Vancouver’s Crime Pandemic! That wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s up with Arson?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People move. And moving is actually kind of risky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping the Leavers

co-authored by Jens von Bergmann and cross-posted at mountainmath

Do people select cities from diverse alternatives? Or do cities select residents from diverse flows of people?

The answer is pretty much: both.

People can look around and consider where they want to end up. And cities, through municipal policies, can and do work to select their residents. EXCEPT cities can’t do this directly. At least across North America, cities generally aren’t allowed to establish and maintain their own immigration policies. When they try to do so, the courts shoot them down, because both Canada and the USA enshrine the right of people to move within their borders. Cities can’t stop them. But cities have a big role in deciding how much room to make for people. And they also generally get to decide what form any added room should take. Many, for instance, only allow the most expensive forms of new housing, like single-family detached on large lots, selecting for wealthier residents. So that’s how cities select their residents.

The fact that it’s a two-way selection process, with both people and cities doing the selecting, makes it quite difficult to forecast something like future housing needed to prepare for a city’s population growth. Yet this is what cities, including Vancouver, are often tasked with doing by way of justifying their policies.

One way of going about this is to argue that past population growth is our best estimate to forecast future housing demand. This is a bad argument on many levels as we have explained at length before. In expensive gateway cities, like Vancouver, this often gets accompanied by nativist notions that population growth is driven almost entirely by international migration as net domestic migration is small. But net estimates obscure the actual size of flows, where local and domestic movers predominate and make up the majority of those occupying new housing.

More troubling is the implicit logic that elevates domestic in-migrants over international in-migrants, providing only the former a legitimate claim to the place freed up by a domestic out-migrant. So far, freedom for movement in Canada extends to immigrants, as it should. And not all immigrants come from outside of Canada. Increasingly non-permanent residents turn into immigrants (including both of us!) This simply results in a drop in net non-permanent residents and an increase in immigrants in these stats, without anyone actually moving. This speaks to the complexity of how cities select their residents from diverse flows of people. A thought experiment might be helpful to better illuminate how it works in practice.

Creating room for people to stay

First let’s look at past population growth. BC Stats splits this up neatly into several sub-categories, which we can think of as flows.


Net population growth for Metro Vancouver has hovered around 28k people a year. But it’s not like this is a one-way flow, about 50k people leave Metro Vancouver every year and somewhere around 75k people come. Some people have a really hard time making room for newcomers. But maybe people are more sympathetic to people leaving. Of course many people leave Metro Vancouver for greener pastures, a better job, move for university or other personal reasons. But the “Leaving Vancouver” letters (practically a genre at this point) are testament that not all people moving away think of their moves in positive terms. Many feel squeezed out. People keep talking about friends that left because they could not find adequate housing in Vancouver.

So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that one out of five people moving out of Metro Vancouver to elsewhere in Canada really wanted to stay but could not make it work. And, of course, we already know that feeling “forced” to move is strikingly common in Vancouver, even for those who remain. So let’s say we are sympathetic to the people who leave town and would actually like to insure enough room for them to stay. What would that take?

That’s easy to check, all we need to do is reduce the size of the inter- and intra-provincial out-migrant buckets in the above graph by 20%.


The net effect is that fewer people would have been leaving Metro Vancouver, while the same people came. And our population growth went up by about 30%. Which means that we should have built 30% more housing than we did over the years to make that possible.

Now some readers will argue that that’s not how things work. If we had built 30% more housing, that does not mean that one in five of the people that moved would have gotten to stay. Some of that housing would have been taken up by people that wanted to move to Metro Vancouver but could not find adequate housing, but with more housing they could have made it work and would have out-bid some of those that were hoping to stay.

And with more housing available, some new households might be created that might otherwise not exist. Maybe someone will move out of their parents place earlier and take up one of those new units without adding to population growth at all. And in return one of the 1 in 5 people that had hoped to stay might still end up feeling forced to leave again.

And people arguing that are of course exactly right. That’s the point of this exercise, housing and population growth are endogenous. Which is kind of a fancy way of saying that people select cities from diverse alternatives AND that cities select residents from diverse flows of people.

Empty homes – the ultimate anti-housing red herring

Here in Vancouver, those resisting making room for more people to stay and arrive like to point toward a supposed mismatch of housing growth to household growth between 2001 and 2016, supposedly leaving lots of empty homes. This time window is of course chosen deliberately to include the change in census methods 2001-2006, and this talking point mostly goes away when properly accounting for that. To avoid adding homes people will still point to some vague notion of dwellings being left empty, even though we have better data on empty homes than ever before and there are very few problematic cases paying the Empty Homes Tax or Speculation and Vacancy Tax left in the region.

How should we do population projections?

So given the endogeneity issues: how should we be doing future population projections? In high demand areas like Metro Vancouver we should start from housing growth. That’s what cities can control. How many condos will be built? How many rental homes? How many non-market homes? How many infill homes? And given a scenario of housing growth, we can model what population growth might look like. How many people would move here from elsewhere in BC? How many from elsewhere in Canada? How many from outside the country? How many people would move away? It’s not an exact science, but demographers can build decent models once we know how much housing is being built and how cities are trying to select their residents. And the public can look at different scenarios of housing growth and the resulting scenarios of population change and use that to have a more informed discussion about where they want the city to go as well as who they want to enable to stay.

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

Let’s Visit the Airport!

So, what’s happening at the airport these days?

Here in Vancouver (or more specifically, Richmond), I discovered that YVR actually posts some of their data. This is great! I’m going to look at their recent passenger data to get a sense of two things. First, how much air travel into and through Vancouver has grown in recent years. Hello globalization! Second, how much air travel into and through Vancouver has shrunk in recent months. Hi there world-wide pandemic!

Let’s take a look, first at annual data, which YVR has posted from 1992 on. Of note, this series begins just YVR completed its international terminal expansion in 1996. Also, the series starts after Vancouver’s first global party event (Expo 86), but before its second (2010 Olympics), both of which are mentioned in YVR’s declarative history of the airport.


The data cover all “enplaned and deplaned” passengers, so everyone coming through YVR for air travel. They break down the passengers by domestic, transborder, and other international travel. From 1995 onward, they also helpfully break out Asia-Pacific and European passengers from other miscellaneous international. My working assumption is that passenger categories mostly mirror YVR’s organization of flight destination information, so that Domestic covers all flights within Canada, Transborder covers flights to the USA, Asia-Pacific covers flights to Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, and Australia, and Europe covers flights to the EU plus the UK. Misc. Intl. covers everyone else, but probably mostly picks up flights to Mexico and the Caribbean / Central America. Of note, there’s enough ambiguity in labeling that it’s possible flights to Mexico fit in the Transborder category instead, but I’ll assume we’re just talking about the immediate border there.

The big patterns are dramatic growth in passengers between 1992 and 2019. There are waves to the growth, which really seems to kick off in earnest with the expansion of the international terminal in 1996 before retracting a bit by 2003, then expanding in near linear fashion till the recession of 2009. From there, once again we’re back into a dramatic rise until… well… 2020. Where we don’t yet have full data, but needless to say, we expect we’ll see a drop. Once all the data’s in, we’ll probably end up somewhere back in 1992 territory. We’ll have a look at monthly data in a moment, but first let’s also point out two other patterns.

First, despite the name-check of the 2010 Olympics in airport marketing materials, we see no real evidence that 2010 was anything special for passenger traffic. It fits right about where we’d expect it to be on the ten-year rise between 2009 and 2019.

Second, the growth in passenger air travel through YVR has been widespread. It’s not driven by any one category of destination. But the rise of globalization is apparent. Domestic air travel between 1992 and 2019 more than doubled. But transborder travel nearly tripled and other international passengers nearly quadrupled over the same time period. Other international passenger travel is only broken down by Europe, Asian Pacific and other categories from 1995 on. Here we can see that the rise in Asian Pacific destinations leads international growth, but the growth remains widespread. Of note: seats for Hong Kong appear to be only the second most common destination outside of Canada, just behind seats for Los Angeles. Despite Hong Kong’s extensive ties to Vancouver, it’s hard to make out for certain any particular upswing in flights to the city surrounding its handover to China in 1998.

Back to the present! Let’s zoom in on 2019 to 2020:


There’s our pandemic effects! Normally February begins the climb back to summer travel highs. Instead, March saw a big drop with quarantine restrictions put in place, and the drop only got bigger in April. Since then there’s been a very modest recovery into May and June, which likely continued into July (data forthcoming). After a couple of months of quiet, I can certainly hear the jets back in the sky again. But they’re still not carrying very many passengers.

Here’s 2020 again, looking at percentage of 2019 monthly passenger data by category:

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun
Domestic 99% 102% 56% 4% 6% 13%
Trans-border 97% 96% 44% 1% 1% 2%
Asia Pacific 99% 76% 45% 5% 4% 7%
Europe 108% 108% 62% 2% 1% 1%
Misc. Int’l 113% 118% 62% 1% 2% 5%

We can see that the biggest recovery, so far, is in the Domestic category. Not surprising, given that the provinces have lifted most of their quarantines against travel within the country. Canada continues to impose a travel restrictions for other international travel. But the next biggest recovery is for flights between Vancouver and Asia Pacific, where COVID recoveries so far tend to look the strongest. Misc. Int’l flights, continue, but travel to the US and Europe remains almost non-existent. At least as of June (Europe began lifting travel restrictions in July). Of note, of course, we’re still experiencingair travel related exposures (h/t Jens).

Every decent human being is looking forward to the end of the pandemic. But do we want air travel to come roaring back to where it was? There are lots of things to think about, like the emissions associated with air travel. But there’s also little doubt that here in Terminal City, air travel is now how an enormous proportion of our visitors arrive and how many Vancouverites get around. So no matter what, it’s worth keeping an eye on the airport.

Lots for Sale

I’m currently enjoying Desmond Fitz-Gibbon’s Marketable Values: Inventing the Property Market in Modern Britain. It’s a fascinating book on how British real estate was transformed from estates granted and traded in private transactions bound by custom (think of landed nobility but also the Commons pre-enclosure) into something that could be bought and sold at auction and described in terms of a market, mostly over the course of the late 18th and 19th Centuries.

I was curious about this book for lots of reasons, not least because it seemed British property practices often spread to colonies, as in Canada. But as described by Fitz-Gibbon, this was actually a two-way street, and experiences in real estate at the peripheries of Empire also often informed practices back in England.

At any rate, the book and related projects have me re-examining the creation and marketing of properties here in Vancouver. Head on over to the Vancouver Archives and search for “lots” to have a look. We can see maps of surveyed properties to be sold and advertisements for the land that would become the City of Vancouver. Crucially, all of this property was created from unceded land claimed by the Crown in an enormous act of theft amid a series of pandemics spreading across BC’s First Nations. Locally, the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh held lands that were carved up into properties to be granted or sold by the Government of British Columbia.

Let’s take a look. The first lots for sale show up for the townsite of Granville in 1870, some 16 years prior to the (renamed) City of Vancouver’s incorporation (archival links: left, right). The lots, carved out of the government reserve, cover old Gastown between Carrall, Hastings, Cambie, and Water St. The latter remains mostly underwater in the map, but the surveyors imagined the future land that now extends beyond Water. Note the disregard for existing buildings outside of lot lines in the map! Several lots (circled) had already been sold or otherwise issued grants of ownership.



By 1886, the railroad had been promised to the City, and in turn, Vancouver had been promised to the railroad. The Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) obtained enormous land grants from the province in downtown Vancouver, extending south across False Creek, in exchange for establishing their western terminus in the City. They made similar deals with nearby land owners, obtaining every third lot in the West End (famously pre-empted by the Three Greenhorns) and other districts nearby. The land was quickly cleared of trees and sold off in a speculative frenzy. One of the fires used to clear the brush famously ended up burning the whole city down shortly after its incorporation. But the clearing had to continue apace in order to sell off all the new properties being subdivided and marketed abroad.


The maps above were printed using the same underlying survey and land subdivision plan, originally authored by CPR land commissioner Lauchlan Hamilton in 1887 (archival links: left, right), whose signature remains on each map (see more from Derek Hayes wonderful Historical Atlas of Vancouver). The more weathered map on the left is annotated and coloured to represent clearing status in 1887-1888, with lots in blue fully cleared, and lots in red just waiting the hauling off of lumber piles. On the right, the same underlying map has been turned into an international sales brochure by 1889, adding lots in Mount Pleasant and highlighting Vancouver’s location alongside travel lines and connections relative to Liverpool, Hong Kong, and Sydney.

The Provincial Government also got in on the sales, slowly releasing their own surveyed and subdivided holdings onto the market via auction. The lots auctioned below would ultimately become the Western third of Kitsilano, centred around McBride Park (archival links: left, right). Sales agents played up the advantageous location of subdivided lots and blocks within lot 540 near the CPR holdings, arguing that the CPR might install a port nearby.

Any Lot of Block not cross-lined on Map herewith, offered for Sale, WILL BE SOLD WITHOUT RESERVE – Adjoining this property the Canadian Pacific Railway Company have located their Docks, it being the nearest Ocean Shipping Point of Vancouver And the place Selected for the Commercial Traffic of the Trans-Pacific Fleet.

Joshua Davies, Auctioneer.




Instead, of course, the CPR subdivided and sold off most of the nearby holdings within their land grant as well. The size of the grant, visible above and comprising roughly a quarter of the present-day City, says a great deal about why Vancouver’s often referred to as a “Company Town.” The company was the CPR, and its business was primarily real estate  (see further discussion in Doug Harris’s great piece on “A Railway, A City, and the Public Regulation of Private Property: CPR v. City of Vancouver“).

By 1906, some provincially owned lots remained for sale in District Lot 540. These were auctioned off with other provincially owned lots available in Hastings Townsite to the east and South Vancouver to the south and west (marked in red on left map below). Of note: western portions of South Vancouver would secede to form Point Grey in 1908, before ultimately reuniting in the amalgamated City Vancouver in 1929 (archival links: left, right).


Provincially owned lots in the Hastings Townsite went up for auction again in 1909, as advertised in the map on the right. These were sold on the basis of their proximity to “important and extensive railway yards” associated with the Great Northern Railway and the prominent “99-foot” wide Renfrew Street. Times were given for transit options:

These lots can be reached on the 2:30 Great Northern Railway daily. After 1st April by the First Avenue B.C.E.R. cars, thence along Renfrew Street. Just here will be one of the most important suburban railway stations around the City. TERMS easy; one-fourth cash, BALANCE 6, 12, 18 and 24 months. INTEREST 7%.

Hastings Townsite would vote to amalgamate with the City of Vancouver in 1910. According to an advertisement for the vote in the Vancouver World (dug up by John Mackie):

At last women will have a voice in municipal affairs. On December 10th, if they are registered land owners, women will be able to cast a vote to say whether Hastings Townsite will be annexed by the City of Vancouver or not. In fact, everyone holding property in the said townsite will be given an opportunity. Anglo-Saxons, Orientals, Hindoos, and Africans alike, will be entitled to have a voice in such an important question.

Property ownership entitled owners to a vote in this particular municipal affair, potentially providing a voice to many groups, including most noted above, kept from voting by explicitly sexist and racist legislation at the time. Little wonder that immigrants and others facing discrimination have often devoted their energies toward purchasing property as soon as possible.

Of course, haters gonna hate. And exclusionary racists gonna discriminate by race. By 1927, the westernmost parts of Point Grey were subdivided and put up for sale. Westmount Park was advertised as The Subdivision Superb, an exclusive set of lots still tucked away North of 4th, just west of Blanca before the UBC Endowment Lands. Lots were sold not on the basis of nearby industry, but rather on beautiful views, nearness of beaches and golf courses and, perhaps most crucially, restrictions:

Realizing the necessity of guarding and conserving the character of the development of such a property as Westmount Park, the following restrictions have been placed on the sale of lots:

  1. For a period of 20 years, one residence only may be built on any one lot.
  2. No residence of a vale of less than $4,000 may be erected.
  3. No business or commercial building may be erected.
  4. No lots will or may be sold to Orientals.

In the Westmount subdivision we see covenants restricting properties to single-family residential uses directly tied up with classist and racist exclusion. A good reminder that real estate subdivision and sale simply left to the market was terrible at keeping out “undesirables.” The making of a truly exclusive neighbourhood required market restrictions and careful control over development. This particular version of “community not commodity” may have been quite useful to the exclusive agents at Orr-Hamilton Ltd. in selling the lots of Westmount Park (archival link to brochure below).


On a happier note, let’s turn our attention to a bonus map from the Archives. Here we see Kitsilano Indian Reserve No. 6 still set aside on a map of lots in Vancouver in use from 1935 to 1940. Quoting Doug Harris, this was a time period more than twenty years after “…the City and Province induced the Squamish residents to leave the reserve” in 1913, but before “it was formally surrendered” in 1947 (p. 10). We also see the right-of-way forced through by the CPR long before this time. The Squamish reached a multi-million dollar settlement over the shady circumstances of the surrender of the Indian Reserve in 1999. Coming full-circle back to the railroad, in 2002 the Squamish won back the land that had earlier been taken as a right-of-way by the CPR. Of course this win happened only after the CPR, true to form, attempted to sell the land for redevelopment.


So it is that the peculiarly shaped parcel of land pictured above – extending beneath and around the Burrard Bridge kind of like a big curvy triangle – was returned to the Squamish Nation (archival link). It’s now under development planning as Sen̓áḵw, a massive project aiming to create some 6,000 dwellings, largely much needed purpose-built rental, all tucked in around the Burrard Bridge. See detailed renderings here.

All in all, it’s way too easy to fall into the trap of naturalizing property as currently recognized on land titles in Vancouver. To forget how it was stolen in the midst of successive pandemics, marked off by survey line, written down on paper, then granted or sold off to the highest bidder. We need reminders. Which is one of many reasons to support the City of Vancouver Archives and all their wonderful digital imaging work. They’ve kept the receipts!

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.


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.


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.


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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.


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.


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).


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).


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.


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.


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?


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.



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!


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…


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.