Basement Confidential: Vancouver’s Informal Housing Stock

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

Informal housing

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

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

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

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

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

The size of Vancouver’s informal secondary suite market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The formal portion of secondary suite housing

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

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

New suites

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visualizing Gateway Cities: Breathable BC

I’ve been playing around with visuals to help get across how Vancouver acts as a gateway for the rest of BC. I’ve been meaning to do this for awhile. But I was recently inspired anew by a) a good article on Metro Vancouver’s updates to projected population growth through 2050, and b) the fact that I really should be finishing my grading.

The CBC article by Maryse Zeidler, kicked off the discussion of Metro Vancouver’s growth projections by interviewing a recent immigrant, Melody Haskell, who decided upon moving to Metro Vancouver after a single visit (“I almost just wanted to stay after my original trip here. It was so beautiful”) and in conjunction with some basic human rights issues (“as a trans woman, she felt Metro Vancouver was far more tolerant than what she had experienced in the U.S.”). The latter rationale dovetails with my recent argument in favour of a Human Rights YIMBYism. Freedom of movement is a fundamental right, and cities are especially important for enabling rights to those marginalized elsewhere (I’ve spent enough time in Indiana to appreciate where Melody’s coming from). But I also want to come back to Melody’s exposure to Metro Vancouver, and how she wanted to stay after a single visit. Metro Vancouver’s growth projections will ultimately contribute to local housing policy decisions. And it’s tricky to do growth projections well insofar as housing is likely a major constraint on local growth. Lack of housing is probably keeping out many Melodies who might want to make a home for themselves in Vancouver as well as encouraging local residents to seek their fortune elsewhere. Should we add more?

My general take, based mostly in human rights, but also in a host of other reasons (e.g. it’s probably good for the environment!), is we should definitely be adding more housing in Metro Vancouver. But I think many in BC, especially outside Metro Vancouver, feel like the provincial government invests too much in the Metro area, channeling growth there, when they should instead spread investments and growth across our beautiful province. This assumes that Metro Vancouver competes with the rest of the province for growth, stealing it away from elsewhere. The alternative, of course, is that Metro Vancouver acts as a Gateway for growth, often absorbing it as a “first stop” but then directing it out toward the rest of the province. Once people arrive in Vancouver, they become exposed to the beauty of other parts of BC, and many will subsequently seek out and take opportunities to move somewhere else in the province.

The easiest way to examine this, of course, is to have a look at net intraprovincial migration flows. Is Metro Vancouver mostly on the receiving end, or the sending end of the rest of the province? The answer, of course, is sending: Metro Vancouver leaks people to the rest of the province like you wouldn’t believe. It’s been doing so at least since the area became a principal gateway for staging mining expeditions up the Fraser River during the gold rush in the second half of the 19th Century.

Concerning present-day patterns, here’s a very simple schematic attempting to illustrate Vancouver’s Gateway role into BC using 2018-2019 components of population change estimates from Statistics Canada (StatCan 17-10-0136-01).

Of course, I couldn’t leave well enough alone. So I went and gathered all the components of change estimated since the last census (2016) and set them to an animated GIF alongside (and matched to) estimates of population (StatCan 17-10-0135-01). I’m still mostly interested in Metro Vancouver’s Gateway role here, but I wanted to place intraprovincial migration in context of other components of population change, showing how each contributes to growth (or decline). I start with migration from outside BC, international to the left and net interprovincial to the right. Note the table I’m using here doesn’t break down net interprovincial migration into its component streams, which is a shame, but you can see more of my attempts to visualize flows including component streams (or Metro Flows) in a different post. Next I turn to births and deaths and their joint effect on what demographers sometimes call “natural growth.” Finally I add in net intraprovincial growth. These components of population change are all taking place simultaneously, but I pull them apart here to demonstrate their independent effects on population change, and also because I think it’s cool to make it look a little like BC is breathing.

click image to blow up

Most international migration to BC flows through Metro Vancouver. It’s Canada’s Gateway to the Pacific, and accounts for most of Vancouver’s growth. But a smaller stream of international migration also flows to other parts of BC. Nevertheless, the rest of BC gets more growth than Metro Vancouver from interprovincial migration (e.g. all those folks from Alberta who retire to Vancouver Island). Metro Vancouver’s growth is further bolstered by local births – many the children of immigrants – exceeding local deaths. The reverse pattern holds for the rest of BC, where deaths now exceed births, leading to population loss. Fortunately for the rest of BC, Metro Vancouver breathes new life into local populations through its massive net intraprovincial leakage of residents to the surrounding province.

Effectively migration from Metro Vancouver generally accounts for a little over one third of the growth of the rest of the province. That’s how Metro Vancouver operates as a Gateway specific to BC, as well as a broader Gateway to the rest of Canada.

What does this mean about provincial priorities? I think there’s ample reason to believe that investments in Metro Vancouver’s growth will contribute to growth across the province. The bigger the Gateway, the more people can move through! Flipping that around, constraints on Metro Vancouver’s growth will likely constrain growth across the rest of the province. Right now the scarcity of housing across Metro Vancouver is a problem for all kinds of reasons – and we should be welcoming a lot more Melodies – but local housing constraints are also likely limiting peoples’ exposure to the rest of BC. I think everywhere in the province has a stake in making Vancouver a bigger, more inclusive (and more sustainable) Gateway.

Virtual Vancouver Zoning Tour

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

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

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

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

Stop 1. 10th & Cambie

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

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

Stop 2. 12th & Cambie

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

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

Stop 3. 12th & Yukon

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

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

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

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

Stop 4. 10th & Yukon

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

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

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

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

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

Stop 5. Broadway & Yukon

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

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

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

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

Stop 6. 7th & Yukon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop 7. 7th & Cambie

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

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

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

Stop 8. 7th & Ash

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

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

Stop 9. 6th & Moberly

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

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

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

Stop 10. Sawcut & Greenchain

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

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

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

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

Industrial Strength Zombies: Vancouver Edition

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

The “real estate has swallowed Vancouver’s economy” zombie is back, with wild claims by a City Councillor that

“If you look at the long-form census data going back to 1986 every 5 years, […] we went from selling logs to selling real estate […], major shift from resource extraction to real estate property development and construction as the primary driver in the local economy.”

Here we want to try and put the zombie out of our misery (again!), but also use this moment to ask some interesting questions about Vancouver history and what we can get from the long-form census. Mostly what we get from the census, of course, is what people list as their jobs. We can use this to ask a series of questions, including:

Just how many people work in the real estate industry in Vancouver? Is it growing?

What about finance? Are we turning into a “Global City”?

Have these activities truly replaced selling logs (or other extractive industries) as the basis for Vancouver’s economy in terms of jobs?

How about manufacturing? Didn’t we used to make things?

What about retail? Or health care and social services? Are we mostly relegated to being a regional commerce and service centre for BC?

What about the “creative class”? Is it growing? And what even is that?

Before we get to that we should mention that there is another way to look at industries, instead of using the census to look at people and their jobs, we can look at money (GDP). There is no GDP data for small area units like municipalities within a CMA, but CMA level (and higher geographies) GDP data is available from StatCan and we have written extensively about the size of the Real Estate Industry in terms of GDP before.

But here, for jobs, we got some nice longitudinal data to answer these questions, looking at the Industrial classification of our workforce via Census running back to 1971! The biggest trick is making the industrial categories speak to our questions above and to one another across time. There were three major shifts in categories, going from SIC 1970 to SIC 1980 and finally to NAICS (and various refinements of NAICS, which are relatively minor). We can also break out interesting municipalities within Metro Vancouver. Here we’ll explore the City of Vancouver, Surrey (its largest suburb), Maple Ridge (an outlying working class suburb), and West Vancouver (its wealthiest suburb), providing some sense of geographic variation in the structuring of the labour force through time. Some of those city geographies changed through our timeframe, for consistency we will use 2016 census subdivision boundaries throughout.

Let’s start with an overview of our categories for each of the periods covering the major categories.

Let’s start to tackle the real estate question by examining two general groups: those engaged in building (construction), and those engaged in sales & leasing (real estate agents, managers, etc.). In 1971-1981, we get categories for “Construction Industries” and “Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate” so we can’t entirely pull out real estate. But this is a start. By 1986-1996, we still get “Construction” separated, but we pull “Real Estate operator and insurance agent” apart from “Finance and insurance.” From 2001-2016, we get consistent categories with “Construction” separated from “Real estate and rental and leasing.”

So let’s start with construction work.

Construction work looks either stable or cyclical, with low points in 1986 and 2001 rising to high points in 1981, 1991, and 2016. Of note, only in the outlying suburb of Maple Ridge do we see our most recent census year (2016) eclipsing previous high points in terms of construction labour force. This reflects a dearth in building through recent decades across much Metro Vancouver, leaving us with our present housing deficit. We’re only now approaching the levels of construction that were prominent in past cyclical peaks. In general, we can think of construction work as varying cyclically and geographically, but occupying about 5%-10% of the workforce.

What about the rest of the Real Estate Industry? All those realtors and property managers?

These folks are not as big a part of the workforce as the construction industry, occupying about 2%-3% of the workforce in most municipalities. This appears to be remarkably stable through the decades. But there’s one big exception, and that’s in West Vancouver. The metro’s ritziest suburb is the only one with more people engaged in the real estate industry than in the construction industry, with the former reaching up to 7% of the workforce.

What about Finance? This is often grouped in with Real Estate, but extends more broadly into banking. As we recall from above, Finance is mixed up with Insurance and Real Estate in 1971-1981, but separated into “Finance and Insurance” from 1986 onward. By some definitions, a rise in Financial occupations and related services helps differentiate the world’s “Global Cities” from the rest. Does Vancouver look like an emerging Global City? Let’s take a look…

If we’re a rising Global City, we appear to be getting there very slowly. Indeed, there’s not much change in Finance in the City of Vancouver proper, with a bit more evidence of a rise in the suburbs. Geographically, Finance generally tracks with Real Estate, occupying the most people in West Vancouver. But the peak Finance year there was in 2001, when Real Estate was at its nadir.

We can combine Finance back with Real Estate and Construction to get perhaps the most comprehensive look at what’s sometimes termed FIRE (Finance Insurance Real Estate) industries. This allows us to go back to our full time-line, from 1971-2016, though we should still be wary of changing definitions through the era.

Overall, we get the sense that even this widest possible categorization of the Real Estate related sector generally provides around 15% of our municipal jobs. Fewer in the City of Vancouver and more in West Vancouver. Vancouver and Surrey show a fairly stable share of jobs in these sectors, Maple Ridge and West Vancouver show an increasing trend. The reason for the variation is diverse, Surrey and Maple Ridge have more construction workers, West Vancouver is heavier in Finance.

Just to send the zombie home, let’s put this on a map. Here’s the full geographic distribution of Real Estate and Construction as a proportion of the labour force in each municipality. We start the map in 1986, where the quote above begins (and where many critics trace Vancouver’s turn toward real estate as arising after Expo 86). So let’s see how is started and how it’s going.

Overall the picture is… not much change. Definitely not in the City of Vancouver. Maple Ridge got more construction workers and West Vancouver got more high-end realtors. The tiny communities of Belcarra and Anmore traded places in seeing slightly higher proportions in the sector. But nowhere do we see real estate and construction as dominant. For a fully interactive map, head over here.

Huh. So did the quote above get it backward? Did we actually go from selling real estate to selling logs?

As it turns out, logging and forestry have been a very small part of Vancouver’s labour force for a long time. Indeed, in newer years this category is so small it gets lumped in with agriculture. In 1970, back when Maple Ridge remained at its most remote, it still only recorded just over 2% of its work force in the forestry industry.

But maybe we’re still extracting! What about mining? Mining makes up a similarly small portion of the labour market, and the consistent categorization makes for an easier way to track this through to the present.

Somewhat strikingly, the biggest proportion of the population engaged in mining is in West Vancouver, reaching all the way up to 1.5% in 2011. Are these rough-and-ready miners, back from working their tunnels? No. These are mostly mining executives, living in Vancouver’s swankiest suburb.

We can combine the above two industries with agriculture to get a fairly consistent picture of the combined categories through time, tracking SIC Divisions A, C, and D and NAICS 11 and 21. Together these speak to the “Staples” of the Canadian economy insofar as the country’s history has been linked to international trade. These industries have always been exceedingly small in Vancouver proper. But Surrey and Maple Ridge have seen marked declines as they’ve gradually shifted from more rural primary sites of timber and agriculture to more integrated positions as metropolitan suburbs. That said, even if the workforce remains small, the Agricultural Land Reserve insures agriculture continues to be a defining feature of the metropolitan landscape.

So if most of us are neither selling logs nor selling real estate, then what are we doing? Are we… making things? We’re certainly no Detroit or Hamilton, but the idea doesn’t seem too bizarre. After all, the rise of manufacturing drove the rise of big cities through the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. So let’s take a peek at manufacturing! Fortunately for us, it’s been pretty consistently defined since 1971. How’s it doing?

Woof! Back in 1971, manufacturing really had a claim in the region, accounting for more than one in five jobs in Surrey. It used to beat the Construction industry! But it’s declined precipitously – by roughly two-thirds – enabling the Construction industry to pull ahead. Hello North American de-industrialization!

So we don’t mostly sell real estate, we never mostly sold logs, and we don’t manufacture very much. What do we do? A big answer is Retail. Retail alone is nearly as large as Finance, Real Estate and Construction combined and surpasses Manufacturing. And it’s pretty evenly distributed across municipalities (even if it increasingly pays too little to get a place in West Vancouver).

What else do we do? We take care of people! Let’s have a look at Health Care and Social Services. Here we see a widespread rise over time across the Metro Region. Health and social services are now remarkably evenly distributed across our four exemplar municipalities.

Retail, health, and services are basic city functions, providing hubs for their surrounds. When it comes to more specialized services (e.g. Women’s and Children’s Hospital) Vancouver helps serve and take care of the entire province.

Finally, and perhaps trickiest to define, let’s briefly touch on the “Creative Class” as those often considered the drivers of our new, post-industrial economies. Popularized by Richard Florida, they’ve been understood as those “involved in the creation of new knowledge, or use of existing knowledge in new ways” (e.g. Cliffton 2008, p. 68). This is often defined rather loosely (those working in science, and maybe arts, and information and stuff) or via occupation. How could we think about it in terms of industry? Let’s smash together some things and see what happens. In our most recent era, 2001-2016, we can combine “Educational services” with “professional, scientific and technical services” as constitutive of a knowledge core with “Information and cultural industries” and “Arts, entertainment and recreation” as representing more of our aspirationally Bohemian, Hollywood North-type creativity. Unfortunately, back in the 1986-1996 period, we lose most of these categories, “Educational service” is there, but the rest is gone, probably absorbed into “Other services.” In 1971-1981, we don’t even get “Educational Service” broken out. What do we see across the Twenty-First Century so far? Is Vancouver increasingly creative?

Kind of! We can see a definite rise in the City of Vancouver itself, as well as in its largest suburb of Surrey. For Maple Ridge and West Vancouver, the historical patterns are less clear, but we get a real sense of geographic sorting. West Vancouver, in particular, seems to be a place that many of our “creative class” aspire to live. At least the ones that make money.

We note that in the City of Vancouver and in West Vancouver the creative class on it’s own clearly outperforms our widest possible categorization of the Real Estate related sector, whereas the situation is reversed in Surrey and Maple Ridge.

Overall, there is no evidence to support the zombie narrative that Vancouver once sold logs and now we sell real estate. Instead, we get the sense that Vancouver has a relatively diverse economy. It’s solidly backed by the supportive role in retail and services that the metropolis plays for the province as a whole. But its growth is arguably also supported by a rising “creative class” replacing older manufacturing jobs. Our industrial strength diversity leaves the region in a pretty good economic position. But adding a few more construction workers would really help with our housing shortage!

As usual, the code for this post is availabe on GitHub for anyone to reproduce and adaped. That data we used for this post is a custom tabulation that we have made use of before on several occasions that only covers the Vancouver and Toronto CMAs. Interested analysts can tweak the code to break out their own municipalities and industries.

Note

An earlier version of this post had a problem with graphs for multiple categories not stacking properly which has been fixed now. The previous version can be accessed in the GitHub version control.

Bartholomew’s Dot Destiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henderson’s Guide to Pandemic History

What will happen when the Pandemic ends?

Will pre-Pandemic patterns, like people moving to Vancouver, go back to normal? Or will small towns, far-flung suburbs, and rural areas see a boost at the expense of cities, reflecting perhaps a new aversion to density and/or embrace of the rise in telecommuting acceptability? (we’ve seen such speculation in certain corners of City Hall).

Or indeed, might we see the opposite? Will people flock to cities like Vancouver as we return to mobility (including newly amped up immigration along with outreach to Hong Kong) and enjoyment of all the urban pleasures we’ve given up during the pandemic?

It’s all speculation at this point. But it’s got me curious about the past. What happened after the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic? And here I struggle with two things: 1) there was a LOT going on during and prior to the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, making it hard to isolate any response, and 2) the census data skips right around the two key years, with timing gaps too large for zooming in.

I can’t fully fix the overlapping events (WWI, and prior to that a big speculative economic crash), but I can kind of get around some of the data limitations of the Census by playing with some historical data sources I’ve been meaning to give more attention, in particular, the brilliant collection of BC City Directories archived by the VPL, including especially Henderson’s City and Greater Vancouver Directories and Wrigley’s BC Directories.

First, a couple of quick notes about the 1918-1919 Pandemic, brought to you by Margaret Andrews (1977) enlightening research in “Epidemic and Public Health: Influenza in Vancouver, 1918-1919” open access in BC Studies vol. 34. According to Andrews, the Pandemic hit Vancouver especially hard relative to other cities in Canada and the USA. It was also very different from today’s Pandemic in targeting mostly young and middle-aged adults.

At the same time, it was similar to today’s Pandemic in arriving across multiple waves, though the first (in 1918) took the greatest toll.

So what can we add by looking at City Guides? Well, we can compare them to Census results to get a more fine-grained sense of how the City responded to and potentially bounced back from the Pandemic of 1918-1919. The guides include, especially, the Henderson’s City of Vancouver Directories and related Wrigley’s Guides (which swallowed up Henderson’s in 1924), all providing listings of businesses (and households) across Greater Vancouver. I estimate the number of listings for each year, folding businesses and households together. While this isn’t a perfect match for population, or even households, it provides a relatively consistent method for a fine-grained look at how Greater Vancouver businesses and households together experienced the concentrated events piling up between census years (more details below!)

What’s our fine-grained examination of directory listings in combination with census data tell us? It appears we really do miss a lot with census data alone, especially between 1911 and 1921, where we saw a gigantic speculative bubble crash in 1913, followed by the Dominion’s entrance into WWI in 1914, and the Influenza Pandemic itself in 1918.

Where Census data from 1901, 1911, 1921, and 1931 make Vancouver’s growth look relatively steady and nearly linear, directory data demonstrate the enormous upset and losses of 1913-1915 in Vancouver, followed by a bottoming out and start at recovery during WWI (when many otherwise unemployed men went to fight in the war), finally interrupted by effective stasis during the Pandemic of 1918-1919. Then boom! Vancouver was off to the races again, climbing rapidly in listings from 1919-1923 and again (jumping different guides & methods) from 1924 seemingly only slowing a bit in 1926. From there, the trajectory of growth seemingly carried right through the beginnings of the Great Depression to 1931, when the next census was carried out.

Is past prelude? If so, Vancouver looks set to recover quite spectacularly from the Pandemic once it ends, as people flock back to the joys of the city. Maybe we’ll get our own Roaring 2020s!

But of course, for now we’re still here in the middle of the damn thing. So I’m still singing “Come On Vaccine.”

You know the tune…

APPENDIX

A couple quick methods notes for my beloved nerds. Historical census data was taken from Norbert MacDonald’s “Population Growth and Change in Seattle and Vancouver, 1880-1960” from Pacific Historical Review 39(3): 297-321 (unfortunately paywalled). MacDonald combines South Vancouver and Point Grey into the City of Vancouver boundaries for 1921, but I believe he considers the populations of these municipalities effectively too low to matter in earlier years. Henderson’s Directories were released on a yearly basis with a pretty standard, two column format, from 1905-1923, and seemingly covered all of Greater Vancouver during this time, with listings showing up in North Vancouver, New Westminster, and Burnaby, for instance (though North Vancouver was sometimes also reported separately). Ads were placed somewhat randomly within the text, rather than as full pages. In 1924, the Henderson directories were absorbed by Wrigley’s directories, using a new three column format (and smaller type) with interspersed full page ads. I attempted to estimate the listings for each year of these two different sources by gathering page numbers for alphabetized listings (of resident households and businesses) and multiplying by an estimate of the number of listings per page, excluding full page ads where possible. I estimated ~95 listings per page for Henderson’s and ~184 listings per page for Wrigley’s, based upon a quick count on what seemed representative pages (the second A listings), but this estimate could certainly use further checking.

Return to the Airport!

A couple of months ago I took the blog for a visit to the airport to check out historical passenger data and see what’s happened since COVID. Today I want to return, both to provide an update and to pull YVR Passenger data (enplaned & deplaned pdf) together with BC CDC Flight Exposure data (full pdf), providing a check on air travel’s contributions to spreading COVID.

First the update!

We can see that through August (last month of data available as of today), flights are still gradually rising toward a return to 2019 levels, but they’ve still got a loooong way to go. Mostly the rise has been led by domestic air travel within Canada. We can zoom in, looking at monthly passenger totals for 2020 as a percentage of passenger totals for 2019.

Sure enough, by the end of August we’re back up to over a quarter of the Domestic air travel from the same month in 2019. International flights still remain far below 2019 levels, with the biggest drop in Transborder trips between Vancouver and cities in the USA. Miscellaneous International trips that mostly cover Latin America and the Caribbean have seen a recent decline from slightly higher numbers in June and July. Passengers to and from Asia Pacific destinations never dropped as much as other international passengers and have bounced back a little, and passengers to Europe appeared to rise through July and August.

So how are we doing containing COVID exposures on these flights? The BC CDC lists exposures by flight number, origin and destination, and affected rows, and as of today includes exposures through September 30, though given lags in reporting it’s possible the September listings aren’t yet complete (none have yet been listed for October). Here I separate inbound and outbound flight exposures for Vancouver by Origin/Destination Stream roughly matching YVR categories (I remain less certain exactly how flights to and from Mexico fit in, and have included them here as Misc. Intl).

Overall, it’s clear that COVID exposures on flights have declined and then risen again with flights overall between March and August, with the pattern likely continuing into September (again, we don’t yet know if September data is complete and we don’t have YVR passenger data for September yet). Domestic exposures dominate flight exposures overall, especially the rise in August and September.

Finally, we can combine the two sources of data to provide a rough estimate of the inbound and outbound specific risks associated with exposures. How many exposures do we see per 100,000 passengers for different streams of travel? Here I’ve given outbound exposures negative values, and inbound exposures positive values, which tells us something about the direction COVID is traveling relative to YVR during exposure events on flights. I’ve proxied September passenger data with August passenger data to match with September exposure data, and I’ve dropped International Miscellaneous flights, which mostly involve flights to and from Mexico and harder for me to confidently link to passenger data.

A few takeaways:

  1. We get the sense that risks of exposures per 100,000 boardings are real, but generally pretty low, at least as discovered and reported by the BC CDC (where are there have been occasional transparency issues).
  2. We can also see that while most YVR related COVID exposures are happening on Domestic flights between Vancouver and other Canadian cities, the risks of exposure on these flights tend to be lower than the risks of exposure on inbound international flights.
  3. We get a peek at the gateway pattern by which international exposures tend to arrive at YVR from elsewhere, while YVR has tended, in recent months, to send more exposures to the rest of Canada than it receives from Domestic flights.
  4. Finally, while all inbound international travel remains risky relative to domestic travel, European and Transborder (USA) flights generally alternate the lead for most risk, with Asia Pacific flights trailing. That said scanning the international exposure data reveals that European and Transborder risks are generally diverse across cities, while most recent Asia Pacific exposures seem to relate specifically to flights to and from Delhi.

Big takeaway: the tentative and on-going return of air travel will likely continue to contribute to the on-going return of COVID infections, both Domestic and International. Air travel provides a key link between the rise in cases elsewhere and what happens here, potentially turning visitors into vectors. Definitely something to keep an eye on as we continue into Fall!

Vancouver’s Crime Pandemic! That wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s up with Arson?

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

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

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

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

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

*** UPDATE Nov 17, 2020 ***

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

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.

metro-van-migration-1

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%.

keeping-the-leavers-1

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.