Basement Confidential: Vancouver’s Informal Housing Stock

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

Informal housing

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

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

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

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

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

The size of Vancouver’s informal secondary suite market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The formal portion of secondary suite housing

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

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

New suites

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manufactured Insecurity: author meets (friendly) critic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virtual Vancouver Zoning Tour

Most years I take my students on a tour around City Hall, with a focus on showing off various aspects of how City Hall is working (or not) upon the landscape around it. This year, of course, I can’t do that with my classes! So I’m moving the tour on-line, where anybody can come along if they like. Also I’m making the slides linked below available as a PDF document, in case anyone wants to download them and bring them along to walk the route.

We begin the tour at the corner of 10th & Cambie (I usually wait for my class on the stairwell leading up toward City Hall). From there we hook South, East, and North and around City Hall, continuing North on Yukon till we turn West on 7th, slinking our way on down toward False Creek. Here’s what the route looks like mapped out on Google Maps, which is where anyone can follow along virtually.

I’d recommend toggling back and forth between street view and satellite view in Google Maps for best effect. The reason I carve this particular route has do with how it maps over top of various key zoning transitions within the City, directly governed by City Hall. So let’s substitute this map for another one, labeling the underlying zoning districts and laying out stops along the way. The base map I’m using comes from my joint project with Jens von Bergmann looking at zoning all across Metro Vancouver.

From here on out, I’ll organize the tour by number of the stop along the way.

Stop 1. 10th & Cambie

From the steps leading up to City Hall on the SE corner of 10th & Cambie, it’s worth looking to the North, toward downtown and the mountains beyond. How much is it worth? That’s a good question. For the City of Vancouver, its apparently worth quite a lot. This view is specifically protected by City policy, as first adopted in 1989. In fact, the entirety of our tour lies within protected view cones, with the largest one extending from Queen Elizabeth Park. View cones have distinct effects upon what can be built in Vancouver in terms of height and massing that might be considered as disrupting views, and these are layered over top of more direct zoning regulations. Shadowing policies can have similar effects, adding up to a complex set of regulations governing construction beyond simple zoning. But, as we’ll see, zoning is often not simple either.

From stop one, we’ll turn our gaze southward, away from downtown, the mountains, and the near Commercial buildings to our North. Then we’ll march along City Hall toward the intersection of 12th & Cambie. As we do so, we find ourselves passing through lands that have been “spot zoned,” or set aside on a lot by lot basis from the standardized zoning categories governing Vancouver’s development.

Stop 2. 12th & Cambie

Once we arrive at 12th & Cambie we find ourselves completely surrounded by spot-zoned Comprehensive Development (CD) lots. Indeed, the newest of these, at the SE corner of the intersection is actually called “The Spot” though it gets its name from the former White Spot restaurant that used to occupy the site rather than from its spot zoning. Initially CD zoning was employed to enable uses for lots deemed desirable, but not in fitting with standardized zoning categories (the Oak Ridge Mall was Vancouver’s first CD). Over time CD zones have proliferated dramatically, with each lot calling for its own bylaw passed by council, and Vancouver has become famous – or infamous – for its spot zoning practices. CD zones open up direct negotiation between developers and the City, with Community Amenity Contributions often being offered (not without controversy) as a developer gift to the City while CD zoning entails greater density or different uses for developers than allowed by standardized zoning categories. Working through a CD rezoning can ultimately be profitable for market-oriented developers, but the process can also be lengthy, onerous, uncertain, and expensive.

The lots at 12th & Cambie demonstrate both the proliferation of CD zones and their changing structure over time. City Hall was shifted to a CD-1 (46) zone in 1968, three decades after its construction, likely just to reflect its distinct use. Recent amendments added on-site “Public Bike Share” as an allowed use, but otherwise the bylaw governing City Hall remains sparse. If anything, the CD-1 (62) bylaw governing The Plaza 500 (passed in 1970) is even more sparse, simply enabling “Retail stores, Professional Offices, Restaurant, Lounge, Apartment and Hotel-model” uses on-site, including ancillary facilities like a “Beverage Room.” The City Square rezoning into CD-1 (187) from 1986, enabled the incorporation of the old heritage Model School and Normal School buildings into a small shopping mall, and contains somewhat more complex language and code, including a wider range of specified uses, and a maximum Floor Space Ratio and Height. “The Spot” was rezoned as CD-1 (602) in 2015, with the number indicative of the dramatic growth of CD zones over thirty years’ time. Code complexity has grown as well, incorporating Horizontal Angle of Daylight and acoustic concerns. “The Spot” provides an exemplary of what people often imagine CD zones are doing in combining Commercial (at grade) and Residential (above) uses, hence enabling a mix falling outside of codes separating these uses and adding much needed housing. In reality, as revealed by our Metro Vancouver zoning map, CDs are employed for all sorts of uses, with most of our largest by land area being institutional (e.g. the PNE Fairgrounds, Mountainview Cemetery, Major Hospitals).

Stop 3. 12th & Yukon

As we move off Cambie, walking Eastward on 12th, the landscape changes remarkably. By the time we reach Yukon, the SE corner of City Hall is surrounded by big old houses set behind leafy trees. Each corner of the intersection (including City Hall) is now recorded in Vancouver’s Heritage Registry. And we now find City Hall surrounded by the RT-6 zone.

We can see a high density of heritage registered properties extends further than the corners, across the RT-6 zoning nearby, here made visible through the Legacy (heritage) version of Vancouver’s VanMap. But we’ll encounter a few more later along our walk.

The overlap between RT-6 Zoning and Heritage Registered properties is no accident. Indeed, the RT-6 zone is practically a living museum zone, intended to promote the “restoration of existing residential buildings” and maintain “the historical architectural style and building form consistent with the area.”

The RT-6 schedule is worth perusing in full to enjoy the minute detail paid to limiting and guiding local redevelopment. This RT zone also has a lengthy set of regulations, including some rules, like Dwelling Unit Density, not commonly seen elsewhere in the City of Vancouver. Despite the broader range of uses theoretically allowed under conditional approval, these arcane regulations actually limit what can be built on a standard size lot in Vancouver to fewer dwellings than can now be built under the low density RS (“Residential Single Family”) zones that occupy the bulk of the further flung parts of the City of Vancouver. Though we’re not passing through it here, I’ve got a whole book on Vancouver’s RS zoning for anyone interested!

Stop 4. 10th & Yukon

Heading further North along Yukon, we come to the intersection with 10th, allowing us a peek at a tiny pocket of RM-4 (“Residential Multifamily”) zoning. Multi-family zoning has often been allowed and justified as a kind of transition or shield between commercially (C) zoned strips and lower density (RS and RT) zoning. Here we can see that while the zoning allows apartment buildings, it’s still only a conditional use, requiring approval from Vancouver’s Chief Planner.

RM-4 zoning allows for only relatively low-rise apartment buildings, maxing out at about three storeys (or perhaps four, with a sunken first floor). As we gaze Eastward along 10th,we see that the townhouses to the right fit just fine, though they likely obtained some extra density (Floor Space Ratio) in exchange for fixing up the heritage Grauer House behind them. Yet on the left we’re immediately confronted with a seven storey building: The Lutheran Manor. How did it get there?

As it turns out, Lutheran Manor was built during a relatively narrow window in time between 1961 and the mid-1970s, when the land it sits on had been zoned RM-3, and the maximum heights on RM-3 were lifted to 100 ft. Lutheran Manor narrowly escaped the great downzoning that subsequently swept across Vancouver’s RM sites under TEAM in the 1970s, lowering maximum heights to 35 ft, and ultimately rezoning many former RM-3 parcels to the more restrictive RM-4. So effectively, Lutheran Manor was built under different rules, and could not be rebuilt under its current zoning today. What’s great about Lutheran Manor is that it’s also Non-Market Social Housing, which relatively scarce across the City of Vancouver. Lutheran Manor’s non-conforming status, meaning it doesn’t meet its zoning, helps explain how our current zoning rules work to really limit the construction of new Social Housing.

As we can see via its listing linked to VanMap, Lutheran Manor exclusively serves Seniors, offering a mix of Studios and 1-Bedroom apartments to that end. Much of our existing Social Housing stock is similarly modest in size and serving specialized groups, like seniors and families with children. As a final note before moving on, the City of Vancouver has recently discussed a policy shift re-enabling buildings like the Lutheran Manor in RM-4 and related districts. The basic idea is that non-profit housing applicants could be enabled to build up to six storeys in these zones without going through an expensive, lengthy, and uncertain re-zoning (CD) process.

Here I’ll just return to our guide map to point out that we’re about to head North to Broadway, crossing definitively into the C-3A Commercial zone, and setting us off to our next stop!

Stop 5. Broadway & Yukon

And now we’re on Broadway! Vancouver’s primary Commercial Strip outside Downtown. In normal times, this was also purportedly the most frequently traveled bus corridor in Canada or the USA (who doesn’t love the 99 B-Line!) And the Broadway Subway is coming soon, initiating a new City Planning exercise for the area. Entering Broadway strip, we’re also entering the C-3A Commercial District. Let’s take a quick look at what kinds of uses are allowed.

The above is only a sample of outright and conditional uses. What a shift from RT and RM districts! At the same time, it’s striking that each potential use has to be directly specified to be allowed. This is how zoning works; by directly legislating what’s allowed and thereby forbidding everything else. It’s dramatically more conservative from the regulatory approach that dominated prior to zoning, where certain objectionable uses (e.g. tanneries) were specifically restricted, but all other uses were allowed by default. Here any new use has to find some old category to fit under or risk being defined out of code. Dwellings are conditional uses within C-3A zoning, but often not allowed on the first floor. Let’s take a look at the streetscape to the West.

The block running between Yukon and Cambie is largely older, low-rise buildings, most dating from either the 1920s or the post-WWII era. On the right (N) side of the block, the view from above reveals that the stubby little buildings are on very shallow square lots. These shallow lots run all along the North side of Broadway between Cambie and Quebec streets, and seem relatively resilient to redevelopment, likely reflecting the difficulty of building anything else upon them given the difficulty of addressing issues like parking by-law (6059) requirements within the small lot footprint. Parking requirements are typically layered beneath zoning requirements, like an underground garage in code form. As for the peculiarly shallow lots, these were produced by historical accident of the misalignment between the streets and lots on the West and East sides of Cambie, corrected at Broadway. On the left (S) side of the block, all of the normal-sized lots between Yukon and Cambie are actually owned by the City! They were likely purchased in planning for some combination of future City Hall and SkyTrain (or Subway) expansion. We can see all the City-owned lots in the area by mapping them out on VanMap.

As we cross Broadway, we’ll continue heading North on Yukon. As we pass the lovely mural on the side of the stubby little building on our left, we very quickly we encounter a split in our zoning, with the left (W) side of the block still C-3A Commercial, but the right (E) side of the block turning over to I-1 Industrial. But before we get there, we’ve also got another little CD-1 (330) zoned parcel tucked in on the right, with one foot in continuing the Commercial strip with La Taqueria Pinche Taco Shop facing Yukon, and the other foot in Industrial, with Sherwin William Paints and Reliable Parts appliance part sales wrapped around the corner facing 8th.

Stop 6. 7th & Yukon

As we pass 8th and approach 7th & Yukon, our stop six, we get a better view of the Commercial (W) – Industrial (E) split. On the Commercial (C-3A) side we see the back side of the boxy building containing Home Depot, SaveOn Foods and a variety of other stores.Up above the big box of assorted retail, somewhat strikingly, rest the rental live-work townhouses of The Rise, surrounding a central courtyard viewable from overhead (or from The Rise’s marketing website).

On the Industrial (I-1) side of Yukon between 8th and 7th we see the fenced off parking lot supporting Freeman Audio Visual, a company providing technical support for on-site events (apparently about to move locations), and a pink-ish building further down houses Van Bind manufacturing, which assembles a variety of promotional items. Let’s take a closer look at what’s allowed in the I-1 Industrial zoning.

There are a lot of outright and conditional uses specified for I-1 Industrial zoning, just like we saw with C-3A Commercial zoning. The same general principle applies, we specifically name all the uses we might think acceptable, and disallow anything not otherwise named. This conservative strategy, labeling established and past manufacturing uses, may end up at odds with the high tech intent “to permit advanced technology industry, and industry with a significant amount of research and development activity.”

Arriving at 7th & Yukon, we see a new conundrum on the Industrial (E) side of Yukon. What’s a bagel shop and an old house doing here? As it turns out, they both fit!

We can use the existence of the old house to jump back in time to 1912, when the old house was relatively new, but use-based zoning hadn’t been introduced to Vancouver as yet. I’m assembling this map of what our tour looked like in 1912 from two plates (26 and 28) of the Goad’s Atlas of the City of Vancouver, accessible through The City of Vancouver Archives.

On the map from 1912 Cambie Street wasn’t even Cambie Street as yet, but rather simply called Bridge Street. The misalignment between the East and West sides of Bridge Street is even more apparent, producing those shallow stubby lots we saw along Broadway. Before zoning, most of the area we’ve passed through so far looked pretty residential, though there are a few other buildings mixed in, like a bank on Broadway and the Model and Normal Schools that would merge into City Square.

Strikingly, even after zoning arrived to Vancouver in the form of preliminary bylaws passed through the late 1920s, the area containing and surrounding our old house wasn’t zoned Industrial. It was first zoned as a residential neighbourhood! But through a process of zoning change over time, Industrial zoning was expanded from False Creek up to Broadway, then retracted into the formerly residential parts of Mount Pleasant we’re now passing through on our tour.

Put slightly differently, mapping the history of this area’s Industrial zoning looks a bit like mapping the passage of an enormous slug heaving itself up from the waterfront and across Cambie Street between 1930 and 1990. What happened to the post-industrial land it left in its wake? Below we can see the timing of when various buildings in the area were constructed, relying upon Building Age as recorded in BC Assessment data, and helpfully mapped by Jens over at MountainMath. The trail of green left behind by former Industrial zoning definitely matches our slug imagery, and indicates that most of the buildings we’ll be passing by from here on out will have been built in the wake of Industrial zoning’s slow passage. Let’s head Westward into some post-industrial slug-slime!

Stop 7. 7th & Cambie

As we return to Cambie Street, we re-enter the C-3A zone, but recall that this zoning was only recently put in place on the East side of Cambie. On the West side of Cambie it’s been in place longer. Sure enough it tracks with the view! The Canadian Tire store appears in a building only constructed in 2004, and similarly new-ish buildings are visible further to the North. To the left (W), the building housing the Robinson Lighting & Bath Centre has had some touch-ups, but it’s been there since 1966, likely constructed just as Commercial zoning replaced Industrial.

As we cross Cambie, we also get a hint of the misalignment along 7th Avenue from one side to the other (it’s more obvious up on 8th). Sticking along 7th Westward, the post-industrial C-3A Commercial zoning continues off the Cambie strip. On the right (N), we can see a continuation of shops and related commercial uses on lower floors,with condominium apartments above. On the left (S) we finally come across another instance of Non-Market Housing!

The Glynn Manor social housing, run by Brightside, is (somewhat unusually) targeted at youth. It operates with support from the provincial BC Housing agency on land owned by the City of Vancouver and leased to the housing provider, demonstrating the ways that multiple governments often operate together to support Social Housing. More of this please!

Stop 8. 7th & Ash

We continue on down 7th toward Ash, with shop and office fronts following alongside the right (N) side of the block for at least half way down. But it’s notable that while it remains tucked within the C-3A guidelines, we also get some condo buildings (fitting within conditional uses requiring approval of the Director of Planning), and the on the left (S) side of the street we generally don’t retain commercial frontage at street level at all. Instead we get a condo building and a large office complex (housing the BC Cancer Foundation), up until we get to the little house at the end of the block containing the Caffe Cittadella.

On the North (R) side of the block, the zoning shifts at Ash to the neighbourhood-specific FM-1 Fairview zone, replacing a rapid turnover of previous RM, I, and CRM (early mixed use Commercial) zones. Most of the area was redeveloped in conjunction with the FM-1 zoning, ushering the close townhouse oriented developments characterizing the area today.

Stop 9. 6th & Moberly

We continue through the FM-1 zone as we make our way down toward False Creek, with some of the remaining mixed uses encouraged by the zone showing up here and there, as with the auto-repair shop (more characteristic of Industrial zoning) and the 7-11 in the mini strip-mall on 6th (more characteristic of Commercial zoning). The distinct “close together” look of the zone is emphasized by the lack of yard requirements or setbacks, unusual for a largely residential district.

As we turn the corner onto 6th, we arrive at yet another notable instance of non-market housing! This time it’s a co-operative: The Stan Stronge Noble House. I describe the basic features of co-operatives below, but head on over to the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC for more.

As we cross 6th Avenue, a street turned over to busy arterial use, we can see how it works as a barrier to False Creek and the neighbourhood where we’re heading. But it’s not the only barrier, we also cross some railway tracks linked back to an old CPR right-of-way, a short-term Olympic streetcar pilot, and a more contentious future (you can let Uytae Lee break it down).

Stop 10. Sawcut & Greenchain

On the other side of the tracks we find ourselves in a new zone, designed to operate kind of like a gigantic CD zone. Indeed, it’s literally called the False Creek Comprehensive Development District (FCCDD). The zone was created in conjunction with a massive effort in the 1970s to transform the post-industrial southern shores of False Creek into a new residential district, owned primarily by the City of Vancouver, and enrolling the federal assistance of the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) in the effort. Somewhat incongruously, the CMHC still owns Granville Island! (And has also generously funded our efforts at keeping tracking of Metro Vancouver zoning).

Walking through the False Creek Development District is like stepping back in time, in this case very precisely to 1976, when all of the surrounding buildings we see on our walk were constructed. The particular vision was very much in keeping with a 70’s self-expression vibe, but also involved specific ideas about creating an accessible residential mix. The City retained ownership of the vast majority of the land across the FCCDD, leasing some sites to member run non-market housing provides, like the False Creek Co-op, while leasing other sites to private strata (condominium) buildings, in the hopes that lease-holds might lower barriers to ownership. Examining the Community Profile has raised new questions about whether the results reflect the desired aim in terms of social mix. As the leases are coming up for renewal, the City is currently working toward planning for how the neighbourhood should change in the future.

Finally, as our Virtual Vancouver Zoning tour comes to an end, we can look across False Creek toward the towering skyline of the Downtown peninsula. I’ve got another on-line tour of sorts set over there, taking interested parties (including my classes) back and forth in time and following the paths of Vancouver’s famous 1907 trolley ride video! But I hope this little jaunt around City Hall has convinced you that lots of interesting stuff is going on outside of Vancouver’s downtown core. More to the point I hope I’ve convinced you that all the stuff going on in City Hall, in terms of its zoning and related regulatory powers, is actually really, really interesting, with consequences you can see on the street!

Note: As always, please send me any corrections and fixes! Currently dated to March of 2021, I will likely return to update this post in the future in support of the tour and changing conditions on the ground.

Human Rights YIMBYism

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

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

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

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

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

The Right to Housing

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Movement

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

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

freedom of association

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

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

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

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

Property RIGHTS

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

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

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

human rights typologies of yimby & nimby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bartholomew’s Dot Destiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rethinking the “Foreignness” of Owners Living Abroad

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

TLDR: Combining our two major sources of data on the “foreignness” of property owners suggests at least half of those owning property in high demand parts of BC but living outside of Canada are Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

How Foreign Are You?

BC housing discussions have often focused on various aspects of “foreignness” – foreign buyers, foreign owners, non-resident owners, foreign capital, home owners with non-anglicized last names, out of province buyers, buyers on 10-year entry program, foreign landlords – the list goes on in bewildering variety, and each category comes with it’s own range of interpretations and definitions. Thanks to BC’s Speculation and Vacancy Tax (SVT), and Statistics Canada’s attempt to consolidate ownership records through the CHSP dataset, we now have pretty good data on at least two definitions of “foreignness” for multiple years. This is especially great insofar as the latest data allows us to compare and contrast these definitions and possibly take a look at a group that rarely gets talked about in our housing discussions: Canadians who live abroad but still own property in BC.

Let’s start with our two different definitions of “foreignness” at the property level. “Foreign Owned” properties, as defined via the SVT, are those owned by a person who isn’t a Canadian citizen or permanent resident of Canada. “Non-resident Owned” properties, as defined by the CHSP, are those where the owner is a person whose primary dwelling is outside of Canada. In both cases, where multiple owners exist, definitions can be narrowed (e.g. including properties as foreign owned only where all owners are foreign), expanded (e.g. including properties as foreign owned if any owners are foreign), or differentiated (e.g. setting aside properties where only some owners are foreign as “mixed”) accordingly.

The matchup between the two definitions of “foreignness” offered by SVT and CHSP is not perfect. By definition, SVT Foreign Owners includes non-citizen or non-PR holders living in Canada as well as abroad, and the CHSP Non-resident Owner category includes all owners thought to be living outside of Canada, but excludes non-citizen non-PR holders that live in Canada. But this variation is potentially useful! If SVT Foreign Owners are larger than CHSP Non-Resident Owners, we might get a peek at the lower bound for how many Resident Owners are not Citizens or Permanent Residents. By contrast, if CHSP Non-Resident Owners are larger than SVT Foreign Owners, we get a peek at the lower bound for how many Canadians (citizens or PRs) abroad might still own property in BC.

So let’s take a peek! But before we get started it’s a good idea to get a clearer picture how these two data sources compare. After all, the two definitions are constructed by two different government agencies drawing upon slightly different (but related) data, and using slightly different inclusion criteria. In particular, properties are excluded from SVT if they’re worth less than $150,000 CA, or located on First Nations land (or, peculiarly, in the Village of Lions Bay). Additionally, in 2018 the SVT excluded residential properties without structures on them. As a result, we might expect CHSP to have more properties. But CHSP is based on assessment rolls, generally assessed as of July 1st, where SVT is levied in January for properties owned based on the prior year’s assessment (from July 1st). As a result, properties added (e.g. via development) between July and January may show up in the SVT database, but not in CHSP, leaving SVT with more properties. So we can start our analysis by comparing the total number of residential properties for each municipality as listed in the two data sources.

The graph is done on a log scale so we can more easily compare and view small municipalities like Belcarra and large ones like Vancouver on the same graph. In general, the two data sources agree quite well, but there are some differences. The log scale visually compresses differences, and we can look at the ratio of the estimates from the two sources to get a better picture of the differences.

We get a mix, with some municipalities having more CHSP than SVT properties, and other municipalities the opposite. The variations are never especially large, but large enough that we probably shouldn’t treat the two data sources as identical. While the administrative variations in excluded properties and new developments may account for the variations in total properties, we should be careful in interpretation – even moreso given some revisions in SVT data between 2018 and 2019 Technical Reporting. In particular, it seems prudent to avoid deriving new variables by differences in counts across datasets, for example subtracting the SVT “Foreign Owner” count from the CHSP properties owned exclusively by “non-resident owners”.

A more robust strategy would be to compute the shares of each of these properties within their respective universes and compare shares.

This gives us a clear way to assess how these levels of “foreignness” compare. Here we can see that CHSP “Non-resident Owners” is a much larger category than SVT “Foreign Owners.” Their shares differ by roughly a factor of 2, generally a little less in 2018, but more (sometimes significantly) in 2019. In other words, it appears that roughly half of BC property owners living outside of Canada are Canadian citizens or Permanent Residents. This may surprise those who’ve taken CHSP “Non-residency” as a straightforward indicator of “Foreignness.”

Overall, SVT “foreign owned” properties have grown more scarce between 2018 and 2019. Of further note, in both years only a small fraction of “Foreign Owners” are considered “problematic” and then taxed by the SVT. The vast majority are exempt, most likely either renting out their properties to an arm’s length tenant or living in the property as a primary residence (far and away the two most common exemptions, as visible in comparisons across SVT reporting years).

If about half of “Non-resident Owners” aren’t showing up as “Foreign Owners,” then where are they showing up in SVT data? That’s a much trickier question to answer. The SVT data establishes a variety of categories, as demonstrated below.

Unfortunately, from the documentation we have so far, we don’t know whether Canadian citizen and PR property owners abroad get lumped in with “Other Canadians” or end up in “Mixed” or “Other” or even “Satellite Family” categories. Most likely they appear in some combination of these categories, reflecting the complicated assignment of owners to properties.

Regardless of which categories Canadian citizen and PR property owners abroad get assigned to, we do know that most homes in all categories were deemed to be exempt from the Speculation and Vacancy Tax. Again, far and away most exemptions stem from properties serving as the primary residence for an owner or tenant, though properties can also be exempt for a variety of other reasons. In nearly every municipality, less than one percent of properties paid any Speculation and Vacancy Tax. The standouts differed between years, with Richmond and West Vancouver topping the list of proportionately most taxpaying properties in 2018 (reaching nearly two percent), shifting to Saanich and Belcarra in 2019 (neither of which had enough foreign owners to break the category out).

Overall the share of properties paying the SVT has almost universally gone down between 2018 and 2019, which should be expected as owners adjust to the new taxes by selling or renting out their property or making other changes to qualify for one of the exemptions.

Caution in Comparison

Unfortunately, while we know that the vast majority of “foreign owned” properties are exempt from the Speculation and Vacancy Tax, we don’t know how many are exempt because they live in the property as a principal resident and how many are exempt because they rent out the property (or for some other reason). It sure would be nice if SVT technical reports broke out exemptions by category of property ownership! Anecdotally, it has not been uncommon for those on work permits or student permits (hence not yet permanent residents) to own a residence that they live in as a principal resident while working or studying in BC, suggesting that some portion of “foreign owned” properties likely qualify for the principal residence exemption from the SVT and would likely not be counted as “non-resident” owners within the CHSP data. Following the logic of our calculations above, the larger the proportion of “foreign owned” properties containing their owners as principal residents, the larger our estimate would be of “non-resident” properties owned by Canadian citizens or permanent residents living abroad. In effect, Canadians abroad could account for even more than roughly half of “non-resident” owned properties in the CHSP data.

On the other hand, it may be that the CHSP data simply overestimates the number of “non-resident” owned properties by virtue of flaws in their data matching across various administrative sources. We know that matching remains imperfect and the shares may get revised over time as already happened twice with 2018 data. Maybe some of their “non-resident” owners are actually resident, but just not discovered as such by Statistics Canada. In this case there would be a smaller “real” number of properties owned by “non-residents” of Canada than reported by CHSP, approaching something closer to the “foreign” owned properties in the SVT data, and accordingly our estimate of half of properties owned by those abroad being owned by Canadian would be a little high.

So our estimate that about half of BC property owners living abroad are actually Canadian citizens or permanent residents might be a little low or a little high. But it’s a reasonable estimate given the combination of SVT and CHSP data and the countervailing sources of possible error.

Finally, just to round out our exploration, let’s take a look at the CHSP non-resident owner data that also has information on properties that are jointly owned by residents and non-residents. With more careful and detailed breakdowns from the SVT data, we might be able to track how jointly owned “mixed” properties tracked with CHSP “mixed” properties. As it is, we still find a full exploration too tricky.

The CHSP non-resident participation categories have remained even more stable than the SVT declarations between 2018-2019. That said, both datasets continue to be subject to revisions. In most cases these adjustments have led to a reduction in the overall shares of foreign owners and non-resident participants.

Upshot

Drawing upon both CHSP and SVT data and their differing deinitions of “Foreignness,” we combine the two to estimate the size of a new category of interest: Canadians (citizens and PRs) living abroad who still own property in high demand areas of BC. This category appears to account for roughly half of property owners living abroad as estimated by CHSP data for included municipalities. That such a large portion of BC property owners living abroad are likely legally Canadian casts a rather harsh light on the extent to which “foreignness” has played such a strong role in our housing discourse.

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

Two Years of BC’s Speculation and Vacancy Tax Data!

Last week, the BC Government dropped a press release linking to 2019’s data from the NDP’s Speculation & Vacancy Tax (SVT), leaving us with two years of data (!) and including a brief analysis of what happened to properties taxed in 2018! Maybe you didn’t notice? It was a busy week. I’ve been looking through the data and comparing across releases, and here are my big takeaways so far:

  • Overall, tax liability remains very rare (< 1%), and seems to be getting more so
  • The 2019 Technical Report revises some of the 2018 taxpaying figures, generally downward
  • The SVT may have added some rental in 2019, but probably not as much as claimed
  • Best guess: probably because we never had much “toxic demand” to begin with…
  • There’s some hint the SVT might have promoted divorce a bit & probably also migration
  • Some errors and lapses in SVT reporting make interpreting the data harder than it should be!

Before expanding on these takeaways, a quick re-cap is probably in order. The BC’s Speculation & Vacancy Tax (SVT) is effectively an additional property tax on empty dwellings (set at a higher rate for non-Canadian owners) coupled with an additional property tax on transnational families (a.k.a. “satellite families”) where the primary income earner files their income taxes outside of Canada. The SVT was brought in by the NDP government in 2017 as a means of combating “toxic demand,” with the idea that investors were leaving residential properties empty and driving up housing costs for BC residents in selected areas of the province (mostly Metro Vancouver, but also further up the Fraser Valley, inland in the Central Okanagan, and on the Island around Greater Victoria and Nanaimo). The SVT was layered over top of the Foreign Buyer Tax (a property transfer tax paid only at point of sale) brought in by the BC Liberals in 2016. Within the City of Vancouver the SVT was also the layered over the Empty Homes Tax (a simple additional property tax on empty dwellings), also from 2016.

Here are the SVT Technical Reports I’m comparing from 2018 and 2019 (with a separate file broken down by municipalities in 2019). So what does a second year of BC’s Speculation and Vacancy Tax data show? First off, the big finding: for the second straight year in a row, the data demonstrate there’s little “toxic demand” to be found in high demand parts of BC. In both 2018 and 2019, significantly less than one percent of properties fall in taxed (non-exempt) categories.

In all property categories created by the SVT, the vast majority of properties are exempt from the tax, regardless of ownership. Those not exempt from the tax provide us a measure of “empty dwellings” except for the “satellite family” category, where residents may owe the tax even when they live in the property. Overall, less than half a percent of properties are empty or owned by satellite families in 2019. The biggest decline in taxed properties by category appears in the “Foreign Owned” category, though taxed “Satellite Family” and “Mixed” ownership properties have also declined.

We can turn from properties to look at owners paying the SVT. These are somewhat easier to track insofar as properties can have multiple owners (with multiple statuses, leading to some of the complicated categories above). Looking at owners fitting into different categories across SVT reports, we get our first hint that the 2019 update also includes revisions to the 2018 data. In nearly every case, the number of owners owing tax in 2018 were downwardly revised by 2019. For the 2019 data, the number of owners owing tax dropped further.

The gradual decline in owners subject to the SVT, both across revisions to the 2018 data and across years extending into the 2019 data, suggests that the more closely we look at files, the fewer owners owing tax we find. This is the opposite of what we’d expect if close scrutiny of files revealed a great deal of evasion. If that were the case, revisions would be expected to increase the number of taxpayers.

The vast majority of exemptions from the SVT are in the form of either “principal residence” (for people who live in the properties they own) or “occupied by tenant” exemptions, either indicating the property is lived in (or at least contracted for living in) for at least six months of the year. A close look at both SVT reports reveals that those claiming these two exemptions have gradually risen, both through revisions to the 2018 report and through the 2019 calendar year.

The rise in exemptions from the tax due to occupation by a tenant between 2018 and 2019 offers one measure from the SVT data of how many dwellings might have been brought back into the rental market through the incentives of the SVT (Table 5). But exemptions are tricky, insofar as multiple exemptions may be applied to the same property. Another measure of how many dwellings were brought back into the rental market by the SVT could be found in directly examining how many properties paying the tax in 2018 were subsequently rented out in 2019 (Table 10). Interestingly, the 2019 SVT Technical Report does not draw upon either of these measures, derived from SVT data contained. Instead the report (p. 3) references a CMHC Report on the Secondary Rental Market in Metro Vancouver examining existing condos newly added to the CMHC’s rental universe in 2019. Lining up different estimates of how many dwellings might’ve been induced back into the rental market by the SVT suggests why… the CMHC report’s estimate – even focusing only on Metro Vancouver – is the highest. Unfortunately, it’s also probably the most flawed as a measure of SVT effects, both insofar as those effects aren’t measured directly, and insofar as the bump in units entering the rental market may have arisen from changes in reporting to CMHC rather than changes in actual rentals.

Overall, it’s likely that the SVT induced more dwellings into the rental market in 2019, but probably not as many as claimed. That shouldn’t be too surprising given that the tax was already in place in 2018. Most units rented out in response to the SVT were probably already rented out prior to 2019. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the big rise in vacancy rates we might expect if a lot of dwellings had been added to the rental market in 2018 either. Nor can I discern sizable increases in dwellings offered for sale prior to the imposition of the Speculation and Vacancy Tax in 2018. Though it’s difficult to fully analyze the effects of the SVT on patterns prior to its arrival, there’s little to suggest much in the way of a great deal of “toxic demand” suddenly released as supply back onto the market. That said, and regardless of its effects on existing patterns, the SVT could still operate as a powerful prophylactic, preventing Vancouver from becoming a resort town of half-empty pied-a-terres for the wealthy. (As a potential future, it’s not so far-fetched – it looks kind of like Miami).

Let’s round out SVT reporting comparisons by looking at other exemptions claimed. These are magnitudes less common than exemptions for principal residence or occupancy by a tenant, plotted above. But they’re quite interesting nevertheless, often revealing the main reasons why dwellings get left empty. Most commonly, it appears, they’re just between residents, as when a property is newly acquired, being renovated, or under construction. Exemptions for “recent acquisitions or inheritances” rose between 2018 and 2019, likely simply reflecting annual variation in sales. Other properties actually have no residence built on them. An exemption for stratas with rental restrictions remains in place. Less commonly, special circumstances are granted to those where ownership remains in flux, and perhaps under dispute, as with divorces and deaths of an owner.

Divorces are especially interesting insofar as the initial 2018 release listed “separation or divorce” as the #8 most common exemption. In the 2019 release, “separation or divorce” no longer made the top ten, and had been scrubbed as an exemption in the 2018 revision as well. The scrubbing of “separation or divorce” from the revision probably reflects a simple process of drawing upon the top ten exemptions in 2019 and comparing backward (though this produces an error, insofar as the 2018 “separation or divorce” figures don’t appear to have been added back in as an “other exemption” update for 2018 revised figures, which is concerning). What’s the substantive impact of this little reporting glitch? Unfortunately it means we only get a hint at a possible effect of the SVT: a bump in separations or divorces. We have ample reason to expect such a bump for 2018. After all, the logic of the SVT as applied to “satellite families” is that it’s fine and totally forgivable to be separated from a spouse who jointly owns your home due to irreconcilable differences. But if one is separated from a spouse instead simply by their work in another country, that’s a “satellite family” and you’re subject to the tax. No surprise people might re-evaluate the nature of their relationships to their spouses in response to the SVT, temporarily bumping up separations and divorces. As with rentals, we might expect this response to be strongest in the first year of the SVT, subsiding (and hence moving down the list of exemptions) by 2019, which appears to be what we see above. Though trickier to establish, we would also expect immigration and migration as potential responses to the SVT, with owners moving to (or returning to) BC to avoid the tax. Many of these plans might simply speed up processes already happening anyway. Of note, more careful and consistent releasing of data would be needed to study these kinds of responses more closely.

Errors in the 2019 SVT report also plague the study of properties by ownership category. In my first chart (at the top), I use “non-exempt” figures from Table 7 in the SVT 2019 report rather than “total” non-exempt figures from table 8. Logically, these two figures should map perfectly on to one another (as the corresponding tables do in the SVT 2018 report), but in the SVT 2019 report they diverge quite a bit with respect to how properties were assigned into “other Canadian”; “foreign”; “satellite”; “mixed”; and “other” categories. Via comparison to 2018 figures and to Table 10, Table 7 looks like it contains the correct breakdown into categories. But here, too, errors in the 2019 SVT report make it difficult to confidently analyze the data. As noted above, the complicated matching of multiple owners to properties likely explains potential mismatches across tables, but it sure would be helpful if SVT reports took a consistent view of the matter!

Below I use figures from Table 7 in combination with Tables 10 and 11 to try and follow properties that were taxed in 2018 over time into 2019, to see what happened to them next. Though I’m critical of the SVT reporting errors (as above), it’s great that they provide this ability to follow properties for us! Here’s what I get…

Overall, it appears that most of the properties paying the SVT in 2018 were no longer paying it in 2019. Mostly the owners in 2018 either moved into their properties by 2019, rented them out to someone else, or sold them off (or otherwise removed their name from the title). Selling or renting were the most common strategies for Foreign Owners, accounting for most properties, but a minority simply held onto their property and paid the tax for another year. Satellite Families were more evenly split, between claiming as a primary residence in 2019, selling, renting out, or simply paying the tax again in 2019. Some of the difficulties in classification here continue to plague a full understanding, but the fact that satellite families were the most likely to transition into a primary residence exemption likely reflects some combination of marital and migratory responses to the SVT, as discussed above. Other Owners (here including BC Residents, Other Canadians, Mixed, and Other categories) mostly rented, sold, or paid the tax again. Way more Other Owners paid the tax again than for other categories, likely reflecting, in part, the lower tax rates they generally paid under the SVT structure. For similar reasons, we see many more Other Owners – reflecting mostly BC Residents – added as new taxpayers in 2019 than for other categories. The tax seems to have been most effective at driving out the (relatively rare) “empty” properties of Foreign Owners, but new “empty” properties with domestic owners seem to have replaced at least some of those Foreign Owners as tax-payers.

Overall, it’s great to see more Speculation and Vacancy Tax data out, warts and all! It probably continues to be our best source of data about “problem empties” across high demand regions of the province, and also potentially – with a bit more care – could give us new insights into underlying housing, migration, and family processes.

Learning to Not Fly

Updating my miniseries on flights and exposures through YVR airport in Vancouver. No particular reason

Here’s passengers on flights in and out in and out of Vancouver. Unfortunately the series I get from YVR still ends in November, so we don’t have the full update on how many holiday trips we should be enraged about for those of us avoiding non-essential travel. But we can see that since the arrival of COVID, passenger travel dropped dramatically, then slowly rose in what looks like some combination of a response to lessening restrictions / fears and seasonal patterns.

Speaking to the persistence of seasonal patterns, we can see that August 2019 was the pre-COVID peak for travel, just as August 2020 represents a post-COVID peak for travel. Since then, travel has eased off, which may also reflect the second wave of COVID. The combination of seasonal patterns and renewed COVID concerns might be seen a little more clearly looking at year-over-year passenger patterns in 2020 explicitly compared to 2019. For Domestic passengers, in particular, it looks like travel recovered up to about one-quarter of pre-pandemic levels by August, and pretty much stayed at that level through October, but we may see some evidence of a fall-off in response to the second wave of COVID in November. That said, I have to imagine that once December figures come out, we’ll see a jump in travel, just like in 2019, pointing to the continuing persistence of seasonal patterns.

International travel patterns are different, and more than a little troubling, insofar as they don’t seem to be at all responsive to the second wave of COVID. Though the progress has been much slower than for Domestic travel, International travel just keeps rising back toward historic norms, led, in November, by a sharp jump in travel between YVR and Europe. Yikes.

But how much is all of this jetting around really contributing to the spread of COVID? Unfortunately, we don’t know. Our surveillance system, data consolidation, and transparency game is still pretty weak here in BC. But we can get a very conservative sense of the changing scale of the contribution by just looking at the BC CDC Flight Exposure data (full pdf). There we see a remarkably steady upward rise in flight exposures, despite the leveling off in the overall number of passengers carried. Yikes, yikes!

Once again, posted exposures represent a very conservative estimate of how air travel is contributing to spread of COVID. Obviously, given the combination of asymptomatic cases and our lax testing regime, the BC CDC still isn’t catching all cases. We also don’t get the actual number of confirmed COVID cases per flight, just whether or not there’s been an exposure, and corresponding rows assessed as being at risk. Sometimes there are multiple seat sections, suggesting multiple, and potentially unrelated COVID cases aboard some flights. But the big takeaway is that even before holiday travel, airlines were already jetting around more COVID cases than at any other time in the pandemic.

I’m not sure it’s as useful, but for consistency’s sake, I’ll also post the exposures per 100,000 passengers, which I played around with in my last post. Last time I didn’t include the Miscellaneous International flights, because there weren’t very many, but they included a lot of exposures, and also because I wasn’t entirely clear on the reporting of flights to Mexico, which is where nearly all the exposures occurred. This time I’ll add those flights back in assigned to my best guess of how to combine the data, in part because Mexico seems to be where a lot of non-essential vacationing is occurring. Unfortunately, once again, we only go up to November data. The data highlight just how risky travel to common vacation destinations in Mexico has been, especially back in July, though by November the US and Europe had moved into riskier positions. That said, the chart really obscures the steady rise in risk of exposure for domestic travelers within Canada, still representing most of our travel.

Overall, though data remains poor, we appeared to be flying around an increasing number of COVID cases through 2020, significantly complicating efforts to contain the virus. Particularly worrisome, despite Public Health orders to avoid non-essential travel, lots of people – including politicians and other public figures – took to the skies on recent vacations. For now, folks, it’s probably time to learn to NOT fly. Maybe stay home and watch a video instead?

************* UPDATE January 27, 2021

Still no updated YVR passenger data for December! But lots of discussion about travel restrictions. So I’m posting a comparison of BC CDC flight exposures to overall exposures by month below, running up to January 22 (latest flight exposure notification data). The scales are set to 1 flight exposure = 500 cases reported, though of course I make no claim for direct causality there! The figure merely enables a comparative analysis of trends.

Feel free to grab the spreadsheet behind the figure containing downloaded BC CDC data from Jan 27 here:

What to Expect from an Empty Homes Tax

Joint with Jens von Bergmann and cross-posted at mountainmath

Empty Homes Taxes are back in the news!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BC Housing Platforms!

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

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

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

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

Taxation & Strata Insurance!

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

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

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

Social Housing

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

Development

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

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

Mix and Match!

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