Seattle Conferencing – ASA & SSSP

Just putting this up for anyone interested in the two talks I’ll be giving at the two professional Sociology conferences being held simultaneously in Seattle this week!

At the American Sociological Association (ASA), I’ll be presenting a paper related to (but distinct from) my book project on the Death and Life of the Single-Family House.  It will be part of the Regular Session, Performing Parenthood in Social Context, convening Saturday at 2.30pm in the Seattle Sheraton (4th Floor, Seneca Room).  (see here for other events going on that day). Title & Abstract:

Housing Parenthood: Performing a role on an unsettled stage – N. Lauster

How do people construct the social role of parenthood?  What gets enrolled as part of the performance?  What are the implications of unsettling expectations?  In this paper I pay special attention to how housing relates to the performance of parenthood, drawing upon qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews with 50 residents of Vancouver, Canada.  Frequently depicted as the most unaffordable metropolis in North America, Vancouver offers a culturally “unsettled” environment where single family homes, in particular, have moved rapidly out of reach for the vast majority of residents.  In general terms, analysis of interviews illuminates how housing provides a material scaffolding for the role of parenthood; offering up both a stage for the performance of parenthood and a crucial retreat from the stage.  More specifically, I call special attention to how people treat ownership of a single family home variously as: 1) a pre-packaged co-requisite, 2) a prerequisite, 3) inconsequential, or 4) a foil to performing the role of parenthood.  In addition to shaping the role of parenthood, the balance between these four treatments of single family home ownership has important implications for how housing policies and markets influence both childbearing and mobility.

Meanwhile, at the conference next door, The Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP), I’ll be presenting a very different paper based on my musings (working with my co-authors) concerning hoarding disorder and its relationship to broader discourses about how people are understood to normally relate to their environments.  This will be the first time I’ve ever presented at SSSP!  My paper here will be part of the Session on Health and the Environment, convening Sunday at 4.30pm (absolute last panel of the conference) in the Westin Seattle Hotel (Mercer Room). (Full program here) Title & Abstract:

Making Room for Thought: Contrasting Models of Human-Environment Relations in the Conceptualization and Diagnosis of Hoarding Disorder – N. Lauster, C. Bratiotis, S. Woody

Hoarding behavior, at first glance, bridges academic worlds concerned with health and environment insofar as “hoarders” seem to exemplify just how rampant consumerism can lead us all awry.  Yet at least a few commentators have suggested the opposite: by virtue of saving rather than discarding, those labeled hoarders often view themselves as rejecting consumerist logics and instead fostering sustainability.  The psychiatrists and psychologists who actually study hoarding focus less on the broader social and cultural implications of the phenomenon than on its impact as a mental disorder affecting the well-being of the individuals involved.  We argue here that this is both laudable – hoarding has real impacts on well-being that are too often overlooked – and a fundamental mistake.  The debate over how people should and do relate to their environments is of central importance to the conceptualization and etiology of hoarding as a disorder.  We demonstrate how one position within this debate, that people’s relationships to their environment are best modeled along the utilitarian lines of consumers (see also, homo economicus) has been implicitly adopted within the psychological and psychiatric diagnosis of hoarding.  We contrast this position with an alternative; what might be learned by basing conceptualizations of hoarding in the model of people as builders and dwellers?  This model takes seriously home-making as a collection of human orientations toward the environment.  Its adoption could offer up new implications for the etiology and conceptualization of hoarding as a disorder.

 

 

Pre-sale Media Coverage: The Death and Life of the Single-Family House

A few local media outlets have picked up interest in my book since I announced it was available for pre-sale on twitter and this blog.  On the one hand, this is great!  I really welcome the exposure for both the book and the ideas it contains.  On the other hand, I worry (together with my publisher’s media rep) about too much early exposure before the book is actually available (October!).  I don’t really know what the right balance is – we don’t get a lot of media training in academia – but I’ll keep working on figuring it out.  In the meantime, I ask for patience from interested reporters with my ham-fisted efforts to manage the roll out of the book and its ideas, and I’m hopeful interest continues into when the book is actually ready to fall into readers’ hands.

For now here’s the audio clip from a recent interview talking about my forthcoming book with Stephen Quinn on CBC’s On The Coast.  (Or you can just listen to the whole August 11th, 2016 show).  I’m a regular listener, so it was really fun to meet Stephen Quinn and Amy Bell and see the inside of the CBC studio. [Update: and here’s the CBC write-up].

Prior to the radio interview, Jen St. Denis also interviewed me about the book for the Metro News, in a nice little piece posted here.  I think the piece was good, but it’s worth making two quick clarifications:

1) The 80% of land base figure speaks to 80% of land set aside to support residential uses (rather than 80% of all land as a whole), and covers the municipality of Vancouver. Metro Vancouver has data on land use broken down by municipality (and a lot of other data besides!)  Also Jens von Bergmann over at MountainMath (mentioned in the piece) has a beautiful map breaking down land use by lot within the City of Vancouver, which everyone should check out.  It really demonstrates just how much land has been set aside for single-family detached houses (almost entirely in protected RS zones, though there are also duplexes in RT zones and houses in Shaughnessy included, along with a scattering of old houses remaining in places unprotected by zoning).

2) The accompanying photo for the piece, as multiple people have pointed out, looks like it was taken at Mole Hill, which is a lovely little development preserving and rehabilitating old houses downtown by subdividing them up into apartments.  To be clear, the census would not consider these to be single-family detached houses, nor would the city.  But the ambiguity of how they LOOK like houses (and very photogenic ones at that) is really interesting.  This speaks to the focus of my first chapter in the book, laying out just what we talk about when we talk about single-family detached houses, and how the legal categories don’t always match people’s lay understandings of what counts as a house.  It also speaks to the many possibilities for subdividing existing houses to support more households – if zoning laws were modified to allow such a thing (it’s already the case, of course, that most RS zoned lots in Vancouver can now already support up to three households through secondary suite and laneway housing provisions).

 

Home on the Road

In my younger days, after working a variety of odd jobs and building up a a bit of savings, I set out with my dog in a little red truck with a cap on the back to travel across North America.  I didn’t really know the term “gap year” at the time, but that’s kind of what it ended up being, tucked between my undergraduate degree, a little more schooling, and a lengthy career as a graduate student.  I enjoyed life on the road, often pulling up and sleeping in the back of the truck at campgrounds and out-of-the-way parking lots across the USA.  I had a campstove for cooking and carried plenty of water.  Whenever I wanted, I could roll out my sleeping bag in the back, with a pad beneath it, and I slept reasonably comfortably.  At least once I was asked to move along by concerned police officers.

Some years later, a good friend of mine took up much the same lifestyle, living out of his van.  But he remained mostly in place, in Seattle.  He did it to save money.  Later, he also lived out of an office space for awhile.  Both arrangements, of course, were illegal according to municipal codes.  We actually  had several conversations (and put together a presentation for a sociological conference) concerning how we understood his arrangements vis-a-vis homelessness.  Certainly most people working homeless counts would readily have counted my friend as homeless (and might also have counted me as homeless had I passed through town during my truck-living days).  Below is the City of Vancouver’s 2016 Homeless Count definition (see here for the last Metro count):

The 2016 Homeless Count uses the same definition of homelessness used in previous City and regional homeless counts. Someone was considered homeless for the purpose of this count if:
* they did not have a place of their own where they could expect to stay for more than 30 days and if they did not pay rent.
This included people who are:
* without physical shelter staying on the street, in alleys, doorways, parkades, vehicles [my emphasis], on beaches, in parks and in other public locations
* temporarily accommodated in emergency shelters, detox facilities, safe houses or transition houses for men, youth, women, and families with children
* staying at someone else’s place (friend or family) where they did not pay rent (i.e.couch surfing)
* in hospitals or jails and had No Fixed Address (NFA)
For example, someone who stayed in a garage would be considered homeless if they did not pay rent, even if they considered the garage to be their home. Emergency shelters are not considered permanent housing, thus shelter clients are included in the homeless population. Someone who stayed at a friend’s place where they did not pay rent (i.e. couch surfer) is also considered homeless as they do not have security of tenure.

Seems pretty clear: living in vehicles = homelessness (especially without paying rent).

So what to make of the many folks who live in vehicles that were built for living?  They don’t fit well into municipal definitions of home, but in many cases they also don’t quite fit our preconceptions of homelessness.   My truck was admittedly borderline, but its little shell had windows and was made to support camping.  My buddy’s van was even better equipped.  Pieces in the Vancouver Sun and the Globe & Mail (the latter by a former student, Wanyee Li), both speak to the attractiveness of these alternative forms of living for some people.  But in many cases, these are folks who straddle the line between homelessness and home.

Strikingly, it doesn’t take all that much more, symbolically speaking, to shove people more clearly into the “home on the road” camp and out of the “homeless” camp.  My wonderful sister and her family (including husband, two girls, and two dogs) recently embarked on an adventure, buying a 31 foot Winnebago Vista.  They were written up, together with two other intrepid families, in this piece in the Baltimore Sun (Permanent copy complete with photos archived here).

Screen-Shot-2016-08-08-at-10.24.27-AM-730x430

Pretty awesome.  And ok, I’ll admit it: mostly I just wanted to blog about my sister.  But there’s also an interesting point here: I don’t think any observer would reasonably consider my sister and her family homeless.  Yet note how they’re coupled with a family living in tighter and somewhat cheaper circumstances.  Does the boundary grow fuzzier again when we move from RVs to Vans?  Does it matter that it’s a touring van attached to a band?  Or if van residents only become homeless when their vans become mostly stationary, like the one my friend lived in, then how should we think about the greater stability of a stationary residence contributing to a definition of homelessness?

These are all tricky questions, and they occur mostly at the margins.  To be very clear, in raising these questions I’m not doubting the problem of homelessness in Vancouver or expressing skepticism concerning local homeless counts.  We’ve got real problems here.

BUT, all that said, we also have a problem in restricting what we consider decent housing and thereby diminishing diversity by legal fiat.  To return to a major theme: this is a BIG problem when it comes to locking away land for single-family detached houses and such houses alone.  But it’s also a problem when we fail to consider and make room for alternative forms of homes that people might want to try, including life on the road.

The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: available for pre-sale!

Did you know that Vancouver has moved the fastest and the furthest away from reliance upon single-family houses of any metropolis in North America?  Only Montreal competes for the title of least house-dependent.  I have a new book coming out that traces the history of Vancouver’s dramatic transformation and describes its effects on residents, as detailed by interviews with locals. More broadly, the book makes the case that this is mostly a positive development, primarily dependent upon regulatory innovation, that has many lessons for other metropolitan areas across the continent.

The book, The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, hits shelves on October 16th, but I’m happy to announce that it’s now available for pre-sale!  It will be part of the broader series by Temple University Press on Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy.

DeathLifeHouseCover

Click on the image link to see the promotional flyer, complete with a pre-sale discount code!  Please feel free to distribute the flyer widely!  The book is also now available for pre-sale via Amazon (Canada) , Amazon (USA), Bibliovault, and other related book sites, but you may not get the discount via these locations!

Who is an “average voter”?

I’m restraining myself from writing too much about the US election, but I’m definitely reading about (and obsessively tracking) the race.  In light of that, here’s a piece I really enjoyed from the NYTimes: “So What Do You Think Of Hillary Clinton Now?”

Effectively, it’s one of those pieces where a reporter (Emma Roller) goes out and interviews a bunch of people on the street, in this case to gauge their reception to Hillary Clinton’s nomination as Democratic candidate for US President.  Or as Ms. Roller put it:

What does Mrs. Clinton’s presidential nomination mean to average voters, die-hard Democrats and Bernie or Busters? We asked a few here in Philadelphia.

I suppose, as I read through, I can pick out a few of the “die-hard Democrats” and the “Bernie or Busters,” but who is supposed to be an “average voter?”  And what does that even mean?

In a straightforward statistical sense, we can identify who falls into the group of “modal voters,” at least once we have a set of votes.  Modal voters would include all of those who voted for the candidate who won the most votes.  If we can arrange candidates on a scale (say left-to-right), then we can also come up with a population of voters that we could draw from in order to select a “median voter.”  But in each case, if we wanted to find someone to exemplify the modal or median voter, we’d still have to randomly select from all of the possible people that would fill in that category.  To put it mildly, there is a lot of diversity there.  But finding someone to exemplify an “average voter?”  I have no idea how that might be accomplished.

Here I think Emma Roller actually means something different.  She’s looking for someone who isn’t selected into the streets of Philadelphia as either a Democratic delegate (like Ms. Ali, her first interviewee) or a Bernie-or-Bust protester (like  Ms. Ernst or Mr. Hainer), presumably making them more “average” in terms of their level of political participation.  Still, it’s tricky to pick these people out.  Do we count Ms. Driver and Ms. Sanabria (two of my favorite interviewees)?

Ms. Driver said she and Ms. Sanabria spontaneously decided to rent a car and drive to Philadelphia from Washington for Mrs. Clinton’s nomination after watching Michelle Obama’s speech on Monday night. Ms. Sanabria texted her.

“She was like, ‘I’m crying!’ and I was like, ‘No, I’m crying!’” Ms. Driver said. “We have to go. This is a historic moment. We can’t miss this.”

That sounds like a pretty unusual (and kind of awesomely spontaneous) level of political participation.  But even the people who seem more “normal” in their orientation to politics, like Mr. Schumann, are also really wacky (as she notes, at 59, “Mr. Schumann is the oldest person I’ve seen playing Pokémon Go” – making him my another of my favorite interviewees even though I really, really don’t play Pokémon Go).  As a matter of fact, most people are kind of wacky, as I’ve often witnessed in my own interviews with people.  It’s part of what makes the job of sociologist fun.  And the US, like Canada, is a diverse country, full of idiosyncratic wackiness.  So what use is it attempting to find an example of anyone average?

To return to a theme, one reason I like the kind of thing we see in Ms. Roller’s piece is that good stories attached to real people quickly remind us just how devoid of human messiness our statistical averages may be.  That’s not to say that the statistical stuff is wrong and we should all resort to “voice of the street” analyses.  Indeed, statistics is ultimately how we’ll figure out who is going to win this election.  But if you really want to get into how or why someone wins this election, the stories help remind us of the underlying diversity and complexity of peoples’ decision-making processes.

 

Cluttering up the news

Several years ago I got a call out of the blue from Sheila Woody, a UBC Psychology professor, asking if I might be interested in working together on some hoarding research.  Fortunately this came about less due to an inspection of my office and more because she’d stumbled across my research profile and discovered I had an interest in housing and the making of home.  This is one of those collaborations where, even though I found real potential in the research that overlapped with my own interests in intriguing ways, I was drawn to the work in no small part by how much I enjoyed working with the colleague involved.  Sheila and her team (now also including Christiana Bratiotis) are a lot of fun, and I’m delighted to report that some of our first findings are now out and have just been covered by both the Vancouver Sun and the CBC (where they also have nice pictures of Sheila and some team members).

Looking at two waves of inspections data provided by a collaboration with the City of Vancouver, we estimated the prevalence of problematic clutter in the SRO rooms regularly inspected by the City.   We wrote up the results and published them in Housing Studies with the title:

How much of too much? What inspections data say about residential clutter as a housing problem.

.  Here’s the abstract (Full study here):

How big of a housing problem is residential clutter? In this paper, we draw upon inspections data in Vancouver to both estimate the size of the problem and detail how it is observed and constituted through municipal regulatory processes. We contrast the inspections approach to residential clutter with the mental health approach, which focuses on hoarding disorder. Inspections data indicate the problem of residential clutter is potentially larger than might be expected by the epidemiology of hoarding disorder, and also point toward the many risks associated with clutter. Using our best estimate, approximately seven per cent of low-income, dense, single-room occupancy (SRO) housing units inspected were identified by inspectors as problematically cluttered, indicating a sizable problem. Larger buildings and those managed as social housing were more likely than other buildings to have many units identified as problematically cluttered. Strikingly, for given buildings, estimates of problematic clutter tended to remain relatively stable across time, inspector, and inspection method.

The big takeaway for me is that residential clutter is a real housing problem.  That seven percent covers a lot of rooms, creating big headaches for housing managers  and neighbors as well as the residents of cluttered rooms themselves.  Indeed, in some buildings we studied, up to a third of rooms were problematically cluttered with possessions.  It’s not clear that all of this is the result of hoarding as a mental health issue, but it fits with broader evidence of the epidemiology of hoarding.  It also squares with the informal feedback I get when I touch base with many people working in the social housing sector in Vancouver.  Even without prompting, they regularly point to hoarding as a big obstacle they face in keeping people housed and healthy.  So I’m really happy that we’ve put this on the academic radar, not just as a mental health issue, but also as a broader housing issue.  I’m also happy I get to keep working with Sheila and the team toward better understanding what’s going on.

Incidentally, Vancouver’s Hoarding Action Response Team (HART) is broadly recognized as a leading collaborative resource enabled to coordinate responses for those struggling with hoarding.

A taxing July: the BC Liberals look to property transfers involving foreigners

So… slow news month, eh?

At least for the moment I’m going to steer clear of writing about terrorist attacks, police shootings, shootings targeting police, and the rise of Donald Drumpf. Suffice it to say I think these are all terrible things.

What about recent attention to housing issues in Vancouver?

As it happens, there’s been a lot of news there too.  The BC Liberals* announced a surprise 15% property transfer tax bump for foreign buyers of residential properties, here defined as non-citizen, non-permanent residents.  That’s a big deal, amounting to an extra $90,000 on a $600,000 condo, or an extra $300,000 on a $2 million house (and if those prices seem ridiculously high to you, welcome to Vancouver!)  This right before they rolled out new data suggesting that about one in ten residential property purchases in Metro Vancouver are made by foreign buyers.

The Liberals were responding to a potentially powerful political issue and a lot of pressure regarding specific policy alternatives from academics, think-tanks, and their political rivals in the NDP.  I’ve liked a lot of these policies, but I’ve questioned the xenophobia that often characterizes the sales pitch.  So what to make of the BC Liberal response?

Well, they’ve gone their own way – never accept someone else’s proposal, I suppose – and in the process they’ve doubled down on the xenophobia, targeting foreigners directly (rather than, as some critics note, foreign money, though usually by way of suggesting they aren’t going to get all the foreign money).  They’ve also gone for an immediate big bang in focusing on the property transfer tax, and imposing the change on August 3rd without exempting deals in process.

By contrast, the wind down approach implied by property tax adjustments would likely have been less disruptive.  But in most versions it also would’ve meant  requiring current residents to deal with new administrative requirements reporting their income taxes paid as a means of receiving property tax exemptions.  (The basic idea involved a re-balancing of income taxes and property taxes so that everyone, including real estate investors, was contributing to supporting the government and you wouldn’t have to pay twice, both through income tax and property tax.  But really our property taxes are quite low, so there is a lot of room there to play around!)

So what kind of disruptions are we in for?  For the market as a whole, it’s hard to say.  I think Tom Davidoff and David Ley are right, that this will cool down the market.  Especially in conjunction with other moves to tighten control over real estate practices (for both realtors and banks) and enable municipalities to levy taxes on vacant homes as businesses.  Will the market crash hard?  That’s not clear.  Nor is it clear just how easy it will be for foreign investors to get around regulations.  For investors right here at home, of course, it’s pretty easy.  But can they rely upon continuing to attract funds and buyers from elsewhere to pump up properties given the new regulatory landscape?  I tend to doubt it.  I think we’re in for a cooling market, which is probably a good thing for stability, but could potentially turn very cold very quickly.

What kind of disruptions are others in for?  For immigrants in the middle of moving to Vancouver and closing a purchase, I’m actually pretty sympathetic.  This is a big hit with little warning.  It’s going to hurt a lot of immigrants who don’t yet have their permanent residency worked out. It may also hurt international recruiting for many positions, including with my own employer (Full Disclosure: I worked for a couple of years at UBC on a work permit before establishing permanent residency – and I can attest that this isn’t an uncommon situation).  This is another trade-off in going with the property transfer tax instead of the property tax offset by income tax payments.  It doesn’t matter if foreigners earn their money and pay taxes locally under the BC Liberals new policy, they’re still considered foreign with respect to penalizing their purchase of housing.

It’s also worth noting that many immigrants work in real estate, as realtors, investors, and through developing their own “sweat equity” as upgraders and flippers, and this is in part because they encounter real difficulties in other professions.  They’re often invited as skilled laborers without being given a chance to demonstrate their skill.  Real estate has been one sector where immigrants could potentially thrive because of their transnational connections rather than in spite of them.

It’s probably a good thing to shift more people away from work in the real estate sector in Vancouver, but it will definitely be disruptive, and often to people who haven’t yet made much (or any) money.  To be clear, it may also be a good thing in the long run to impose a tax on residential purchases by those who have not yet made a commitment to Canada as a permanent resident or citizen.  I can see good reasons for that.  But in the short term, this is also a disruptive move, and too in-line with a broader turn toward xenophobia for my comfort.

Will this make housing more affordable?  Maybe.  But it depends upon the type of housing we’re talking about.  By the standard of rental affordability, Vancouver isn’t doing great, but in comparative perspective, it’s also not doing disastrously.  Hard to say what effects this will have on rentals.  By the standard of being able to afford a decent condo, prices will probably come down a bit, which hits current owners, but helps new buyers – a group sorely in need of consolation.  By the standards of being able to afford a single-family house on a middle-class income, I feel pretty comfortable predicting that we’re never going to be there again.  Knock a million dollars off the price of most single-family houses on my side of town and they’re still going to be well out of reach.  That’s not an immigrant question, that’s a land use question.

 

 

*-For non-locals, the BC Liberals are a centre-right party perhaps better generally described as neoliberal in ideology

Of Land and People as Legal Entities

Fiddlers green
Fiddler’s Green

An article in the NYTimes today notes that Lands and Rivers can now officially be granted the legal status of People in New Zealand. In many respects, this marks a significant legal victory for indigenous accounts of the world.  From the Times:

Chris Finlayson, New Zealand’s attorney general, said the issue was resolved by taking the Maori mind-set into account. “In their worldview, ‘I am the river and the river is me,’” he said. “Their geographic region is part and parcel of who they are.”

From 1954 to 2014, Te Urewera was an 821-square-mile national park on the North Island, but when the Te Urewera Act took effect, the government gave up formal ownership, and the land became a legal entity with “all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person,” as the statute puts it.

This is one of those cases where I know something important and interesting has occurred, but I’m not yet able to put my finger on why and how it matters beyond the symbolic victory.  Of course, corporations have also been granted many of the rights of legal personhood, with broad-reaching implications in the US, and it seems somewhat more constrained and careful implications in Canada.  We may a similar flourishing of new legal arguments in New Zealand – possibly extending to Canada.

Could this legal approach spread beyond New Zealand? Mr. Finlayson said he had talked the idea over with Canada’s new attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Another interesting implication is how we understand, in a more general sense, what legal recognition of personhood might do to attempts to commodify land.  I like Karl Polanyi here, in his discussion of how both people and nature (as well as their productive capacities), became subject to fictional commodification (appearing as labour and land) in the broader unsettling history of attempts to govern by market. Do attempts to legally equate people and nature offer obstacles to processes of commodification?  How do they bump up against the granting of personhood to corporations, often see as part and parcel of commodification?  I don’t know yet.  But to the extent I can keep my eye on it, I bet it will be fun to see how it plays out.

In the meantime, it also makes me think of Fiddler’s Green, a character who is also a place, a place that decides to masquerade as a person, all reconciled as a dream in Neil Gaiman’s old Sandman series. So for that little reminiscence, I’m grateful.

Rent redux: now with comparative anecdotes!

In response to my recent analyses of rental affordability in a comparative context, a skeptical reader from Vancouver draws upon personal experience in noting:

I guess just I find this analysis and the chart it’s based on hard to believe.
I make about 57k a year and renting a ROOM in a crappy, old, noisy 2-bedroom apartment in Vancouver costs me near 50% of my take-home after-tax pay. I straight-up couldn’t afford a one-bedroom or even a room in a place built in the last 20 years. And it took two months of solid searching to luck out on this place… everywhere you go, potential renters are already lined up with forms and references in hand (as was I) and were attempting to out-bid the asking price and each other (something I couldn’t afford to do).
Maybe things are different for long-time tenants, whose prices fall under controlled increases, but for someone looking to enter a Vancouver rental anew, I found the crap-apartment prices to be on par with mortgage + strata payments for a better condo – something I’m debating doing if I stay in the city, although both options still seem far too expensive.

Thanks B Danyluk! Let me first reiterate my sympathy. Just because it might be better for renters in Vancouver than elsewhere across North America doesn’t mean it’s easy. And I’m entirely in support of efforts to improve the plight of local renters. Also, as I’ve noted before, I really appreciate these kind of comments based on real experiences. Anecdotes can be very useful.

In light of that last point, let me just direct attention to a couple of recent pieces highlighting the situation for renters in some of what the figures would suggest are the least affordable metro areas in North America:

What’s it like for a couple of new renters of decent means to look for an apartment in New York City? Sneak-preview: it ends with a one bedroom for $3,150 in Brooklyn.

What’s going on with rents across Silicon Valley?  What kind of rents would drive young Google employees toward activism on behalf of new rent control ordinances?

Here’s a quick summary from Miami – which I have to admit, I did not realize had issues before running the analysis – and here’s a longer profile of Miami renters, accompanied by more definitive comparisons across the USA. Note also the frank discussion of how different rental markets have emerged, with those targeting higher-income luxury renters seeing more development than for others.  The segmentation of markets lends credence to this quote from the President of the Florida Housing Coalition:

“People say if there really was a great need, the market would provide it; the market would correct itself. Well, the market has never corrected itself and it’s only getting worse.”

Markets don’t self-correct with everyone’s housing needs in mind, especially under circumstances of widening income inequality, and there’s also nothing singular about how they operate within cities. As a result, and as reflected by B Danyluk’s comment, overall market summaries sometimes obscure the many little corners where people get left behind. Of note, the NYTimes piece also provides a nice reference to this old 2013 study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.  And I’ll stop here before I depress myself with all the reading I need to catch up on.

On the bright side, it’s all interesting stuff. And if misery loves company, there’s pretty good evidence there are folks out there at least as miserable with their housing as what you can find in Vancouver.

Part II of 2BR Rent to HH Income Ratios: A Data Check

[*updated with better Vancouver income stats*]

As I noted yesterday, Vancouver really doesn’t look so unaffordable in comparative context if we use “renting a two bedroom apartment” as our base standard rather than “purchasing a single-family detached house.” Standards really matter, and the single-family detached house is a bad metric in this case – especially for a metropolis that is gradually moving toward a more sustainable alternative that might ultimately serve as an example for the rest of North America.

But I had some lingering concerns about the comparability of the data I used, especially for getting at median rents. To get at rents across the USA I used data from Zillow, which as I mentioned is not an entirely disinterested data provider and also gathers data based upon listings. This provides a nice snapshot of current conditions for prospective renters, but may dramatically overstate the rents for existing renters, who are often protected by contracts, rent controls (in some places), and relatively inattentive or otherwise satisfied landlord relationships. To get at rents across Canada, I used the CMHC’s primary rental market measure, which suffers from its own biases and is based largely on surveys of purpose-built rental building managers.

I wanted to check on my results by looking at something at data that might be a little more readily comparable, so I went back to census figures, drawn from microdata samples of the Canadian Census in 2011 and the American Community Survey (ACS) from the same year. I analyzed the data on-line using CHASS (unfortunately a subscription-based census analysis service I can reach through UBC) and IPUMS (a wonderful organization at the Minnesota Population Center, where I used to be a post-doc – anyone can get access to this data so long as you promise to use it for good and never for evil, which is an actual box they make you tick in your application). I obtained median rents for renters of two bedroom apartments in 2011, then I went back and compared these to the same median income figures for Households (from 2012, close enough!) [updated for better CMHC median household pre-tax total income figures] that I used in my last post.

The results:

Comparative-2BR-Rent-to-Income-2011censuscheck-updated

 

On the whole, I’d call this similar information to what I produced yesterday, but there are some important differences. When we look at estimates based on all existing renters (including public & private rentals) rather than listings, there is a LOT more compression in the median rents, which don’t jump around nearly as much as the rents charged for new listings on the market. But Vancouver hasn’t changed positions much in this chart relative to its position (in 2011) in the Zillow/CMHC-based longitudinal chart. LA, Miami, San Francisco, San Diego, and NYC all remain at the top in terms of the unaffordability of 2BR rentals. Other metros, including Seattle and Portland, look cheaper in this chart. But it’s worth noting that many of these cities also looked cheaper in 2011 in the old chart too, which only moved many of them ahead of Vancouver based on more recent data. My big takeaway: more data provides a better overall comparison, but still gives us the same basic story about Vancouver’s unaffordability crisis. Using metrics beyond ownership of a single-family detached house makes us look much more affordable in a comparative sense.