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?

 

*- 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.

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?

Metrics and Bird Memes

 

Working with Jens von Bermann, I gave a talk yesterday at #HousingCentral on housing metrics! Specifically, we talked through and expanded upon our earlier joint blog post on the same topic. Click the image below to visit our full slides.

Image-Talk-HousingCentral

Included in the slides are a variety of graphics, mostly from past posts of mine and Jens’. In case you’re curious, follow the links below to find out more about them:

Rent correlation with vacancy rates

Price correlation with inventory (borrowed from YVR Housing Analyst)

Crowding measures

Urban Density

Homeless Counts

Empty Homes

Core Housing Need

and Job Vacancies

As for the conference, Housing Central is an annual shindig put on by the BC Non-Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA), including a special set of panels on research from the fine folks at the Pacific Housing Research Network (PHRN). Check the PHRN Symposium website for calls if you’re interested in presenting!

Last but not least, I took some bird pictures down along the southern edge of the Fraser River delta, and I really, REALLY want to turn them into as many housing memes as I can. So here’s me summarizing our Housing Central talk with a bird-based housing meme.

Birds-per-Post-2

Enjoy!

Mapping Four Blocks of Vancouver Neighbourhood Change, 1889-1920 (or so)

Guess who’s been playing around with Fire Insurance Mapsagain?

This time, let’s use these brilliant old maps to zoom in on a recognizable Vancouver intersection: Granville and Robson. What did the four surrounding blocks look like back in the day (i.e., 130 years ago)? Worth remembering, this is a scant three years after the incorporation of the City of Vancouver, the raging fire that burned it all down, AND the subsequent passage of the City’s first Fire Bylaw (hence the importance of fire insurance maps…) So we’re looking at a very new city in 1889.

GranvilleStrip-1889

By 1889, Granville & Robson was still pretty sparsely developed. Only one corner of the intersection contained a building, with a storefront (S) recorded as “vacant”, just like the storefront next door. But as it turns out, the surrounding four blocks contained a major Vancouver landmark in the brand new (1887) Hotel Vancouver (upper right), as constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The Hotel contained a billiard room and saloon as well as an expansive kitchen and dining hall, with servants’ quarters and a laundry below and rooms extending up a towering five floors above.

Across the street from the Hotel Vancouver were three-story buildings containing eight store fronts, offices, and dwellings, with only a few floors vacant. Though the offerings along Granville grew increasingly spare further away from the hotel, it’s already clear by 1889 that Granville had been targeted to become a commercial thoroughfare, complete with a brand new electric streetcar line. “Mixed use” was the norm, with lodging rooms or apartments frequently appearing over top of saloons and storefronts, generally built out to lot lines on the front and sides. Off Granville, along Howe and Seymour, appear some sixteen houses with smaller footprints. That said, these were not the “single-family detached” houses protected by the zoning of today. Instead, they included semi-detached (wall-sharing) houses (as in the lower left), and multiple shacks mixed in with sheds but used as dwellings on the alley (like the “accessory dwelling units” or “laneway houses” of contemporary policy-speak!)

Browsing the National Archives, we see find the Goad’s Fire Insurance Plan put on-line for 1897, as updated with revisions to 1901. Let’s revisit the block some 8-12 years after our first image and see what’s changed!*

GranvilleStrip-1897

The Granville strip is fleshing out, with the assistance of an expanded streetcar line now extending further beyond the Hotel Vancouver. The left side of the intersection with Robson now contains a butcher, two grocers, a hay & feed store, and a fancy drug store, as well as a variety of other shops. A handful of other shops also now decorate the Granville strip, mixed in with dwellings over top for the three-story Vermilyea Block, though numerous empty lots remain a part of the urban fabric. Closer to Georgia, a brand new “Opera House” is now tucked in next to the Hotel Vancouver, which has also grown considerably in size by way of additions. The Waverly Hotel appears at the lower right corner. Kickstarting higher education in the province, Whetham College took over the upper floors of the building on Granville & Georgia, across the street from the Hotel Vancouver, apparently sometime in 1891, but it only ran as a college until 1893, when one of the real-estate investing brothers who founded the institution died. While the lower floors housed a grocer & offices, the upper floors still bear the College’s name by the 1897 map.

Off the Granville Strip, the number of houses has more than doubled along Seymour & Howe, and despite the demolition of at least one older house, some thirty-nine houses now appear. It becomes more difficult to categorize these insofar as most no longer bear “dwg” for dwelling as an indicator of use.

Let’s jump forward to the Goad’s Fire Insurance Map from 1910, as updated with revisions to 1920 (Vol I). This takes us forward another 8-18 years, passing through an enormous period of growth.

GranvilleStrip-1910

Boom! Not a single lot along the Granville Strip remains empty. Transformations abound. The First Hotel Vancouver has been torn down and replaced by the Second Hotel Vancouver, wrapping around the former Opera House, now turned into the Orpheum Theatre (it would later move down the street). Down the street, the Vermilyea Block has transformed into the Palm Hotel. Across the street, Whetham College has been transformed into the Birks Building, with the Vancouver Block building going up nearby. Uses remain decidedly mixed, with shops, restaurants, bars, plumbers, tailors, and banks below, and offices, lodging rooms and apartments above. New theatres include The Maple Leaf and The Allen Theatre, then under construction, but offering a deluxe new movie experience. Fittingly, Globe Motion Pictures appears to have been housed just down the street near the Palm Hotel. The awesome folks at Changing Vancouver provide more information about the 700 blocks (East and West) and 800 blocks (East and West) of Granville, already a booming thoroughfare for entertainment in Vancouver by 1920.

What about our residential thoroughfares on Seymour and Howe? Houses have been diminished by nearly a third. Though new houses have been built, older houses have been torn down, with only around twenty-seven remaining. New shops, billiards halls, rooming houses and apartment buildings have gone up on the corners with Robson. Tailors, hotels, bakers, apartment buildings, plumbers and tire stores (with rooming house over head) have gone in on Howe & Seymour proper, complicating what had been residential landscapes. Two houses to the left of Robson & Howe appear to have been surrounded and subsumed by commercial outbuildings, including a tailor (with dry-cleaning) and a shop carrying out auto-repairs off the lane in the back.

This returns me to a point I repeat often. Prior to the arrival of use-based zoning later in the 1920s, residential neighbourhoods largely remained part of the urban fabric, open to change. The process of neighbourhood change, often referred to as “succession” by sociologists of the day, was a normal part of urban growth. Use-based zoning would seek to freeze this process in place, in particular in the service of defining and protecting neighbourhoods of single-family detached houses from change. Quoting Harland Bartholomew, the planner hired by the City of Vancouver to assist in modernizing its zoning bylaw:

… Largely to prevent the intrusion of apartment houses in single or two-family residential areas, an interim zoning bylaw was prepared and approved by the Town Planning Commission, recommended to the Council, and became law on 5th February, 1927.

I think this was probably a mistake. As I’ve written in my book, we could do a lot better by re-integrating single-family detached neighbourhoods with the broader urban fabric and returning to the vibrant mixed landscapes of the past. As it is, we’re largely still stuck with the interim zoning map of 1927, though Vancouver has recently re-legalized many of the flexible housing options that once adorned its residential streets (e.g. duplexes & laneways & secondary suites).

But let’s set aside lessons from history for more fun looking back, and animate the four blocks of neighbourhood change surrounding Granville & Robson. Thirty-odd years of neighbourhood change, commence!

Granville-Robson-1889-1920

Returning back to 1889, apparently the remote location of the First Hotel Vancouver from the original townsite to the east was already remarked upon at the time. Indeed, despite being built and owned by the CPR, it remained some distance down Granville Street from the CPR’s railway station, constituting the western terminus of Canada’s Pacific Railway. But the CPR had in mind a plan to encourage the westward expansion of the city toward its considerable land holdings west of downtown (then centred on Gastown). Over time, it would successfully tug and pull downtown in the direction of it real estate holdings, even as it moved the Third Hotel Vancouver elsewhere, eventually leaving a giant mall in its place. Indeed, now the “Vancouver City Centre” skytrain stop is right outside the old Hotel Vancouver’s door.

What did this stretch look like back in the day?

Sit back and relax with this super-awesome old motion picture taken from the front of streetcars in Victoria and Vancouver back in 1907. Starting at the 3.13 mark, you’re in an electric streetcar right outside the First Hotel Vancouver (on your left) headed toward the old CPR station at the end of Granville Street. See, it really did take awhile to get there!

For urban history junkies, you’ll continue to turn off Granville onto Hastings headed East at 4.30. From there, you’ll stay on Hastings, heading East till around 6.45, making your way toward Carrall Street, at which point the video will jump you further North to Carrall turning onto Cordova, and head you back West, turning onto Cambie toward Hastings (I used landmarks including the Hotel Metropole, the Hotel Eagle, and the Herman House Co. Real Estate, along with the old business directory from 1907 to get my bearings). It’s a sweet ride!**

* Archival Links to full plates excerpted above – zoom in for even more detail:

  • 1889 Dakin (Georgia to Howe to Smithe to Richards)
  • 1897-1901 Goad’s (sheet 18)
  • 1910-1920 Goad’s (plate 18)

Also see Goad’s Fire Insurance Map, Vol II, for Eastside Vancouver, and note that the somewhat less detailed 1912 Goad’s has been fitted to VanMap under aerial layers!

** dial back to the beginning of the video to start in Victoria, where after a few turns, you’ll head down Government Street and stop in an admiring pan of the Empress Hotel, Provincial Parliament Building, and Victoria Harbour. [UPDATE: You can also check out a great documentary of the 1907 streetcar ride through Vancouver from the vantage point of 2007, put together by the Vancouver Historical Society)