If the Problem is Speculation, then Why Focus on Foreigners?

Ok, I’ll admit it. I’m an immigrant to Canada. And from the US, which has recently seen a surge in anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner rhetoric and mobilization. We saw the same, of course, in the UK leading up to Brexit, and there are outbreaks in many other places around the world as well. Anti-foreigner rhetoric is having its populist moment. And I don’t like it.

So I’m especially sensitive to anti-foreigner rhetoric. Combine that with my research interests in housing and immigration and my love for my adopted city of Vancouver, and well, you can probably see where this is going: I think we should stop our destructive focus on blaming “foreigners” for our housing problems.

This doesn’t mean we should stop paying attention to the impact of immigration policy and global flows of capital (and there are many good reasons to oppose wealth-based immigration policies like the investor program still operating out of Quebec!)* But it does mean we should stop using “foreigners” as our go-to explanation for sky-high housing prices.

Why? First, it’s dangerous. It should be patently obvious at this point that anti-foreigner rhetoric is the handmaiden to fascism. If I need to explain why that’s bad news, go visit some other blog. Second, it’s sloppy. The concept of “foreignness” is not well-defined in rhetoric, readily lends itself to racism, xenophobia and related “other”-blaming, and remains inconsistent with rhetoric when applied to policy. Let’s take Andrew Weaver’s recent foray into advocacy for a ban on foreign ownership as an example. He defends the ban this way: “We are delighted for people to come and work and live and own property in B.C. but it’s not okay for people to park capital here with no intention of living here.” I’m on-board with carefully tracking flows of capital, but does “foreignness” now apply to folks from Alberta and Ontario? And how do we square “foreignness” with the complexity of immigration? (I worked here on a visa for three years prior to becoming a permanent resident and then citizen, fully intending to live here all the while). Analyst Andy Yan offers a different, but related take for his focus on foreign-buying data: ““It comes down to a question of fairness. As people struggle with keeping their existing home or even having a home in Metro Vancouver, is it fair to treat them in the same way as someone who has a secondary or tertiary home here?” This is an entirely legitimate question, but it has little to do with foreignness, and everything to do with speculation and investment. To put the matter differently, if we’re trying to counter the possible negative effects of speculation and counteract wealth inequality, then I’m in, but if all we’re doing is coming up with policy responses to favor Canadian speculators over foreign speculators, then count me out.

And just what is the balance between “foreign” speculation and Canadian speculation? This is a tricky question to answer, in no small part because we DON’T track global capital very well. Like, at all… I’m all on-board at doing better with this – let a thousand Panama Papers blossom and the CRA take notice! But for now, instead of tracking capital, we track bodies and assign them to residence and rights of citizenship in complicated fashion. We have legislation in BC distinguishing “Foreigners” on the basis of PR and Citizenship status, regardless of their actual place of residence (our “foreign-buyer tax“). And now we have Andrew Weaver extolling the virtues of New Zealand’s proposed “foreign-buyer ban“, which is a little more complicated, but linked to assigned residency (e.g., temporary residents on visas can buy a home, but have to sell it when they leave). The latter issue of residency is what was kinda-sorta measured by Statistics Canada in its recent release of data on non-resident (“foreign”) property ownership (CHSP). This is the data Andy Yan’s been playing around with. But to date most write-ups of this data that I’ve seen, including that from Statistics Canada, have simply focused on the comparison between non-resident (outside Canada) and resident (in Canada) property owners. When we use this as a proxy for talking about speculation, the implicit assumption seems to be that everyone outside of Canada is a speculator/investor/vacation home owner, and everyone living in Canada owns only the property they live in. We lose sight of domestic speculation and investment. How do we fix this?

One answer is we combine this information with Statistics Canada’s Survey of Financial Security (SFS). This handy little survey differentiates between principal residence and other real estate for participants, including those in metropolitan Vancouver and Toronto. Here I’m going to combine these datasets together in a very simple and replicable fashion to divide up the value of residential real estate into principal residence, other Canadian residence, and cross-border (Non-Canadian) residence. Effectively I’m just taking the total value of resident real estate holdings from CHSP and subtracting the Principal Residence real estate holdings value estimated from SFS to get the Other Canadian Residence category. This enables us to compare domestic speculators/investors/vacation home owners with foreign speculators/investors/vacation home owners. So what does total property value look like broken down into Principal Residence, Other Canadian Residence (a.k.a. “domestic investors”), and Non-Canadian Residence (a.k.a. “foreign investors”)?

Something like this:

Res-RE-Holdings-Residency

Principal resident owners are separated out in purple, leaving only the properties held by investors / speculators / vacation home owners and the like in green. These are further distinguished between owners residing someplace else in Canada and owners residing someplace else across the border. In Toronto, these two groups are closely matched, though domestic investors look just a little more prominent than international investors and both are dwarfed by principal resident owners. In Vancouver, overall investment in the real estate market by non-owner occupiers is much, much larger, and domestic investors account for the lion’s share of the investment. Many of these investors, no doubt, live in Vancouver (where the SFS data estimate around 1 in 5 families own a second property besides their principal residence). Others live in Toronto, Calgary, and elsewhere across the country.  But with respect to Vancouver’s place in Canada the following seems clear: If speculation is the problem, then its largely home-grown.

There are some decent arguments out there for favoring the buyers in purple over the buyers in green. We’ve got lots of policy options for reducing the value of BC properties as investment vehicles – many having to do with tax policy. There are even better arguments, I think, for focusing on providing lots of affordable rental and non-market housing options for people so that ownership isn’t the only decent game in town. But what arguments do we see for favoring the folks in dark green over the folks in light green? If the important thing is to prop up the middle class in their entry into home ownership, why pit middle-class home ownership against foreigners instead of against the far broader class of investors and speculators as a whole? It’s for BC’s Green Party to answer that one, I guess…

 

*- I’m proud to have elicited the approval of at least one prominent academic I admire by ending my recent co-authored piece on Chinese-Canadian immigration with the line: “Investigations into the work of home-making suggest how Canada’s immigration policies contribute to rather than ameliorate global inequality, revealing an invitation that reads: give us your energetically leisured, your wealthy, your elites yearning to breathe freely.” Yes. We can do better, including taking in lots more refugees instead of fast-tracking “investor-class” immigrants!

NOTE: Inspired by the transparency of Jens von Bermann’s gitHub kits, but not knowing how to do that, please see my following spreadsheet if you’re interested in the data extracts I worked with and how I produced the above! Feel free to check my work and by all means let me know if I missed something!

ValueRE-SFS-CHSP-2016

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The Things I Teach

I’m archiving my syllabi for current and recent undergraduate courses here on the blog, both for (ungated) student use and for public consumption. My courses all combine interactive lectures with student-led reading group discussions and some form of sustained research or building project.

Built Environments (2018) UBC SOCI 364: Syllabus-BuiltEnv2018

Sociology of the Life Course (2018) UBC SOCI 324:  Syllabus-LifeCourse-2018

Urban Sociology (2017) UBC SOCI 425-A:  UrbanSoc-Syllabus-2017

In the recent past, I’ve also taught graduate level courses (especially in Urban Sociology) and our undergraduate course in Research Methods. For other teaching scholars out there, please send me any suggestions for improvement! I’m especially interested in keeping my readings updated and interesting.

A Little Army of Artisanal Landlords

A relatively recent Sightline Institute post by Margaret Morales explores a key difference between development patterns in Seattle and Vancouver. While Seattle tends to construct lots of purpose-built rental apartments, Vancouver tends to construct condominiums. Why? The post walks us through various explanations, many of which have to do with tax codes. Rental construction in Canada is burdened by bad tax policy, including, for instance, the application of GST to rental construction (many housing advocates were hoping the recent Canada National Housing Strategy would roll back these taxes, but no luck!) On the other side of the border, many Seattleites would actually like to see more condos! Morales provides guidance for what’s holding condo development there back – much of it having to do with insurance policy.

On the whole, Morales provides a nice little dive into cross-border policy differences*. Moreover, Sightline is a handy little organization to have around. I’ve been a fan ever since I first came across their old papers (here and here) comparing Vancouver and Seattle in terms of sprawl. I still teach with these sometimes!

But I wanted to provide a little more insight into Vancouver’s rental situation. Morales is absolutely right about Vancouver’s dearth of purpose-built rental construction (though more is in the pipeline!) Nevertheless, Metro Vancouver appears to have almost EXACTLY the same proportion of households renting as Metro Seattle: just a little over 36%. How does that happen? Enter Vancouver’s little army of “artisanal landlords.”**

RentalStock

What do I mean by “artisanal landlords”? Effectively I’m talking about people who own and rent out one or more properties beyond their principle residence, but probably don’t consider themselves professional landlords (I’m sure there’s a reasonable cut-off concerning how many units you might own before crossing over… maybe five?). These artisanal landlords are important for multiple reasons. First, to get back to that Sightline piece, while Vancouver’s mostly been building condos, about one in three condos ends up occupied by renters.*** Effectively, this means about a third of our condo stock is actually treated like rental stock, only controlled by artisanal landlords. Legally, these rentals are subject to both the residential tenancy act and local strata (condominium) by-laws (which in some cases do not allow rentals at all). This sometimes makes for confusing jurisdiction, especially since tenants are often forced to communicate with strata councils through their landlords, and vice-versa. As for the artisanal landlords themselves, they may have limited knowledge of their actual obligations, and if they contract management of their properties out, that adds another level of bureaucracy to an already tenuous relationship.

In addition to condo rentals, another huge chunk of Vancouver’s rental stock is made up of secondary suites. Many (though not all) of these secondary suites are carved up from buildings that were once, ostensibly, single-family detached houses. So we get the familiar basement apartments Vancouverites know and *ahem* love, often tucked away beneath their landlords above. Sometimes the above suites are rented out too, and even further subdivided. Pretty much all duplexes are owned by artisanal landlords, many of them on-site. Triplexes and other internally subdivided houses that might be owned by artisanal landlords are trickier to find (grouped in with the non-condo other and low-rise categories above).

Then, of course, there are the rented detached houses, which in most cases are likely also owned by artisanal landlords. Combining the three likely artisanal (or smallholding) landlord types, we see they make up the majority of rental situations in Vancouver (as well as in Calgary). Other rentals, especially low-rises (which may contain as few as three units) and townhouses, may also be run by smallholding landlords, but are more likely to have professional landlords.

The difference between artisanal and professional landlords matters for how well different rental units are run, how often discrimination occurs (see my past scholarly work on this here), how many protections renters receive, how stable tenancies are likely to be, and how well rental units can be tracked (the CMHC has only recently tried to get a handle on what they call the “secondary” rental market, and Metro Vancouver can only estimate a range for just how many secondary suites exist in the area, echoing my difficulty in pinning them down beyond “likely”).

So if we have some idea about how many rental units are likely controlled by artisanal landlords, can we estimate how many artisanal landlords there are? This is actually surprisingly tricky! It’s not a question asked in the Census. But there IS a question asked about ownership of real estate aside from one’s principle residence in Stats Canada’s Survey of Financial Security (tables here). There are caveats to using this measure as a proxy for how many artisanal landlords we’ve got in Metro Vancouver (lots of people own vacation properties elsewhere and non-residential real estate is also presumably included), but it gives us something to work with.

The data suggests that over 20% of Vancouver’s families own real estate aside from their principle residence.**** That’s approximately 216,000 families in all, potentially making for quite a few artisanal landlords (the number has more than doubled between 1999 and 2016). We also know the median value of these holdings, which is CAD$400,000 – about the price of many Vancouver condo units (this value doubles for Vancouverites in the wealthiest quintile). Of course, this probably doesn’t even include those artisanal landlords with basement suites below them, since it’s likely they’re considering their secondary suites as contained within their principle residences.

So even though Vancouver hasn’t built nearly as many purpose-built rental buildings as Seattle, we’ve still built lots of units that get rented out. Moreover, artisanal landlords are worth keeping an eye on, both because of what they imply for renters and rental markets, and because they’re likely a potent force in local politics. Considered as a class, they have plenty of plausible reasons to both oppose new purpose-built rentals (competition for tenants) and to cast blame on foreigners (competition for properties). It’s a group worth watching more closely.

 

*- minor note: I managed to rip only a teeny bit of my hair out over the mixing of terms for tenure arrangements (rental, condominium ownership, etc.) with terms for structure arrangements (apartment, rowhouse, etc.). But I suppose when I write a book describing how often people fail to make these distinctions – often justifiably – I really can’t complain.

**- I stole the “artisanal landlord” descriptor from Jens Von Bergmann, who may very well have stolen it from somewhere else.

***- notably, this does not include condos not occupied by usual residents, where we do not have data from the census.

****-Of note, the only other major metro area exceeding 20% of families reporting owning RE besides their principle residence is Calgary!

A Limerick (and a reply to a response to a critique of a study)

John Rose posted a response to my critique of his study this morning. Almost immediately after I was alerted to the posting (via Kerry Gold), we met up to chat at Sweet Obsession cafe. In appreciation of this turn of events, I offer this limerick:

John Rose is a very nice guy

Despite our dispute o’er supply

We just met for tea

And we mostly agree

Where not, please see my reply

He really is a nice guy. And in order to insure our back-and-forth doesn’t become too tiresome, I’ll offer just a quick reply.

  1. Though I replicated John’s Census results from 2001-2016 for Vancouver, I apparently did not replicate his results for other metro areas. I admit, I didn’t catch this, since I was focused on Vancouver (and since I ran the replication of his 1.19 ratio of new dwellings to new households very quickly, before he’d provided his full report). I don’t know why his results and my own differ for metro areas beyond Vancouver, but it’s worth looking into! The data should be from the same source (Statistics Canada), but sometimes they report things differently in different documents, and it’s also entirely possible that errors were introduced in transcribing data (in which case, they were probably mine! My response was hastily assembled). Though it does not change the results for Vancouver, it’d be good to nail down overall dwelling count and occupancy changes.
  2. As John notes, the Census does not offer guidance with respect to how their procedural changes affect underlying dwelling count data between 2001 and 2006. But in noting their newly inclusive criteria for expanding the count of secondary suites, they clearly point out how single-family dwellings changed to duplexes in their structure data. This implies that each of those dwellings formerly counted as one unit (but containing a secondary suite) would henceforth be counted as two or more. As we know, Vancouver has a LOT of secondary suites, and this shift in classification both could and should have boosted the count of dwelling units significantly, even without any new dwellings being built or added. Worth noting as well that new secondary suites are the LEAST likely to show up in permitting data (though the Metro Van databook for 2017 at least tries to capture them). It would be great to get more from the Census on the characteristics of “dwellings unoccupied by usual residents.” On a related note: I’d love it if someone could point me toward or carry out an intensive study of how the Census counts dwellings in Canada!
  3. John acknowledges the awesomeness of the construction permitting data, but does not (yet) engage with how much better it fits new household formation than census counts of dwellings, indicating a shortage rather than a surplus of supply. I’ll look forward to seeing his comparison between construction and census data if he’s able to pull one together! (Both of us have time constraints involving stacks of grading and lots of other work on our plates).

Otherwise, as I said, John Rose is both a nice guy and clearly well-intentioned. He mentioned during our conversation that his study was motivated over concerns about new construction in the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) in Richmond. On this point, we clearly agree. The ALR is worth saving, and we don’t need to expand our housing supply any further out into Vancouver’s agricultural and wild lands, which is part of why I focus on densifying single-family residential neighbourhoods as the best path toward making Vancouver a more affordable, more inclusive, more lively, and more sustainable city.

 

[Postscript, Dec 15th: for more see Jens’ careful response with a detailed dive into the data over at MountainMath, and see the smart historical commentary on the Census in Vancouver in the comments below by the folks at Changing City (added bonus: see their lovely pictures of changing streetscapes around town!)

Notes on the “Myth” of housing supply

Much has been made of a recent study purporting to demonstrate that adding to supply has done little to nothing to bring greater affordability to Canada’s most unaffordable cities. Though I’m loathe to keep it in the limelight, I feel some responsibility to respond to the study, both because I was quoted in its initial media roll-out (despite not having had a chance to see the study), and because once the study was finally written and released it cited me – kind of – through an old press release for my book (To the author: thanks for citing me, though I might also recommend actually reading my book!).

Unfortunately, I need to start by noting that the study itself is not high quality, either theoretically or methodologically. The terms supply and demand are not conceptualized in the way the economists who more or less invented them use them (i.e., as terms in the balancing equation that constitutes the market pricing mechanism), but rather in somewhat idiosyncratic fashion. In part as a result, I initially found it a little confusing to respond to the study. I certainly agree that widening inequality makes our general reliance upon market-distribution of housing problematic for insuring equitable outcomes. In other words, the whims of rich people for a second or third home carry way more weight in the market than the shelter needs of poor people. That is a real problem that would be entirely consistent as an interpretation of the study’s findings. But that’s not the same as arguing that supply doesn’t matter, and indeed would even suggest that adding lots of non-market housing (new supply!) would be a direct way of insuring the housing needs of poor people outside of the market.

It would seem to me that the only reason to suggest supply DOESN’T matter is to effectively take off the table many policy options that might help address our current housing affordability issues. It’s kind of like we’re all in a sinking boat. Most of us are saying, “we’ve got to bail out this water and plug that leak in order to stay afloat!” But someone in the boat is picking a fight, arguing, “No! Look, we’ve tried bailing out water. Look at all the water we’ve bailed out! But now we’ve still got water in the boat. We should stop bailing out and just focus on plugging the leak.” That’s an interesting strategy, but I’d rather stick with bailing out and plugging up at the same time. (I’ll leave the economists out there to keep providing other metaphors).

So yes, I’ll continue to argue for more supply – especially by enabling more housing options on all that single-family residential (RS-zoned) land in and around Vancouver currently reserved only for millionaires. But I’ll ALSO continue to suggest we should be doing things to make the housing market work better, including (but not limited to):

  • Taxing Vacant Homes (and vacant lots!) like Vancouver’s new Empty Homes Tax
  • Raising Property Taxes, esp. in progressive fashion
  • Rebalancing tax burdens from income to property, as with the clever BC Housing Affordability Fund proposal
  • Cap the currently unlimited tax exemption of capital gains from sale of primary residence

All of these things would make investment in housing as a commodity less profitable and help remove some incentives currently in place to sit on empty properties, without renting them out, in order to accrue the capital gains by doing nothing as the property appreciates (e.g. speculation). But if we’re truly concerned about housing affordability, let’s not tie one hand behind our backs. Let’s keep bailing out water and plugging the leaks in our housing market at the same time.

What about the methods of the study themselves? They need some work. For instance, the author uses different measures and different data sources to compare affordability across time, with the most recent data (taken from Demographia – not gonna link to them) also the least transparent. The author also only focuses on market purchase price (as opposed to rent and/or cooperative share price), effectively setting aside those for whom affordability is a more life and death matter. I’m not going to do a deep dive here, in part because with respect to purchasing affordability, even had the comparison been carried out more carefully, the same results would obtain. There’s no doubt Vancouver has gotten more expensive in recent years!

But what about that supply issue? Have we been overbuilding as much as the author suggests, adding an eye-popping 1.19 dwellings for every new household created since 2001? I replicated this result based on census data I gathered right after the first media report came out, and it deserves its own blog-post (up next! spoiler: I’m pretty sure we’re not overbuilding). Before I get there let me leave you with recent vacancy rates for rentals in Metro Vancouver. If we’ve got too much supply, it sure hasn’t hit the purpose-built rental market. Latest update just came out. Good news! We’re almost back up to 1%.

Vacancy-MetVanHouseBook

 

The Million-Dollar Mansions and Migrants of Metro Vancouver, 2011 edition

Just who lives in all of these million-dollar and above properties concentrated in Metro Vancouver? I don’t yet have the micro-data for 2016 that would allow a deep investigation. But 2011? That I can do!

Here I’m playing around (once again) with the Canadian Census Analyser maintained by CHASS at U Toronto (access through UBC Library). All my analyses were run on-line: they’re basically just custom cross-tabs from the NHS (our replacement for the long-form census in 2011), sorting by characteristics of household heads and weighted according to sample weights. Metro Vancouver is about as low as I can get as a geographic level for microdata without getting special permissions (and tiny sample sizes).

First I wanted to get a breakdown of who was living in million-dollar homes in 2011 by age and where they lived five years before (2006). This gives us a sense of both who’s lived in these places for awhile, and who bought recently. Note: Even though I refer to these as “mansions” below, I don’t actually know what they look like or even how big they are – I just know they were valued by their owners as over a million dollars. Still a fair amount of money in 2011! (Also worth noting: in 2011 we were still coming off of the Great Recession, which only gently brushed Vancouver…)

Mansions-Migrants-1-AgeLocation

Hey, what do you know? The vast majority of households living in million-dollar homes in 2011 had been living in their places since at least 2006. A good proportion of these householders were older – likely retired – but not actually the majority. Most were still clearly working age. The next biggest group of households are those who moved into their current place from elsewhere in the metropolitan area of Vancouver. Very, very few moved into a million-dollar mansion from someplace in Canada outside of Metro Vancouver. Seriously: who could afford to do so? Most other cities in Canada are far cheaper than Vancouver. So a lot of what we see in terms of people moving into million-dollar mansions around Metro Vancouver are locals trading homes with one another.

What about migrants? People who moved to Metro Vancouver from outside Canada are definitely there, but overall in 2011 they represented a relatively small proportion of million-dollar mansion owners. Even in terms of new buyers, they represent less than a quarter of million-dollar mansion owners who moved in between 2006 and 2011. That’s big enough to have a substantial effect on the market! But by no means did most purchasers of million-dollar properties in Metro Vancouver come from away. Most buying in the years prior to 2011 were already locals.

Of course, people have been flocking to Vancouver from all over the world for quite some time, so even if they’d been in Vancouver for awhile by 2006, they still might’ve been born elsewhere. We can break down million dollar mansion owners by where they were born as well as by where they were five years ago. Here’s what that looks like:

Mansions-Migrants-2-Pob-Location

No surprise: the modal million dollar home owner was born in Canada in 2011 (shaded red above), with another big chunk born in the UK (orange). I put Americans (like me!) in pink, just for fun. The other large group of million-dollar home owners I highlighted come from Eastern Asia (in shades of blue above). Why are so many million-dollar homes in Vancouver owned by immigrants? Some of this, no doubt, has to do with the “skill” and wealth-based selection processes of the Canadian immigration system. But another important part of the story – especially for those in blue – probably involves the enormous real estate fortunes being made all around the big cities of the Pacific Rim (where most East Asian migrants are coming from). A lot of East Asian immigrants to Vancouver are probably housing lottery winners in their countries of origin, and Vancouver property looks relatively cheap from many places across the water! Wealthy East Asian buyers account for over half of those moving into million dollar homes directly from outside of Canada between 2006 and 2011.

But are the majority of migrants moving to Vancouver from Eastern Asia (or elsewhere) moving into million dollar homes? Not so much. Here I break down the proportion of householders living in million dollar homes by place of birth and where they lived five years prior to the 2011 census.

Mansions-Migrants-6-Percent-Pob-Location

Most residents of Metro Vancouver (born immigrants and native-born) live in more modest dwellings, rather than million-dollar mansions. Of note: for those born in Canada and living in Canada five years prior to the 2011 Census, just under 10% lived in million-dollar mansions. Many immigrant groups, but by no means all, exceeded this figure. Those born in the USA, the UK, South and Western Africa, China, Hong Kong, and other parts of East Asia all fell in the 15%-20% range for the proportion of household heads living in million-dollar plus homes. Of course that means the vast majority of migrants, over 80% in most cases, were NOT living in million dollar mansions in 2011.

What about people who moved to Canada from another country in the last five years? Interestingly, this includes a fair number of Canadians. Something to keep in mind when we talk about “foreign wealth!” At any rate, those who’ve recently lived overseas tend, overall, to be even less likely to live in a million dollar mansion than those who’ve lived in Vancouver for more than five years…with two notable exceptions: China and Pakistan.

I don’t actually know what to make of Pakistan – except that it might just be a small sample-size issue. The same sample-size issue probably helps explain why Jamaicans look so wealthy – though it’s possible I’m just missing all the wealthy Jamaican neighbourhoods in Vancouver. For China, it does appear that recent migrants are more likely to live in million-dollar mansions than earlier (pre-2006) migrants. This accords with broader perceptions that Chinese migrants to Vancouver are increasingly selected for wealth. That said, the vast majority of new immigrants from China (over 80%) still weren’t living in million-dollar mansions in 2011.

Now that we’ve got some general idea of the distribution of housing wealth in Metro Vancouver (from five years ago anyway), I’ll try and return to an enduring mystery in my next post: what’s up with low-income households owning million-dollar mansions?

 

Lottery winners of the Pacific Rim

Sociologist Harvey Molotch famously suggested that cities should be understood, first and foremost, as Growth Machines. The big takeaway is that the urban political class and overlapping landholding class tend to agree with the basic idea that growth is good and should be encouraged. For the landholding class, in particular, growth is good for their bottom-line. Land value goes up as more and more people are encouraged to concentrate in the same place (particularly if they’re wealthy people). So big landholders, who also often drive local politics, actively and aggressively push for growth. They’re aided and abetted by numerous other parties, including local media. Along for the ride in more or less passive fashion are local home owners, many of whom might be understood as “lottery winners” as they watch their property values soar. Sound familiar, Vancouver?*

Of course, “lottery winnings” from housing wealth are only really available for people to tap into if they a) sell their housing and move somewhere cheaper, or b) avail themselves of complicated financial instruments akin to mortgages. But this sets up a really interesting dynamic, especially with respect to immigration. People can move from a “lottery winning” locale to a much less dynamic real estate market and pocket a lot of change along the way, arriving as a wealthy immigrant. In places with less developed mortgage systems, this pattern can be further complicated, as sellers will have accumulated few loans against their housing before selling (setting aside, for the moment, those who don’t own property).

What does this imply for immigration around the Pacific Rim? Much of immigration takes place to and from the big “gateway cities” of the Pacific Rim. These gateway cities tend be very expensive markets locally because the flow of international migrants drives much of real estate dynamics. Partially as a result, local prices can drift upward from what might be expected by local incomes. But gateway cities are also quite diverse in terms of the success of their local growth machines. As a result, some “lottery winners” are far wealthier than others. By selling their home in an expensive growth machine and moving to a cheap one, migrants can cash in their lottery winnings.

Where should we expect this to be a feature of immigration streams in the Pacific Rim?

I recently stumbled across Numbeo, providing crowdsourced estimates for property prices by square meter of size (as well as rents, etc.) for cities around the world. I still have a lot of questions about this data (and I’m more than happy to entertain critiques!), but they seem quite transparent in their methods, and I can see their stuff is already being used in (forthcoming) academic articles, so it seems like worthy play material. Using their estimates for property prices (in Canadian dollars), I put together the following comparison:

Pacific-Rim-Comparison-Price

I’ve highlighted Vancouver in blue as a big gateway into Canada. Of note: when it comes to the Pacific Rim, anyone selling their home to the left of Vancouver before migrating to same could arrive with a great deal of wealth, especially if they’re moving from a city centre! Vancouver looks cheap to arrivals from Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Shenzhen, San Francisco, Seoul, Sydney, and even (to some extent) Taipei. “Sell your place, move to Vancouver, and get rich!” could also work at least moderately well for arrivals from London and New York City.

On the whole, this provides some important evidence to contextualize patterns of immigration into Vancouver. Positioned as a gateway into Canada from the Pacific Rim, we should expect a lot of East Asian immigrants to arrive quite wealthy just from selling off their homes in their city of origin! That’s setting aside a host of related issues (e.g., Canada’s selective immigration policies – including its relatively terrible investment class program, China’s selective emigration policies, intergenerational concentration of wealth in single children) that favor wealthy immigrants, as well as others (e.g., China’s capital controls and less developed mortgage system) that complicate the story.

Recent (and generally good, I think!) reporting in Vancouver has emphasized the crooks among Vancouver’s wealthy immigrants – and by all means, go get them! But this has a tendency to obscure how you don’t have to be crooked to arrive in Vancouver with money to spend. You just have to be lucky. And there are lots of real estate “lottery winners” scattered around the Pacific Rim, including many homegrown right here in the Lower Mainland.

Lots more to think about, but I’d love to hear more about a) the Numbeo data! and b) how this maps onto people’s thoughts about Vancouver’s role as gateway to the bustling growth machines of the Pacific Rim.

 

*- This dynamic is viewed as providing home owners a material interest in siding with growth machines. Of note, Molotch’s analysis is pretty solid with respect to North American cities at their founding and through most of the Twentieth Century, and it still mostly holds for central cities. But anti-growth coalitions began to arise and drive metropolitan politics pretty quickly, most dramatically in the suburbs, where NIMBYism and exclusionary policies are pretty much the norm. Lots to say about that, including both that “material interest” can be interpreted quite flexibly and it’s not the the only thing driving NIMBYs, but I’ll set it aside for the moment. How do Growth Machine stories explain other places? Growth Machine analyses are often received critically in Europe, where they don’t seem to work as well, but have been largely embraced – at least in modified form – across much of Eastern Asia. In China in particular, the political economics of urban growth have received a great deal of attention, in particular the collusion between local politicians and local developers (paywalled examples here and here, or see books like Li Zhang’s excellent In Search of Paradise: Middle-Class Living in a Chinese Metropolis for a view from the ground). But less attention has been paid to the more or less passive “lottery winners” of Eastern Asia’s rapid urban growth. In the context of China, of course, urban growth was joined to the privatization of housing, producing many double-winners (as well as many new losers, especially rural migrants to cities). See Forrest & Izuhara (sadly pay-walled) for a really nice view of how intergenerational housing wealth accrues – or fails to do so – in Shanghai. It’s one of my regular teaching tools!