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.

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!

Vancouver’s Crime Pandemic! That wasn’t.

We now have over six months of pandemic conditions in Vancouver and crime data to (roughly) match. We also have all kinds of claims about crime flying around, sometimes pushed by the police (VPD) themselves, only heightened by click-seeking reporters and the vote-seeking politicians. So we should probably check into the data. Long story short: there’s scant evidence of a crime wave showing up in the VPD crime data.

First a quick round-up of claims. Let’s start with a recent police report, promoting the idea that crime, and particularly assaults, have risen. This was touted by various media reports and politicians as pointing toward a breakdown in law & order associated with the pandemic and prominent tent cities in parks near downtown. But the police report – though they failed to emphasize this point properly – explicitly referred to data from the first two quarters of the year. In other words, they mixed pre-pandemic and post-pandemic data from earlier in the year, and this data was used to make claims about conditions on the ground now. This was perhaps potentially useful to the VPD in the face of calls to defund the police, but bad form overall! The report has been joined to anecdotes, polls, and neighbourhood and political campaigning all pushing the idea of a pandemic-induced breakdown in public order.

Despite the VPD reporting only on data from January to June, regular monthly VPD data now extends through August. We can use this data to more carefully separate pre- and post-pandemic conditions. Let’s first do this for the most common crimes reported (i.e. those where trends are most easily distinguished from random variation). These include both violent (Assaults) and non-violent (Break & Enters, Thefts of Motor Vehicle, Thefts from Vehicles, Thefts up to and around $5,000, and Mischief) crimes, all of which tend to average more than 100 cases a month. We’ll compare all of 2019 to the pandemic period we’re currently experiencing. What’s that look like?

Let’s start with assaults, the most common violent crime (top lines above). It looks like any rise in assaults relative to 2019 occurred BEFORE the pandemic. Indeed, for July and August, we’re running well below where assaults were in 2019. Of course it’s possible that the composition of assaults have changed, with drunken brawls on Granville down, and hate crimes up. So it’s worth paying closer attention to the data than is available in VPD reporting. But there’s nothing about post-pandemic 2020 that looks like a violent crime wave.

The picture for common non-violent crimes is more suggestive. But here it looks like we’ve seen a dramatic drop in crime reporting associated with the pandemic. The seasonal pattern from 2019 whereby crime rises through the summer months looks like it might’ve been replicated in data from June to August of 2020, but at a much lower level overall relative to 2019. Looking at the most common crimes, we’re not in a crime wave. If anything we’re in a crime trough.

But does it cover the spots most identified as trouble spots by recent political rhetoric? The VPD data also allow us to break out data by neighbourhood. Here I’ll zoom in on Downtown Vancouver (the Central Business District) and the Strathcona neighbourhood, both of which surround and contain the neighbourhood of the Downtown Eastside, where many have recently claimed a breakdown in public order (also associated with tent cities in parks) is threatening public safety. What do assaults look like in these neighbourhoods?

The patterns for assaults are pretty similar in these neighbourhoods as what we see for the city as a whole, but there as some variations. Assaults downtown ran high in January and February, but seemed to drop dramatically at the beginning of the pandemic, and have since risen with the warm weather, but not to levels comparable level to 2019. In Strathcona there wasn’t any sustained drop in assaults early in the pandemic, but relative to 2019 they declined from heightened levels in January and February to roughly match and recently drop below 2019 patterns.

The pattern for non-violent common crimes looks much the same for Downtown and Strathcona as it does for the rest of Vancouver. There’s been a big and sustained drop in these kinds of crimes relative to 2019. If there’s been a breakdown in public disorder, it’s not showing up in common reported crime data.

Are we seeing anything different in less common crimes? I’m wary of monthly patterns in the data, but including March, we’ve now got six months of data since the pandemic began. So let’s look at all kinds of crime reported by the VPD and compare the six months of the pandemic (March – August 2020) to the data for the six months prior (September 2019 – February 2020), as well as the six months matching the same year-over-year period (March through August) from 2019.

Here we can see that there’s not a lot of variation in most crimes between how they’ve appeared in the pandemic relative to the prior six months or the same set of months last year. The most recent drop off in Assaults doesn’t really show up as notable across the full six month period. But the decline in Thefts of all kinds is striking and strong (as compared to the other crimes of Break & Enters and Mischief, which appear down relative to the prior six months). Overall, very little evidence to support a pandemic crime wave. But there is one exception to the trend…

What’s up with Arson?

Any interpretation of Arson data needs to be keep in mind that Arson is not a common crime, but let’s set aside my concern about random fluctuations to just take a peek at the monthly arson data. Is this a sustained rise, or driven by a weird month?

That looks… pretty sustained. Though arson cases generally remain rare relative to other kinds of crime (nowhere near my arbitrary cut-off of a hundred cases a month for common crimes), they appear to have gone up, mostly in conjunction with the pandemic itself. The one month during the pandemic where they drop below 2019 levels looks like a weird spike in arson in July of 2019.

It’s hard to fully interpret the arson data without more context. Properties left unattended subject to a particular form of mischief? Business owners weighing their insurance policies against the cost of staying open? Pretty interesting… but who knows? Not me. The consequences, as with the New Westminster Pier, can be terrible. But overall, arson is still pretty rare.

My big takeaway: we’re not seeing a big crime wave associated with the pandemic here in Vancouver. Anyone running on that theme would appear to be doing so with bad information or in bad faith.

If anyone wants to play around with the data themselves, I’ve downloaded the VPD monthly report pdfs into a common spreadsheet here, complete with the summary of data and figures above. Enjoy!

*** UPDATE Nov 17, 2020 ***

Given that crime and VPD remain in the news with the VPD’s survey on crime feelings and attempt to set up a new unit, I thought I’d update the chart to their latest data (now from September, but October should be out soon). The story remains consistent with the above. Feelings aside, no evidence of a pandemic crime wave, assaults comparable or below 2019, common property crimes still waaay down.

Projections and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

jointly authored with Jens von Bergmann at MountainMath

 

When people want to live in your city, how many should you let in? On the one hand, this is a moral question. Do you have an obligation to people who don’t already live here? On the other hand, it’s a moot question. At least in Canada, cities don’t have the power to control migration.

BUT WAIT! Cities DO have power over how many new dwellings to allow. This actually changes our moral question a bit. Cities can’t keep people out, but because they have power over dwellings, municipalities can control how many people get to remain in. As a result, if you don’t allow any new dwellings when people want to live in your city then rich people will generally outbid poor people for the housing that’s left.

It may be the case that municipal politicians are fine with rich folk replacing the poor folk in their cities while their own housing rapidly appreciates in price. Why let any new housing get built? “No thanks, we’re full!” But they can’t always SAY this. Especially in cities full of renters that generally support progressive and inclusive values.

So what to do? Two paths are readily available. One: transform the moral question (“isn’t it terrible that developers make money off building housing?”) Two: turn the moral question into a narrow technocratic one instead. Let’s explore this latter option a bit more, because it’s really interesting and sits well within our wheelhouse (mathematician and demographer).

Here in the City of Vancouver, a new motion was just launched, titled Recalibrating the Vancouver Housing Strategy (RVHS). There are some good initiatives in this motion, but the main thrust and motivation is to turn the moral question of how many people get to remain in Vancouver into the narrow technocratic question of how do we forecast population growth? As any demographer can tell you, this can be tricky, especially when it comes to forecasting for municipalities. But there’s a naive kind of work-around some people use when they don’t follow demographic techniques and concerns very closely and don’t want to think too hard about the question at hand. They simply turn the population forecast into a projection forward from how a city grew in the past.

This is a neat trick! Especially if you’re in a city that’s limited new dwellings in the past and thereby kept its population growth to a minimum and you want to keep it that way. “The evidence suggests we haven’t been growing very fast, so we shouldn’t add much more housing.” With a little bit of hand-waving, the number of dwellings allowed by the city is reimagined as something that can be tailored to meet the forecast rather than the central determinative factor of the forecast.

Is this the kind of thing that could happen in Vancouver? Before we get into the motion, let’s just quickly look at Vancouver’s recent past. We know prices and rents rose rapidly through 2016 (and beyond), which is pretty good evidence that we didn’t add enough housing for the people who wanted to live here all by itself. But how did the City of Vancouver grow relative to the rest of the region? It grew more slowly. (“No thanks! We’re full!”) Did we lose poor people and replace them with rich people as a result? Yap, this is exactly what has happend in the City of Vancouver, which has lost lower and middle income people, and gained high-income people, at a faster pace than the surrounding Metro area.

2005-2015_rel_change-1

 

The Motion

Now let’s get back to that RVHS motion, starting with part A:

THAT Council direct staff to revisit the Housing Vancouver Strategy targets to align with historical and projected population growth based on census data.

This is a vague statement. There are, of course, many ways to “align” something (Dungeons and Dragons fans may be immediately reminded of the nine different alignments readily found therein). There are also many ways to project population growth. These often rely upon multiple sources of data. Birth rates, death rates, age structure, labour market statistics, and net migration rates serve as typical baseline sources of information for demographers, and are usually gathered from all manner of data (e.g. vital statistics, surveys, policy-based immigration projections, etc.) rather than simply historical census data. So how is the author of this particular motion imagining more specific alignments and projections? The answer can probably be found in the WHEREAS sections 4 and 5:

Population growth has been consistent at approximately 1% per annum over the past 20 years according to Statistics Canada census data. Based on this historical trend, a similar growth rate for the coming decade would amount to a population increase of around 66,000. In the City of Vancouver, the average household size is 2.2 individuals per dwelling unit (or “home”);

The target of 72,000 new homes across Vancouver in the next 10 years multiplied by 2.2 would mean a population increase of 158,400 – more than twice the historical rate. A projected historical rate of population growth would imply instead a need for roughly 30,000 new housing units over the coming decade;

We’ve left the refined techniques of demography behind here, as well as the determinative forces of births, deaths, and moves. Indeed, people pretty much disappear and their dwellings get only scare-quotes as homes. But let’s follow the math we do get and try and understand what projecting past trends means in terms of numbers (leaving aside if we agree that things went splendid and we should just keep going the same way). Let’s try and reproduce the estimation of new housing units assuming we hold the 20 year trends in the two mentioned metrics, population and household size, constant.

The 1% annual growth rate roughly checks out, although there have been variations.

cov-vs-metro-pop-growth-1

 

And population in the City has grown consistently at a lower rate than overall Metro Vancouver population. In fact, if the City of Vancouver had grown at the same rate as Metro Vancouver over those 20 years, Vancouver would have had 60,000 more people within city limits in 2016. But maybe people would just rather live farther out in the surrounding suburbs? Again, there are variations, but overall that is not what the price and rent data tell us.

rent-unnamed-chunk-3-1

 

People want to live in Vancouver. But they often settle for living farther out, based on the specifics of what they want and can afford. The competition for the limited number of dwellings in Vancouver drives up prices here relative to surrounding municipalities.

So what to make of the close relationship between population growth and dwelling units added? It’s a real relationship.

dwelling-pop-unnamed-chunk-4-1

 

The motion, as presented, seems to suggest that this close relationship is evidence that we’re projecting population growth really well, thereby allowing almost perfectly enough new housing to meet population needs. Is this what we’re doing? Well, no. In fact, the amount of new housing allowed sets a cap on population growth that can only be exceeded by increasing household size (which in many cases cities have also made illegal)1 or decreasing the number of empty dwellings.

There is broad support for decreasing the number of empty dwellings, and both the City of Vancouver and the Province of British Columbia have put in place taxes on vacant properties and their owners to do just that. Have they succeeded? Quite possibly! But compared to other municipalities, Vancouver’s vacancies (as recorded in the Census) looked relatively normal prior to the new taxes, despite persistent rumours of some mythical oversupply. After the new taxes, administrative data reveals there aren’t many taxable units left vacant at all (~1%).

What about household size? The motion suggests imposing a constant for Vancouver, expecting 2.2 people per household. But household size is not staying constant. It’s falling all across Canada, due to a combination of forces (aging of the population, declining childbearing, changes in partnership, the rise of people living alone). We also know that as people get richer, they tend to occupy more space. And, as pointed out above, Vancouver’s been getting richer.

hh-size-chunk-5-1

 

As we see, household size in the City of Vancouver has continuously declined over the years, a trend that has significant impact on the relationship between housing and population growth. Sticking with the bad assumption that past population growth should be predictive of future housing needs, we can see that we’re still going to need more housing per person than in the past. Projecting these trends forward, lazily anchored at the 2016 census data, gives an increase in population in private households of about 67,000 and a corresponding increase in 41,000 households (aka occupied dwelling units). And that is not yet accounting for the increase in population in non-private households that Vancouver has experienced, like retirement homes or similar institutional housing.

So if the RVHS motion points us toward a bad way to do population projections, then how should one do it? There are lots of models to look at, but given that people want to live in Vancouver, a key ingredient in any model should be how much housing will be allowed. Conditional on allowing a given amount of housing, we can attempt to forecast how many people will come. But this moves us back from narrow technical questions (which we’re more than happy to continue exploring in depth!) toward the central moral question at hand. How many people are we comfortable allowing to live in Vancouver? Because if we allow more housing, more people will come. And if we allow more housing, we’ll also allow more of those currently at risk of feeling unwanted in Vancouver to stay.

That begs the question: What would be the problem with allowing more housing? The last WHEREAS of the RVHS motion holds an answer to that.

A revised and more accurate understanding of demographic needs and demand will assist in properly planning for the post COVID-19 reality. Setting excessively high targets will pressure the City of Vancouver to grant significant amounts of density at a low price, in an attempt to induce housing construction approaching the HVS targets. This will cost the City of Vancouver potential revenue, and will mean that the City abandons its commitment to having growth pay for itself.

In short, housing might get cheaper. Which incidentally is quite in line the goals of the Vancouver Housing Strategy.

But there are a couple things here that need a bit more unpacking. First, from the title throughout the motion and showing up here again are mentions of planning for a “post COVID-19 reality.” To put it bluntly, this is odd. These parts of the motion caution us against assuming what comes next will reflect what came before. But, as discussed above, this is exactly the assumption the rest of the motion says we should make, resting as it does upon a very selective reading of Vancouver’s recent population growth. Weird contradiction. But then again, pretty much the same language has been employed way before COVID-19 was on anyone’s radar, suggesting that COVID-19 has just been tacked on for extra effect.

Second, the notion that “growth pay for itself” sounds quite reasonable, but it’s not clear what that means in practice. In Vancouver, new housing projects pay a variety of municipal fees, DCLs, CACs and additional engineering fees upfront, and annual property taxes thereafter. How much of the overall cost of living in the city should be charged upfront, and how much should be charged over the lifetime of the housing as property taxes? That’s a political question that Vancouver should have a discussion on.

Charging high entry fees keeps prices high, not just of new housing but of all housing. It encourages treating housing as an investment, with low holding costs (property taxes) and high barriers to increasing housing even as population pressures keep prices and rents rising.

Charging a lower entry tax and collecting a higher portion as property taxes later can lower the entry point to housing and spreads the costs out over the lifetime of the dwelling unit. This treats housing as a place to live, lowering the barriers to new housing construction and asking people to pay for city services and amenities over their time living in the city.

The (sort of) good parts of the motion

Let’s end with a few bright notes. There are some good parts to the motion! We like data and Part B asks:

THAT Council direct staff to provide annual historical data since 2000 on the number of units approved through rezoning, the breakdown of housing types that have been approved, housing starts and net housing completions, and estimated zoned capacity for the City of Vancouver.

This part of the motion is asking for better data, but it needs refinement. As it is right now it is hard to see what it will accomplish.

Number of units approved through rezoning is hard to interpret unless it is accompanied by more detail on how many of these units actually got built. Take the approved first version of the Oakridge development for example. A massive number of units got approved, yet the project died when drilling found an aquifer that precluded the project from going forward as approved. Several years later, a different proposal got approved, for the data on approvals to be useful we need to know what happened to those units.

Monthly data on housing starts is already easily available, asking the data be reproduced adds zero value and amounts to a waste of staff time.

Net housing completions is an important number, but very hard to do in Vancouver, given our high reliance on informal housing. It is still worthwhile to try and approximate this, but the motion should be clearer what part staff should focus on beyond the data on completions, demolitions and secondary suite estimates that we already have.

Estimates of zoned capacity is a great stat to get clarity on. Some vague estimate has been making the rounds for a while after surfacing in a consultant report, with next to no detail how it was derived. Having an estimate with a clear methodology would be a great addition to inform Vancouver housing policies.

Part B is a good and simple ask:

THAT Council direct staff to clarify whether the Vancouver Housing Strategy targets refer to net housing completions or gross housing completions.

Part E is mostly redundant:

THAT Council direct staff to provide detailed inventory data through the Open Data Portal4 of housing starts, development projects anticipated in the pipeline (including form and type of units), and existing zoned capacity (disaggregated by local area) to inform this work.

The open data portal already has detailed information on housing units in the pipeline. The information could be improved, but this ask is useless unless it specified how. As mentioned before, detailed information on housing starts is already easily available as open data, monthly stats by structural type and intended market, down to the census tract level. It is less helpful than the other parts above and risks directing staff resources away from other project just to replicate what’s already out there.

Bottom line

There’s no way around it. How many dwellings to allow in a city is ultimately a moral question rather than a technocratic one. Given the overwhelming evidence that people want to live in places like Vancouver, population forecasts necessarily reflect first and foremost how many new dwellings we’re willing to allow. In technical terms, it’s silly to imagine we’re meeting the needs of population growth when we’re in fact setting a hard cap on population growth. In moral terms, we come back to the central question: Are we planning for kicking poor people out? Or are we open to inviting more people in?

As usual, the code underlying the stats and graphs is available on GitHub for anyone to reproduce or appropriate for their own use. And if you want to read (much) more about how to know if you have enough housing, check our simple metrics post.


  1. For example the City of of Vancouver only allows at most one kitchen per dwelling unit and limits the number of unrelated individuals sharing a dwelling to 3 (+ 2 boarders or lodgers) to restrict sharing of homes. [return]

So are you two a couple now? Asking for the BC Government

BC has been lauded for rolling out an assistance program for renters, unlike basically every other province. At the same time, BC’s also been criticized for the perceived inadequacy of that rental assistance program, as well as the fact that it literally goes straight to landlords. In conjunction with the temporary eviction moratorium, it would appear that the BC Temporary Rental Supplement (BC-TRS) is really aimed at supporting landlord incomes and easing tenant-landlord relations to avoid a rash of evictions once the moratorium has been lifted.

Here I want to question another aspect of the program, at least as we’ve seen it so far: What’s it got against couples?

The BC Temporary Rental Supplement, as announced today, provides $300 per single person or couple household, and $500 per household with dependents. But roommates can apply separately for benefits, and it would appear each roommate is eligible for a $300 or (if living with a dependent) $500 rent supplement. Here are relevant items from the FAQ:*

Rental_Assist_1This means the “household” definition being applied by the province – whereby roommates constitute separate households – best matches the “family” definition of the Census, whereby family is defined by a couple (married or common-law) or parent-child relationship. The Census considers roommates as members of the same household, but unrelated, and hence not members of a family.

Why does it matter? Well, what’s the distinction between roommates and a couple?** Because if you’re a COUPLE you max out at a $500 benefit with children or a $300 benefit without. But if you’re ROOMMATES, it appears you qualify for $300 each, or more if there are children involved, maxing you out at $600+. In effect, couples have their status turned against them in terms of government benefits.

Interestingly, this isn’t the first time the current BC government has zeroed in on couple status as a determinant of less than favorable policy treatment. The BC Speculation and Vacancy Tax hinges upon marital status in terms of whether overseas partner incomes get counted toward family incomes, distinguishing “satellite families” hit with higher property taxes from everyone else. In effect, if you own a home this is a huge disincentive for formalizing, declaring, or maintaining transnational relationships, at least if your partner potentially earns more than you. BC tax policy says it’s better for you to split up than stay coupled with anyone outside of Canada, just as BC renter support policies seem to tell us it’s better to be single (with a roommate) than part of a couple.

One way of looking at the government position on rentals is that couples might be considered more resilient than singles. So singles, including roommates as well as single parents (who get $500), need more help and more allowances. And as I wrote previously, with respect to rental supports this might well be correct. Singles and single parents make up the bulk of those in core housing need. I’m happy that the BC government is providing special help to those with dependents, even if I wish the amounts were higher.

HouseholdsRenting-fx2

It’s also the case, as in my past research auditing rental listings, that BC’s tipping of the scales against renting couples might actually counteract some of the beneficial treatment they usually receive in the rental market, where landlords tend to discriminate against single parents and some same-sex couples (who may, in some cases, have been taken for roommates). Finally, policy is being rolled out at a ridiculously fast speed, which is important and a success in its own right because people are in need of money now. But that speed is bound to come at a cost in terms of care in crafting policies. We’ll see plenty of mistakes and unintended consequences of fast policy roll-out in the days to come. We shouldn’t forget the urgency behind the roll-out, even as we offer up critiques and fixes.

That said, we’re left with a fun contrast. If Pierre Trudeau famously declared “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” the government of BC still wants to know: are you two an item?

 

UPDATE (Apr 12, 2020):  Another interpretation (in this case my partner’s) is that the BC – TRS is geared entirely toward assumptions about how many bedrooms different kinds of households need and what the associated costs might be. The logic being that couples might only need 1BR, whereas parents with children need at least a 2BR, and roommates are (ironically) assumed to sleep in separate bedrooms, also requiring at least a 2BR. This interpretation actually mirrors the logic of the Canadian National Occupancy Standards defining the suitability aspect of the Core Housing Needs measure. Accordingly, BC-TRS payments could be designed simply to go up in response to anticipated bedroom need. I like this interpretation a lot, so I thought I’d share it too! (I hinted at the importance of considering bedroom need in my previous post on the renter benefit, only I didn’t think they’d adopt the couple assumption from the National Occupancy Standards, which I’ve also researched in the past! Kicking myself a little that I didn’t think of this interpretation first, but also patting myself on the back for settling down with someone more clever than me…)

 

*- Yeah, also your adult kids don’t qualify as roommates (item 18) and you don’t get any assistance if your landlord is also a family member (item 19).

**- As it happens, I asked just this question in my dissertation… though from a viewpoint embedded within demography (i.e. are people more likely to cohabit with an unmarried partner in response to housing shortages, making them like roommates, or less likely, making them act more like married couples?) In the context of Swedish demography, easier access to housing meant greater likelihood of cohabitation, providing evidence that cohabiting couples tended to be acting more like married couples than economizing roommates. BUT, there’s a lot of grey in there. Especially insofar as we usually leave it to people to define their own relationships.

 

 

 

BC Renters by Household Type & Need

Yesterday BC unrolled a quick support package for tenants and landlords affected by COVID-19 related job and income losses. In addition to an effective moratorium on evictions (yay!) and a rent freeze for the duration of the crisis, the province offered $500 going directly to landlords to offset rents for those with lost income. The measure appears to be aimed at preserving landlord incomes and landlord-tenant relationships even as the eviction moratorium temporarily boosts the bargaining power of tenants. Lots of details remain to be determined, including, apparently, whether the benefit applies per tenant or per unit.

Here I wanted to quickly toss out relatively recent figures for what renter households look like in BC, broken out by Core Housing Need. Data come from a quick run with Census Analyser (CHASS) for 2016.

HouseholdsRenting-fx2

Many renting households contain more than one income earner, likely making them reliant upon multiple incomes that might have been affected by COVID-related disruptions. If BC goes with a $500 benefit per unit (as opposed to per tenant), this may diminish the ability of multi-income households to make rent. On the other hand, together with the federal CREB benefits of $2000 per month for up to four months, and BC’s $1000 one-time benefit, households that have lost multiple earners will (eventually) be bringing in replacement income. In the meantime, they’re left to negotiate with landlords – who cannot evict them for nearly any reason – for the duration of the crisis.

If we look at renting households in core housing need (before the crisis), most were likely single-income earning households. Single-person households will do the same in the present crisis regardless of whether the $500 rental benefit applies per tenant or per unit. But a lot of renter households contain children and these are also over-represented in core housing needs. Notably, this included over half of all single-parent households in BC even before the COVID crisis. If the benefit applied per tenant and actually included children, it might go a long way toward diminishing the immediate crisis besetting many single parents. It might also assist couples with children, whether they’re reliant upon a single income or not.

More broadly, BC should probably consider targeting some relief at parents, who can no longer rely upon schools or daycares for childcare. But renters with children also face an additional housing burden insofar as their rents tend to be higher. After all, they’re often paying for extra room without the benefit of an extra income. The federal benefits flowing to households with multiple lost incomes will only apply once (if that) to single-parent households. BC should consider extra rent benefits for these households.

Of course, this was true before the COVID outbreak. More broadly, COVID-related policy in BC, and Canada as a whole, so far seems to be working toward putting in place hasty new patches to its old social safety net. This is a good start, but Canada also needs to patch the rips that were already there, which are being torn even further apart under the strain of the present crisis. Raise supports for children. Raise the disability rates. Put policies in place to insure that Canada’s right to housing is more than just a vague promise. If we’re all in this together – as we should be – then now’s the time to prove it by renewing the social contract for everyone. Let’s get to it.

 

UPDATE: Single person households make up a larger portion of renter households (above) than they contain in terms of total renters (below). Both are useful figures, but I earlier posted a figure with numbers based on total renters within households, rather than renter households. I’ve corrected the above to remain consistent with the language of households and avoid confusion. The slide based on total renters within household is now posted below.

HouseholdsRenting-fx1

Knock Knock Anybody Home?

co-authored with Jens von Bergmann & cross-posted over at MountainMath

Empty homes are in the news again in West Vancouver after a West Vancouver council motion asking the province for the power to levy their own Speculation and Vacancy tax.

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT the Provincial Government provide local governments with the power to levy their own Speculation and Vacancy Tax, so that they too can address housing affordability and other community effects of vacant homes.

West Vancouver seems interested in the empty homes and not the satellite family component of the SVT, which may well be a wise choice given how messy and problematic a law defined based on spousal relationship can get.

The motion is interesting for several reasons, not just because of the focus on vacancy vs satellite families. It sets the stage by naming housing affordability as a key challenge.

WHEREAS housing affordability is a key challenge in many municipalities but particularly in the District of West Vancouver with a median house price of $2.5 million, and a rental vacancy rate of 1.2%;

As evidence the motion rightly points at the low rental vacancy rate. The ownership metric is curious though as it explicitly focuses on “houses”, excluding more affordable multi-family units from consideration. This is likely no accident, as West Vancouver has a solid track record of focusing their energy on the most expensive type of housing by permitting fewer multi-family homes than more expensive single-detached houses to be built, the latter of which often just replace older single-detached homes and do not add to the dwelling stock.

west-van-completions-1

 

The next part reads:

AND WHEREAS according to the 2016 Census, approximately 1700 homes, or almost 10% of dwellings in West Vancouver, were identified as “unoccupied”;

This is incorrect, the 2016 census enumerated 1,525 unoccupied dwelling units in West Vancouver, comprising 8.2% of the total dwelling stock. Council is only partially to blame for this misstatement, reporting on this census metric has generally been sub-optimal, to say it politely. The problem is not just about getting the number right, but more importantly understanding what the numbers mean. The census enumerates homes that are empty on census day, and homes can be empty for several reasons. Some of which are mundane and even desirable, just one “whereas” ago it looked like council wanted more unoccupied homes – that are available for rent. There are other categories of unoccupied homes that are important in enabling residential mobility, homes that are rented but not moved in yet, homes that are for sale and unoccupied or bought and not moved in yet. The US ACS tries to track down reasons why homes are unoccupied, it can be instructional to use that as base of comparison when looking at Canadian data as in the following graph based on some of our past joint work.

West_Van_2

 

Being unoccupied on a particular day, for example Census day, does not give direct information about homes that might be targeted by an empty homes tax. The list of exemptions in Vancouver’s Empty Homes Tax or the provincial Speculation and Vacancy Tax opens another window into reasons why homes may be empty.

We can further break down the unoccupied homes the census found in West Vancouver by structural type.

west-van-unoccupied-3

 

In West Vancouver, most homes registering as unoccupied are single family homes, followed by units in suited single family homes that the census refers to as “Apartment or flat in a duplex”. This is to a large degree due to the building stock that leans heavily on single-detached homes. The two dwelling types have also been responsible for most of the growth in homes classified as unoccupied in the census.

It is helpful to also look at shares of homes in each type that registered as unoccupied, and put in context with the Metro Vancouver shares.

west-van-unoccupied-share-4

 

The shares of unoccupied homes are generally higher in West Vancouver, with the exception of row houses and highrise apartments. The shift in row houses is fairly recent, and should probably not be over-interepreted because of the small overall number of row homes. The difference in rates of unoccupied highrises likely stems from a relatively high share of rental highrises in West Vancouver.

The high share of unoccupied “duplex” units stands out. Recall that in Metro Vancouver units classified as “duplex” by the census are mostly suited single family homes. These register with the highest share of unoccupied homes throughout Vancouver, which is driven by empty secondary suites in such houses. Incidentally, secondary suites are exempt from both the City of Vancouver Empty Homes Tax and the provincial SVT.

In all of this it is important to remember that census unoccupied counts were taken back in 2016, before these taxes came into effect, and some owners will likely have changed their behaviour because of the tax and rented out or sold their previously empty home. Indeed, we now have a much more recent and much better defined dataset predicting how many problem empties are likely to be taxed by an Empty Homes Tax in West Vancouver. That dataset comes from the Speculation and Vacancy Tax itself. Worth noting: we are still in the pre-audit phase for the SVT and it is not clear how many owners are trying to dodge the tax by declaring incorrectly. But setting aside Satellite Families (where homes aren’t empty), the SVT numbers for the City of Vancouver aren’t very different from the City of Vancouver Empty Homes Tax numbers, where we are now in the third year and already have two years of complete declarations and audit cycles. So far so good.

Bottom line is that a much more reasonable expectation of the number of homes that may be targeted by a West Vancouver empty homes tax at this point is around 221, the number of vacant homes paying the SVT.

west-van-SVT-5

The next two whereas speak to revenue expectations.

AND WHEREAS the Province reported that in 2018, $58 million was collected under the Speculation and Vacancy Tax program, and that $6.6 million of that was collected from West Vancouver homeowners;

AND WHEREAS the Province of British Columbia gave the City of Vancouver the power to impose its own vacancy tax which has provided Vancouver with approximately $40 million in additional revenue;

The $6.6 million cited as being collected from West Vancouver covers both, vacant homes and homes occupied by satellite families. Only $4.1 million was collected for vacant homes in West Vancouver. The comparison the the City of Vancouver tax is somewhat irrelevant to this discussion, other than stressing again that revenue expectations is an important driver of this motion. One should note here too that the tax rate West Vancouver could charge for vacant homes is limited by a very simple calculus. Once the combined tax rate of municipal and SVT vacancy taxes exceeds the property transfer tax, owners can trigger a sale to e.g. a relative in order to pay the lower property transfer tax and be exempted from the vacancy taxes, with all the revenue accruing to the province. The City of Vancouver has hiked their Empty Homes Tax rate and is slowly approaching this limit.

Upshot

An Empty Homes Tax can be useful. It incentivizes better use of property by returning some unproductive properties back into the rental or ownership market. It generates revenue in case people are unwilling to rent out their mostly unoccupied home.

But it also comes at a cost, it can be intrusive and there are always edge cases. And it takes a sustained effort to administer fairly.

We believe that in the case of the Vancouver region the benefits generally outweigh the costs at this time. We can imagine that we might come to a different conclusion if e.g. the rental vacancy rate climbed up above 3%, but we don’t see a medium-term path leading to that.

Looking back at the City of Vancouver’s experience it seems prudent to approach an Empty Homes Tax with realistic expectations. In the City of Vancouver our Former Mayor said that the tax could free up as many as 25,000 empty units for rent, an unfortunate statement that raised expectations unreasonably high and is still being brought up when people criticize City staff for their EHT numbers not measuring up to lofty promises

The bottom line is that clear and realistic expectations are an important part of a successful implementation. It is good politics, and City staff will thank their politicians for this.

As usual, the code for the analysis is available on GitHub.

Wealth vs. Income

co-authored with Jens von Bergmann & cross-posted over at MountainMath

Wealth and income are different things. Wealth is measured in terms of assets minus debts at any given point in time. It can accumulate or deplete over a lifetime and across generations. By contrast, income represents some variation of how much money one makes over a given time period (usually a year). Most people get this on some level. But since both income and wealth deal with people and their money, the terms are also often used interchangeably. So it was that the CBC yesterday reported that “B.C. budget 2020 promises new tax on wealthy to help ensure future surpluses” despite the actual new tax being a tax on high-income individuals.

Here the difference matters for two reasons:

  1. it matters because wealthy people aren’t always high income, and high income people aren’t always wealthy, and
  2. it matters because a wealth tax is quite distinct from an income tax, and in this headline the two are blurred together (fortunately the article clarified).

With wealth taxes in the news (and in multiple Democrats’ platforms in the US), it’s important to separate out wealth taxes from income taxes. Here in Vancouver, as we’ve noted before, our property taxes actually do a pretty good job of taxing wealth.1

In this post we’ll focus on our first point: just how well do wealth and income line up together? Underneath this is also the question of how to measure wealth and what to include as income, we will just go with the standard definitions from StatCan’s Survey of Financial Security to answer this question for family net wealth and family income. The data allows us to divide up the Canadian population into equally sized quintiles (fifths) by net wealth and by income. What overlap do we see? The data also allows us to break out sub-areas of Canada, including the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairie provinces, and British Columbia. So let’s run those too!

First let’s look at how income quintiles break down by wealth quintiles, as assessed all across Canada. How many families in the lowest income bracket fit into each wealth bracket? Are they all the lowest wealth bracket? Nope.

wealth-v-inc-1

 

We can see a clear relationship between wealth and income. But only about half of lowest income families in Canada fit into the lowest wealth category. The same is true on the other side of the distribution. Only about half of the highest income families fit into the wealthiest category. Moreover, there are wealthy (highest quintile) and poor (lowest quintile) households in each and every income quintile. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, there are clearly poor high income folks and wealthy low income folks. Not very many, but at any given point in time they definitely exist.

Let’s look at some of the provincial differences, remembering that we’re using Canada-wide quintiles. Looking at raw numbers, it’s quickly evident that some provinces (Quebec and Atlantic Canada) are disproportionately lower-income, while others (the Prairie provinces) tend toward higher income. Ontario and BC are more inbetween. Looking at what percentage of each income quintile fit in each wealth quintile by province, the general pattern of a correlation between wealth and income is evident in all provinces. But looking more carefully, a few differences jump out, especially between BC and the Prairies. In BC, each income quintile has a higher proportion of families in the top wealth quintile than one might expect – including the lowest income quintile: wealthy low income folks. In the Prairies, by contrast, each income quintile looks less wealthy than one might expect. In each case, despite the correlation between wealth and income, there are also people showing up in each category.

Flipping the chart around, we can look at how many families in the highest wealth bracket fit into each income bracket. Only about half of the wealthiest families in Canada are in the highest income quintile. There’s even greater diversity in BC, where only about 40% of the wealthiest are in the highest income quintile.

wealth-v-inc-2

Let’s pull out BC from the rest of Canada and run the numbers matrix style. If there were a perfect correlation between income quintile and wealth quintile, then we’d see a bright diagonal line filled with 20% of families in each of the five diagonal cells, surrounded by twenty cells with 0% of families. If there were NO relationship between income quintile and wealth quintile, we’d see each of our twenty-five cells filled with roughly 4% of families. What we see is somewhere inbetween. For Canada as a whole, we see strong evidence of correlation at the margins (for highest and lowest quintiles), but the middle looks very mushy. For BC, we see a strong relationship between being in the top income quintile and the top wealth quintile. But everything else looks mushier than expected. In effect, BC stands out for its generally limited correspondence between wealth and income.

wealth-v-inc-3

What throws off the relationship? Many peoples’ wealth represents savings over one or more lifetimes. So age matters, as does inheritance. Immigration can also affect patterns, with different results evidenced by program (e.g. investor), time in Canada, and wealth accrued in country of origin (Vancouver’s far from the only place where rapid escalation in prices have made millionaires of home owners). Asset inflation also matters, and BC’s rapid appreciation in real estate wealth surely plays a role in its weirdness. As a reminder, capital gains accruing to primary residence don’t show up in income statistics, but they definitely represent wealth. We could cap current exemptions on this enormous tax break for home owners, taxing these capital gains more like income. But we could also just levy an overall wealth tax. Returning to a theme, taxing wealth is distinct from taxing income.

All of which is to say: wealth and income are not the same thing. And it matters. Especially in BC!

As usual, the code for the analysis is available on GitHub.

 


  1. And our property taxes are still too low! [return]

Property Tax Snacks

co-authored with Jens von Bergmann & cross-posted over at MountainMath.

 

Residential Property Taxes have been rising in Vancouver. As always, we’re seeing a lot of sturm and drang about the rise. But we think it’s ultimately a good thing. Why? Here’s three perspectives. From a fiscal perspective, property taxes pool our resources to enable our government to pursue projects and provide for the common good. They’re a big component of how we take care of each other and set priorities. From a social equity perspective, property taxes are directed at wealth, which is highly unequal in its distribution. Property taxes are also – at least around here – mostly a tax on land value, the rise in which is socially produced and largely unearned by any landowner. We should definitely be looking to redirect the massive gains in real estate wealth in this province toward the common good (Henry George for the win!) Finally, from a financial perspective, higher property taxes increase the carrying cost of treating housing like any other investment. They also work to stabilize the market to the extent they counterbalance the weight of shifts in interest rates. In this sense, property taxes and prices are endogenous.

Also worth noting: Vancouver’s property taxes are very, very low. Measured as the “mill rate” – or the rate of taxes owing per $1,000 in property value – the City of Vancouver’s rate is far below most other municipalities in BC (and further afield), especially outside the Lower Mainland.

prop-tax-1

Within municipalities, property taxes hit real estate wealth, but they’re basically “flat taxes”, set at the same proportion to property values regardless of underlying disparities. What’s more, looking across municipalities, there’s a perverse regressivity to property taxes. The wealthy people (e.g. living in Vancouver or West Vancouver) pay lower tax rates on their properties than those generally less well-off (e.g. living in Nanaimo, Port Alberni, or Prince Rupert). Measures like the School Tax, progressively applied to properties over $3 million, only partially counteracts this underlying regressivity at the Provincial scale. Still, we should be looking at more ways to bend property taxes in a progressive direction, and perhaps even use them to provide relief for income taxes. In short, we can definitely make property taxes a better tool for promoting a more fair BC.

The comparison between places like Vancouver and places like Prince Rupert also helps demonstrate the endogeneity of property taxes and prices. Someone owning a $1M property in both municipalities pays different tax rates. The present value of that tax break the property in Vancouver gets above the property in Prince Rupert, assuming the spread stays constant, is $229k. That serves to inflate property values in Vancouver. Which in turn serves to depress the mill rate in Vancouver. Rinse and repeat.

Let’s briefly touch on property taxes in terms of fairness between the City’s renters and property owners. The city has been working on making itself more fair to renters, who make up the majority of its population but find their options for remaining in the city increasingly constrained. Here we want to provide a simple comparison of property owners to renters in terms of rising costs they face. What’s risen faster, rents or taxes? We also don’t want to forget about rising asset prices too! After all, most property owners have reaped enormous gains in wealth that haven’t been available to renters. Here we’ll set aside other benefits available only to owners (including homeowner grants reducing property taxes, the complete absence of capital gains taxation on sales of principal residence, and even the lack of taxation on the imputed rents home owners pay to themselves) and just look at the rise in property taxes paid and gains in property values relative to median rents over the last few years. What’s that look like?

vancouver_price_tax

Here we’ve drawn upon a representative sample of detached properties and apartment condos and used their actual property taxes paid for the property tax data, and used repeat-sales HPI for single family and apartment condo within the boundaries of the City of Vancouver. The rise in property taxes paid by owners of detached properties slightly exceeds, but otherwise more or less matches the rise in median rents over recent years. The property taxes paid by apartment condo owners has had a more complicated journey, ultimately remaining below the rise in median rents (and remember, many of those condos are being rented out!) Overall, property taxes and rents have pretty much kept pace with one another. Property values, on the other hand, are through the roof! Up until very recently, we saw especially strong rise in the value of detached houses. Rapid price appreciation in the detached market (2010-2016) pushed property tax growth higher for detached houses than for condos, who are only recently catching up. The expansion in municipal budgets has driven recent property tax growth, but it remains in line with the increase in rents being paid by representative residents of the City.

Given our low vacancy rates, there is little doubt that rents would’ve risen much quicker without provincial rent control. But regardless, rents have still kept pace with rising property taxes. We still have lots of room to raise our property taxes on all of the grounds mentioned above. We could also use more progressivity in our property tax rates, working to counteract their regressive tendencies. Unlike for renters and rising rents, the research indicates that property tax increases seldom result in displacement of home owners. That said, if property owners feel their budgets squeezed too tight, the province also provides a wealth of opportunities for deferring payments. That’s yet another benefit that’s just not available to renters. But if the province wants to start supporting tenants who need a break to catch up on their rent payments, it might help put a big dent in the sky-high proportion of BC’s residents who feel forced to move.

 

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

Fun with Real Estate Wealth

Let’s take a moment to talk about real estate wealth! It might be a handy cure to perennial bellyaching about property taxes.

I’m going to pull from the public tables of Statistics Canada’s Survey of Financial Security, a great source of data on wealth in Canada. The data, asking Canadians for detailed information about their collected assets and debts, run from 1999 to 2016 (with the newest data being collected now!) And guess what? They’ve got real estate data in there! So cool. We’ve used this data before to help question the popular narrative in Vancouver that “foreign investment” in Vancouver real estate should be our primary concern (we’ve got a whole lot more domestic investors… why give them a pass?)

Here let’s just look at data on real estate wealth by overall wealth quintile (From StatCan Table 11-10-0049-01) . That means we’ll divide economic families (and those outside of such families) into five groups ordered by their total net wealth. What’s the average real estate holdings in each total wealth quintile, both in terms of their principal residence and any other real estate they might own? First let’s look at Canada as a whole, then specifically at Metro Vancouver.

Real-Estate-Wealth-Canada-Qs

Real-Estate-Wealth-YVR-Qs

Here I’m taking average real estate holdings for each quintile by multiplying the proportion of those who own the asset by the average asset value of those with the asset. You’ll notice I’ve dropped the lowest two quintiles, either because there’s not enough property holders in these quintiles to provide reliable estimates (for Metro Vancouver), or the estimates are consistently below $10k (lowest Quintile) or $100k (2nd Quintile) in all years (for Canada as a whole).

What do we see? In Vancouver, no surprise, we see very heavy real estate wealth. The upper middle (4th Quintile) here looks a lot like the top quintile in the rest of Canada. The top quintile here is loaded with wealth both from their principal residence and from other real estate holdings beyond. Effectively the property tax here is a flat tax on wealth. Hooray! We’re doing a wealth tax! And while it’s mostly flat, we actually do get a bit of progressivity in this tax, both through the provincial School Tax kicking in over $3 million and the Home Owners Grant providing relief toward the lower end.

Raising property taxes on our extraordinary unearned and unequal real estate wealth: what’s not to like?