Context for COVID-19 Mortality so far

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

Unfortunately, more and more people are dying due to COVID-19. We won’t know the full toll from COVID-19 for quite some time. But we can at least start to get a sense of its impact. One useful way of assessing the impact, of course, is just to plot deaths attributed to COVID-19. This highlights the real loss of human lives associated with outbreaks. But as any demographer can tell you, deaths are a normal part of life. Within a given population, we can reliably expect a certain number of deaths to occur over any given time period. So another way of visualizing COVID-19 deaths is also useful: How many deaths attribute to COVID-19 are occurring as compared to the deaths we would normally expect to occur?

Below we follow the rise in deaths attributed to COVID-19 through time relative to the expected number of deaths that likely would have occurred without COVID-19 during the same time. [UPDATE April 20: our newest post plots this on a weekly basis]




This visualization places deaths reported from COVID-19 in the context of expected deaths overall. This helps establish where we know the mortality toll has already been enormous. As of March 31, the end-point of the animation, Italy leads the overall count in deaths attributed to COVID-19. Here we can also report that in just over a month, Italy’s deaths so far attributed to COVID-19 already add more than 20% to its expected deaths. But Spain’s toll relative to its expected number of deaths is ever higher. In just over three weeks time, we can see that COVID-19 already accounts for more than a 30% rise over the deaths that would’ve been expected without COVID-19.




Unfortunately, most curves are still rising. So far. Initially curves grow exponentially, until aggressive containment or mitigation strategies flatten them. Curves that stabilize and flatten, or even begin to turn downward, reflect countries where deaths attributed to COVID-19 are being overtaken by deaths that might’ve been expected to occur anyway. Hopefully this reflects an outbreak coming increasingly under control – GOOD NEWS – rather than a data gap.

But the possibility for data gaps is very real. It will be quite awhile before we can properly estimate the overall toll from COVID-19. We already have preliminary data on deaths attributed to COVID-19 rolling in. But this data will be messy, excluding cases where COVID-19 was missed as a cause, despite being present, and possibly over-including cases where the cause was actually not COVID-19 (e.g. instead common influenza), or COVID-19 was present but the death should be attributed primarily to a different underlying condition claiming the life. Cause of death data is never clean to begin with. As COVID-19 overwhelms medical systems and coroners’ offices, we should fully expect that data quality will suffer further.

More concretely, COVID-19 deaths will show up in the mortality databases with code U07.1 or U07.2 in the current ICD-10 classification system (or RA01.0 and RA01.1 once ICD-11 comes into effect). But many will likely also get classifed as J11, J18 or J22. When the dust settles, we will have to check how these cases have evolved over time and estimate how many cases in 2020 (or late 2019 in the case of China) are likely misclassified COVID-19 cases.




We will also eventually get data about overall mortality. We will likely see deaths increase beyond those attributed directly to COVID-19. Deaths will rise both in response to complications introduced by COVID-19 in those with pre-existing conditions, and in response to people dying due to failure of overloaded medical systems to be able to respond to non COVID-19 cases they way they normally would. At the same time, some other non-COVID deaths may go down. This can happen when COVID-19 claims lives that otherwise might’ve been claimed by something else (e.g. an underlying condition). But it can also relate to deaths that don’t occur due to lockdown and the measures related to dealing with COVID-19. For instance, the regular toll of influenza may diminish in response to the lockdown targeted at Coronavirus (making it unclear what the “expected” baseline case count for 2020 should be). Similarly, fewer cars on the road will likely result in fewer deaths from car accidents. For references, see the most common causes of death in Canada in normal years here. A similar discussion of the eventual breakdown we’ll need in mortality data can be found in this demographer thread attempting to summarize some of this complexity via twitter feed.

The mortality data coming in bears watching, both in terms of COVID-19 attributed deaths and deaths overall. Some analysts (e.g. in Italy and Spain) as well as some China skeptics, are already drawing upon anecdotal mortality data to suggest that the toll from COVID-19 is far greater than revealed in the official data so far. These kinds of analyses are especially potent when applied to cities and regions as opposed to countries. But ultimately it will take years for demographers to sort this all out. In the meantime, we can at least get a rolling sense of COVID-19’s toll by looking at deaths attributed to Coronavirus relative to deaths otherwise expected based on past data from the same rough period of time.

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


Update (2020-04-06)

It’s been a week since we posted this, and things are changing fast with covid-19 related deaths increasing exponentially and background mortality estimates only increasing linearly with time. The traces in the animated GIF already highlight this, but here is a quick update of what the graph looks like using data from a week later.


And for completeness, here is the static graph with the latest available numbers.



BC Renters by Household Type & Need

Yesterday BC unrolled a quick support package for tenants and landlords affected by COVID-19 related job and income losses. In addition to an effective moratorium on evictions (yay!) and a rent freeze for the duration of the crisis, the province offered $500 going directly to landlords to offset rents for those with lost income. The measure appears to be aimed at preserving landlord incomes and landlord-tenant relationships even as the eviction moratorium temporarily boosts the bargaining power of tenants. Lots of details remain to be determined, including, apparently, whether the benefit applies per tenant or per unit.

Here I wanted to quickly toss out relatively recent figures for what renter households look like in BC, broken out by Core Housing Need. Data come from a quick run with Census Analyser (CHASS) for 2016.


Many renting households contain more than one income earner, likely making them reliant upon multiple incomes that might have been affected by COVID-related disruptions. If BC goes with a $500 benefit per unit (as opposed to per tenant), this may diminish the ability of multi-income households to make rent. On the other hand, together with the federal CREB benefits of $2000 per month for up to four months, and BC’s $1000 one-time benefit, households that have lost multiple earners will (eventually) be bringing in replacement income. In the meantime, they’re left to negotiate with landlords – who cannot evict them for nearly any reason – for the duration of the crisis.

If we look at renting households in core housing need (before the crisis), most were likely single-income earning households. Single-person households will do the same in the present crisis regardless of whether the $500 rental benefit applies per tenant or per unit. But a lot of renter households contain children and these are also over-represented in core housing needs. Notably, this included over half of all single-parent households in BC even before the COVID crisis. If the benefit applied per tenant and actually included children, it might go a long way toward diminishing the immediate crisis besetting many single parents. It might also assist couples with children, whether they’re reliant upon a single income or not.

More broadly, BC should probably consider targeting some relief at parents, who can no longer rely upon schools or daycares for childcare. But renters with children also face an additional housing burden insofar as their rents tend to be higher. After all, they’re often paying for extra room without the benefit of an extra income. The federal benefits flowing to households with multiple lost incomes will only apply once (if that) to single-parent households. BC should consider extra rent benefits for these households.

Of course, this was true before the COVID outbreak. More broadly, COVID-related policy in BC, and Canada as a whole, so far seems to be working toward putting in place hasty new patches to its old social safety net. This is a good start, but Canada also needs to patch the rips that were already there, which are being torn even further apart under the strain of the present crisis. Raise supports for children. Raise the disability rates. Put policies in place to insure that Canada’s right to housing is more than just a vague promise. If we’re all in this together – as we should be – then now’s the time to prove it by renewing the social contract for everyone. Let’s get to it.


UPDATE: Single person households make up a larger portion of renter households (above) than they contain in terms of total renters (below). Both are useful figures, but I earlier posted a figure with numbers based on total renters within households, rather than renter households. I’ve corrected the above to remain consistent with the language of households and avoid confusion. The slide based on total renters within household is now posted below.


Knock Knock Anybody Home?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The next part reads:

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

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



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

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



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

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



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

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

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

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


The next two whereas speak to revenue expectations.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Overnight Visitors and Crude Travel Vectors

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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



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

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

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


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

Wealth vs. Income

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

Wealth and income are different things. Wealth is measured in terms of assets minus debts at any given point in time. It can accumulate or deplete over a lifetime and across generations. By contrast, income represents some variation of how much money one makes over a given time period (usually a year). Most people get this on some level. But since both income and wealth deal with people and their money, the terms are also often used interchangeably. So it was that the CBC yesterday reported that “B.C. budget 2020 promises new tax on wealthy to help ensure future surpluses” despite the actual new tax being a tax on high-income individuals.

Here the difference matters for two reasons:

  1. it matters because wealthy people aren’t always high income, and high income people aren’t always wealthy, and
  2. it matters because a wealth tax is quite distinct from an income tax, and in this headline the two are blurred together (fortunately the article clarified).

With wealth taxes in the news (and in multiple Democrats’ platforms in the US), it’s important to separate out wealth taxes from income taxes. Here in Vancouver, as we’ve noted before, our property taxes actually do a pretty good job of taxing wealth.1

In this post we’ll focus on our first point: just how well do wealth and income line up together? Underneath this is also the question of how to measure wealth and what to include as income, we will just go with the standard definitions from StatCan’s Survey of Financial Security to answer this question for family net wealth and family income. The data allows us to divide up the Canadian population into equally sized quintiles (fifths) by net wealth and by income. What overlap do we see? The data also allows us to break out sub-areas of Canada, including the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairie provinces, and British Columbia. So let’s run those too!

First let’s look at how income quintiles break down by wealth quintiles, as assessed all across Canada. How many families in the lowest income bracket fit into each wealth bracket? Are they all the lowest wealth bracket? Nope.



We can see a clear relationship between wealth and income. But only about half of lowest income families in Canada fit into the lowest wealth category. The same is true on the other side of the distribution. Only about half of the highest income families fit into the wealthiest category. Moreover, there are wealthy (highest quintile) and poor (lowest quintile) households in each and every income quintile. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, there are clearly poor high income folks and wealthy low income folks. Not very many, but at any given point in time they definitely exist.

Let’s look at some of the provincial differences, remembering that we’re using Canada-wide quintiles. Looking at raw numbers, it’s quickly evident that some provinces (Quebec and Atlantic Canada) are disproportionately lower-income, while others (the Prairie provinces) tend toward higher income. Ontario and BC are more inbetween. Looking at what percentage of each income quintile fit in each wealth quintile by province, the general pattern of a correlation between wealth and income is evident in all provinces. But looking more carefully, a few differences jump out, especially between BC and the Prairies. In BC, each income quintile has a higher proportion of families in the top wealth quintile than one might expect – including the lowest income quintile: wealthy low income folks. In the Prairies, by contrast, each income quintile looks less wealthy than one might expect. In each case, despite the correlation between wealth and income, there are also people showing up in each category.

Flipping the chart around, we can look at how many families in the highest wealth bracket fit into each income bracket. Only about half of the wealthiest families in Canada are in the highest income quintile. There’s even greater diversity in BC, where only about 40% of the wealthiest are in the highest income quintile.


Let’s pull out BC from the rest of Canada and run the numbers matrix style. If there were a perfect correlation between income quintile and wealth quintile, then we’d see a bright diagonal line filled with 20% of families in each of the five diagonal cells, surrounded by twenty cells with 0% of families. If there were NO relationship between income quintile and wealth quintile, we’d see each of our twenty-five cells filled with roughly 4% of families. What we see is somewhere inbetween. For Canada as a whole, we see strong evidence of correlation at the margins (for highest and lowest quintiles), but the middle looks very mushy. For BC, we see a strong relationship between being in the top income quintile and the top wealth quintile. But everything else looks mushier than expected. In effect, BC stands out for its generally limited correspondence between wealth and income.


What throws off the relationship? Many peoples’ wealth represents savings over one or more lifetimes. So age matters, as does inheritance. Immigration can also affect patterns, with different results evidenced by program (e.g. investor), time in Canada, and wealth accrued in country of origin (Vancouver’s far from the only place where rapid escalation in prices have made millionaires of home owners). Asset inflation also matters, and BC’s rapid appreciation in real estate wealth surely plays a role in its weirdness. As a reminder, capital gains accruing to primary residence don’t show up in income statistics, but they definitely represent wealth. We could cap current exemptions on this enormous tax break for home owners, taxing these capital gains more like income. But we could also just levy an overall wealth tax. Returning to a theme, taxing wealth is distinct from taxing income.

All of which is to say: wealth and income are not the same thing. And it matters. Especially in BC!

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


  1. And our property taxes are still too low! [return]

Mapping Vancouver’s 1907 Trolley Ride

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep On Moving

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Who Lives in New Housing?

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

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

So who lives in our new dwellings?

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

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


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

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



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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Property Tax Snacks

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

Fun with Real Estate Wealth

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

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

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



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

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

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