Getting Educated about Working Class Whites

[Short Version: A university education is one part vaccine against lies and one part credential for entry into the middle class. Which part explains the split in the white Trump vote? Mostly the vaccination against lying part. So stop using education as a proxy for who’s in the working class!]

There have been a boatload of stories about how “working class whites” swung the US election in favor of Trump. Most of these stories, when you look at them closely, use educational divides to define class. So that:

White working class = non-Hispanic whites without university degrees

And indeed, evidence would seem to indicate that this group swung heavily toward Trump. The response, in many quarters, has been to imagine that white working class voters have been left behind in the de-industrializing economy of the USA. The vote for Trump was a vote to shake up the system, speaking of the pain and marginalization of disenfranchised factory workers and unemployed coal miners – especially in the American heartland. In more nuanced reporting, Trump voters are thought to share a “deep story” of resentment, directed at others “cutting in line” in pursuit of the American dream. (See Isaac Martin‘s thoughtful and critical review of this reporting). But let’s get back to some fundamental measurement issues. Since when was university education just about class, or class just about university education?

To be fair, universities have been selling themselves as the route to upward mobility (and/or maintenance of privilege) for a long time now. And we hear a lot about declining opportunities for those without university degrees, including in research on recent mortality trends. There is also great sociology that conflates these issues, if usually in nuanced form, as in Annette Lareau‘s very teachable Unequal Childhoods, where the big divide documented is labeled as class-based, but mostly concerns the interaction of primary schooling with different parenting styles for those with and without university educations.

Lareau’s work is nuanced and complicated in part because of how she studies education systems. These provide status and privilege directly, through credentialism, offering perhaps the clearest basis for thinking of universities as producing social classes. But Lareau shows how education systems also work in conjunction with distinct sets of parent-child interactions to inculcate particular habits. Some of these are about how to get authorities (like teachers) on your side. But others are more directly about how to use systems to gather and sort through information, as in doctor’s visits. Schools can help kids learn things, especially in conjunction with particular “classed” parental interventions. While Lareau studies elementary schools, the lesson should carry over into universities. In an ideal world (indeed, my ideal world!), university educations aren’t just about getting good jobs and reinforcing class divides. University educations are also about learning; about helping people sort through information. For instance, university educations may assist in discerning truth from lie.

To return to the 2016 presidential election: there’s been a lot of lying going on recently.

So what role did completing a university education play in the 2016 election? Was education primarily about white middle class winners from white working class losers, who correspondingly turned to Trump for their salvation? Or was the role of education primarily about sorting truth from lies?

Armed with the recently released ANES (American National Election Study) 2016 results, I think I can make a pretty strong case for the latter interpretation.

First, to establish some basic points:

Point 1) Education can not be reduced to class (nor vice-versa).

If only we could just ask people what class they belonged to! Then we wouldn’t need to use education as a proxy. ANES 2016 to the rescue! People get to (or are forced to) claim their own class identification. I’ve simplified education and self-assigned class categories (the latter drawing from combining pre- and post-election questions), to see how they fit together. Here’s what I get:

class-by-edu

There’s a definite relationship between education and self-assigned class, but it’s not at all a perfect fit. Most people make some choice between defining themselves as working class and middle class, although a few are willing to identify as lower or upper class. What’s striking is that within any given education category, you’ll find all four of these class self-identifications. There’s definitely a relationship, insofar as middle-class and upper-class identification rise with educational level, but there’s plenty of messiness, with a ton of people identifying themselves as middle class without a university degree.

But maybe this is all some kind of false consciousness? How about we run this again by pre-tax annual family income quartile and use that to assign class?

incquart-by-edu

Once again, we see a clear relationship between education and income-assigned class, but it’s far from determinative. In many ways, this is a better comparison, insofar as people aren’t forced to identify with a (culturally poorly defined) class divide between “working” and “middle” and there are a lot more people who fit into the top and bottom quartiles (the quartile cut-offs, for those who care, are $27.5k, $60k, and $100k). But in other ways it’s a worse comparison, insofar as it ignores self-identification as well as important distinctions in both partnership status (adding a dual income can easily move someone up a quartile) and geography (relative income varies a lot by place).

Still, I’ll mostly stick with income quartile assigned class to make a few further observations. After all, family income can tell us a lot about marginalization. If we’re concerned about a white working class that’s been left behind, it might be more important to measure the resources income brings directly rather than thinking of class as a cultural identification. But both could potentially tell us more about marginalization than education.

Home ownership is another marker of middle-class status for many people (hey! Read my book! Or one of many others out there making roughly the same point). So who’s left out of the middle-class in terms of home ownership? Let’s check via our education v. income splits:

renting-by-iq-edu

By and large, home ownership follows income rather than education. The lower your income quartile, the greater your likelihood of remaining a renter. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Mortgage lenders want to know your income and credit rating, but they really don’t care about your education. Indeed, there’s evidence from the recent past that lenders don’t necessarily want you to read the terms of your loan too closely. Education doesn’t track onto homeownership as a measure of class nearly as well as income. Let’s try a better measure of marginalization, tracking popular discourse about a white working class that’s been left behind. Who is most likely to be unemployed or disabled?

Unemp-by-iq-edu

People who are unemployed or disabled mostly show up in the bottom income quartile. There is a shallow relationship to education (more highly educated people look less likely to show up as unemployed or disabled), but it seems to me marginalization is overwhelmingly about being stuck in that bottom income quartile. Those are the people who have truly been left behind. But we might also measure people’s feelings of dissatisfaction with their lot in life more directly – at least in the ANES data, where they’re asked “how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?” Most people are actually pretty satisfied, so here I group together those who are unsatisfied and those just “slightly satisfied.”

disat-by-iq-edu

Lo and behold: here too I’m seeing mostly a relationship to income. Those in the bottom two quartiles are far more likely to be dissatisfied than those in the top two. To the extent there are relationships with education they look curvilinear, moving in different directions by  income quartile. A case could be made that people experience dissatisfaction both from marginalization in terms of their everyday resources, as well as in terms of the respect they feel their entitled to. I’ll set this aside for the moment to return to a central theme, education is a bad proxy for marginalization.

So if education is a bad proxy for social class insofar as we’re mostly talking about who’s getting (and feeling) marginalized in the USA, then what good IS education? And why does it so powerfully predict who voted for Trump? If we think of university educations not just in terms of the class credentials they provide, but also in terms of the skills at sorting through information we hope they provide, then we might imagine people who complete their university degrees are better at sorting lies from truth. Let’s test this. How does believing Barack Obama is Muslim breakdown by education and income quartile?

obama-by-iq-edu

Hey! Now THAT looks like an education effect! As a faculty member at a big university, this is somewhat heartening. Maybe with every class I teach, my students are actually getting better at telling truth from lie. It’s working, it’s working! On the other hand, I’m not seeing big or consistent income effects here. This isn’t a class story so much as it’s a truthiness in education story. Completing a university education, working through all of those core classes in addition to electives, can provide an inoculation, of sorts, against lying. We’ve developed an effective vaccine against con-men! It’s called the university! (Not 100% effective, I know, but not half-bad).

So how does education versus income quartile play out in predicting a vote for Trump among those who actually bothered to vote?

trump-by-iq-edu

Wow! There’s that education effect again!

Trump lies all the time. It’s pretty well documented. Those most likely to fall for the con are those least inoculated against it. This is not a straightforward story about the marginalization of the “white working class” (a story that always occludes the marginalization of everyone who isn’t white). Once you control for education in who voted for Trump, class effects either disappear, or actually turn back toward their “normal” alignment (more marginalized folks voting for more supportive candidates). Controlling for education, the unemployed and disabled tended to vote against Trump, as did renters. These election results were never about an uprising of the downtrodden (the dissatisfied on the other hand, tended to vote for Trump, which speaks perhaps to the more complicated relationship we might imagine between satisfaction in life and feelings of entitlement). Education was the big effect we saw in an election rife with misinformation – much of it weaponized against American democracy. Controlling for something as simple as people believing that “Obama is Muslim,” reduces the education effect considerably. The viral lies were effective once they got past our defenses.

So here’s a positive lesson from this election: if I sometimes doubted the value of my job prior to 2016, I can now rest a little easier. Universities aren’t just about reifying privilege, so it’s time to stop using degrees as a shortcut for talking about social class! And it’s time to take seriously what we’re doing in terms of helping people sort the truth from the lies. [In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s possible this whole post can be read as a pep talk to get myself to finish my grading…]

 

****************************************************************************

Here’s a full logistic regression model predicting a Trump vote, for those intrigued by such things:

stata-readout

I’ll readily admit that I’m a novice with ANES data – this is the first time I’ve played around it. I ran it through my old version of Stata 10. Happy to share my Stata code (as .pdf) Do-file-text

 

Where are babies made? – Metro Vancouver edition

I’ve been trying to track down good total fertility rates (TFRs) for Metro Vancouver for a while now, all part of a larger project of mine to better track demographic responses to housing (un)affordability. You can see powerpoint slides from my recent talk on this topic at the Pacific Housing Research Network (PHRN) and BCNPHA sponsored 2016 Housing Central conference. (PHRN has a call out now for abstract submissions to the 2017 conference!)

In my search for demographic responses, I’ve been playing around a lot with migration data, and I don’t yet really see much of a response to our housing affordability issues in terms of overall migration or age-specific rates. The millennials aren’t leaving. At least not yet – we’re still waiting on that 2016 Census data for confirmation! Also: there may be other types of out-migration we should be paying attention to.

But what about demographic responses to housing unaffordability in terms of fertility? Are people having fewer babies? Lots of people I talked with for my recent book described feeling housing constraints on their family plans. “Marlene,” a mother of one in Vancouver, spoke for many people who talked about feeling like they needed a house for their families. The expense of buying a house in Vancouver seemed nuts to Marlene compared to whenever she thought of her friends in her small, northern hometown:

They can afford more kids than I could. You know, I mean, they each get to have more than one child, because they can afford it. (p. 128)

But many other people told me they felt little in the way of housing constraints. They could envision parenting as many kids as they wanted just as well (or better) in a low-rise, townhouse, or high-rise as a big and now completely unaffordable single-family house.

As we all know, the price of detached properties has skyrocketed since roughly the turn of the millennium (though 2BR rents have remained more stable). So what’s happened with total fertility rates (TFRs) over the last seventeen odd years?

As it turns out, they’ve been remarkably stable.

The TFR, of course, is a measure of how many children a woman could expect to have in her life if she lived each year at the average age-specific risk of childbearing. Below is my summary of data I only recently tripped over from BC Stats. They don’t provide a single  Metro Vancouver TFR. Instead they provide separate TFR data based on births for each Local Health Area in BC. (see: Maps of Local Health Areas). Here are the historical TFRs for all the Local Health Areas for Metro Vancouver, plotted against TFR for the province as a whole in gray.

TFR-by-VanMetroHealthArea-1989-2015

What patterns jump out for me here?

  1. Mostly the provincial patterns match the Metro health area patterns. As a whole, Metro Vancouver’s average TFR is a little lower than British Columbia’s. I haven’t (yet) bothered to back-calculate Metro BC’s TFR from aggregating Local Health Areas (LHAs). But the bulk of LHA TFRs is below the provincial TFR in all years. Moreover, McDonald & Belanger (2016) have a lovely free-access paper out confirming this pattern, at least for 2011 data, where Metro Vancouver’s TFR is estimated at 1.35 – the lowest for a major metro area in Canada (BC is the lowest province).
  2. Childbearing patterns – overall – haven’t changed much since 2000. My read would suggest that fertility dropped through the 1990s, and has since held more or less steady, despite the extraordinary rise in the cost of single-family detached houses. In other words, while we have low fertility relative to the rest of Canada, it doesn’t seem to be responding much to the unaffordability of houses.
  3. The fertility gap between Local Health Areas in Vancouver has decreased. The highest fertility areas (Surrey, Langley, Maple Ridge, Delta) have come closer to the lowest fertility area (Vancouver-City Centre). Indeed, the TFR of Vancouver’s high-density urban core has risen while all others have dropped or remained more or less stable. I think this is further evidence for what I suggest in my book. Many urbanites are adapting to life without a house, and forming families accordingly. There are a lot more kids downtown than many planners expected!

I’ll wrap up here for now. Lots more fun to be had, but I sense I’m already packing in far too many acronyms (TFR, LHA, PHRN, BCNPHA) for my taste.

The power of stories

I’m a big reader, and I love fiction. When I began reading, as a kid, I mostly dove into fantasy and science fiction. These days, I read more broadly (I’m currently half way through Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth*), but I often return to fantasy and science fiction (NK Jemison’s The Fifth Season preceded Commonwealth on my nightstand, and was in turn preceded by Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death).

All of the above are highly recommended.

At some point I became a sociologist. And I’m sometimes struck, as a sociologist, by the limited attention we pay to stories. Take this line from Mario Small’s reflection on a small body of narrative theory in Villa Victoria (p. 71):

The theory suggests that individuals understand their lives as narratives with ongoing and complex plots and that they tend to act not necessarily when acts are rational but when the actions accord with such narratives.

Small draws upon three citations to establish this lovely claim, and before reading his book I’d never heard of any of them. I’ve tried to make similar reference to the importance of stories in my own work, especially insofar as they establish lines of action for people. But I think a lot more could be done with this. The power of stories is real.

Here’s the latest example, The Guardian’s piece on the attempts of a Russian oligarch to seriously work toward restoration of a Tsarist Monarchy. In the oligarch’s own words:

“When I was 14, I read two books which had a huge impact on me,” he recalled. One was the memoirs of a former tsarist officer who went on to publish an émigré newspaper in Argentina, while the other was Lord of the Rings. “The image of Aragorn returning to Gondor was my second image of monarchy. It also affected my monarchism,” he said.

There you go. A pretty good case for the power of stories. And also a pretty convincing case that we need more diverse and more creative fantasy!

 

*- I haven’t read the linked review of Commonwealth yet! Don’t want to spoil anything! But I’m really enjoying it so far.

Cascadia!

So here comes the Cascadia Urban Analytics Cooperative! A new cross-border initiative bringing together UBC with the University of Washington! I’ll be generally curious to see where this goes. The notion of Urban analytics, of course, would suggest some interest in urban issues. But so far, at least, there’s very little mention of anything involving urban studies, urban geography, urban sociology, planning, law, or social science of any sort. It’s early days, of course, but I’d be a bit more encouraged if I saw some mention that “urban” implied people living in cities, and we have some relevant expertise that might be worth tapping into!

In the meantime, here’s the four program lined up so far (quoting from the press release):

  • The Cascadia Data Science for Social Good (DSSG) Summer Program, which builds on the success of the DSSG program at the UW eScience Institute. The cooperative will coordinate a joint summer program for students across UW and UBC campuses where they work with faculty to create and incubate data-intensive research projects that have concrete benefits for urban communities. One past DSSG project analyzed data from Seattle’s regional transportation system – ORCA – to improve its effectiveness, particularly for low-income transit riders. Another project sought to improve food safety by text mining product reviews to identify unsafe products.
  • Cascadia Data Science for Social Good Scholar Symposium, which will foster innovation and collaboration by bringing together scholars from UBC and the UW involved in projects utilizing technology to advance the social good. The first symposium will be hosted at UW in 2017.
  • Sustained Research Partnerships designed to establish the Pacific Northwest as a centre of expertise and activity in urban analytics. The cooperative will support sustained research partnerships between UW and UBC researchers, providing technical expertise, stakeholder engagement and seed funding.
  • Responsible Data Management Systems and Services to ensure data integrity, security and usability. The cooperative will develop new software, systems and services to facilitate data management and analysis, as well as ensure projects adhere to best practices in fairness, accountability and transparency.

 

Down at the University of Washington, the new cooperative will be based at Urbanalytics, a University of Washington initiative drawing on “civic hackers” to think up creative solutions to making urban life better.They have a variety of affiliated projects, including one on “housing stability,” apparently led by a physicist and a neuroscientist. I’ve no doubt these are creative and clever people with lots of insight to offer. But as someone who works in housing – an extraordinarily complicated and policy-heavy field requiring a lot of local knowledge – I worry. Wouldn’t you want to add to your team, say, someone who actually knows something about, I don’t know… housing?

On the whole, it’s neat to see the efforts here, and there’s great potential (calling Jens Von Bergmann!) There’s also increasingly a lot of data to play around with, and data scientists have an important role to play. I just worry that brand new efforts to be socially responsible and make cities better won’t get very far without drawing upon the existing strengths of people who have been working toward those efforts for a long, long time.

 

Guess Who’s Coming to Vancouver?

Where are most immigrants to Metro Vancouver coming from?

If you answered: “China, of course” – then I’m willing to bet you’d be in the majority. But you’d also be wrong.

At no time in the last ten years has China ever accounted for most of Metro Vancouver’s immigration. But for nine of the last ten years, China has been the top sender. As of 2015, even that’s no longer true. China’s no longer #1. It’s not even #2.

According to data from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada compiled for Metro Vancouver, both the Philippines and India sent us more new immigrants in 2015. Here’s the data, part of the planning data library from Metro Vancouver :

metroimmigration-2015

Here I just highlighted all sending countries contributing an average of at least 1,000 new permanent residents a year across the past ten years where we have data (2006-2015). There are, of course, many other countries sending smaller numbers that collectively take us all the way up to the jagged gray line at the top of the chart in terms of total numbers of permanent residents landing every year. Graphically, it’s quite clear that China’s never accounted for the majority of immigrants to the area, and has now even lost its position as number one sender (even setting aside the thorny of question of whether to count Taiwan and Hong Kong as part of China).  In 2015, nearly 6,000 permanent residents landed as citizens of the Philippines, compared to just over 5,000 from India, and just over 4,000 from the Chinese Mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan combined.

I found an nice article from last year covering the relative decline in Chinese immigration as of 2014 figures in the Vancouver Sun. But that was before China dropped out of the #1 sending position. I have to admit, I’m surprised this hasn’t been a bigger story! But maybe that’s because I’ve been especially attuned to (and concerned by) the rhetoric concerning Chinese immigration and investment and its relationship to Vancouver housing.

Of course, regardless of what’s happening to immigration now, the influx of past immigrants has left a lasting impact on Vancouver. Chinese immigrants still constitute the largest grouping, by national origin, in the region. Of course, we don’t have our 2016 Census results broken down by immigration yet. But here’s a linguistic measure from 2011.

metro-linguisticdiversity-2011

Considered collectively, Chinese languages (Cantonese, Mandarin, and Chinese not otherwise specified) constituted the sole mother tongue of just over 14% of the population as of 2011. That’s a nice slice of the pie! But it’s just a slice. We actually have broader diversity in immigration across Metro Vancouver than is often recognized. (and not all of it is apparent from language, especially since the 6th and 7th largest sending countries – the US and the UK – tend to send English speakers).

If you build it, will they come?

Huzzah! Make way for the 2016 Census Data of Canada! New Population and Dwelling Count Data have been released. Here’s just some of the coverage by David P. Ball at Metro News. For maps of the new 2016 data, check out the reliably brilliant work of Jens Von Bergman at Censusmapper. Here’s one on population change. Here’s another on the percent of dwellings unoccupied by usual residents. And one more on population density!

I taught all day on Wednesday when the data came out (plus there were warnings about the coming snowpocalypse), so I mostly missed the media frenzy. But now that I’ve managed to get ahold of some of the data, it seems like a good time to start playing around with it. I’m going to start with Vancouver, of course.

Returning to the coverage by David Ball, one of the big themes is “if you build it, they will come.” In broad outline, this seems pretty true! Nearly all of the municipalities across Metro Vancouver built new housing and gained new population. The one exception was West Vancouver, which actually lost dwellings and correspondingly lost population. So far so good. But curious puzzles remain. For instance, the City of Vancouver actually added more new dwellings (just over 22,000) than the City of Surrey (just over 17,000), but the latter added more people. Why should that be? More specifically, just how many people should you expect to gain for every new dwelling you add?

A good starting point to answer this question would be average household size. Across Metro Vancouver as a whole, there is an average of about 2.6 persons per household. This average is pretty stable (it was about the same in 2011 as in 2016), but the average conceals considerable variation across municipalities, as detailed in the chart below.

census-2016-hhsize

Just looking at municipalities over 100,000 residents in size, Vancouver, in particular, has smaller households than most of the rest of the Metro Area. Surrey, on the other hand, tends to have bigger households. So if you build it, there’s not just one answer to the question of how many people you should expect will come! Existing household size provides an important part of the picture, providing some indication of both what kinds of households are already in a given location, and what kinds of dwellings have already been built.

But does this determine how many people you should expect from building more? In part this depends upon what kinds of households you’re attracting (singles, retirees, couples, young families, etc.) – are they similar to those already there? It also depends upon what kinds of dwellings are being constructed (studio suites, townhouses, etc.), are they more of what’s already been built?  It makes sense that Surrey, which tends to have a lot of families – many extended – living in a lot of single-family houses, has larger households on average than Vancouver. Vancouver is home to a more diverse set of households (made up of young hipsters, old retirees, etc.) and many a shoe-box apartment, meaning much smaller household sizes – not unusual for the central city in a metropolis.

So let’s see how our expectations based on current household size might match up to the number of new residents we can actually see arriving for every new dwelling added. How many people are showing up?

census-2016-hhsize-newpopdwell

Strikingly, nearly every big municipality fails to add as many people per new dwelling as might be expected! The District of Langley is the only one adding more, and Surrey comes pretty close. But otherwise we seem to be missing a lot of the people we should’ve expected. Why? One big reason, of course, is that not all dwellings get lived in at any one point in time. There are many reasons why this might be the case (as I’ve detailed in a previous post). But if new dwellings aren’t being occupied, then they don’t bring new people. Correspondingly, even if new dwellings are being occupied, but older dwellings are increasingly going empty, then growth won’t match expectations. Here’s where it’s worth noting that the City of Vancouver added about 22,169 new dwellings in the past five years, more than any other municipality. But Vancouver also had 25,502 dwellings that showed up as unoccupied in the 2016 Census. A lot more residents could’ve been housed!

So let’s look at the percentage of dwellings remaining unoccupied in 2016!

census-2016-unoccupied

There are big differences between municipalities in terms of unoccupied dwellings.Wherever the rates have gone up (Vancouver, Burnaby, Richmond, Coquitlam, Delta), that’s created a real drag on how many new people could be added per new dwelling. By contrast, municipalities where the proportion of homes left unoccupied has declined (Surrey, Langley), have received an extra boost in new residents per new dwelling!

It’s worth noting that it’s hard to say how many of these unoccupied dwellings will ultimately show up as “empty” and hence become subject to the City of Vancouver’s forthcoming “Empty Homes Tax,” but it appears there’s definitely some revenue waiting to be generated out there (or some new rentals waiting to enter the market, which would also be good!)

If we want to focus more specifically on whether newer households tend to look like older ones, we can look solely at new residents per new occupied dwellings. As demonstrated below, it still varies!  But it generally gets us closer to existing household size.  Outlying suburbs like Surrey, Langley District, and Delta, tend to add more people per new dwelling. Places generally moving toward greater density, like Vancouver, Burnaby, and Richmond, are adding fewer people per new dwelling – often because those new dwellings tend to be smaller (number of rooms matters!).

census-2016-newpopperoccup

So if you build it, will they come? YES! But you can’t always tell how many. Occupancy matters, as does what gets built and who can afford it (or who it attracts).

But there are other things happening too, like aging of existing households. If I get the time, I might move on to considering how background aging in neighbourhoods tends to influence their changing composition in future posts. LOTS of fun things to think about there.

Squat Teams

The Guardian reports on a team of squatters, the Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians (yes, that’s ANAL), and their takeover of a mansion in Central London, purchased and left empty by a Russian oligarch since 2014.  As noted by a representative of the team, which has repeatedly taken over empty mansions:

It is criminal that there are so many homeless people and at the same time so many empty buildings. Our occupation is highlighting this injustice.*

Squatting is an inherently political act, and here it’s also something of an art form. But this squat is temporary; more like performance art than marble carving. A possession order is scheduled to be heard in court on January 31st to take the mansion back for the oligarch.

So what does it take to make a squat last?

Turning to more familiar shores, the shacks below were built and inhabited by squatters on Stanley Park in Vancouver in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.

squatters-shacks-stanleypark

For a long time, squatters were a regular and visible feature of Vancouver. They can still be found if you know where to look, but outside of performance art squats, as with the Woodwards Squat, they’re largely forced into maintaining invisibility. Steve Borik’s tidy little tarp-shack set up on an empty lot along the Fraser River is a case in point. He was able to live there for months, nice and quiet, until transit police stumbled over his shack in 2015.

As a general rule, squats and squatter communities no longer seem to successfully establish themselves in the UK, the US, Canada, or Australia. There are exceptions (like Dignity Village in Portland, up and running at its present site since 2001). And there have also been attempts to revive squatting as a movement, especially after the wave of foreclosures associated with the Great Recession of 2008. But contrast these experiments with much longer-running squats elsewhere, like Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark. Or even better, look to informal settlements in Mexico City, Delhi, and a wide variety of other cities.

So what determines why squats last as living communities in some places, while appearing more like performance art in others? Is the English colonial and common-law system to blame for developing in such a way to squash squats flat as soon as they spring to life? Is there something about settler societies, founded upon enclosure, dispossession, and active ignorance of competing claims, that leads to especially vigorous state interventions to clarify ownership? Fun ideas for future research, especially in light of the forthcoming workshop on Property Law in the City at UBC’s Allard Law School.

 

*- It’s worth noting that on quick glance, both the numbers of homeless and the numbers of empty buildings in London appear to be low, adjusting for the size of the city, relative to places like Vancouver. Also: London (and England in general) has a lot more social housing!

 

Zoned for the Holidays

(here’s a little piece I originally wrote for the UBC Sociology Newsletter as a seasonally themed op-ed style essay)

What if we treated every day like a holiday? Imagine prioritizing time with family, over and over again; repeatedly enjoying travel at its most crowded; eating so much rich food that we practically burst; and buying so many expensive gifts that we drive ourselves into debt, every single day!

I suspect it would be awful, and I actually like my family! It would also be bad for democracy, bad for our health, and bad for the planet, not to mention absolutely unaffordable. Yet all across North America, this is pretty much the ideal behind how we’ve fashioned our cities, at least since the first half of the twentieth century. Insofar as it matters, we’re zoned for the holidays.

Zoning is the primary legal force behind the sprawl of single-family detached houses we see choking off the older, denser workaday urban cores of every major metropolis on the continent. Most people live in single-family residential zoned neighborhoods, which we might also think of as Great House Reserves. Nothing but houses, houses, and more houses is allowed across the majority of our metropolitan landscapes.

All those detached single-family houses prioritize privacy and focusing time on our families, or at least one particular version of our families, to the exclusion of sharing more public spaces with those around us. The more we live in houses, the less we tend to encounter people different from ourselves, diminishing our sense of obligation to others. What’s more, to get anywhere interesting, or even just to get to work, people who live in houses tend to first have to get past many other houses that look much like their own. So they drive on roads clogged with other drivers. And travel to work isn’t optional, because living in a house is really, really expensive. In many cases, zoning for houses has been used to keep out the poor on purpose. Yet we all pay for houses, even people who don’t live in them.  That’s because houses take up a lot of land and eat up a lot of energy, leading to all sorts of broadly shared environmental costs. And living in a house isn’t even very good for us! People tend to be healthier when they integrate walking or cycling into their daily lives, and to do that, it helps to have places to go.

Could we build our cities differently? Are we ready to stop treating every day like a holiday? One answer might be found in Vancouver, Canada’s third largest metropolis. Over the last fifty years, Vancouver has moved farther and faster away from reliance upon the single-family house than any other metro area in North America. Indeed, as residents will quickly confirm, no one except millionaires can afford a house in Vancouver any longer. How has this dramatic transformation affected the people who live here? Well, let’s start with how the city is regularly ranked the most livable on the continent.

If you’re skeptical of the rankings, try talking to some of the residents. As one middle class apartment dweller recently explained to me: “I can walk to the end of my street and there are probably, at a minimum, thirty ethnic restaurants within three minutes of my front door. I overlook the ocean. Access to transportation, to work, it’s so central. It doesn’t matter where I go, I’m in the middle of everything! And yet, I feel like I’m in a tiny little community. I know all the shopkeepers. I know all my neighbors. It’s like being in a small town, but living in the center of a huge city. I really feel like I have the best of all worlds.” Vancouver is proof that alternatives to the house can be made imminently livable for all types of families as well as for those living alone.

Despite the travel, the cost, and the occasional family fractiousness, the holidays can be nice. But treating every day like a holiday is a recipe for disaster. In much the same way, living in a house can also be pleasant.  But it’s only one way to live the good life. Vancouver demonstrates there are many more versions of the good life worth considering. By prioritizing only one kind of dwelling in how we zone, most metropolitan areas are severely constraining our options.  What’s more, they’re driving us toward the least socially just, least sustainable, least healthy, and least affordable lifestyle possible.  Maybe it’s time to reconsider and open up our options. Maybe we should start building our cities for everyday life instead of zoning for the holidays.

 

Detachment and Democracy

In my book I suggest that houses make poor habitat for democracy. The big argument here, I think, is that houses tend to prioritize control over private space. In so doing they generally encourage detachment from public life. Houses suggest we can cut ourselves and our families off from those around us rather than investing in ways of figuring out how to live together. The “single-family detached” house reifies the notion that the only ties that matter are those of kinship, cutting off our obligations to the broader social world. As I describe in my book, and as further detailed in the work of historians like Frykman & Löfgren (see their excellent book Culture Builders) and John Gillis, this was a strategic move on the part of a rising urban middle-class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Housing was meant to serve as both a stage for demonstrating moral worth and a sanctuary from the moral claims of others (the latter rendered obsolete by the extension of market governance).

In a broader sense, most houses are surrounded by other houses. That’s a legacy of zoning, of course. But it tends to insure that even when residents leave their housing, they don’t have many public places to go, and to the extent they bump into anyone, their encounters tend to be with people much like themselves.* As described by a variety of political theorists (from Susan Bickford to Thad Williamson to the wonderful Iris Marion Young), who we regularly run into influences who we think we need to take into account in our politics. In much the same way that getting our news through social media tends to provide us only a very partial picture of the world, surrounding ourselves with similar people does much the same, and tends to lead us toward intolerance of difference.

So too many houses is concerning for collective projects like democracy. On a related note, there is a very strong correlation (r=0.82) at the state-level between the proportion of structures made up of detached houses and the proportion of votes that went to Donald Trump. Here’s the scatterplot:

trumpvote2houses

Housing data come from Census (American Fact Finder) 2010-2014 ACS 5-year estimates. Vote data comes from USelectionatlas.org (thanks Dave Leip), and of course is subject to change – especially as recounts get under way! And yes, the correlation is still quite strong if you remove Washington DC (r=0.74) or drop mobile homes (r=0.76), bivariate analyses I’ve already tried (all are defensible variations on the theme). I haven’t run the analyses yet, but at the county level, you’d likely get similar results, if not stronger. More urbanized counties voted heavily for Clinton, as you can see mapped out here (and let’s not forget that she won the popular vote).

So did the USA build its way to Donald Trump? There’s a correlation and a plausible connection, fitting with an alarming streak of intolerance running through the Trump campaign. But there’s also Vermont and New Mexico (one of my home states!), clear outliers from the pattern. Other stories might be told as well and surely will be in the months to come, but this one’s definitely worth keeping in mind.**

 

*-that said, suburbs are getting more diverse! See, for example, Christopher Niedt’s book.

**-for instance the historical association between racism and zoning in the USA is also worth noting, with the persistence of racism possibly playing a role in both the way zoning has configured the housing stock and the 2016 vote (see, for instance, Dorceta Taylor’s work on some of these connections)…

Muckraking and Making Better

We have some fabulous muckrakers working in Vancouver journalism. For instance, this story about luxury resort living and tax loopholes on Agricultural Reserve Land is really important stuff. Kathy Tomlinson, Ian Young, and a host of other local journalists in the muckraker tradition are doing really great work exposing some of the corrupting practices we see – especially those concerning local real estate. The role of good muckraking journalism is especially important for holding politicians accountable and insuring we get regulations that work and are properly enforced.

At the same time, there’s a danger that only doing and paying attention to muckraking moves us toward cynicism. That we think everything is getting worse. Even more maddening: that we can’t do much to make it better. That everyone is corrupt. That all processes are poisoned. That the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

Lest we forget: this is basically the narrative that propelled Donald Trump’s campaign and rise to power in the USA.  And here’s the thing: it’s false.

By and large, the world has gotten better for people. It’s still getting better for most people, a little bit every day. That doesn’t make the news, but it’s what we see in the data. Here’s Hans Rosling, a big data guy, making the case. As a bonus, it’s in Swedish (my dissertation was on Sweden – I miss the sound of Swedish being spoken – but don’t worry, there are English subtitles!):

Other Hans Rosling videos, with more of the data visualizations he’s rightly famous for, can be found here, here and here.

To be sure, there are still problems (e.g., Global Warming, Social Inequality, etc.). But we should take heart in how much humanity has accomplished, and move forward in the spirit of doing even better. In many respects, I suppose that makes me a progressive.But it’s more than just a belief. It’s what’s in the data.

Progress is definitely the big story we see in terms of things like life expectancy. For most people, life has been getting longer and better. We shouldn’t lose sight of this. Watch Hans Rosling, or play around with publicly accessible population reference bureau data if you want big picture stuff.

How does this matter in Vancouver? I see the same general pattern whereby for most residents things are getting better. (For example, BC has the longest life expectancy in Canada. Rents aren’t terrible.[**] Though stubborn, Core Housing Need is down from the 1990s. And millennials are not fleeing the city or metro area in droves). To be sure, we still have problems, and muckraking helps expose these problems. But there’s a danger that if we only get muckraking, we start to think Vancouver is a terrible place to live and it will never get better. We see some evidence of this kind of negative storyline inflecting discussions with young people in Vancouver. This is why it’s important that even as we acknowledge the important role of muckraking, we also need to celebrate Vancouver’s many victories and everyday pleasantries and push back against the idea that it’s a hellhole.

Because it’s not. It’s a pretty nice place to live.

And we can keep making it better. For everyone.*

*This was more or less the theme of my talk on “What we see in the media and what we see in the data” at the BC Non-profit Housing Association meetings in Richmond today.

[** – UPDATE – though wouldn’t you know it, the latest CMHC report on rents hit the media four days after I posted, demonstrating a big, 6.4% jump in rents in the past year. Rats! On the bright side, there are lots of new rental starts, so more units should be on the way. Definitely worth a look at the report.]