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 residents 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!


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.

Good Age-Specific Net Migration Estimates Come in Threes!

Recently I posted on how we’re still not seeing any big age-specific losses in net migration figures in Metro Vancouver following the release of 2016 Census data. To summarize, there is STILL no flight of the millennials, BUT maybe there’s a slow leak of the Baby Boomers, which might be seen as evidence of “cashing out” of the local real estate market.

Today I wanted to provide both some metropolitan comparisons to note how Vancouver’s patterns fit with a couple of similar places, and also some municipal comparisons within the Metro Vancouver area. I also wanted to make some technical adjustments in how I modeled mortality* as I aged people through the past five years to estimate net migration, which really matters for older adults (not so much for the young). Again, I’m using 2011 and 2016 age distributions drawn from census profiles to get at age-specific net migration estimates for each of the metro areas and municipalities below.

First let’s compare Vancouver as a metropolitan area to two other metro areas: Edmonton and Toronto. I like this comparison primarily because Vancouver is nestled nicely between these two areas in terms of size, and they’re all big university towns.


For Vancouver, you may notice that the figure looks very similar to what I posted two days ago, up until you get to folks in the 70s and above. That’s where mortality effects really start to matter! I think the above is a better approximation of those effects, but it’s tricky to get them right.

Comparing Vancouver to Toronto and Edmonton, what stands out most for me is just how similar these three metropolitan areas look! Metro Edmonton has grown faster over the last five years in % growth terms, but age-wise, the basic pattern of growth is the same as in Metro Vancouver or Metro Toronto. Young people (including Millennials) pour into all three of these areas, and then mostly stick around.

I noted in Vancouver there was new evidence (at least new to me) of a slow leak of Baby Boomers over the last five years. It appears this leak is also showing up in Metro Toronto, with a very similar pattern. It appears there are fewer folks in their late fifties and sixties than might be expected, suggesting they’re leaving town (cashing out?). Then people in their seventies and above start returning (probably for the good health care & related facilities).

There is also a later-life leak of Metro Edmontonians, but it starts later and never quite stops until the latest age. This could reflect more of a straightforward retirement and return home effect for the many folks drawn to the region, but it’s hard to say. At any rate, all later life migration patterns are dwarfed by the influx of younger adults (and their children) into these growing regions. I don’t see a lot of cause for concern about any particular age-groups shying away from our rapidly growing metro areas.

What about within Vancouver’s metro area? I’m somewhat ambivalent about emphasizing municipal differences in age-specific net migration patterns insofar as metropolitan areas tend to be tightly integrated. When a group disproportionately moves over the border from one municipality to another, it doesn’t have a big impact on the vitality of the region as a whole. Nevertheless, it’s worth tracking, and it certainly can have big implications for quite local livability, diversity, development, and transportation questions.

Here I’m just going to compare Vancouver and Surrey, the Lower Mainland’s biggest two municipalities, with Maple Ridge, a smaller suburb further out.


Here you really get a sense of how tightly connected central cities and their suburbs can be. As the region’s central city (and biggest university town), Vancouver receives an ENORMOUS influx of young people. Then, as they move into their thirties (and often start having children of their own), they tend to move out again, slowly leaking out of the City thereafter. Nevertheless, so many young adults move to the City of Vancouver that they overwhelm the later leavers. In net terms, the majority of young adult arrivals stick around in the City of Vancouver all through their later lives.

But back to the leavers – where do they go when they leave? Mostly to the suburbs. Maple Ridge is the City of Vancouver’s mirror image in this regard. People in their thirties and beyond account for most of this suburban municipality’s growth. By contrast, young adults, especially of university age, but extending into the twenties, flee Maple Ridge. Where are they going? (see above).

What about Surrey? It’s still a suburb, but also increasingly a centre of action in its own right within a multi-polar metropolis. At the moment it’s hit a sort of demographic sweet spot where it’s gaining people at all ages. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that while young adults aren’t exactly fleeing Surrey, their contribution to its growth isn’t as strong as for older adults or their children, and it remains nowhere near as strong as what we see in the City of Vancouver.

On the whole, these net migration patterns are not too surprising for a relatively large metropolitan area. Young people tend to leave home and move toward the vibrant city centre. Later they tend to move back to the suburbs as they settle down and start families of their own. If anything, what’s striking here is just how many young people remain in the City of Vancouver as they age, living on their own or in diverse families across a wide array of the different housing options the City is working to provide – if still, typically, at too great an expense!



*- my mortality modeling from my earlier post was really crude – simply applying five years of the expected death rate to the starting (2011) population. Bad demographer, bad! Now I’m using BC Deaths data to apply a survival rate and age the population from 2011 year by year, for each of the past five years, allowing one-fifth of the population in any given age group to age to move to the next mortality risk with each year and then applying the survival rates to the surviving population in sequence. This still doesn’t account for the mortality of recent migrants (in other words, recent arrivals could die and never be counted by the census, and I don’t take into account their mortality in any separate fashion – if I did it would boost the net migration estimates, especially for older adults). I’m also twiddling a bit with my estimates for 0-4 year olds and 85+ year olds, as needed by modeling (infant mortality is much higher than any year afterward until quite late in life, and after 85 I’m dividing the population into about half experiencing 85-89 vs. 90+ mortality). But I think I’ve got most of the technical details now closer to realistic for estimation purposes. As noted previously, none of this really matters much for younger population groups.


Update: The Lifeblood of Vancouver still isn’t leaving!

New Census results out today from the 2016 Census! They include dwelling type, age, and sex figures. The former is of great interest to me, but I’m going to concentrate on the latter just to update my older posts on migration patterns for Metro Vancouver.

Behold, the lifeblood of Vancouver still isn’t leaving!


I followed the same basic procedure here as I described in previous posts, comparing 5-year age groups across 5-year census periods. For example, given how many 20-24 year olds we had in Vancouver in 2011, how many 25-29 year olds would be expect to be here in 2016? Without any net migration, we’d expect roughly the same number, subtracting a few who died. So if we compare population figures, and make minor adjustments for mortality (I used 2013 figures, drop me a line for details [UPDATE: I think I’ve made better technical assumptions about late life mortality effects in this later post, reducing net migration estimates from age 70+]), then we can estimate net migration by how many more (or less) people show up in 2016 than we’d expect. I use the intervening age intervals (e.g. 23-27 year olds) as labels to demonstrate where most of the in-out movement is taking place between census years, which I find really captures, for instance, those university years (18-22) well.

The big takeaway, given the frequent concerns expressed over millennials leaving Vancouver,* is that it’s STILL NOT HAPPENING! Young people continue to pour into the region (University town, vibrant urban scene, etc.), and they tend to stay well into their forties.

What does appear to be new this year, at least according to my calculations (which are heavily dependent upon mortality assumptions as the population gets older), is that we’re starting to see a net loss of our late-career / early retirees. These are folks in their fifties and sixties. Yes, yes, the slow leak of our Baby Boomers is upon us! Apocalypse Now! (to be fair, it is their movie…) It’s quite possible these are predominantly people cashing out on their investments in the local real estate market and leaving for elsewhere. But if so, that’s about the only age-specific migration trend I’m seeing that seems driven by Vancouver’s widely unaffordable real estate.

*- I’ve still not seen any calculations or corrections on this issue from Bloomberg. Show your work! Tell us where your bad data is coming from! It’s ok to get stuff wrong, but not ok to keep false stories running!

Where are babies made? – Metro Vancouver edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What patterns jump out for me here?

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

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

If you build it, will they come?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Squat Teams

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

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

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

So what does it take to make a squat last?

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


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

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

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


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