Metro Flows

Sometimes we talk about cities as if they’re settlements, where people become fixed to place. But in fact, if you track movements of people, cities look more like rivers. People churn through the urban landscape. Net migration numbers are really useful in some contexts, but also obscure the full extent of this churning. Fortunately, BC Stats has numbers that attempt to break down actual flows of people through regions. We can break out Metro Vancouver (a.k.a. Greater Vancouver) and see just how many people we think might be flowing through. Here’s a little graphic I made to highlight this churn, while I continue playing around with the best way to present it.

Flows-MetroVan-2

The numbers and categories for inflows and outflows are straight from the BC Stats regional district migration file for Greater Vancouver (which itself is derived from a more detailed version of Stats Can table 17-10-0140-01 on components of population change). Population, birth, and death figures similar come from BC Stats and StatCan files. I’ve rounded them off and expressed them in millions here both for ease of reading and in recognition of some of the underlying uncertainty in accounting for population shifts.

BC Stats figures divide up international flows into immigration, emigration, returning emigrants, net temporary emigrants, and net non-permanent residents. The many categories reflect both legal statuses and movements of people, which is part of why there are so many and starts to get at some of the complexities of international migration regimes. Then we get interprovincial in and out migration (to Metro Van from other provinces) and intraprovincial in and out migration (to Metro Van from elsewhere in BC). I find it super-cool to see all the flows laid out.

The basic takeaway for me is that over the course of thirteen years, from 2006 to 2019, we see enormous churn through Metro Vancouver. From a base population of 2.2 million, an additional 1.1 million arrivals came to the region. A smaller 0.7 million left. Wow! That’s a lot of turnover! The total 1.8 million moves into and out of the region over the thirteen year period nearly approaches the starting size of Metro Vancouver as a whole, and represents a much bigger number than the net migration of 0.4 million. Adding in 0.3 million births and subtracting 0.2 million deaths, and there’s your growth of roughly half a million people in Metro Vancouver through 2019.

What’s even more striking is that the moves into and out of the region are dwarfed by the moves within the region. That’s because, as I’ve previously discussed, local moves are a lot more common than regional ones.

Mobility1

Heck, most moves are within municipal boundaries, and well within metropolitan ones (see previous post for more discussion of this figure).

So the churn we see in metropolitan flows is only a small part of residential churn overall. People move! When we think of cities, we need to recognize this movement as fundamental to how they work. Our “settlements” really aren’t very settled at all.

UPDATE June 10th

For comparison’s sake, let’s update the figure above by adding an estimate of internal moves. These are moves from one location to another within the metro area of Vancouver, and as such they don’t add or subtract from the metro population as a whole. Instead they just highlight the centrality of mobility to urban life.

Migration_Flows_Mobility_Add_2006-19_MetroVan

We don’t have a straightforward estimate of these moves from StatCan data. So here I draw upon Census microdata from CHASS. I hold the internal moves constant by averaging the estimates of how many people recorded a move within the Vancouver CMA across three census years (2006, 2011, and 2016). The estimates vary a bit between years, dipping from 260,590 moves in 2006 to 251,635 in 2011, before rising again to 278,632 in 2016, but I don’t have data for every year and I like the graphic impact of treating it as a constant for comparison with in- and out- flows.

Takeaway: when you add in local moves, the city looks even more like a river. In fact, the total number of moves between 2006 and 2019 adds up to roughly 5.2 million. The population in motion more than doubles the population of the “settlement” at the start (2.2 million) and nearly doubles it at the end (2.7 million) of the period in question. You say settlement, I say river.

 

Projections and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

jointly authored with Jens von Bergmann at MountainMath

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2005-2015_rel_change-1

 

The Motion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cov-vs-metro-pop-growth-1

 

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

rent-unnamed-chunk-3-1

 

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

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

dwelling-pop-unnamed-chunk-4-1

 

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

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

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

hh-size-chunk-5-1

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The (sort of) good parts of the motion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part B is a good and simple ask:

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

Part E is mostly redundant:

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

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

Bottom line

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

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


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

Knock Knock Anybody Home?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

west-van-completions-1

 

The next part reads:

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

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

West_Van_2

 

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

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

west-van-unoccupied-3

 

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

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

west-van-unoccupied-share-4

 

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

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

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

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

west-van-SVT-5

The next two whereas speak to revenue expectations.

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

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

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

Upshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overnight Visitors and Crude Travel Vectors

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

The spread of Coronavirus is reminding us of just how often people travel around, especially as various locations become quarantined and international travel corridors get shut down. So let’s take a look at some basic data on travel patterns here of relevance to us here in Vancouver. Then we’ll put them back in the context of Coronavirus.

TLDR: travel data is really interesting, don’t be frightened of travelers, and there’s still a lot we don’t know about coronavirus.

We’ve looked at the movement of people before in terms of migration, immigration and commuting patterns. But these are movements that are either regularized, everyday, and routine (e.g. commuting) or shuffle people between one settled set of routines and another (e.g. migration). Travel data gives us something different, representing something more like the unsettled movement of people. People travel for work, to visit family, and of course, for tourism. The Tourism Industry is interested enough in travel data that they ask Statistics Canada to compile data for them. Stats Canada combines Canadian travel surveys and border crossing administrative data to get us a decent look at overnight stays. So it is that we get overnight stayer data for Vancouver!

Let’s look at where people are visiting Metro Vancouver from. The Tourism Vancouver data has an interesting selection of countries available, with special breakdowns for Canada and the USA. More than a quarter of all overnight stays in Metro Vancouver are trips from elsewhere in British Columbia. Another quarter plus of trips arrive from elsewhere in Canada, with Ontario and Alberta leading the way. The USA accounts for just under a quarter of overnight visits. Altogether, Canada and the USA account for over 8 million of the roughly 10 million visits. Most American visitors to Metro Vancouver arrive from nearby neighbours down the Pacific Coast (WA, OR, CA), which together account for over half of travel from the USA. About as many people visit from all of Mexico as from nearby Oregon (140k).

Overnight1

Of the slightly less than two million international visitors from beyond NAFTA borders, a little over half arrive from Asian/Pacific countries, with most of the remainder from Europe. China, the UK, and Australia, Japan, India, and Germany each accounted for more than 100k visitors in 2019, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan not far behind. Let’s put all these flows together on a map (click for interactive access).

Overnight1a

Of some concern, lots of the places identified above have had recent outbreaks of Coronavirus. We’re still in early days of tracking the virus. And we know it’s already having major effects on travel. But can we look at current prevalence estimates and recent travel patterns to give some insights into crude vector risks for Metro Vancouver? Maybe. It’s worth keeping in mind that everything is still pretty much up in the air in terms of what we know!

First let’s look at up-to-date active confirmed Coronavirus cases drawing on data collected at Johns Hopkins.

Overnight2

Wuhan, of course, appears as the centre of the outbreak, and Hubei Province in China contains most of the active confirmed cases to date (as of March 03, 2020!) The number of cases is important to track, obviously, and the starting point for healthcare workers and epidemiologists alike. But focusing on these numbers can provide a misleading impression of how widespread the Coronavirus has become. So let’s come up with a crude estimate of prevalence instead of case numbers. Here we’re going to use active confirmed cases as our starting point. Another option is to track all confirmed cases, including those who have recovered (no longer testing positive) or died from coronavirus. But active confirmed cases might arguably give us a better sense of current spread.

We can plot the evolving nature of active confirmed cases in terms of prevalence estimates across places, effectively dividing total number of active confirmed cases by population for our data reported so far. Setting this to motion, we can track outbreaks by prevalence across time. Even just looking at active confirmed cases, we get a sense that recorded prevalence has recently stopped climbing for Hubei province. Meanwhile, outbreaks in South Korea, Iran, Hong Kong, and the nearby state of Washington continue to grow. Also worth noting, some countries (e.g. South Korea) seem to have a better handle on testing the virus, providing better confidence in their numbers. The numbers coming out of other locales (Iran and the USA) seem far less reliable, either because of inconsistent testing, untrustworthy reporting by officials, or both. This sets a real limit on what we can know so far.

overnight3

Overall it needs to be stressed that – given the numbers we have so far – the prevalence of coronavirus is still very low. Even in Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak, not much more than a single active confirmed case per thousand people has been confirmed. Comparing locations of cases to surrounding populations, most places around with the world with outbreaks still see only about one active confirmed case per hundred thousand people. Even setting aside the hyper-cautious mood around the world and its effects on travel, if you met a visitor from one of these places in Metro Vancouver, fairly unlikely that they would be a carrier. There’s little reason to be scared of individual travellers!

But what about travel patterns writ large? Surely even if any individual presents a very low risk as a vector, by sheer number, the masses of people travelling through Vancouver from places with coronavirus outbreaks represent a risk. Indeed, that’s how the coronavirus has spread so far. We can very crudely estimate this risk by setting a base likelihood that each individual traveller from a given outbreak location is coronavirus-free (1 – cases / population). In other words, we might use currently active confirmed cases as our measure of prevalence, estimating we can be 99.99975% certain that a given traveller from Washington State will not be a carrier for coronavirus. But what if a LOT of people travel from Washington? Then we exponentiate 99.99975% by the number of visitors (126,493 for the first three months of 2019 as a proxy) to come up with an estimate that none of these travellers carry the virus (we really should be drawing without replacement here, but this is a good approximation), with the complement giving a rough estimate of at least one visitor being a carrier. This comes out at 27% using our current estimates. This only considers Washington residents travelling to Vancouver and still neglects Vancouver residents travelling to Washington and getting infected there. And it relies on current active confirmed cases, it does not include active but not yet confirmed cases. And it assumes travel patterns similar to a year ago. Still, it provides us with a measure of vector risk to Metro Vancouver that combines risk of coronavirus with travel volumes.

Let’s run with this for recent coronavirus outbreak data based on travel volumes similar to past years – EXCEPT excluding cases from Hubei province in China after January 23rd (when the quarantine went in place). What does our crude evolving overnight travel vector risk look like?

overnight4

Here we can see rapidly changing vector possibilities. Conditions are changing fast! Still, it’s hard to know how much to trust these numbers. Given what we understand about testing at the moment, it’s likely we’re still overstating the risk from high quality testing locales (South Korea), as well as understating the risk from places where testing has been poor (Washington) and places where we don’t have any visitor data at all (Iran). We’re also missing current data on how travel is changing as well as data on where people from Metro Vancouver are traveling, which is a big deal given that most of our cases so far represent returned travelers from abroad.

Here is a still of the most recent snapshot as of the writing of this.

Overnight5

Upshot

So here are the big takeaways from our exercise: 1) Visitor data to Metro Vancouver is actually really interesting, even for those outside of the tourism business. 2) Don’t shun travelers from abroad! The likelihood of anyone you meet, even coming from an outbreak centre, being a carrier of coronavirus is very, very low. 3) The combination of travel patterns plus coronavirus prevalence gives us some interesting ways to model evolving vector risks in Metro Vancouver. 4) But it’s not clear how much we should trust our data. Travel patterns have surely altered, and we need better coronavirus testing fast, especially in places like Washington State.

Overall, integrating travel data with coronavirus data may, if nothing else, help people and agencies prepare and plan better. Practically any planning is better than some of the ad hoc decisions being made out there, as when American Airlines suspended its flights to Milan only after pilots refused to fly there. For most people, the important thing is to listen to local health agencies, like the BC Centre for Disease Control, wash your hands, and be kind to those around you, wherever they come from.

As usual, the code for the post is available on GitHub in case anyone wants to refine or adapt it for their own purposes.

 

UPDATE: For a look at how the professionals are joining international travel data to coronavirus data, see Gardner (et al) here (now unfortunately outdated!)

Mapping Vancouver’s 1907 Trolley Ride

A couple of weeks ago I took my urban sociology class on a tour of downtown Vancouver. We followed the route of the captivating film of downtown shot from the front of a trolley in 1907. The trolleys! The street life! The bicycles! The horse manure! Well worth a watch.*

Our tour began at UBC Robson, but then we joined up with the trolley film just outside of the former Hotel Vancouver, on Granville and Georgia. From there we proceeded down Granville toward the old Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Station, before turning right on Hastings. The trolley stayed on Hastings till Carrall, and so did we. Then, following the film, we jumped down to Carrall at Cordova, and come back Cordova until returning to the intersection of Cambie & Hastings. At that point we parted ways with the trolley film (which speeds off to parts of the West End), and made our way over to Chinatown.

I tracked down old fire insurance maps to accompany our tour, providing an overhead view of the route and its surroundings from roughly 1889, 1901, and 1920. These took a little work to assemble from the City of Vancouver Archives (1899 and 1910-1920) and the Collections Canada (1897-1901), but thankfully pretty much all of the pieces were there (see below)! Here’s the basic overview of the route in animated gif form, tracking through each year, with an overlay from 2020 tacked on at the end. A little crude in assembly, but wild fun!

blog_Animated_1907_Trolley_Route_1891-2020

The maps document how Vancouver grew from 1889 (three years after the City’s incorporation as well as the Great Fire that burned it all down!) through its early years up to 1920 (just after WWI and the great flu outbreak of 1918). A few big patterns are immediately evident. First, old Vancouver was still pretty sparse in 1889, and mostly centred around the old Gastown area (Carrall & Cordova above). By 1901, there were still large stretches of the trolley route relatively barren of buildings, but a booming decade ahead successfully built out the city, ending with a spectacular bust in 1913 (followed by a world war and the terrible flu year of 1918). Second, the CPR succeeded in pulling the young City of Vancouver westward toward the Hotel Vancouver (which it owned) and its sizable property holdings down Granville Street. Vancouver (a.k.a. “Terminal City”) was both the end of the line and the start of numerous speculative real estate fortunes. Third, as the city grew, its old buildings – especially its early shacks and dwellings – quickly made way for more substantial buildings. Before the advent of zoning, the urban core of the city was allowed to grow both upward and outward. Many of the buildings on the maps by 1920 remain in existence (and protected under heritage agreements) today.

Let’s zoom in a bit and follow the trolley along for a little e-tour…

Trolley-1907-1920-overlay

I’ve added flags for some of the fun things to see in the 1907 trolley movie, as well as the 1910-1920 Goad’s map I’ve used as an underlay. In the description below, I’m also timestamping (x.xx) some of the sites in the film. We start outside the Second Hotel Vancouver (5.15), at the end of a block I’ve examined in-depth before! From there we pass the Hudson’s Bay store (still there!) Then I highlight some of the off-Granville features of the map, including the old houses along Howe and Richards streets. Of course many of these houses were actually side-by-side semi-detached houses. Not far away were townhouses, cabins, and an array of other kinds of housing. Rooming houses were also popular, and hotels were not neatly distinguished from apartment buildings. So it is that the Hotel Badminton (on the 1901 map) becomes the Badminton Apartments by 1920. Once surrounded by other churches, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Cathedral remains downtown. My first foray into old fire insurance maps took place across Dunsmuir, when I examined historical change in the blocks near Cathedral Square. Next we pass the old turretted Bank of Montreal building (5.32) and then we scoot the map northeastward.

[see Vancouver Archives Goad’s Map: Plate 18 ; Plate 16]

Now the Gothic old Second CPR Station is visible at the end of Granville St. It doesn’t show up on the map from 1920 because it was torn down around 1915, when the new Waterfront Station was built nearby. Before we get there, we pass the Sun Ban Japanese store (5.48), the sign visible in 1907 (colourized-photo from image #4 here). Not far away was the Japanese consulate, showing up on the 1901 map, and indicative of the strong trans-Pacific ties that characterized Vancouver’s early days. The beautiful old post office building from 1905 sits at the corner of Granville and Hastings, and that’s where we turn Eastward on Hastings, swinging around the Birks Clock (5.58), back in action today!

[see Vancouver Archives Goad’s Map: Plate 16 ; Plate 3]

Heading down Hastings, we move into a heavy banking district, passing the Molson’s Bank (6.24) on the left, and what would soon become the Union Bank on the right, now SFU’s Morris Wosk Centre. The streetscape is currently dominated by the Harbor Centre, looming over us as we scoot the map a little further Southeast. Just to highlight how much fun it is to zoom in on the high-resolution archival versions of these old maps, I highlight a few of the buildings off Pender & Homer. Look at those mixed uses! The Ellesmere Boarding House (in yellow) sits above mixed shops and offices. Across the street sits the Hartney Chambers (1909), containing printing, offices, and apartments on the 3rd floor. Behind are more offices, but also a billiards hall and an auctioneer space, with a dance hall above and a bowling alley below. Heading further down the street, Vancouver’s landmark Dominion Building wasn’t yet built in 1907. Instead we pass a drug store connected to an arcade (6.54) before Hastings swings left at Cambie. There’s also no Victory Square across the street, because there had as of yet been no victory in WWI. instead the space was known as Government Square, and contained the old court house (before it moved over to Robson Square, near where we began).

[see Vancouver Archives Goad’s Map: Plate 3 ; Plate 4 ; Plate 5]

As we follow the turn in Hastings Street, we get a fabulous view of some of the signs and storefronts ahead, including an advertisement for the “Dominion of Canada Assay Office” where precious metals could be tested for purity – hello BC Mining history! We see storefronts for the Vancouver Rubber Company, Westinghouse, and The Province Printing services (7.05). Across the street, though we don’t get a good look at it, is the Flack Block, recently restored (and currently containing baked goods favourite PureBread). Beyond we pass the famous Woodwards Department Store (1903), recently redeveloped as the giant Woodwards complex (2010) (7.22)! From there we pass through a vibrant block (that would eventually host Save-On Meats) capped off by the B.C. Electric Railway Company Terminal at Hastings and Carrall (7.35) – home of the trolley hosting our film. We get a fine glimpse of the brand new turretted Woods Hotel (1906) at the right, recently renovated as the Pennsylvania Hotel, and run by the Portland Hotel Society. We also get a view of more old street advertisements, including for “Knowlton Drugs and Seeds” and “Wo Sang, Merchant Tailor” (7.57). Wo Sang’s shop had ten employees and cleared $18,000 in annual receipts in 1907, as recorded in data collected by William McKenzie Lyon assessing the damages wrought by the anti-Asian riots of September 8th, which occurred about four months after our trolley tour. Chinatown, which shut down for six days after the riots, lay mostly to the right (south) of Hastings.* A glimpse down Hastings beyond Carrall reveals the dome of the Carnegie Library (1903) & Community Centre, near the former site of City Hall, and the spire of the First Presbyterian Church beyond. But we go no further. Instead we jump to Carrall and Cordova, aboard a trolley heading the other way!

[see Vancouver Archives Goad’s Map: Plate 5 ; Plate 6 ; Plate 7]

Heading first up Cordova (8.05), we can see the prominent signage for the Woods Hotel (on the left), as well as the Rainier Cafe & Hotel (on the right), which we sweep around to face as we turn right onto Cordova. It’s still there, and like the former Woods Hotel is also now run by the Portland Hotel Society! As we cruise down Cordova, we get a glimpse of the New Fountain Hotel on the right (8.17). The facade still stands, and will be incorporated into the new building going up behind it.  A little further down we pass a Drug Store and cross Abbott past the first Hotel Metropole on the left (8.31). The old Metropole’s lot would be taken over by the old Woodwards Department Store’s expansion in 1924, and the Metropole would subsequently move across the street to the former Traveler’s Hotel. At the end of the block, we catch sight of the prominent advertising for Cascade Beer, “The BEER without a PEER.” Finally we turn the corner onto Cambie, heading back toward Hastings. Here the advertising for Herman House Co. Real Estate (9.02) becomes especially prominent (you can find them in this searchable old Henderson’s Vancouver directory from 1907!), reminding us that real estate has always been at the heart of Vancouver’s history.

Speaking of which, about six years after the 1907 Vancouver trolley ride, the remaining residents of the Squamish village of Sen̓áḵw, just across False Creek from downtown Vancouver, would be expelled from the city. Fast forward to the present, they’ve won some of that land back, and are moving forward with the most ambitious development Vancouver’s seen in decades, free from the City’s direct control. History keeps coming back.

I’m bookmarking all of the individual map panels assembled above here. Check ’em out for a much more detailed look at local history and change! And please pass along any other resources that might be out there! I’m looking to catch them all…

For Full Route, 1889, see Vancouver Archives Plan of Vancouver (Dakin Fire Map): Plate 8 ; Plate 7 ; Plate 1 ; Plate 2 ; Plate 3 ; Plate 4 ; Plate 11 ; Plate 6 (extra)

For Full Route, 1897-1901, see Collections Canada Insurance Plan of the City of Vancouver (Goad): Sheet 18 ; Sheet 16 ; Sheet 3 ; Sheet 4 ; Sheet 5 ; Sheet 6 ; Sheet 7 (extra) Sheet 17 (extra)

For Full Route, 1910-1920, see Vancouver Archives Goad’s Atlas Vol. 1: Plate 18 ; Plate 16 ; Plate 3 ; Plate 4 ; Plate 5 ; Plate 6 ; Plate 7 (extra) ; Plate 17 (extra)

If  you haven’t had enough of that 1907 film yet, check out this Vancouver Historical Society centennial celebration.

Thanks to the Vancouver Archives and Collections Canada for posting all of this stuff, and to the many other sites (e.g. Changing Vancouver) posting historical information. Yay History!

* Lots of versions of the 1907 film up on-line, but I like this one both cause it’s posted by Library and Archives Canada, and the pacing and clarity are pretty good. Scroll back to ride through Victoria and see some bridges!

** See Paul Yee’s extraordinarily useful UBC Master’s Thesis on “Chinese Business in Vancouver, 1886-1914” for details, esp. p. 40 & 134.

Keep On Moving

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

More results from the new Canadian Housing Survey dropped earlier this week! And they provide new insights into why Canadians move.

Last time we only got provincial results. Now we can break down reasons for the last move by metro area and current tenure, but this time around we looking at the last move no matter when it happend, as opposed to only considering moves in the past five years as in the previous data release. So the stats aren’t directly comparable to the numbers from the previous release. But as we’ll show, the trends are pretty similar.

First to the question guide. Lots of good stuff here, but we’re interested in the questions about peoples’ previous residence: “People move for a variety of reasons, either voluntary or non-voluntary. Why did you move from your previous dwelling?” Importantly, respondents are allowed to choose more than one, and only the respondent (rather than other household members) counts. Let’s look at the proportion of people selecting each reason for their last move by metro and by current tenure.

keepmoving-chs2-1

Overall the reasons for moving is fairly uniform across major metro areas, with generally positive housing moves explaining most moves, as we’ve noted before. Hence people move to “upgrade” their dwelling in size or quality; to “become a homeowner”; and to “be in a more desirable neighbourhood.” More ambiguous housing moves, including those to “reduce housing costs”, vie with family-related moves (“change in family size”; “form own household”; “be closer to family”) and work-related moves (“new job”; “reduce commute”) as explanations.

Separating by current tenure (did people move into a place they rent or a place they own), the stories are still pretty similar. The first big takeaway is that mobility is pretty normal and common, and most people move for positive reasons. But there are a couple of notable differences. Moving “to reduce housing cost” or “to reduce commute time” factor more into renter’s than into homeowner’s decisions to move.

Finally, there’s are two reasons for moving that seem unambiguously negative for those involved, reflecting “forced moves.” One set of “forced moves” occur due to “natural disasters and fires.” The other comes down to social causes: “Because you were forced to move by a landlord, a bank or other financial institution or the government.” This happens far more often to renters and far more often in Metro Vancouver.

This brings us to the second big takeaway. In terms of forced moves, Vancouver sticks out like a sore thumb.

keepmoving-chs2-2

While Vancouver stands out, the other CMAs and rural areas in BC follow closely behind. Exposure to socially forced moves (e.g. evictions) seems to reflect something province-wide. Like our provincial protections for renters (Residential Tenancies Act) and how they’re enforced (or not) by the RTB. Or like our profound lack of rental options overall (low vacancy rates coupled with sometimes predatory landlords). Or like our heavy reliance upon the least secure kinds of rental stock (basement suites and condominium rentals) within secondary rental markets and subject to landlords reclaiming for their own use.

The results we have so far may reflect past conditions rather than the present. After all, we’re looking at peoples’ last moves here, many of which occurred more than five years ago. But we’ve got lots to follow up on in future analyses. And hopefully further releases from the CHS will clarify just what mechanisms are at work driving outsized displacement in Metro Vancouver.

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

Who Lives in New Housing?

We see lots of new housing going up in high demand places like Metro Vancouver. But are people moving in to that new housing? Well… yes.

We know it can take a while for new housing to fill up (try watching the lights start to come on in a new tower at night). But we also know housing doesn’t tend to stay empty for long. How do we know this? Well, we can check into empty dwellings via census comparisons, we can draw upon electricity use data, we can look to new empty homes tax data, or we can look to even newer speculation and vacancy tax data. The story is pretty consistent. Very few dwellings remain empty, and even fewer (generally around one percent) without a decent explanation providing an exemption from our vacancy taxes.

So who lives in our new dwellings?

Generally the census provides our best information on residents. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have public-use micro census data from 2016 that includes the year in which buildings were constructed. But we DO have this data from the National Household Survey of 2011 (replacing the long-form census that year). So for 2011 we can separate out buildings constructed in the last five years (from 2006-2011). We can also break this down by major types of new housing built. Unfortunately this means setting aside most purpose-built rental apartments. When it comes to low-rise and high-rise apartment buildings, all we’ve got reliable data on are condos. But we can also look at the many single-family detached buildings constructed during this time period, as well as suited houses and rowhouses (both condo and non-condo).*

First let’s ask: Where did the people moving into newly constructed dwellings live before they were built?

NewHousing1

Nifty. Most of the people moving into new housing between 2006 and 2011 already lived in Metro Vancouver before their move, either in the same municipality or a different municipality within the region (colored green here). So new housing is mostly serving locals first and foremost. No surprise given that most moves are local moves. A much smaller proportion of people moved from outside of Metro Vancouver, some from elsewhere in BC, some from another province, and some from outside of Canada (in blues and purple). Yay for Gateway Vancouver!**

So what would’ve happened if this new housing hadn’t been built? Where would these people have lived instead? Maybe they would have lived in the old housing that the new housing replaced, especially in the case of single-detached houses, where new often simply replaces old, just at a higher price and quality. But often new housing is built more densely, enabling more people to share the same parcel of land, as with condominium apartments and rowhouses. Without this new housing, would the people who moved in have left Metro Vancouver entirely? That’s unlikely. Instead, they would have competed with everyone else trying to move into older housing. And because those moving into newer housing tend to have higher incomes than those moving into older housing, families further down the income ladder likely would’ve been pushed out. We can demonstrate differences in market position by comparing adjusted after-tax family income decile distributions. That’s a long way of saying, how do “economic” families rank in incomes compared to other families (here including non-family households), in particular, how do those moving into new housing compare to those moving into older housing?

 

NewHousing2a

As suspected, those moving into newer dwellings tend to be of higher income ranks than those moving into older dwellings, just as those moving into condos tend to be of higher income ranks than those moving into non-condo apartments and rowhouses. Without new dwellings, these movers don’t go away. Instead they join the competition for older housing stock, where they tend to push out those further down the income ladder who might be attempting to move at the same time. In some cases, they may directly displace families who didn’t plan on becoming movers, as when buyers claim tenanted condos and secondary suites for their own use.***

Finally, let’s visualize who might be living in new housing a bit more by giving them some ages.

NewHousing3

Are there children involved? You bet there are. Add any of the kinds of dwelling tracked here, and you’ll also be providing homes for kids (in green). That said, condo apartments, both low-rise and high-rise, tend to house more young adults (in blue) and retirees (in yellow). All kinds of households need places to live, including the lower-income households likely displaced when we stop adding new housing. So when you see someone make a claim like:

There is no point to housing construction in Metro Vancouver. It’s almost all unaffordable & it’s being sold overseas where the market price gets set…

Remember that the data we have suggests this is wrong on basically every count. The details of what new housing replaces matter, as does whether the new housing includes condos, purpose-built rental, or non-market social housing. But when we build housing in a place like Vancouver, it gets lived in. In general construction of new and denser forms of housing does double duty, giving real people real places to live and protecting lower-income folks from getting displaced.

 

*- I dropped new building types where I had less than 10,000 estimated dwellers for data quality issues.

**- Some people show up as non-movers, meaning they probably moved into their new dwelling in the window in 2006, just after it was built, but before triggering a move recorded in the last five years from the date of the census. Or they just misreported, which also happens!

***- Always important to remember both that income and wealth are related, but different measures of market position, and that there is a lot of wealth collected here in Vancouver!

Property Tax Snacks

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

 

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

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

prop-tax-1

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

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

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

vancouver_price_tax

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

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

 

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

Fun with Real Estate Wealth

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

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

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

Real-Estate-Wealth-Canada-Qs

Real-Estate-Wealth-YVR-Qs

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

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

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

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

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

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

GranvilleStrip-1889

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

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

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

GranvilleStrip-1897

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

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

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

GranvilleStrip-1910

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

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

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

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

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

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

Granville-Robson-1889-1920

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

What did this stretch look like back in the day?

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

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

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

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

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

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