Mother Tongues and Motherlands

Browsing around for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data, I stepped into their portal and stumbled across some updated “facts and figures” data on immigrant intake for permanent residents from 2007 to 2016. Tables included intake by nationality (15) and mother tongue (22).  Playing around with the data, I was struck by the way these two variables overlapped, but did not quite match. Pretty cool! So I thought I’d show off the matches for the BIG THREE Canadian migrant-sending countries: India, the Philippines, and China (in that order).

But first, it’s worth noting that the hold of the big three wavered in 2016. In a dramatic move, the upstart, Syria, actually knocked off China for third place sending country. This, of course, reflected a very real (and very welcome!) move on the part of Canada to accept Syrian refugees. Canada has taken in no where near as many Syrian refugees as many other countries, especially those nearby (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan) and Germany. But credit where it’s due, Trudeau’s Liberals stepped up to their campaign promises to do something to help.



Aside from the sudden rise of Syria, the big three continue to dominate migration to Canada, trading off for first place, though China has dropped considerably since 2013. Pakistan rounds out the top five in 2016, and I promise I won’t leave it behind.

So what about mother tongues! How do they match to nation-states?

Let’s start with China. While there are many dialects of Chinese, all are treated as Chinese by IRCC. When we map Chinese as mother tongue onto China as a sending country, we actually see more Chinese-speakers entering Canada than arrive from the People’s Republic of China (a.k.a. Mainland China). When we add in arrivals from Taiwan and Hong Kong, we’re very near total arrivals speaking Chinese as their mother tongue. Nevertheless, there are still a few Chinese-speakers to spare! The Chinese diaspora extends to other countries (e.g. Singapore), so this makes sense.


Let’s look at the Philippines! This was actually the case that motivated my post, insofar as I saw Ilocano listed as one of the top 25 mother tongues of arrivals to Canada in 2016, and in my ignorance, I must confess that I had never heard of the language before. If wikipedia is to be believed, it’s the third-most spoken language in the Philippines, after Tagalog (which I knew) and Cebuano (which I did not know). Unfortunately, only Tagalog and Ilocano are recorded as mother tongues in the top 25 for immigrants to Canada. But let’s see how well they cover arrivals from the Philippines…


It looks like Tagalog is the mother tongue for the vast majority of immigrants from the Philippines, but recently Ilocano has been added. A number of other Filipino languages probably make up the balance (there are twelve indigenous languages listed as per wikipedia, and English and Spanish are also commonly spoken). Though Tagalog is dominant, Tagalog alone will not catch all immigrants from the Philippines. Good to know!

What about India? Holy smokes! Talk about complicated! Due to the partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan (and then Bangladesh), there’s simply no easy way to contain languages within India. At the same time, there are a LOT of languages to deal with. Here I chart India, Pakistan and Bangladesh together against the many subcontinent languages to make up the top 25 for immigrants to Canada.


Once again, it’s a pretty good match. In the early years, it appears some migrants speaking the subcontinental languages involved arrive from outside India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Sri Lanka accounted for some of the Tamil-speaking migrants. More recently, it would appear I’m still missing some mother tongues by only tracking the languages in the top 25. India is a motherland with a lot of mother tongues!

What I also find intriguing is that the linguistic variation in migrants does not track the overall prevalence of languages in each sending country. What’s going on? Linguistic selection! We can see this especially insofar as Canada constitutes a real destination for Punjabi migrants from India. We can also see this insofar as the Philippines is increasingly sending migrants speaking its third (but not second) most common mother tongue. And of course selection has long been an issue for Chinese dialects (For instance, Cantonese is only now being replaced by other dialects here in Vancouver).


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:


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!


Losing my religion

From the start, sociologists have been fascinated with how city-living influenced morality, religion, and mental life. Even medieval proto-sociologists, like Ibn Khaldun, wrote about the “natural groups” of Bedouins and sedentary town folk, chastising the latter for the corrupt state of their souls:

Sedentary people are much concerned with all kinds of pleasures. They are accustomed to luxury and success in worldly occupations and to indulgence in worldly desires. Therefore, their souls are colored with all kinds of blameworthy and evil qualities. The more of them they possess, the more remote do the ways and means of goodness become to them. Eventually they lose all sense of restraint. [link]

Where Khaldun saw moral decay in the settled urban life, Simmel (1903) saw the rise of individualism and a blasé attitude.

If one asks for the historical position of the two forms of individualism which are nourished by the quantitative relation of the metropolis, namely, individual independence and the elaboration of individuality itself, then the metropolis assumes an entirely new rank order in the world history of the spirit. The eighteenth century found the individual in oppressive bonds which had become meaningless-bonds of a political, agrarian, guild, and religious character. They were restraints which, so to speak, forced upon man an unnatural form and outmoded, unjust inequalities.

Put differently, Khaldun and Simmel roughly agree on the underlying urban dynamics, if not on their desirability. Left to its own devices, city-living reduces the hold of organized religion upon the soul. And yet, the very organization of religion demands a certain gathering together of like-minded people. In effect, organized religion requires the kind of density only really found in cities. Bit of a conundrum.

At any rate, this is really just setting up my curiosity over how religion is distributed by metropolitan area in Canada. Unlike in the US, we’ve got Census data (or in the case of 2011, National Housing Survey Data) on religious affiliation. It’s definitely not the same as religiosity or fervor or spiritual life. But it does tell us something about the reach of organized religion. As it turns out, all across Canada, most Canadians still have some religious affiliation.



Quebec remains decidedly Catholic, even if in many cases this marks more of a cultural affiliation than any belief or strict adherence to dogma. The vast majority of Quebecois still identify as Catholic, even in Montreal (64%), the Canadian capital of all things blasé. Nevertheless, Montreal, like other big (one million plus) metros, is far more diverse in the kinds of religion people practice than the rest of Quebec, with vibrant Jewish and Muslim communities. Metro Toronto adds large Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist constituencies to the mix, and is also (no surprise) decidedly less Catholic than Montreal.

In general, moving westward from Toronto, metropolitan residents are more and more likely to have no religious affiliation whatsoever. At the far western edge of Canada, little Victoria is the least religious of all, with fewer than half of its residents declaring any affiliation! Of note, Vancouver remains the least religious of the big metro areas, beating out Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal in roughly that order and following a West to East trajectory. Kind of interesting!

Yet Vancouver is also the most Sikh and most Buddhist part of Canada. Here the gateway status of Vancouver mixes in interesting fashion with its history of immigration. This leaves open an interesting question. As different immigrant groups arrive in Vancouver, are they making it more religious? Does Vancouver’s overwhelming secularism affect minority communities the same way it does everyone else? Or are new religious communities expanding in Vancouver as different groups gain density and the ability to organize more effectively?

Here I’ll just use visible minority status as an (imperfect) shortcut for different groups in Vancouver, breaking down religious affiliation accordingly, and comparing to the distribution we see across Canada.


The figure above really demonstrates the assortment of religious tradition by different minority groups (as well as non-minorities). South Asians in Metro Vancouver are much more Sikh than in the rest of Canada. Arabs and West Asians are mostly – but not entirely – Muslim just about everywhere you go. South Asians, Filipinos, and Arabs are the most religious minority groups, despite their differing religious profiles. By contrast, Chinese and Japanese minority groups are the least religious (in marked contrast to Koreans – see the research of Judy Han on this, or just watch Kim’s Convenience).

Vancouver as a big metro area really is less religious, across nearly every visible minority group, than we see for Canada as a whole. The proportion of people identifying as having “No Religious Affiliation” averages almost 50% higher across visible minority categories in Vancouver, as compared to Canada.

Why? Good question. Has Vancouver led us to become too “accustomed to luxury and success in worldly occupations and to indulgence in worldly desires,” As Khaldun might have it? Or maybe Vancouver is just the Canadian epicentre of, “individual independence and the elaboration of individuality itself,” as suggested by Simmel. That western gradient might suggest a potent mixture of frontier-mythologizing, migrant self-selection, and Simmel-style urbanism at work. But I have to admit, I’ve got no problem going with Khaldun if it means I can pit local churches, mosques, and temples against the sheer ubiquity of Vancouver’s fancy sports cars.

Ok, here’s REM:



The World Comes to Canada

New immigration figures have come out from the 2016 Canadian Census! I should know: I spent three hours Wednesday talking about them on local CBC afternoon radio shows across Canada. To modify the great Johnny Cash…

I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere…

I’ve been to Toronto, London, St. John’s, Halifax, New Brunswick, Cape Breton, Saskatchewan, Winnipeg, Yellowknife, Calgary, and Montreal.

I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere…

I gave a couple of interviews in Vancouver too, but here people just want to talk to me about housing!

Back to immigration, mostly I was working off the handy Statistics Canada press release from that morning. My main takeaways were that:

  1. Immigrants to Canada look increasingly like a little miniature version of the world. For instance, our three biggest senders include the two biggest countries in the world (+ the Philippines)
  2. Immigrants to Canada are increasingly by-passing the big gateway cities (Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal) and distributing themselves more broadly – especially into the Prairie provinces. Calgary, for instance, now well surpasses Montreal in terms of the proportion of its population foreign-born (29%)!
  3. Big Canadian cities continue to get more diverse. Most big Canadian metros now approach one quarter of their population made up of immigrants, with Toronto and Vancouver closing in on half (46% & 41%). Toronto continues to serve as the main gateway to the world, with Vancouver as a secondary gateway to the Pacific Rim and Montreal as a special gateway with a decidedly French password.

Unfortunately, I really didn’t get a lot of time to play around with immigration data on my own before talking to everyone about the Statistics Canada reports. This is always a little bit worrying: what if I missed something in my coverage? Finally, two days later, I’m checking my work a bit. Mostly it seems to hold up!

Here’s a simplified distribution of Canada’s new immigrants (arriving 2011-2016) according to birthplace from our last census compared to the distribution of the population of the world (2017 data from the Population Reference Bureau).


Recent Arrivals to Canada really do look a lot like a miniature version of the World as a whole! That’s pretty cool. Most of the variation I can make out concerns Canada attracting slightly MORE immigrants than might be expected from:

  • The Caribbean   (hello Haiti & Jamaica)
  • West Central Asia and the Middle East   (a warm welcome to Syrian refugees!)
  • Southeast Asia   (the Philippines is an emigration powerhouse)

On the other hand, Canada attracts slightly FEWER immigrants than might be expected from:

  • Eastern Asia
  • Southern Asia

Why are so few Eastern and Southern Asians coming to Canada relative to their proportions in the world as a whole? From the perspective of Vancouver, of course, that seems like a decidedly weird question. Different cities get different mixes of immigrants in Canada, and Vancouver remains the Gateway to the Pacific Rim. Let’s look at the city breakdown.


No surprise: the distribution of immigrants into Vancouver is decidedly Asian – and especially East Asian. Toronto’s newcomers also look quite Asian in origin, but more South Asian than East Asian, and Toronto remains more diverse overall. Still, it seems the African, European and American immigration streams remain a little squished in Toronto relative to the world’s population as a whole. Not so in Montreal! There streams are dominated by arrivals from the Americas, Africa, and Europe in proportions exceeding the world population. Thanks for balancing us out, Montreal! I added Calgary to the mix too, and Calgary really demonstrates how Southeast Asians (again, especially Filipinos) are really filling out Canada’s labor needs as fast the opportunities arise to do so. Otherwise Calgary, like Toronto, looks pretty darn diverse!

Just to demonstrate where immigrants are arriving from in conjunction with where they’re going to, I’ve re-plotted immigrant origins by destinations below, separating out the big gateway cities (I’m adding you, Calgary, because you really shine in this census release. I’m expecting a special thanks from mayor Naheed Nenshi!)


Most recent immigrants are still arriving through the big Gateway cities of Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. But these metros are no longer dominating migration quite as much as they used to, and where groups go really varies by their region of origin. Some groups, like immigrants arriving from Southeast Asia, are mostly avoiding the big Gateway cities, heading instead to Calgary and other places actively attempting to recruit them via new and improved provincial migration programs.

And with that, I bid our new immigrants welcome! And I offer up the full version of that Johnny Cash song.

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…)


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:


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.


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:


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!

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.