play a role in dislodging owners. We also get a peek at a new category, those living “rent-free” in their last residence! The extent to which forced moves affect this group seems to vary widely. But it’s not as large as the other groups, so we’ll turn our attention to forced moves for renters, where it matters most. First we’ll simply pull out those who rented their previous dwelling from movers above to examine what proportion described their last move as “forced.”

Now we can think a bit about the limitations of this measure. Above we’re only looking at movers who rented their previous dwelling. We’re also only looking at those who have moved within the previous five years, and looking only at their last move to ascertain what proportion of last moves included “forced move” as a listed reason for move. It’s a funny measure, without a clearly defined risk (it includes all movers within the past five years, but not all moves, and says nothing about those who stayed in place). What we’re probably more interested in is what the risk of being evicted looks like for all renters, in which case the above graph can become confounded by general levels of mobility.

To understand this better, let’s first look at overall mobility for renters in the past year, that is the share of renters that moved during the past year.

We see that one-year renter mobility is indeed very low in Vancouver, roughly on par with Hamilton and Toronto. If not very many people are moving, this could inflate the relative proportion of those being forced to move.

So let’s create an estimate of the risk of being forced to move! We’re going to start simple by attempting to estimate the risk of being forced out of a rental dwelling within the past year for everyone who began the year as a renter. So we take the total number of movers from rental housing within the past year who describe their move as being “forced,” and we divide by the total number of movers from rental housing within the past year and the total number of renters who have not moved within the past year. Here’s the resulting one-year risk of being forced from rental housing.

The one-year risk of being forced from rental housing looks a bit different that the proportion of movers listing “forced move” as a reason for move. First off, the estimated risk of experiencing a forced move for renters drops to somewhere between 0.2% and 2.0%. Second, the variation really shifts. While most of BC remains at the upper end in terms of risk of forced move, the Vancouver CMA drops to the middle of the pack, fitting between Edmonton and Ottawa, and way below Saskatoon.

Overall, this is a pretty nice, readily interpretable measure of risk of eviction!

But maybe we want to see what happens if we go further back in time, giving us more moves overall to work with, and more time at risk of being forced to move. Unfortunately, the further back we go, the trickier it is to establish our denominator of renters and link them to discrete moves. We could be missing some moves (as when people move twice or more in rapid succession, leaving us with only information about the most recent move). And we could be missing some renters (as when young people leave home to become renters, adding to our denominator, but not showing up as a renter prior to their last move). Glossing over people possibly moving multiple times, and possibly being forced to move multiple times, we can extend our above graph to include most recent move in the past 5 years where the last move was forced, taking all renters as denominators.

With longer time spent at risk of being forced to move, the overall risk to renters increases over a five year period, now ranging from roughly 3% to over 10%. There are also some notable shifts in regional variation; in particular, Metro Vancouver rejoins the rest of BC at the highest risk of forced moves for renters. Looking back historically, this suggests evictions risks may have been higher in BC from 2013-2017 than they were 2017-2018. We’ll come back to exploring this. But first let’s use our longer time-lines to look at sub-populations of interest.

Demographics on forced moves

The CHS has also collected information on visible minority status of household members, which allows us to understand how this affects the risk of being forced to move. The PUMF data only breaks out a simple yes/no status on whether at least one household member belongs to a visible minority group, but give that the sample gets quite thin that’s probably the best that the PUMF can do.

To avoid small samples we are only breaking this down for broad regions. At this level there seems to be no strong signal that visible minority households overall are more impacted by forced moves, with the exception of the Atlantic provinces. Of note, this does not mean that the same holds for all subgroups of visible minorities. There weren’t enough households with visible minority members in the Territories to show meaningful data, and we chose to not show groups with fewer than 200 renters.

This is also a good reminder that people of Indigenous identity aren’t classified as visible minorities in Canada, and we should take a separate look at how they are faring in terms of eviction risks.

We again suppressed data with fewer than 200 renters, which only leaves the Territories and the Prairies, the latter exhibiting a worryingly heightened risk of being forced to move for households with household members of Indigenous identity.

Historical and Comparative Risks of Forced Moves and Choice Moves

Let’s return to comparing one-year risks to five-year risks. To better compare the one year and five year forced move risk, we can compute the 1-year equivalent risk for 5 year movers, assuming that the risk to be forced to move is independent of having been forced to move in the past and has not changed over time. Looking at the differences of the 1-year equivalent risk of forced move on the most recent move over the past five years to the in one year risk to be forced to move gives some way to compare risk from 2017-2018 to risks for the full period from 2013-2018 side-by-side.

In effect, where the blue bar (one year risk) exceeds the orange bar (one-year equivalent of five year risk), we might be looking at evidence of recent historical change where risks of eviction have risen in the past year. The high risk of forced moves looks quite recent in Saskatoon, for instance. Similarly, in Manitoba, New Brunswick, and rural Nova Scotia the repeated one year risk is substantially higher than the risk of being forced to move on the last move and the last move happening during the past five years prior to 2018.

On the other hand, wherever the orange bar vastly exceeds the blue bar, eviction risks within the past year seem to have gone down dramatically. Vancouver looks like potentially the biggest effect in this direction, though it also shows up outside of CMAs in BC, ON, and QC.

It’s tempting to describe these as straightforward historical effects, and the pattern in Vancouver, for instance, might suggest that changes to the Rental Tenancy Act providing more protections to renters and made effective in May of 2018 – about six months prior to our survey – might be showing up in the data. But it’s difficult to fully separate out these changes from other things going on in the rental market, or from potentially confounding selection effects (e.g. those evicted may face higher risk of subsequent moves, or may be especially prone to seek out more stable forms of housing in their next move). Still, we can refine this further by looking at the risk for forced moves (on the last move) over increasingly longer time frames, zooming in on BC and a handful of comparison regions and normalizing the risk as a 1-year equivalent, understanding the same caveats as in the previous graph apply.

This brings out more clearly how the risk of being forced to move dropped off sharply during the last year in Vancouver and the rest of BC, but stayed roughly flat in Toronto and Montreal, and increased in Saskatoon. This lends some further credence to the hypothesis that rental protections enacted in BC had an effect on forced moves. Well done BC NDP!

Flipping the analysis around, it may also be interesting to zoom in on choice moves, which here we’ll simply consider as all moves not described as forced. Let’s plot choice moves with forced moves.

The data confirm that the risk of choice mobility looks especially low in Vancouver and Toronto. This fits with the low vacancy rates and likely lack of adequate choices in these markets combined with the workings of rent control, often creating a moving penalty for renters that increases with length of tenure. And this answers the question we asked higher up why residential mobility is lower in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The answer is that it’s mostly due to fewer voluntary moves.

It’s the combination of a low risk of Choice moves with a moderate or high risk of Forced moves that creates the effect we’ve demonstrated in past posts, whereby we see a dramatically higher proportion of moves showing up as forced in Vancouver and the rest of BC relative to the rest of Canada. This has important implications, insofar as reducing the proportion of moves that are forced will involve both insuring more adequate protections (which we’re starting to see in BC) and insuring higher vacancy rates so people have better choices available to them about where they might move.

Takeaways

Overall, we can clearly see expected patterns between tenure and mobility. We can also construct a new and useful estimate of the Risk of Forced Move for all renters. For subpopulations, we see some evidence of heightened Risk of Forced Moves for indigenous tenants in the Prairies. There’s also good evidence that declining Risks of Forced Moves might be the result of a policy shift to strengthen tenant protections in BC in 2018. Combinations of moderate to high Risk of Forced Move, with low Risk of Choice Move produce the troubling patterns we have past documented in terms of Vancouver and BC’s much elevated proportion of all moves described as Forced. This suggests increasing the rental vacancy rate is important to enabling more renters to Choose where they want to live, in addition to continuing to protect tenants’ protections against being displaced.

As usual, the code for this post is available on GitHub, although people that want to run it will have to request a copy of the CHS PUMF data from StatCan. While PUMF data is now freely available, it still requires a special request to get the data.

Human Rights YIMBYism

TLDR: I attempt to articulate a Human Rights YIMBYism, rooted in supporting (and sometimes balancing) a set of key human rights and freedoms (housing, movement, association, property) within the city. While both push back against NIMBYism, broad Human Rights YIMBYism offers a different, and I argue more successful and ethical guide to action and coalition building than narrower Property YIMBYism.

There are many YIMBY (Yes In My BackYard) movements springing up across North America, as well as many detractors. YIMBYism positions itself directly in response to NIMBY (Not in My BackYard) activism, of course, with the latter aimed at preventing new construction, especially adding housing. NIMBYism occurs largely within municipal settings, where unequal participation in housing decisions and arcane regulatory contexts (including, but not limited to zoning) often tend to work against construction of new housing. Here I wanted to briefly set out a grounding of YIMBYism within a Human Rights framework. I’ll ground this discussion within Canadian (and at times specifically BC) Human Rights, as well as broader United Nations frameworks. Key qualifer: I’m not a lawyer! I only play one while blogging. By all means send me corrections where my interpretations fail the bar.

So how do we situate YIMBYisms within a Human Rights framework? Let’s consider the following key articulated human rights, recognized to some extent in most jurisdictions, but varying widely in terms of their legal entrenchment:

  • Right to Housing
  • Freedom of Movement
  • Freedom of Association
  • Property Rights

What I’ll argue is that what Human Rights YIMBYism brings to the table, and to cities, is an attempt to fulfill these (and other) human rights. In some cases this involves making decisions about balancing between these rights. But recognition of multiple rights is key to Human Rights YIMBYism, and grounds discussions between potential allies in shared commitments as well as specific legal tools and reasoning. At the same time, a Human Rights framework helps distinguish this form of YIMBYism from more narrow and less supported Property YIMBYism as well as from NIMBY approaches (and some related spin-offs and intermediaries). Below I elaborate on how each Right relates to YIMBYism.

The Right to Housing

The Right to Housing is the most obvious YIMBY-relevant right. Within Canada, the Right to Housing has long been recognized by UN treaty (1976) (ICESCR see article 11) and more recently made its way into official act (2019), included in Bill C-97, division 19‘s National Housing Strategy Act. But the actual language governing rights is limited, leaving UN comments (4 and 7) codified within a UN fact sheet (no. 21) and a Canadian Parliamentary Primer (van den Berg 2019) attempting to spell out and clarify actual obligations.

The UN Fact Sheet distinguishes between Freedoms and Entitlements arguing both apply to the Right to Adequate Housing, and also lays out a set of criteria describing what Adequate Housing includes, which I’ll screenshot here in full:

Support for YIMBYism is most obvious as a freedom in “The right to choose one’s residence” (which also speaks to Freedom of Movement). Granting people a choice over where to live necessarily entails building enough housing in places where people want to live to make choices available. Human Rights YIMBYism also appears as an entitlement in “Equal and non-discriminatory access to adequate housing,” which explicitly includes protection against segregation (including by property as well as by ethnicity and related categories) and “Participation in housing-related decision-making,” which effectively is what YIMBY activism attempts to achieve. Clear Human Rights YIMBYism also shows up in the definition of adequacy as containing a Location component, providing for access to “employment opportunities, etc.” For all of these reasons, I’d suggest YIMBYism should root itself within Human Rights. Realizing a Right to Housing entails making lots more housing available in places people want to be, striking directly against exclusionary segregation, pushing for broader participation in housing decisions, and insuring that housing is built near employment, various services, and transit centres. Good stuff.

But there’s more! In particular, while the Right to Housing, as articulated by the UN, explicitly denies that States have an obligation to build housing for their entire populations, they require States to effectively meet needs left unmet by private means of housing provision (e.g., those reliant upon private property). In short, the Right to Housing can be read to support and indeed mandate the addition of plentiful Non-market Housing where people cannot secure adequate housing without state intervention. In addition, “freedom from forced eviction” and “security of tenure” tie Human Rights YIMBYism to tenant rights. As stated multiple times in UN guidelines, these are not understood to be absolute rights, but rather reflect the necessity of various protective frameworks (e.g. rent control and the banning of “no cause” evictions) and access to courts in protesting evictions. In effect, according to UN interpretation the Right to Housing must protect tenants, but must also be situated within obligations to respect other existing rights (including the Right to Property, to which I’ll return), as well as support for state capacity to build – and legally expropriate – for the public good.

We can already see UN attentiveness to nestling a Right to Housing within other rights, both directly (in terms of movement, property, and arguably privacy – see freedom from arbitrary interference) and also indirectly (as with affordability considered in relation to peoples’ ability to secure all other rights). But so far this is all at the UN. As argued in the Canadian Primer, treaty obligations don’t fully translate into specific rights to housing. Yet as (finally) realized through Bill C-97, treaties obligate Canada to “further the progressive realization of the right to adequate housing as recognized in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.” Interestingly, they also inform and roughly map onto what the courts within Canada have distinguished as “negative rights” (where states avoid interfering with freedoms) and “positive rights” (where states provide entitlements). Prior to Bill C-97, Canada’s courts – especially in BC – have often protected the right to shelter as a freedom (or negative right) as it relates to “Security of Person” (s. 7 of Charter), for instance, protecting against forced evictions from homeless camps when no alternative shelter space has been made available (see Victoria (City) v. Adams in 2008; Abbottsford (City) v. Shantz in 2015; and British Columbia v. Adamson in 2016). But courts have been wary of supporting a positive right as an entitlement. There remains lots of room for Human Rights YIMBYism to advocate in support of recognizing housing as a positive Right to Housing within Canada, addressing all of the above. But also further room for Human Rights YIMBYism to push for a negative right, insofar as municipal processes are interfering with peoples’ Right to Housing.

Freedom of Movement

Like the Right to Housing, the Freedom of Movement is an internationally recognized right. In addition to being included within the Right to Housing, it also has an older and independent grounding, in this case, within article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). To whit, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.” For Canada, these rights have also been more directly included within the Canadian Charter (s. 6) since 1982. Specifically, “Every citizen of Canada and every person who has the status of a permanent resident of Canada has the right (a) to move to and take up residence in any province; and (b) to pursue the gaining of a livelihood in any province.” While Charter rights explicitly refer to inter-provincial mobility, I think there’s a strong case for extending them to inter-municipal mobility on multiple grounds. First, since municipalities cover most parts of provinces where people might desire to take up residence, the collection of municipal restrictions upon housing can effectively work to prevent freedom of inter-provincial mobility. Second, since municipalities – as echoed in the words of BC’s attorney general in a recent Supreme Court filing – are “creatures of provincial governments with no constitutional status,” then provinces have a special duty to prevent their creatures from hampering freedom of movement. This duty would appear to be further heightened for the key municipalities at the heart of “gateway” metropolises, through which most inter-provincial migrants would be likely to arrive (e.g. Vancouver). Finally, of course, a more expansive reading of Freedom of Movement within the Charter to include inter- and intra-municipal mobility would better match international recognition of the right.

To be sure, valid questions remain about the scope of this freedom. Does a full enactment of Freedom of Movement and Residence entail a positive right to live by the beach near downtown Vancouver? Probably not. But a Human Rights YIMBYism should press upon governments their obligation to work against exclusivity in choice of residence, whereby neighbourhoods and municipalities actively prevent equal access. Perhaps Vancouver’s OneCity party puts it best with their slogan: “Every Neighbourhood for Everyone.”

freedom of association

Within sociology and urban studies, people often refer to a Right to the City, linked explicitly (in a sprawling sort of way) to French sociologist and intellectual Henri Lefebvre. Unfortunately, the Right to the City is not well recognized (or even well explained by Lefebvre), but we do have Freedom of Association, which might be considered as accomplishing something similar. Freedom of Association is directly protected in section 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as (indirectly) a number of other sections. Like Freedom of Movement, Freedom of Association also carries over into the Canadian Constitution via the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, s. 2(d). Mostly Freedom of Association has been interpreted (and fought over) as protecting things like rights to unionization. But as outlined by the Canadian Department of Justice, its purpose is far more encompassing.

Freedom of association is intended to recognize the profoundly social nature of human endeavours and to protect the individual from state-enforced isolation in the pursuit of their ends (Mounted Police Association of Ontario v. Canada, 2015 SCC 1 (“ MPAO”) at paragraph 54). It protects the collective action of individuals in pursuit of their common goals (Lavigne v. Ontario Public Service Employees Union, [1991] 2 S.C.R. 211 at 253). It functions to protect individuals against more powerful entities, thus empowering vulnerable groups and helping them work to right imbalances in society (MPAO, supra, at paragraph 58). It allows the achievement of individual potential through interpersonal relationships and collective action (Dunmore v. Ontario (Attorney General), [2001] 3 S.C.R. 1016 at paragraph 17).

As I read it, for many people Freedom of Association necessarily entails a Right to the City. This is especially the case for those who would otherwise be isolated in the pursuit of their ends, or in pursuit of common goals, as often occurs for minorities outside of cities. For instance, GLBTQ folk have been drawn to cities as the best places to gather and pursue their collective rights. By virtue of the density and diversity of people on offer, cities hold out the best prospect for realizing Freedom of Association across a broad range of interest and identities. Indeed, it is only in protecting access to density and diversity that the Freedom of Association within cities inevitability generates new interests and identities, and in turn protects the potential to translate these into collective action and the empowerment of vulnerable groups.

Where municipalities restrict the addition of housing, they also restrict this Freedom of Association. Taken together with the duty to prevent discrimination, codified within the BC Human Rights Code as targeting “race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or age,” this suggests a Human Rights YIMBYism paying special attention to how cities work toward guaranteeing the Human Rights of a wide – and increasingly diverse – set of minorities. More specifically, a Human Rights YIMBYism should take care to support urban neighbourhoods that meaningfully offer minorities access to Freedom of Association in forms unavailable elsewhere. In other words, care should be taken to support majority-minority neighbourhoods (e.g. Chinatowns, Gaybourhoods, etc.) and other neighbourhoods of difference as a fundamental expression of supporting the Freedom of Association, especially as they tie back to “empowering vulnerable groups and helping them work to right imbalances in society.” Returning to a theme, this duty of care should be clearly situated within a balanced framework of support for other rights and freedoms.

Property RIGHTS

Finally we come to property! A Right to Property is laid out within the UN’s 1948 Declaration of Human Rights (article 17), and also makes an appearance in Canada’s 1960 Bill of Rights (Article 1a). But interestingly, neither the UN, nor the government of Canada have enshrined a specific right to property in more recent key documents, including the UN’s ICESCR Treaty (1976) and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982). Indeed, there’s a whole Government of Canada explainer on the history of why a Right to Property failed to make its way into the Canadian Charter (mostly due to confederation and party politics). Of note, one argument forwarded by the Primer against enshrining property rights within the Charter is that they might “affect municipal zoning rules.” Regardless, as also explained by the Primer, Canada’s Property Rights are protected by its common law traditions, even if not specifically entrenched within its Constitution.

A Right to Property does not fully describe the content of Property Rights. The discussion of what is included in Property Rights in Canada is vast, and I won’t be able to take it on in its entirety here. But I want to lay out, in brief, the key argument that Property Rights extend from state delegation of sovereignty to owners (as per Cohen 1927). Initially, this delegation of sovereignty provided all manner of legal powers to real property owners (entitled as if they were literally landed lords), especially in terms of setting the future agenda for their properties and building upon them as they would, enabling them to build and lease out, say, big rooming houses. But powers to set the future agenda for properties were gradually rolled back – or re-delegated – to municipalities. This handy piece by Sarah Hamill (2015) lays out some further basic conceptions of Property Rights in light of their typical reception by courts in Canada now. In effect, property owners are now mostly granted rights to exclude others from their properties and to continue to use them as they have been primarily used (or be compensated for their loss). But property owners no longer get to determine different future uses, nor can they rely upon calculations based on potential future uses to argue for appropriate compensation when potential uses are changed (as established, once again, by a local BC court case involving the Railway, and detailed by UBC’s Douglas Harris 2012).

I find this stuff fascinating, and I’m only scratching the surface of it here. Property Rights are interesting for all sorts of additional reasons, including both how they’re often (correctly) treated skeptically by many working for broader social justice aims, and how they’ve also often been overlooked as a protective force (e.g. for minorities at risk of state mistreatment or those working toward the restoration of indigenous sovereignty). But overall, it’s clear that the Canadian interpretation of Property Rights remains limited relative to municipal regulations curtailing the addition of housing – especially zoning powers. While it’s possible this interpretation could change, and indeed this was raised as a potential objection to enshrining property rights within the Charter, so far Property Rights, by themselves, provide only limited grounding for YIMBY activism.

human rights typologies of yimby & nimby

I argue this sets up an interesting disjuncture, creating two streams of YIMBY activism: narrow Property YIMBYism and broader Human Rights YIMBYism. These can be contrasted with one another as well as with various streams of NIMBYism on the basis of the Human Rights framework discussed above.

Property YIMBYism might be best understood as pushing for a maximalist interpretation of Property Rights, stripping delegation of the right to build and set future agendas for properties away from municipal governance and returning delegation to property owners. This remains a real stream of broader YIMBYism, reflecting what’s also been called a “market urbanist” approach. But while markets may be understood as the means by which a restoration of more complete agenda-setting powers to owners will achieve YIMBY aims of adding more housing, it’s worth noting that Property YIMBYism doesn’t by itself require market distribution. Indeed, Property YIMBYism, all by itself, could benefit property owners looking to build social housing as well as property owners looking to build market rentals or construct condos (subdividing and selling off ownership claims). Still, Property YIMBYism runs the risk of entrenching Rights to and in Property at the cost of broader Human Rights. Such entrenchment could ultimately work against the construction of more housing and the broader Right to Housing as well as other fundamental human rights, for instance to the extent local property owners attempted to benefit from monopolizing access to land and excluding others from it.

Human Rights YIMBYism embraces a the broad constellation of rights described above. As such, it advocates for Property Rights to be reconfigured vis-a-vis municipalities primarily in support of the related Right to Housing, Freedom of Movement, and Freedom of Assembly. Where Property Rights interfere with the Right to Housing, as with protections against evictions, tenant protections like rent control, and rights to non-discrimination, different Human Rights YIMBYs will take differing positions, but all will recognize the need to either defer to the Right to Housing or seek a reasonable balance, rather than seeking to maximize Property Rights. Similarly Property Rights should not enable owners to prevent Freedom of Movement and Freedom of Association in ways that might replicate the effects of housing shortages currently enforced by municipal agenda-setting. For that matter, a Human Rights YIMBYism need not be hostile to delegating agenda-setting powers for properties to municipal governance. But to legitimately exercise these powers, a Human Rights YIMBYism pushes municipal governments to recognize, internalize, and work to further key rights and freedoms. In particular, municipalities must incorporate commitments to a Right to Housing, Freedom of Movement, and Freedom of Association within their planning and legal structures, insuring enough housing is built to welcome those who wish to join.

NIMBYisms will persist. But a clear commitment to a broad set of Human Rights offers clarification for debates with NIMBY activists. Which key human rights and freedoms would they dispense with, and by what rationale? For those content with their current residence, Freedom of Movement seems dispensable, as it has also often been deemed expendable by certain Marxist inspired theorists and governments. Others remain happy to toss Freedom of Association to the extent it evokes tall towers or smacks of urbanism and hipster innovation. Still others focus only on the protections against displacement required by a Right to Housing without also recognizing what’s required in order to enact the freedom to choose one’s residence when moving. Generally speaking, when shifted to the context of human rights, many NIMBY objections fail to persuade. And rights arguments necessarily carry weight with governments. How do municipal obligations toward aesthetic character weigh against their obligations to support – or at least not actively oppress – human rights and freedoms? How do provinces insure their creatures are respecting constitutional law?

As I’ve argued in the past, it appears that most YIMBY identified folks are Human Rights YIMBYs. We see this, for instance, in the wide support more Inclusive Urbanist parties and platforms receive relative to narrower “Market Urbanist” Property YIMBYs (see my analysis of Vancouver’s 2018 election here), as well as the success of justice-oriented YIMBY alliances across the USA. Human Rights YIMBYs also have more tools at their disposal in being able to speak to more than (often abstract) economic reasoning in support of their positions.

Returning to provincial, state, and federal governments, a Human Rights YIMBYism should press here to affirm that these have both a positive duty to provide housing (Right to Housing) for those otherwise unable to secure it in places they want to live (Freedom of Movement ; Freedom of Association) and – at minimum – a negative duty to prevent their municipal creatures from undue interference with those exercising their Property Rights in ways to further Rights to Housing, Freedom of Movement, and Freedom of Association for others.

Finally, its worth circling back to the simple point that Human Rights YIMBYism offers perhaps the most firm grounding for forging enduring alliances. Housing politics are notoriously fractious (and don’t get me started on housing twitter). It’s valuable to start with agreement on common principles like basic Human Rights. It makes it easier to work through and set aside strategic differences and legitimate disagreements over how competing rights should be balanced without burning bridges. In short, Human Rights YIMBYism offers the kind of sturdy foundation you need to build a lot of new homes.

Bartholomew’s Dot Destiny

(joint with Jens von Bergmann and cross-posted on mountainmath)

How did early planners envision Vancouver’s future growth? Fortunately for us, they left a prediction in dot-density map form! Here we compare their prediction to a dot-density map from today. Let’s check out how our dot destiny unfolded!

Vancouver grew rapidly from its incorporation in 1886 right up to the great crash of 1913, followed by WWI and a raging influenza epidemic (which we all know way too much about now). Growth returned through the 1920s, but an appetite for planning also met with a newly professionalized planning profession during this era. The City of Vancouver, in the process of amalgamating with the surrounding municipalities of Point Grey and South Vancouver, initiated a town planning commission, adopted interim zoning by-laws, and hired American planner Harland Bartholomew to consult. Bartholomew’s team kept Vancouver planning in conversation with evolving practice in the USA, where he was a central figure in transforming many municipalities’ explicitly race-based zoning (outlawed by courts) into use-based zoning that would have the same effect (see local planner Stephanie Allen’s award-winning thesis for more). Bartholomew’s report, while not adopted in its entirety, is widely credited as having a profound effect on the shape of the City. Here we want to take a quick peek at his prediction for the City’s future.

Looking forward from 1929, Bartholomew both suggested and predicted that Vancouver further amalgamate with nearby Burnaby and New Westminster, consolidating the peninsula. The combined population was about 280,000 at the time (reaching 289,681 residents by the 1931 census). Based on a variety of rudimentary forecasts, Bartholomew predicted that the peninsula containing Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster would reach a population of one million residents by 1960. He even plotted out the expected distribution of this population in a lovely density dot-map on p. 94 of his report.

As it turned out it would take much longer than Bartholomew forecast to reach the one million mark. Indeed, we’ve probably reached it only within the last couple of years. As of 2016, Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster remained unamalgamated, and together with UBC/UNA/UEL and Musqueam 2 (also unamalgamated) they totalled some 952,779 residents. We wanted to see what that distribution actually looks like today, using the same sort of dot-matrix map hand-drawn by Bartholomew’s team. Of course, we’re going to assemble it in R instead of drawing it by hand, allowing anyone to reproduce our work. Here’s what it looks like.

Comparing the two maps, a similar overall pattern emerges that reflects, in no small part, the enduring legacy of zoning enacted through the planning process itself. The forecast was that Downtown Vancouver and the West End would remain the most dense, reflecting the least restrictive zoning. The surrounding neighbourhoods would offer a middle density, with apartment buildings going up to three stories. Everywhere else would be dominated by relatively low-density (mostly single-family residential). The big picture today is broadly similar to the forecast from ninety years ago. In particular, all that zoning to protect low-density neighbourhoods remains stubbornly in place! But a few key differences in the map stand out.

Downtown, Bartholomew’s team forecast a fairly even distribution of high density. The actual distribution is far more variable! We see fewer people than forecast within the Central Business District (CBD) itself, but many more within the high-rise apartment buildings surrounding the CBD. Notably, people also show up along the north side of False Creek, which Bartholomew forecast remaining industrial. Guess he didn’t foresee de-industrialization, Expo 86, and Li Ka-shing!

Outside of Downtown Vancouver, some areas became more dense than anticipated, while others became less so, and these patterns are pretty interesting! On the more dense than anticipated side, we see regional town centres emerging as hotspots of density in Burnaby and New Westminster, and being linked together through transit-oriented development accompanying SkyTrain lines. We also see Kerrisdale and Marpole showing up as outposts of density. And then, of course, there’s the universities: SFU and UBC and surrounding Endowment Lands. Though large portions of the latter were set aside as Pacific Spirit Park, we see the towers housing an increasing portion of the community, as at Wesbrook Village.

What of where density appears lower than forecast? Select portions of Fairview and Mount Pleasant (as surrounding Jonathan Rogers Park), were re-zoned as industrial land after Bartholomew’s plan, and their population correspondingly failed to grow. More intriguingly, Strathcona, Commercial Drive, and Kits Point also appear far less dense than forecast, due in part to downzonings over the years, making building in these locations increasingly restrictive.

Of note, other factors also play a role in divergent forecasts. In particular, declines in household size from 4.4 in Bartholomew’s day to 2.4 in 2016 mean it takes significantly more housing now to contain one million people than when Bartholomew made his projection. This helps explain why the low-density, house-oriented portions of the map look even less dense than forecast by Bartholomew’s team.

Overall, it’s a fun exercise to compare ninety year old forecasts in dot-density form to what we see today. And now is the perfect time to do it given we’ve finally matched the predicted population size! This is a great example of a self-fulfilling prophecy where much of the density distribution was enshrined in the zoning. But this exercise should also remind us that we’re still building our cities based on planning decisions about urban form coupled with misguided forecasts made by long-dead men operating in a very different – and more discriminatory – era. We can probably do better.

As usual, the code for this post is available on GitHub if others want to reproduce or adapt this for their own.

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.

What to Expect from an Empty Homes Tax

Joint with Jens von Bergmann and cross-posted at mountainmath

Empty Homes Taxes are back in the news!

In a very short time period, we’ve got Vancouver raising its Empty Homes Tax rate from 1% to 3%, based in part on a report from CMHC about a sharp rise in condos on the rental market, we’ve got Toronto eyeing its own Empty Homes Tax, and now reports suggest that even Ottawa is considering getting in on the game.

We’ve long argued that Empty Homes Taxes are a pretty good tax. Consider it as equivalent to a bump up to property taxes (which cities like Vancouver could really use!) paired with a principal residency exemption, kind of like BC home owner’s grant, but also applicable to property owners who rent out their properties on a long-term basis, hence providing incentive to keep housing occupied.

The incentive is real. But we have questions about whether Empty Homes Taxes are being oversold as solutions to the broader housing crises facing Metro Vancouver, Toronto, and Ottawa. To start with, as we’ve demonstrated previously, none of these metro areas rank particularly high in North America in terms of vacant housing stock on census day. Indeed, all Canadian cities appear to be on the low end, implying relatively few of the abandoned homes and vacation pied-a-terres that seem to push up vacancies in many US cities.

Vancouver and Ottawa appear high for Canada, but somewhere between low and middle-of-the-road for North America as a whole. Toronto is definitely on the low end. Of note, a scan of the data for the US, which includes reason for vacancy, suggests that regular housing processes (dwellings up for sale or rent, awaiting new residents; dwellings caught in temporary legal limbo after the death of an owner, etc.) account for a substantial portion of vacant homes overall. For metros at the high end of vacancies, these numbers are boosted by abandoned homes and/or pied-a-terre vacation homes. This suggests that abandoned homes and pied-a-terres just aren’t that common in Canada.

With some caveats, we can test this by looking at Vancouver’s Empty Homes Tax and BC’s Speculation & Vacancy Tax data. Most homes that appear as if they might be empty qualify for exemptions from these taxes, reflecting regular housing processes. After exemptions, there just don’t seem to be very many empty dwellings left. In the most recent Vancouver EHT data, declared vacancies range by neighbourhood from 0.08% (in Sunset & Grandview Woodlands) to 1.26% in the West End, roughly matching the City of Vancouver’s 0.7% of properties non-exempt from the tax in the provincial SVT data (excepting out “Satellite Families”, which would bump the figure to 1%).

Of course, taxes may be bringing dwellings back into the rental market that weren’t there in 2016, meaning our EHT and SVT data might be reflecting big declines in empty units. What about that CMHC study showing a bump of condos being rented out after the Empty Homes Tax was imposed? Well, funny story… first it’s important to know that the study is based on condo managers reporting from their Form K, which are meant to be filed when condo units are rented out, but in the past have been largely inconsequential. Indeed, in previous work we have highlighted that the CMHC estimate of rented condos in Metro Vancouver differs significantly with census estimates.

Here it’s notable that the first year of the EHT’s existence did not see a great many condos added to the rental market. But after the Speculation and Vacancy Tax came into place, the number of condos being rented out seemed to grow quite a bit. Was this a real change, perhaps because the added taxes became higher? Or did this represent a reporting change? Due to a variety of policy changes (including SVT), suddenly failure to file Form K has more teeth. As a result, it’s likely the reporting compliance for From K has gone up significantly. In other words, we’re not actually certain that a slew of condo units recently came onto the rental market. It may be, instead, that a slew of condo units already on the rental market were suddenly reported correctly. Overall, it is hard to get robust estimates of how many units have entered the market in response to the tax, but there’s no doubt some have. Looking at City of Vancouver data on homes that are either exempt or pay the tax, and cross-referencing this with the Ecotagious study estimating vacancy by electricity usage, we can arrive at a very rough estimate of the number of homes returned to the market being roughly double the number of homes that end up paying the tax. Which is a sizable achievement.

So what should Toronto and Ottawa expect from an empty homes tax? We have previously used City of Vancouver data to give fairly accurate projections for the Speculation and Vacancy Tax, and we can apply the same method to Toronto and Ottawa at the city level. The estimate is quite crude, it simply scales the units “unoccupied” on census day to match the City of Vancouver Empty Homes Tax numbers. So let’s take a quick look at what kind of dwelling registered as “unoccupied” in the Census.

While there is some variation across the regions, the duplex category, which generally captures houses with basement suites, comes out universally with the highest share of unoccupied homes. We have written about this at length before and it should not be surprising given the flexible nature of secondary suites that they are used flexibly, which frequently means that they aren’t rented out. Of course, these suites also aren’t taxed as empty, since they’re considered part of one residential property and can so easily be reabsorbed into the main dwelling. The high prevalence of basement suites in Vancouver is a big part of what drives up its vacancy rate in the census.

Taking account differences in housing stock we can apply a crude formula from the City of Vancouver Empty Homes Tax experience, assuming exemptions are structured similarly. Accordingly we can project that an Empty Homes Tax would capture around 2,000 units in Ottawa and 6,000 in Toronto. Roughly twice that number might be induced to re-enter the rental market in each city.

So should Toronto consider an Empty Homes Tax of its own? Relative to the size of Toronto’s housing market, we probably shouldn’t expect an Empty Homes Tax to a) find very many empty homes, or b) create much new revenue. We’re likely looking at shifting over no more than a single percentage point of units into the market. But adding any new units to the market is good. And we like Empty Homes Taxes overall. Just insure expectations are set accordingly!

What about Ottawa? Similar wisdom pertains. Set expectations accordingly! At the same time, Ottawa is instructive to consider insofar as it’s the centre of government for Canada. We actually kind of expect a certain number of properties will be empty a substantial portion of the year. Why? Well, Members of Parliament and Senators are both expected to represent other parts of the country in Ottawa. In other words, they’re expected to split their time between Ottawa and elsewhere. Indeed, Senators are still required to own at least $4,000 worth of real property in the province they represent, though there’s currently a bill to repeal that requirement (property requirements for MPs were abolished with the 1920 Dominion Elections Act). Again, not to say an Empty Homes Tax is a bad idea for Ottawa, and why not tax politicians a bit more? But Ottawa is also uniquely well positioned to demonstrate why some people, including – but not limited to – MPs and Senators, maintain some form of residence in multiple places. And Empty Homes Taxes necessarily tend to hit hardest for anyone who finds it difficult to choose just one.

As usual, the code for this post is available on GitHub for anyone to reproduce or adapt for their own purposes.

BC Housing Platforms!

It’s election time in BC! And housing is back on the agenda, even if not quite as centrally as in past elections. Here I want to provide a quick basis for comparing each party platform, adding in a short bit of my own analysis. My quick take is that when it comes to housing there are things to like in each platform, and I hope the parties work together to keep housing on the agenda!

I’ve drawn housing proposals from the platforms of the BC NDP, the BC Liberals, and the BC Greens. It’s possible that housing-related items show up in other parts of the platform, but I’m focusing on the sections linked. For anyone following along outside BC, the NDP are a provincial labour-oriented left-leaning party, affiliated with the federal party, the BC Liberals are a centre-right amalgam, combining sympathies for both federal Liberal and Conservative parties, and the BC Greens sympathize with the federal Greens. We’ve had a governing coalition of the NDP and Greens since they managed to cobble together an alliance booting out the BC Liberals in 2017.

I tried to compare based on broad categories of proposed action in housing, highlighting more concrete proposals over vague suggestions where possible. Here’s what I get, divided into two parts below, the first covering COVID-relief, Taxation, Strata Insurance, and Social Housing, and the second covering Development. Click on each graphic to blow them up!

In terms of COVID relief, the NDP have offered to freeze rents until the end of 2021 (optimistically forecasting the end of the pandemic). After that, they propose to limit rent increases to inflation, in line with their application of rent control provisions in BC to date (under the prior BC Liberal administration, rent increases were generally capped at inflation + 2%). The BC Liberals suggest their COVID relief proposals will be targeted at tax relief for home owners (most of whom can already defer their property taxes). The Greens, who’ve had the least time to develop their platform thanks to a leadership contest followed almost immediately by a snap election, don’t suggest any specific COVID-relief related housing policies.

Taxation & Strata Insurance!

Restructuring of tax policies more broadly has been a persistent theme in BC’s recent history, with the NDP’s establishment of an Additional School Tax on high value ($3m+) properties and Speculation and Vacancy Tax (SVT) hitting mostly vacant properties, but also those occupied by “Satellite Families” at the end of 2018 following the BC Liberals imposition of a Foreign Buyer’s Tax (FBT) in 2016. This time around, the NDP are re-upping a promise from last election, the $400 Renter’s Rebate tax credit for renters to complement the existing home owner grant reducing annual property taxes (the BC Greens famously opposed said rebate).

The BC Liberals hope to scrap the SVT, and replace it with a capital gains tax targeted at condo flipping (not yet well-defined) and higher property tax rates for non- residents of Canada (a slippery concept). The BC Greens want to keep the SVT but close “loopholes” allowing exemptions for “Satellite Families” and foreign owners. It’s not clear what exemptions the BC Greens are talking about, but here are the ten most common claimed. Of note, the SVT currently applies to very few properties (<1%). If all declared foreign and satellite families exempted in the last tax data were forced to pay the tax, then just over 3% of properties would pay. The BC Liberals also propose creating a new property tax category (along with lower rates) for purpose-built rental buildings containing three or more units (a cut-off that could include some subdivided detached house properties in Vancouver!)

All parties have responded to rapidly rising strata insurance costs, suggesting reforms to bring down costs, but in a few key different ways. The NDP suggest providing a public option in case costs don’t come down. The BC Liberals are pushing for lessening insurance requirements. The Greens are… proposing a task force to look more into the issue.

Social Housing

All of the parties pay at least some lip service to adding to BC’s stock of affordable social housing. As the party in power, the NDP have the most developed proposal in the continuation of their Homes for BC plan, promising 114,000 new affordable units through partnerships over 10-years. The NDP have also proposed new transitional supports to renters moving from supportive housing into the private rental market. The BC Liberals and Greens offer more vague support for social housing investment, especially promoting cooperatives (UPDATE: more specifics from BC Liberals just released today!). The Greens also propose applying $500 million toward a new renter’s grant, aiming to bring rental payments for tenants down to no more than 30% of their income. It’s not yet clear whether this is simply an expansion of the current Rental Assistance Program offered by BC Housing, or meant to apply differently, but the potential pool of applicants in BC remains quite large.

Development

All of the parties offer something in the form of acknowledging the limited range of housing on offer in BC. Both the BC NDP and the BC Liberals place at least part of the blame on sluggish BC municipalities. Both parties push for streamlining municipal and provincial permitting processes that have slowed up and added expense to the development of new housing. The BC NDP also make a welcome proposal to eliminate parking minimums for projects near transit.

The BC Liberals add a variety of other proposals, pushing to match municipal zoning more directly to official community plans and potentially waive rezoning hearings for projects complying with plans. Similarly, the BC Liberals suggest strengthening and enforcing municipal adherence to regional growth targets. To match these “sticks” the BC Liberals would apply to municipalities, they also suggest “carrots” in the form of an incentive fund offered to municipalities expanding supply. Other welcome suggestions include digital tracking for development projects, enabling the identification of hold-ups in the approval process. Interestingly, the BC Liberals also suggest mixing a cautious approach toward rental zoning (recently enabled by the NDP) with provincial restrictions requiring replacement of rental apartments (which many municipalities already require). Finally, they suggest upping the mandated number of disability-accessible units for new developments. The BC Greens call for encouraging a “missing middle,” but offer the fewest specifics on development reform for getting there. Yet they embrace two proposals for reforming development that many in the non-profit housing sector have long called for, including both a capital fund to acquire old rental buildings when they come up for sale, preserving affordability, and the establishment of a land bank to support cooperative development.

Mix and Match!

Overall (and staying positive) there’s a lot to like in mixing and matching the housing platforms on offer. I like many of the NDP’s taxation and social housing ambitions (though I don’t like targeting satellite families and I’d up property taxes and social housing construction further); I’m happy with the Green’s embrace of supporting land banks for cooperatives; and it would be great to see many of the BC Liberals plans for reforming and improving the municipal role in approving housing development implemented (also shout out to the NDP here: yay for lifting parking minimums!) Let’s hope everyone keeps their good ideas on the table after the election’s over!

Homeless Counts and Migration Patterns in Metro Vancouver, Calgary, and Winnipeg

People move. That includes people who end up getting counted as homeless. How should we interpret what homeless counts tell us about these people?

To an important extent, this question brings us back to fundamental interpretations of who gets counted. Is being counted as “homeless” interpreted as a social problem: the lack of enough accessible housing? Or is it being interpreted as a person problem: identifying the “homeless” as fundamentally different from housed people?

I’m a sociologist and a housing scholar, and I think homeless counts can be really useful indicators of the social problem of housing inaccessibility. We’ve got some great solutions to this problem, which basically come down to making more housing more accessible to more people. The alternative approach, interpreting homeless counts as identifying problem people, is… really problematic. The solutions it points toward tend to involve “fixing” people (at best?) or keeping them out entirely.

We can see an example of this problematic approach at work in a recent article, entitled: “Vancouver is Canada’s dumping ground for the homeless, and this needs to stop.” The language is offensive, immediately identifying those counted as homeless as more like trash than people, and pointing toward the need to keep them out. Sure enough, the gist of the piece is that Vancouver’s homelessness problem is being driven by problem people coming here for our mild weather in combination with the concentration of supports and services here and the lack of them elsewhere. This mixes a potentially good message (we need more housing and services and supports everywhere) with a bad message (so stop providing them here) as well as the aforementioned dehumanization.

From here on out, I’m going to set aside these portions of the argument and turn my attention toward a few of the empirical claims. Correspondingly, I’m also going to focus at the metropolitan level in terms of thinking about migration and homelessness, meaning I’m setting aside how people counted as homeless, as well as supports and services, are distributed within metro areas (my position, again, is that we need more housing, supports, and services, and every neighbourhood should have them). For the rest of this piece, I’m mostly going to return to my starting question: how should we interpret what homeless counts tell us about people who move? And I’m mostly going to do it by comparing patterns of migration as they show up in homeless counts in Metro Vancouver to Calgary and Winnipeg.

First let’s start with a few relevant claims from the “dumping ground” piece that are easy to knock down. Do people counted as homeless in BC disproportionately congregate in Metro Vancouver? That’s an easy one, and the answer is: no. As I showed awhile back with a post drawing upon coordinated provincial counts, on a per capita basis, Metro Vancouver has fewer people showing up in homeless counts than most other metro and non-metro locations across BC. Why use a per capita basis? Because people counted as homeless are people. And knowing what proportion of people get counted as homeless tells us something important about where we see problems with the accessibility of housing. These problems are widespread across BC rather than concentrated in Metro Vancouver.

What about more broadly? Is Metro Vancouver Canada’s “epicentre of homelessness”? Is it due to our mild weather as claimed in the piece above? Let’s look outside BC, comparing Vancouver to Calgary and Winnipeg (where no one’s claiming mild weather). If Vancouver was really the epicentre of Canada’s homelessness crisis, you’d think we would jump out when we control for the size of the surrounding population. But quite the opposite happens. Both Calgary and Winnipeg have more people showing up in homeless counts per 10,000 residents than in Vancouver.

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So maybe Vancouver’s not the epicentre of where people are becoming homeless, but instead the place where people are disproportionately moving after they become homeless elsewhere? Except, when we look at the proportion of people counted as homeless who migrated to each city within the last year, it’s actually much higher in Calgary, and only a little lower in Winnipeg. Suddenly the idea that all Canada’s homeless people are moving to Vancouver because of the weather looks pretty… well… ludicrous.

It’s worth noting that Winnipeg was actually featured as the origin for a homeless man in Vancouver in the image accompanying the “dumping ground” piece. So we should definitely take a look at how Winnipeg’s Street Census makes available the origins of its interprovincial migrants who show up as homeless. Guess what: 23% of them came from BC!

Is Vancouver dumping its homeless on Winnipeg? That’s probably just as bad a take as the converse. A better take is that people move. And not just to Vancouver. And that people counted as homeless are first and foremost people.

But do people who show up in homeless counts move for different reasons than other people? We don’t actually have that data for Vancouver or Winnipeg. But Calgary has it! So just for comparison purposes, let’s set reason for move to Calgary in the past year for those who show up in Calgary’s Homeless Count alongside reason for move for a more general selection of the population. In this case, the most similar question and options on reason for move actually come from the USA’s Current Population Survey (Mobility Table 17), so we’ll plot the two together. (If you want to see more on reason for move data and comparability, have I got the post for you!)

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The options are worded differently in places, but I’ve attempted to harmonize them as possible, and the correspondence is pretty clear. Main reasons for move fit into the same four broad categories (work & opportunity, family, housing, other) for those who end up homeless in Calgary as for all movers in the USA, and in roughly the same proportions. Where responses differ, they tend to indicate that migrants who end up counted as homeless are taking slightly bigger risks than migrants overall. For instance, fewer people who ended up homeless in Calgary moved with a job already secured, compared to those who moved looking for work. But overall, the patterns suggest that people who move and then show up in homeless counts seem to move for pretty much the same reasons as everybody else.

People move. And moving is actually kind of risky.

Mostly moving works out pretty well, and people find work and a place to live. But sometimes it doesn’t work out. So some people move on again or return to where they came from. Others, for various reasons, find themselves homeless. Are recent movers more likely to find themselves homeless than long-time residents? Let’s compare homeless count data to general mobility data to find out.

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And there it is. Even though most people who show up in homeless counts are long-time residents, being a recent mover to a region is much, much riskier. For both intraprovincial and interprovincial migrants, moving to a new place is a brave thing. This makes intuitive sense. Recent movers have to find housing without the benefit of already having any. They join a much smaller pool of local residents displaced from their housing in the search for a new place to live without the benefit of an old place to hold onto. So overall, recent movers are much more likely to find themselves out of luck in the search for housing than long-time residents. This seems to be exactly what we see for both intraprovincial and interprovincial migrants. Why doesn’t the same pattern fit for international migrants? Several studies have aimed to answer this question, and the short answer is: because international migrants are both selected and supported differently. As a result, they’re much closer to long-term residents in terms of their reduced risk of becoming counted as homeless, even though the risk is still there.

Seeing as how they’re at greater risk for being counted as homeless, we should probably be doing more to support recent movers to our cities. ALL of our cities. How? By making more housing more accessible for them.

The resistance to making more housing more accessible sometimes comes from the xenophobic notion that housing should only go to local residents. That movers should be somebody else’s problem. There are many who’d prefer to erect walls around our cities, keeping new folks out. Other times it comes from the idea that anyone who can’t find housing must be defective, which is right where we started. And maybe it even comes from the notion that our mild weather means people don’t need housing quite as badly as elsewhere in Vancouver.

We can probably make the case for that last point by looking at how many people are left unsheltered here in Vancouver compared to Calgary and Winnipeg. Vancouver has fewer people counted as homeless per capita compared to Winnipeg and Calgary, but many more people left unsheltered. Our mild weather doesn’t seem to be drawing people here in any disproportionate fashion, but it might be enabling a callous disregard for housing needs.

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On a final note, the high proportion of those without shelter among the people counted as homeless in Vancouver might also account for the recent reactionary stance taken by many local politicians and activists. The visibility of those left without shelter makes homelessness seem a bigger problem here than elsewhere. Interpreted correctly, the statistics tell us something else. It’s not a bigger problem here. And the problem is not a floating problem population that ends up in Vancouver. The biggest problem we have is a local lack of generosity leaving less shelter space and less housing available for those who need it in Vancouver. We can fix that. And we should.

  • Methodological note: While the Metro Vancouver count covers the entire metro area, the coverage of the Calgary and Winnipeg counts may be more constrained to the central cities of each metro area. This may result in a slight conservative bias, undercounting those who would show up in a homeless count in Calgary and Winnipeg covering the entire metro areas involved. At the same time, Calgary and Winnipeg dominate the populations of their metropolitan areas in a way which Vancouver, as a central city, does not. So I use metro populations as denominators in all cases in assessing the relative prevalence of homelessness in those cities relative to general populations and migration streams. I obtain comparative statistics on metro areas via StatsCan Tables 17-10-0136-01 ; 17-10-0135-01 ; 17-10-0141-01 for homeless count reference years, or, in the case of estimating migration-based risks, for the periods leading up to reference years. I use the data to estimate populations of non-migrants (stayers & local movers), intraprovincial, interprovincial, and international migrants for each metro to use as baselines for establishing risk of showing up in homeless counts. All data and calculations are available in this spreadsheet. Please send any corrections or questions my way!