A Tale of Three Cities

Canada is a BIG country, with a lot of land. But it’s also an urban country, with most of its residents sticking to cities and towns (and suburbs) hovering just over the border from the United States. Over one third of Canadians live in Canada’s three big cities: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

This is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but especially so for a housing scholar, because of the differing routes to urbanization taken by these cities. Their housing stocks, and correspondingly the way people live, are all quite distinct from the rest of Canada, and also distinct from one another. Here I’m just going to look at housing stocks in terms of dwelling types – i.e., what kind of building do you live in? Of note, I’ll also be treating the term “city” as inclusive of “metropolitan areas” as a whole, which is what we’re generally talking about when we say “Canada’s three big cities” (this is important, of course, because the City of Vancouver as a municipality, for instance, contains less than a third of its metropolitan population).

So how do people live differently in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver from the rest of Canada and from one another? Let’s look at some data from Statistics Canada.


The big difference compared to the rest of Canada is that the big three cities have far fewer residents living in single-detached houses. Less than half of residents live in houses in each of our major metropolitan areas, compared to well over two-thirds in the rest of Canada.

But how has each metropolis managed its move away from the house?

Montreal has developed a LOT of low-rise apartment buildings (up to four storeys tall) all throughout its old urban core. The rest of its housing stock looks a lot like the rest of Canada. On the whole, its a charmingly low-rise metropolis.

Toronto has developed a LOT of high-rise apartment buildings (five stories and above), all throughout its old urban core. The rest of the its housing stock looks a lot like the rest of Canada. On the whole, its different mainly in its promotion of big, bustling high-rises.

Vancouver lies somewhere inbetween Montreal and Toronto, insofar as it’s filled its urban core(s) with a combination of low-rise (often older) and high-rise apartment buildings. But it’s also distinct from either city in renovating and re-developing such a large proportion of its stock of single-detached houses, so that a LOT of them contain two or more dwellings (e.g. basement suites).

To some extent, this last strategy speaks to Vancouver’s late-comer status. Montreal and Toronto are both relatively old cities, each having developed a sizable urban core before getting choked off by heavily protected single-family (RS) zoning in the twentieth century. Vancouver didn’t have that much of an older urban core to work with before most of its residential landscape became locked up by zoning. So many municipalities across Metro Vancouver have sneakily re-worked the definition of a “single-family residential” in their zoning by-laws to include a secondary suite – and often a laneway house too – enabling a very “gentle” form of baby-step densification. This is only part of the story of how the big three cities of Canada provide very different models for density and accommodating the move away from single-family detached modes of living.

A related question we can ask is how housing gets distributed across the life course and history. I’ve been playing around with this from a descriptive standpoint, using age-graded distribution of housing.


This is basically the same chart above, but played out across five-year age categories (except for under 15 and over 85, because these are the categories Stats Can gives me). It’s very clearly visible that outside of the Big Three Cities, single-detached houses are the statistical norm in Canada. They become a little less the norm during young adulthood (20-34) and for post-retirement ages (65+), but even so, more than half of the young and old alike live in houses.

For Montreal, the house is not normative – less than half of people in any age category live in a single-detached house. Nevertheless, Montreal demonstrates the same general age-related pattern of house acquisition as we see in the rest of Canada. Young adults and older adults are especially unlikely to live in a house, turning instead to the plentiful low-rise housing (in the case of the young) or newer high-rise housing (for the old).

What about Toronto and Vancouver? In Toronto, just over half of people live in houses across most age groups, but this figure drops sharply for young adults. Strikingly, there’s hardly any decline at all in this figure for older adults. In Vancouver, the figure overall is lower (<40% of people live in houses across most age groups). Nevertheless, the same age-related pattern pertains: though the young move out into alternatives, older age groups tend to hold onto living in single-family detached dwellings. What’s going on? In large part I suspect this is the result of generational shifts. Post-retirees in Toronto and Vancouver are probably transitioning out of single-detached houses like post-retirees elsewhere (Montreal and the rest of Canada) BUT they began their lives with much higher proportions living in single-detached houses than we see for later generations. (Perhaps you’ve heard that houses in Toronto and Vancouver used to be cheaper than they are now?) As a result, older residents in these cities continue to live in a much higher proportion of the detached housing stock than we’d otherwise expect. This also helps account for why many single-family residential neighbourhoods are shrinking!



Do Families Live in Condos?

Controversy recently erupted over a new condominium housing complex being proposed in The Annex neighbourhood of Toronto. Ho-hum, pretty run of the mill situation, except that one of the complainants about the condominium was Margaret Atwood, who actually (and to her credit) responded to the many YIMBYs attacking her on twitter for NIMBYing new housing. A golden media moment!

One of the complaints launched during the ensuing debate was that “condos are not for families.” Now this provides us an empirical question, and one near and dear to my heart. So I went ahead and ran the numbers using appropriately weighted 2011 National Household Survey data. I did this quickly on my first pass, mostly because I was listening to a cranky kid who wouldn’t take his nap in the room next door (in my condo). Here’s what I got and hastily posted to twitter as my public sociology for the evening:


Most condominium dwellers (over 70%) are members of families. So as a first pass, it’s ridiculous to say families don’t live in condos. That said, it is true that condos support greater diversity in household members, including more people living alone or with roommates, than other kinds of tenure arrangements. It’s also true, of course, that people living alone and with roommates need housing no less than families.

What do I mean by saying other tenure arrangement? Condos, of course, are a legal category of ownership, not a type of building. Towering apartment buildings can be condos, but so can low-rises, rowhouses (like mine), and even single-family detached houses. Condo units are mostly split – pretty evenly – between the first three of these housing types, covering about 90% of condominium units.

But by the time I posted, the complaint had already turned away from ALL condominiums. The real problem is the NEW condos. New condos are (no doubt) more expensive, on average, than old condos. And often they’re built to maximize the number of units, minimizing the space in each, to provide lots of 1BR and Studio apartments, which appeal to investors, and relatively few 2BR+ apartments, which appeal more to families. These are all fair complaints. Indeed, a variety of cities (including Vancouver) have taken to mandating inclusion of 2BR+ condo units in many new developments.

So here’s my updated chart. Do families live in NEW condos? NEW 1BR condos? NEW Studio condos?


The answer is YES! Most NEW condo residents are family members (almost the same percentages as all condo residents). What’s even more striking is that most NEW 1BR and studio condo residents are still family members. That’s even a little surprising to me! But goes to show the adaptive ways people are doing family these days, even if often out of need rather than adventure. Even new 1BR and studio condos are supporting mostly residents who live in families. So if you’re keeping 1BR and studio condos out, you’re also keeping families out.

But once again, and it bears repeating, residents who don’t live in families ALSO NEED PLACES TO LIVE! Along these lines, I also fixed an issue with my first figure, where “Person not in census fam” was treated as non-family. What this category actually represents in the Census is people who don’t live in an “official” census family according to the census (defined as parent-child or partner), but still live with family members. So for instance, siblings living together, or grandparents with grandchildren. I’ve moved residents in those kinds of households down to consider them as part of the “family” category here, because seriously… those are still families!

One other note: NEW = built in the last 5 years (2006 and 2011, for purposes of the 2011 data at-hand)

“Buy a house for my daughter [or] I’m not going to let her marry you!”

Some of the people who I talked to for my book spoke directly to cultural differences in how they saw the importance of buying a house. A Chinese-Canadian interviewee, originally from Hong Kong, thought “Asians” in general were more likely to link home ownership to marriage. As she humorously described it:

They think that before you get married you have to buy a house. They’re like, “Oh, you don’t have money? Buy a house for my daughter [or] I’m not going to let her marry you!”

Of note, in Hong Kong (and across much of urban East Asia), very few people actually live in houses, and lots of people live in various types of public housing (covering about 30% of the population of Hong Kong, for instance). But setting that – and the selectivity of  just who immigrates to Vancouver – aside, the association between partnering patterns and access to housing is really interesting. In fact, changing the setting to Sweden, it was the topic of my dissertation! (See some of my old research here, here, and here)*

At some point, I hope to return to this kind of detailed research in North America. But in the meantime, I can work a quick metropolitan comparison. We all know that buying a house is pretty much impossible for most people in Vancouver. So how does it affect marriage and partnering patterns here, if at all, compared to other metros?

Here’s a comparison of partnering patterns across four big metropolitan areas in Canada, based on 2011 National Household Survey** results:


Effectively, Vancouver fits somewhere between Toronto and Calgary. Hardly the position one might expect if access to ownership of a house was really limiting partnerships. On the whole, all three of these major metropoles look pretty similar. But looking carefully reveals that people tend to partner a little later in Toronto, with a greater gap between the late twenties and early thirties, than in Vancouver. By contrast, Calgarians tend to partner earlier, with over half of those ages 25-29 no longer single. Torontonians are also less likely to spend much time in non-marital cohabitations than either Vancouverites or Calgarians. Interesting little differences which I’d guess speak as much to the multicultural mixes of Vancouver and Toronto as to housing conditions (though, as noted above, it might be the interaction between these that really matter!)

How about Montreal? As always, it’s kind of off doing its own thing. Non-marital cohabitation has been a much stronger feature of partnerships in Quebec since the Quiet Revolution, and it really shows up here. (see, e.g. LaPlante 2006). Lots of material for another dissertation, if anyone’s looking for ideas!


*- with apologies for the paywalls – drop me a line if you want access, but can’t get it!

**- basically our best substitute for the Census that year – thanks Harper!

This blog kills fascists

Woody Guthrie famously sported a guitar with the words, “this machine kills fascists” scrawled upon it. The American ur-folk hero knew from whence he spoke (below singing Do Re Mi to images from 1941):

But what is Fascism? Why and how should it be opposed?

One response might be: haven’t we settled all this already? After all, the Allied powers defeated the Axis in WWII. After some initial hedging, both America and Canada decided what side they were on, and it was the side of the Anti-Fascist coalition (yes, yes, “antifa”). The Nazis did terrible things, as did the regimes in Japan, Italy, and elsewhere. We won, through overwhelming force (also involving some terrible things), and the Fascists lost.*

Unfortunately, Fascism did not die with the Axis powers. It’s always been around, and today we see it resurgent with the rise of the “Alt-right.” So let’s get back to those questions. What is Fascism?

George Orwell famously answered that by 1944 it already meant far too many things, all conflated together, making it difficult to parse its meaning, except, through its opponents, as: “…roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class.”

I prefer a careful definition more along the lines of Umberto Eco, who grew up in Fascist Italy, and delineated in 1995 the many different components (aligned to those sketched by Orwell above) that tended to hold together in Fascism, each constituting unnecessary but partially sufficient components for its formation. You should read Eco. You really should. The echo of Eco is all around us (sorry).

My takeaway is that Fascism is mostly a style. I think a couple of important points follow:

  1.  As a style, Fascism is not a coherent ideology. It can still be a tool to power and guide actions (indeed, it can be quite potent in this regard). But it remains resistant to reason, intellectual attempts at “de-bunking,” and other acts of persuasion. It freely engages in lying and contradiction as weaponized propaganda.
  2. As a style, Fascism preys upon the weakness of Constitutional Democracy as a system of governance. Constitutional Democracy makes room for discussion of diverse and divergent ideas. Fascism enters discussion disguised in the raiment of its weaponized ideas, under the banner of “free speech,” but with the intent to divide (into those who adhere to style and those who do not) and undermine Democracy itself.
  3. As a style, the proper response to Fascism is not intellectual engagement, but shunning, marginalization, and exclusion. As a Constitutional Democracy, we can not open a debate about excommunicating those already included without fatally destroying Constitutional Democracy itself.**

Now I have never been accused of any great concern for fashion, but if I’m hit over the head with how absurd a particular style makes me look, undermining every important way I’d like to be seen, then I will drop that style. This is the proper response to Fascism. Shunning, marginalizing, making the adherents of this awful style look weak and ridiculous, undermining their every presentation of self.

There are many strategies for pulling this trick off. This past weekend in Vancouver we demonstrated two: 1) Ridicule them 2) And crowd them out of the public sphere, sending them, quite physically, back to the margins. Here are a few of my pictures:


People were still streaming in to keep the Fascists out by the time I left! It was a good day.

There are other strategies for marginalizing Fascists, of course, up to and including punching a Nazi (at least if it makes him look weak and ineffectual, rather than sympathetic). I won’t advocate for all of these. But I will note that the most successful strategy is likely to vary by circumstance, with the likelihood of non-violent approaches succeeding vastly improved by making sure lots of people show up.

So go on everyone! Get out there and make sure the Fascists feel bad about themselves! Also read some history. It might come in handy.


[UPDATE: meant to note that there are lots of other, smarter takes on this out there too, from people studying this kind of thing longer than me, including several great sociologists cited recently in the New York Times]

*-together with my brother and our friends, we used to regularly re-enact the battles of WWII through the boardgame Axis & Allies.

**-The brilliant and award-winning novelist N. K. Jemison puts this sentiment in its most stark form in her novel The Obelisk Gate, as her earth-shaping protagonist uses the credible threat of violence to shut down what would otherwise appear to be a democratic exercise in voting, uttering the memorable line: “No voting on who gets to be people.” (p. 335)

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.


Vancouver’s Transformation: from Phoenix to Montreal in under 60!

I can never quite get over just how dramatically the residential stock of Vancouver has transformed away from its former dominance by single-family detached houses. As recently as 1961, proportionately more of Vancouver’s households* lived in detached houses than in Phoenix, Arizona today (well-known for its inescapable sprawl). Less than sixty years later, Vancouver has now toppled both New York and Montreal as the least house-dominated metropolis in North America! That’s a dramatic transformation!


Above I’ve updated an older figure of mine that made its way into my (award-winning!) book with the newest census data from 2016, when Vancouver definitively displaced Montreal as the least house-dominated metropolis in North America. What’s led to and resulted from this dramatic change in Vancouver’s housing stock? That’s all in the book!


*-UPDATE: I’ve corrected an earlier version of this post where I misleadingly used the word “residents” instead of “households” to refer to the data. The data is for households. Proportionately somewhat more residents live in houses than households, because average household size is larger for those living in houses (Sept 18, 2017).

Surveying Realtors

I’m always both fascinated by and wary of the data produced by real estate associations. I initially had a whole chapter in my book devoted to taking apart survey data on consumer preferences put together by real estate organizations (sadly, but probably correctly, it got cut). Here’s one of my favourite such survey questions (see slide 8) based on what Vancouverites might want to buy if, inspired by the Bare Naked Ladies, they had a million dollars. (Nearly a quarter chose to keep the $1 million and rent!)

I notice that such data is back in the news again, this time based on surveys of realtors, from April 2016 to April 2017, who’ve recently represented buyers in sales. The write-up leaves a lot to be desired in terms of methods (what’s the sample size of realtors and buyers? what’s the response rate? are there warning flags in terms of representation of realtors and buyers?) It’s also unclear whether this represents entirely re-sale or also sales of new residential real estate. This makes it difficult to evaluate the quality of the data. But it’s still kind of fun to play around with it.

I’ve broken the data, as presented by REBGV, down into my own categories. Here’s type of sale:


According to recent surveys of REBGV realtors, investment purchases make up about one in five sales. The role of foreign investment (largely, but not entirely post-Foreign Buyer Tax) is relatively small. But survey quality, about which we know little, likely matters a lot for these estimates. Are some realtors and real estate companies more likely to respond than others (especially those, like New Coast, likely to especially target overseas buyers)? Other important details are also missing: Are sales of newly constructed properties included? How do realtors decide who counts as a foreign investor vs. a domestic one?

Setting investment purchases aside, first-time buyers, targeted by a much-derided recent BC Liberal finance assistance program, make up nearly a third of buyers. That’s a pretty big chunk of sales! But here it’s not clear quite what counts as “first-time.” First time in Vancouver, first time in Canada, first time at all anywhere? Other moves, making up nearly half of all purchases, tend to be from buyers moving around from one dwelling to another.

Finally, there’s really interesting data breaking down moves of owners moving from one property to another by type (condo apartment, townhouse, and detached house) at old home and new. I simplified this into lateral moves, moves to likely bigger units (upsizing), and moves to likely smaller units (downsizing). Many general life cycle models of housing assume households tend to upsize over time as they grow, the better to fit with children. Downsizing only (maybe) occurs after retirement or when children move out. But with Vancouver steadily moving away from single-detached houses, upsizing is the least likely type of move between owned units. Instead, most moves are either lateral (e.g. apartment to apartment) or downsizing. That’s pretty interesting, and likely reflects, in part, how people moving here from elsewhere in North America typically find a house out of reach.

And just where are people coming from?


Hmmm… returning to the data quality issue, it’s a little concerning to me that the “investors” category in this question is so much smaller (14%) than in the previous question about type of sale (20.8%). Where did the extra investors go? Did some of them move as they made investment purchases? Were others counted as living in the same community? Weird.

But we get some idea about what proportion of sales represent people moving here from beyond the Metro area, and it’s about 12%. That could account for many of the downsizers, as they reckon with the realities of Vancouver’s pricey market (esp. for single-family detached homes). Another healthy chunk might involve retirees (more on that in a second).

Setting aside investors, we can actually do a comparison of where moving buyers are coming from by looking to Census data (or more accurately, National Household Survey data). The 2016 data on mobility and migration aren’t out yet, but the 2011 data (limited access here, but also recently out in IPUMS) provides a breakdown for those who’ve moved in the past year. Limiting the sample to those in Metro Vancouver, I looked at household heads who’d moved in the past year and owned their own home. How did where came from match up to REBGV data in 2016-2017?


That’s actually a pretty good match! There is some difference in terms of who the Census thinks is moving within their own community relative to who realtors think of as moving within their own community. This likely relates to shifting definitions of communities (again, not defined in the REBGV data). But looking at the proportion of new buyers moving within the metro area (in green) relative to those moving in from away (blue and pink), the figures are actually quite close, at about 86% of non-investment residential sales being to local buyers.

The Census from 2011 would suggest slightly more recent buyers moving to the area came from outside Canada than the REBGV data from 2016-2017, but not by a lot (7.4% to 5.8%), and the disparity could arise from either historical change (including the imposition of foreign-buyer tax) or from issues with data quality (see above). Still, a pretty good match.

It’s actually harder to match up the “demographic” categories used by REBGV data to census equivalents. But playing around with the community profile data from BC Stats, I did my best. Here’s how new buyer households in the REBGV surveys from 2016-2017 kinda, sorta stacked up against all households in Metro Vancouver by household types in 2011.


Again, it’s tricky to make sense of REBGV categories and match them up to Census categories (the census, for instance, does not differentiate between “young couples without children” and “empty-nesters,” and I’ve no idea how these were defined for the realtor survey either). I also don’t know how demographics on investors were tabulated, or where they fall relative to households looking to buy a place to live. But the general match-up between all households (from 2011 Census) and new buyer households (from 2016-17 REBGV survey) looks plausible to me in terms of what I might expect. New household formation drives a lot of sales. So couples without children are disproportionately likely to buy a place while retirees (or those age 65+ in the Census) don’t actually move all that much (there’s a lot of aging-in-place).

I don’t know that I have a big takeaway from all of this data exploration. I think the REBGV data remains kind of sketchy for estimating investment purchases until we get some basic information about data quality and representativeness out of the way. But setting aside investors, the data on where new buyers are coming from when they move within or to Vancouver lines up well with what I’d expect from the census, which is reassuring and kind of cool.