What we talk about when we talk about a “housing crisis”

What do we talk about when we talk about a housing crisis? People doing without any kind of housing? People living in inadequate housing? Crowding together? Spending too much on rent? People struggling to get into home ownership? People not being able to afford ownership of the single-family detached house they always dreamed about?

To me, a “crisis” suggests fundamental needs unmet. But just what’s a “need”? How should this be separated from a “want” or “dream,” if at all? Addressing these questions and trying to figure out how they matter was the subject of my keynote talk at the PartnerLife conference last week in beautiful Cologne, Germany.

I illustrated my talk with my favorite case study: Vancouver. In the process, I ran some numbers to compare how Vancouver is doing relative to other metropolitan areas if we address some of the different things we mean when we talk about a housing crisis. In particular, I was interested less in the kinds of “dream” measures used by organizations like Demographia (oh, it’s painful to even link to them!), and more in the fundamental measures of need (note: I’ve compared rents elsewhere, though I need to update the comparison!).

How is Vancouver, long considered the most unaffordable housing market in North America using Demographia’s single-family detached house measure, doing when we look at homelessness? How about when we look at providing basic standards, avoiding crowding, and insuring affordability?

To answer the first question, we can look at homeless counts. I’ll work on building this measure further, but for now I’ll just compare Vancouver with our near neighbours to the south (Seattle and Portland) and to the east (Calgary). Is homelessness a major crisis here?

The first answer to this question is indisputably: YES. Homeless is a major crisis wherever it occurs, with large effects, for instance, on the risk of dying. But a more nuanced answer, of more use in thinking through solutions and sorting out what’s working, is to consider the relative size of the homelessness crisis. Though it’s far from a definitive comparison, I started looking into this question by comparing homeless count data by relevant population size, across the regions of Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and Calgary.* Here’s what I get:


Is homelessness in Vancouver a crisis? Yes. But when compared to other nearby metro areas, Vancouver looks like it’s doing better. This is important in terms of judging the response so far and thinking through how to continue dealing with this crisis.

Let’s address the second question: How are we doing in terms of insuring people are living in adequate housing, not feeling too crowded, and not spending too much money on rent? In Canada, we have a nice comparative measure of “core housing need” that gets at these components of housing crisis. Importantly, these aspects of a “housing crisis” remain detachable, revealing, for instance, different sorts of crises between the North of Canada (where the issue at hand tends to be crowding) and the South (where it tends to be affordability). Overall core housing need is worst in the North and on reserves, where we can talk about some serious housing crises. But here let’s just look at how Vancouver is doing by comparison with other metro areas in Canada given the most recent data available.**


How’s Vancouver doing by core housing needs? Not so great. We’ve got a lot of people feeling the pain of unmet housing need, as defined by Canadian standards. Mostly these are people spending more then 30% of their income on rent. I’ll be the first to suggest that this is a funny standard, but it still indicates a real problem, especially for those at the bottom of the income distribution. At the same time, by comparison Vancouver is not actually the worst Canadian metropolis. The worst is tiny Peterborough, Ontario! What’s going on there? I’ve no idea, though now I’m quite curious (and it might just be the small sample size of the income survey). After Peterborough, Toronto is also worse than Vancouver.

While both homeless counts and core housing needs remain open to critique in terms of their conceptualization and measurement, they’re also the best measures of need we’ve got. As such, I’d argue they remain the best measures of when we’re seeing a real housing crisis. Using these measures, we can see that there are indeed housing crises at play in Vancouver. At the same time, in comparative context we can recognize that Vancouver’s doing much better at addressing these real crises than it’s typically been given credit for.

Why doesn’t it get credit for what it’s doing right? I think the unaffordability of the single-family detached house in Vancouver sucks up a lot of attention. I’ll continue to argue that this is a very BAD measure of a housing crisis. After all, if we want to reduce the size of our ecological footprints, if we want to support our great cities, if we want to combat isolation and obesity, and arguably if we want to sustain our democracies, then we want to discourage everyone from living in single-family houses. This means not everyone can get what they want. But it’s not a housing crisis if everyone still gets what they need. And by that measure, Vancouver’s doing better than most people think, even if it’s still got a lot of work to do.



*- It’s worth noting that the administrative basis for count data here varies between metro region (Vancouver), county (Portland and Seattle), and city (Calgary). I’ve used the relevant administrative data from the 2010/2011 census year as the denominator in each case. This means population has been kept constant for comparison purposes, while the homeless population has been allowed to grow, resulting in a slight underestimate of homelessness per 10,000 people in early years and overestimate in later years. Also of note, King County and Multnomah County are smaller than the metro areas of Seattle and Portland (accordingly). The City of Calgary is relatively co-terminous with its metro area. This could bias overall estimates of relative counts for metro areas. But even if we were to just use central cities (where the populations of Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland are quite similar at @ 600,000) or metro areas, the overall results would still be about the same – there are a lot more homeless people showing up in other nearby cities and metro areas relative to Vancouver. A caution also remains in the possibility for different definitions and methods in each region, particularly with respect to the meaning and coverage of “transitional housing.” Also of note: the big drop observed in Portland between 2011 and 2015 might be worth following up on!

**- the data here come from the CMHC, and are based on Canada’s income survey rather than census data. It’s possible the sample size of the surveys explains some of the variation, and rankings here should be considered preliminary until we get something more definitive, like the 2016 Census data! In past census years, Vancouver and Toronto usually compete in the metropolitan title for greatest proportion in core housing need, and Peterborough tends to be more middle-of-the-road.



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