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.

squatters-shacks-stanleypark

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!

 

BIG questions on Global TV

Including: do I really look like that?  Do I really sound like that?

globalnewstalkinghead

Actually, this turned out to be more of a pleasure than I anticipated. Even the make-up part! The make-up artist put me at ease and went out of her way to help me get some tea before my appearance. All in all, a very friendly crowd there at Global.  Click here for the full interview, or just click on the image above.

As noted, I’ll be providing a closing keynote address on Thursday for the upcoming Vancouver Re:Address summit on Housing Affordability.  My research and forthcoming appearance at the summit was also recently covered by Stephanie Ip at the Vancouver Sun (a former student – one of three now working in media who’ve recently interviewed me – how cool is that?).  What’s more, my own copies of my book finally arrived in the mail this week!  Hooray!  The roll-out keeps rolling along.  [UPDATE: and Christopher Cheung, another former student turned talented urban journalist, has a thoughtful write-up of my book here, fresh off the press!]

[UPDATE: I’m going to keep a more systematic list of media coverage below, mostly for my own purposes, and in order to keep the entire blog from focusing solely on my media blitz, but feel free to check out the links!  I’ve moved this to a separate, standalone post as of Nov. 1st]

The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City has now been covered by:

PRINT/ON-LINE

TV/RADIO/PODCAST

  • CBC Radio (The 180, Oct 30, 2016) – Interview with Jim Brown
  • Global TV (Global News at Noon BC, Oct 21, 2016) – interview with Sophie Lui
  • Business News Network TV (Oct 14, 2016) – interview
  • CKNW/Omni Radio (The Jon McComb Show, Oct. 12, 2016) – interview with Jon McComb
  • Vancouver Real Estate Podcast (Oct 5, 2016) – interview with Matt and Adam Scalena
  • CBC Radio (On the Coast, Aug 11, 2016) – interview with Stephen Quinn [listen to just my clip here]

Q&A on The Death and Life of the Single-Family House

Sandwiched between my teaching duties, my attempts to roll out the book, and my unhealthy obsession with the US election, I haven’t had much time to contribute commentary here on the blog about the many recent and ongoing developments concerning housing here in Vancouver, and across Canada more broadly.  Lots of new moves from taxing vacant homes in the City of Vancouver to tightening CMHC mortgage lending rules all across the country.

But back to my book…

DeathLifeHouseCover

…the roll out continues!  And today the book was featured in a UBC Media Release.  This was an edited Q&A, along with edited video of me talking in front of some houses in the University Endowment Lands (UEL).  For those interested, I’m providing the full Q&A below, with questions posed by UBC Media Relations (mostly the very helpful Thandi Fletcher):

In your book, you make the case that single-family houses are bad for the environment, urban vitality and people’s health. Why is this?

Let’s take these one at a time: With respect to the environment, the development of single-family houses directly consumes an enormous amount of land for suburban or ex-urban style sprawl, disrupting and displacing prior ecologies. By virtue of sprawl, houses also encourage people to drive everywhere, boosting greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, houses generally require more energy to heat and cool than other types of dwelling, further leading to greater greenhouse gas emissions. Just about any way you look at it, single-family houses tend to be bad for the environment.

Strikingly, detached houses also tend to deaden city life. Houses are generally surrounded by more houses, with lots of private space and very little public space. Mostly you don’t run in to anyone you don’t already know. Urban vitality thrives when the private and public are more balanced: when people have places to go and things to do near where they live and they can walk or bike or take transit to get there. All of these ways of getting around put people in contact with one another and make for an engaging environment where people can go simply to watch other people.

Of course walking and biking are good ways to get around not just because they provide for more urban vitality. These kinds of activities are good for us because they keep us healthier. Denser, more vital, and more walkable environments encourage healthier habits. Single-family houses don’t tend to get us out and about as often.

A lot of people are still emotionally invested in the idea of owning a single-family house. They grew up in one and can’t imagine not also raising their families the same way. What do you say to them?

The first thing I say to them is that they are not alone. Culturally, many people have come to think of the house as an important symbol of success. Many others see acquiring a house as an important aspect of taking proper care of their children. No one wants to be viewed as a failure or a bad parent.

But the second thing I say to people who can’t imagine doing without a house is that they might try letting their imaginations run a little more wild. Vancouver actually provides a wonderful environment for re-thinking what’s important, both in terms of broader cultural understandings of success, and in terms of everyday aspects of livability. Most of the people who live here, including parents with children, have made a home without a house.

What’s more there is real strength in diversity. In that sense I won’t suggest a single optimal alternative to the single-family house. We have people who really enjoy high-rise living and others who thrive better in low-rise neighbourhoods. We have people who love the yard access and porch feel of some of our newer townhouses, and others who prefer the character of life in our older, subdivided mansions. There are lots of lovely ways to make a home, which is one reason we shouldn’t reserve nearly all of our urban land for only one way, like we do now.

Density is often perceived as a bad word in Vancouver. What is your response to anyone who is opposed to densification?

My first response is to bring history back into the picture. Densification used to be a normal part of urban growth, particular when land markets were left to their own devices. The prospect of having little control over one’s neighbours frightened residents of the city – especially the elites and those in the rising middle class. A factory or saloon could move in next door. The owner of a wealthy mansion nearby could subdivide their property and turn it into a hotel. These things happened a lot in old Vancouver. Single-family residential zoning was, in large part, an effort to preserve some space for residential life outside of the workings of the urban land market. So what I like to call a Great House Reserve was put in place all around the city.

So how did that turn out? Through subsequent regulation, city life became cleaner, quieter, and much more livable. Vancouver figured out how to do urban livability especially well, and more people here live outside of the single-family areas than in them. But taming the land market within the city led to its revenge in the suburbs. Single-family houses have moved well beyond the means of ordinary Vancouverites.

For those opposed to densification, I’d agree that we don’t need high-rises everywhere. We want to keep Vancouver both livable and diverse in urban form. But we still have way too many houses to encourage that diversity. Even though Vancouver is a leader in this regard, we’ve still set aside some 80 per cent of our residential land base to support single-family houses. That’s huge! At this point, we’ve got the power of the city, through these old zoning by-laws, keeping anyone but multi-millionaires from settling down in these places. I don’t think the city should be doing that.

Some people view condos as lonely places, and social isolation has come up often as a complaint among people living in Vancouver. What is your response to this? Could more condos make for a lonelier city?

There are lots of things we can encourage besides condos. Indeed, the City of Vancouver is encouraging more purpose-built rental buildings. In the past, we’ve also had a variety of programs that helped people form housing cooperatives. Cooperatives require people to work together to manage their buildings, directly countering social isolation. At the same time, they help preserve affordable living options in the city. We should be doing more of this to insure the choice isn’t simply between high-priced houses and luxury condos.

That said, there’s also no reason for us to believe that condos necessarily lead to a lonelier city. In fact, one of my livelier interviews involved a Vancouverite describing how close she’d become to her neighbours in her Yaletown condo building. She noted that everyone in her hallway left their doors open, and the kids ran back and forth between units, enjoying the communal nature of the space. Running counter to perceptions, many people described these kinds of communities developing in their buildings. More broadly, people also noted how they enjoyed running into the same people over and over at parks and playgrounds and local coffee shops. Generally speaking, mixed use urban density is a far better cure for social isolation than the largely privatized spaces of neighbourhoods dominated by single-family houses.

Do you think urban planners have made any mistakes in Vancouver’s development that have made the city less livable?

That’s an interesting question. There were some mistakes planners made everywhere across North America, and I would argue one of the biggest was creating the Great House Reserve and setting so much land aside for single-family houses. Beyond that, there were other mistakes planners really wanted to make in Vancouver, like bringing a freeway into the heart of downtown in the 1960s, that they were largely prevented from making. Since then the record of Vancouver’s planners has generally been far better, and I think they deserve a large share of the credit for the livability of the city. Vancouver has transitioned the furthest and fastest away from single-family houses of any major metropolis in North America while becoming a model for livability around the world. That’s a real achievement! But there are still issues that remain. The biggest of these is insuring livability for all residents, rather than just the most wealthy. Further enabling densification of single-family residential areas will go a long way toward opening up new market options for middle class Vancouverites. But we need a lot more non-market housing too.

What lessons can other cities learn from Vancouver on building a livable city?

I think Vancouver potentially has a lot of lessons to offer other cities. I like to think of these as building lessons. How do we move forward from the legacy of the Great House Reserves set up around cities all across North America? Vancouver figured out ways to build around this reserve, both in the old urban core of the city, and out in the hinterland. Buildings in the urban core provided the attractive living alternatives that characterize so much of Vancouver today. The big construction projects in the hinterland were the Agricultural Land Reserve and our many parks, which together protected much of the region’s land from further encroachment by suburban sprawl. Slowly but surely, Vancouver is also building over the old Great House Reserve, reincorporating this land back into the urban mix. Finally, Vancouver has renovated the very meaning of single-family residential neighbourhoods insofar as they’ve legalized secondary suites and laneway houses, transforming lots that initially could only support a single household into lots that can now support three. All of these building projects are things other metropolitan areas can also work toward.

The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: available for pre-sale!

Did you know that Vancouver has moved the fastest and the furthest away from reliance upon single-family houses of any metropolis in North America?  Only Montreal competes for the title of least house-dependent.  I have a new book coming out that traces the history of Vancouver’s dramatic transformation and describes its effects on residents, as detailed by interviews with locals. More broadly, the book makes the case that this is mostly a positive development, primarily dependent upon regulatory innovation, that has many lessons for other metropolitan areas across the continent.

The book, The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City, hits shelves on October 16th, but I’m happy to announce that it’s now available for pre-sale!  It will be part of the broader series by Temple University Press on Urban Life, Landscape, and Policy.

DeathLifeHouseCover

Click on the image link to see the promotional flyer, complete with a pre-sale discount code!  Please feel free to distribute the flyer widely!  The book is also now available for pre-sale via Amazon (Canada) , Amazon (USA), Bibliovault, and other related book sites, but you may not get the discount via these locations!

A taxing July: the BC Liberals look to property transfers involving foreigners

So… slow news month, eh?

At least for the moment I’m going to steer clear of writing about terrorist attacks, police shootings, shootings targeting police, and the rise of Donald Drumpf. Suffice it to say I think these are all terrible things.

What about recent attention to housing issues in Vancouver?

As it happens, there’s been a lot of news there too.  The BC Liberals* announced a surprise 15% property transfer tax bump for foreign buyers of residential properties, here defined as non-citizen, non-permanent residents.  That’s a big deal, amounting to an extra $90,000 on a $600,000 condo, or an extra $300,000 on a $2 million house (and if those prices seem ridiculously high to you, welcome to Vancouver!)  This right before they rolled out new data suggesting that about one in ten residential property purchases in Metro Vancouver are made by foreign buyers.

The Liberals were responding to a potentially powerful political issue and a lot of pressure regarding specific policy alternatives from academics, think-tanks, and their political rivals in the NDP.  I’ve liked a lot of these policies, but I’ve questioned the xenophobia that often characterizes the sales pitch.  So what to make of the BC Liberal response?

Well, they’ve gone their own way – never accept someone else’s proposal, I suppose – and in the process they’ve doubled down on the xenophobia, targeting foreigners directly (rather than, as some critics note, foreign money, though usually by way of suggesting they aren’t going to get all the foreign money).  They’ve also gone for an immediate big bang in focusing on the property transfer tax, and imposing the change on August 3rd without exempting deals in process.

By contrast, the wind down approach implied by property tax adjustments would likely have been less disruptive.  But in most versions it also would’ve meant  requiring current residents to deal with new administrative requirements reporting their income taxes paid as a means of receiving property tax exemptions.  (The basic idea involved a re-balancing of income taxes and property taxes so that everyone, including real estate investors, was contributing to supporting the government and you wouldn’t have to pay twice, both through income tax and property tax.  But really our property taxes are quite low, so there is a lot of room there to play around!)

So what kind of disruptions are we in for?  For the market as a whole, it’s hard to say.  I think Tom Davidoff and David Ley are right, that this will cool down the market.  Especially in conjunction with other moves to tighten control over real estate practices (for both realtors and banks) and enable municipalities to levy taxes on vacant homes as businesses.  Will the market crash hard?  That’s not clear.  Nor is it clear just how easy it will be for foreign investors to get around regulations.  For investors right here at home, of course, it’s pretty easy.  But can they rely upon continuing to attract funds and buyers from elsewhere to pump up properties given the new regulatory landscape?  I tend to doubt it.  I think we’re in for a cooling market, which is probably a good thing for stability, but could potentially turn very cold very quickly.

What kind of disruptions are others in for?  For immigrants in the middle of moving to Vancouver and closing a purchase, I’m actually pretty sympathetic.  This is a big hit with little warning.  It’s going to hurt a lot of immigrants who don’t yet have their permanent residency worked out. It may also hurt international recruiting for many positions, including with my own employer (Full Disclosure: I worked for a couple of years at UBC on a work permit before establishing permanent residency – and I can attest that this isn’t an uncommon situation).  This is another trade-off in going with the property transfer tax instead of the property tax offset by income tax payments.  It doesn’t matter if foreigners earn their money and pay taxes locally under the BC Liberals new policy, they’re still considered foreign with respect to penalizing their purchase of housing.

It’s also worth noting that many immigrants work in real estate, as realtors, investors, and through developing their own “sweat equity” as upgraders and flippers, and this is in part because they encounter real difficulties in other professions.  They’re often invited as skilled laborers without being given a chance to demonstrate their skill.  Real estate has been one sector where immigrants could potentially thrive because of their transnational connections rather than in spite of them.

It’s probably a good thing to shift more people away from work in the real estate sector in Vancouver, but it will definitely be disruptive, and often to people who haven’t yet made much (or any) money.  To be clear, it may also be a good thing in the long run to impose a tax on residential purchases by those who have not yet made a commitment to Canada as a permanent resident or citizen.  I can see good reasons for that.  But in the short term, this is also a disruptive move, and too in-line with a broader turn toward xenophobia for my comfort.

Will this make housing more affordable?  Maybe.  But it depends upon the type of housing we’re talking about.  By the standard of rental affordability, Vancouver isn’t doing great, but in comparative perspective, it’s also not doing disastrously.  Hard to say what effects this will have on rentals.  By the standard of being able to afford a decent condo, prices will probably come down a bit, which hits current owners, but helps new buyers – a group sorely in need of consolation.  By the standards of being able to afford a single-family house on a middle-class income, I feel pretty comfortable predicting that we’re never going to be there again.  Knock a million dollars off the price of most single-family houses on my side of town and they’re still going to be well out of reach.  That’s not an immigrant question, that’s a land use question.

 

 

*-For non-locals, the BC Liberals are a centre-right party perhaps better generally described as neoliberal in ideology

Of Land and People as Legal Entities

Fiddlers green
Fiddler’s Green

An article in the NYTimes today notes that Lands and Rivers can now officially be granted the legal status of People in New Zealand. In many respects, this marks a significant legal victory for indigenous accounts of the world.  From the Times:

Chris Finlayson, New Zealand’s attorney general, said the issue was resolved by taking the Maori mind-set into account. “In their worldview, ‘I am the river and the river is me,’” he said. “Their geographic region is part and parcel of who they are.”

From 1954 to 2014, Te Urewera was an 821-square-mile national park on the North Island, but when the Te Urewera Act took effect, the government gave up formal ownership, and the land became a legal entity with “all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person,” as the statute puts it.

This is one of those cases where I know something important and interesting has occurred, but I’m not yet able to put my finger on why and how it matters beyond the symbolic victory.  Of course, corporations have also been granted many of the rights of legal personhood, with broad-reaching implications in the US, and it seems somewhat more constrained and careful implications in Canada.  We may a similar flourishing of new legal arguments in New Zealand – possibly extending to Canada.

Could this legal approach spread beyond New Zealand? Mr. Finlayson said he had talked the idea over with Canada’s new attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould.

Another interesting implication is how we understand, in a more general sense, what legal recognition of personhood might do to attempts to commodify land.  I like Karl Polanyi here, in his discussion of how both people and nature (as well as their productive capacities), became subject to fictional commodification (appearing as labour and land) in the broader unsettling history of attempts to govern by market. Do attempts to legally equate people and nature offer obstacles to processes of commodification?  How do they bump up against the granting of personhood to corporations, often see as part and parcel of commodification?  I don’t know yet.  But to the extent I can keep my eye on it, I bet it will be fun to see how it plays out.

In the meantime, it also makes me think of Fiddler’s Green, a character who is also a place, a place that decides to masquerade as a person, all reconciled as a dream in Neil Gaiman’s old Sandman series. So for that little reminiscence, I’m grateful.

Rent redux: now with comparative anecdotes!

In response to my recent analyses of rental affordability in a comparative context, a skeptical reader from Vancouver draws upon personal experience in noting:

I guess just I find this analysis and the chart it’s based on hard to believe.
I make about 57k a year and renting a ROOM in a crappy, old, noisy 2-bedroom apartment in Vancouver costs me near 50% of my take-home after-tax pay. I straight-up couldn’t afford a one-bedroom or even a room in a place built in the last 20 years. And it took two months of solid searching to luck out on this place… everywhere you go, potential renters are already lined up with forms and references in hand (as was I) and were attempting to out-bid the asking price and each other (something I couldn’t afford to do).
Maybe things are different for long-time tenants, whose prices fall under controlled increases, but for someone looking to enter a Vancouver rental anew, I found the crap-apartment prices to be on par with mortgage + strata payments for a better condo – something I’m debating doing if I stay in the city, although both options still seem far too expensive.

Thanks B Danyluk! Let me first reiterate my sympathy. Just because it might be better for renters in Vancouver than elsewhere across North America doesn’t mean it’s easy. And I’m entirely in support of efforts to improve the plight of local renters. Also, as I’ve noted before, I really appreciate these kind of comments based on real experiences. Anecdotes can be very useful.

In light of that last point, let me just direct attention to a couple of recent pieces highlighting the situation for renters in some of what the figures would suggest are the least affordable metro areas in North America:

What’s it like for a couple of new renters of decent means to look for an apartment in New York City? Sneak-preview: it ends with a one bedroom for $3,150 in Brooklyn.

What’s going on with rents across Silicon Valley?  What kind of rents would drive young Google employees toward activism on behalf of new rent control ordinances?

Here’s a quick summary from Miami – which I have to admit, I did not realize had issues before running the analysis – and here’s a longer profile of Miami renters, accompanied by more definitive comparisons across the USA. Note also the frank discussion of how different rental markets have emerged, with those targeting higher-income luxury renters seeing more development than for others.  The segmentation of markets lends credence to this quote from the President of the Florida Housing Coalition:

“People say if there really was a great need, the market would provide it; the market would correct itself. Well, the market has never corrected itself and it’s only getting worse.”

Markets don’t self-correct with everyone’s housing needs in mind, especially under circumstances of widening income inequality, and there’s also nothing singular about how they operate within cities. As a result, and as reflected by B Danyluk’s comment, overall market summaries sometimes obscure the many little corners where people get left behind. Of note, the NYTimes piece also provides a nice reference to this old 2013 study from the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.  And I’ll stop here before I depress myself with all the reading I need to catch up on.

On the bright side, it’s all interesting stuff. And if misery loves company, there’s pretty good evidence there are folks out there at least as miserable with their housing as what you can find in Vancouver.

Part II of 2BR Rent to HH Income Ratios: A Data Check

[*updated with better Vancouver income stats*]

As I noted yesterday, Vancouver really doesn’t look so unaffordable in comparative context if we use “renting a two bedroom apartment” as our base standard rather than “purchasing a single-family detached house.” Standards really matter, and the single-family detached house is a bad metric in this case – especially for a metropolis that is gradually moving toward a more sustainable alternative that might ultimately serve as an example for the rest of North America.

But I had some lingering concerns about the comparability of the data I used, especially for getting at median rents. To get at rents across the USA I used data from Zillow, which as I mentioned is not an entirely disinterested data provider and also gathers data based upon listings. This provides a nice snapshot of current conditions for prospective renters, but may dramatically overstate the rents for existing renters, who are often protected by contracts, rent controls (in some places), and relatively inattentive or otherwise satisfied landlord relationships. To get at rents across Canada, I used the CMHC’s primary rental market measure, which suffers from its own biases and is based largely on surveys of purpose-built rental building managers.

I wanted to check on my results by looking at something at data that might be a little more readily comparable, so I went back to census figures, drawn from microdata samples of the Canadian Census in 2011 and the American Community Survey (ACS) from the same year. I analyzed the data on-line using CHASS (unfortunately a subscription-based census analysis service I can reach through UBC) and IPUMS (a wonderful organization at the Minnesota Population Center, where I used to be a post-doc – anyone can get access to this data so long as you promise to use it for good and never for evil, which is an actual box they make you tick in your application). I obtained median rents for renters of two bedroom apartments in 2011, then I went back and compared these to the same median income figures for Households (from 2012, close enough!) [updated for better CMHC median household pre-tax total income figures] that I used in my last post.

The results:

Comparative-2BR-Rent-to-Income-2011censuscheck-updated

 

On the whole, I’d call this similar information to what I produced yesterday, but there are some important differences. When we look at estimates based on all existing renters (including public & private rentals) rather than listings, there is a LOT more compression in the median rents, which don’t jump around nearly as much as the rents charged for new listings on the market. But Vancouver hasn’t changed positions much in this chart relative to its position (in 2011) in the Zillow/CMHC-based longitudinal chart. LA, Miami, San Francisco, San Diego, and NYC all remain at the top in terms of the unaffordability of 2BR rentals. Other metros, including Seattle and Portland, look cheaper in this chart. But it’s worth noting that many of these cities also looked cheaper in 2011 in the old chart too, which only moved many of them ahead of Vancouver based on more recent data. My big takeaway: more data provides a better overall comparison, but still gives us the same basic story about Vancouver’s unaffordability crisis. Using metrics beyond ownership of a single-family detached house makes us look much more affordable in a comparative sense.

Quickest Fix for Vancouver’s Affordability Crisis: Change the Standard

[*updated with better income stats for Canadian metros*]

Every year (since 2005), the Demographia organization (think tank? consulting front?) comes out with its International Housing Affordability Survey, and every year Vancouver is ranked the most unaffordable housing market in North America (currently the third most unaffordable in the world! – or at least across the selection of countries compiled by Demographia). The results always make headlines in Vancouver, though sometimes a healthy dose of skepticism is applied. Regardless, I don’t think there’s a big problem with Demographia’s data. But I DO think there’s a problem with the standard they use to generate their findings. That standard, of course, is the single-family house.

Demographia uses the ratio of the median price of single-family detached houses to the median household income to create a “median multiple” measure of affordability. In their most recent study, the median cost of a single-family detached house ranged from 2.6 times median household income (in Buffalo, NY*) to 19.0 times the median household income (in Hong Kong). Metro Vancouver came in as the third most unaffordable, after Hong Kong and Sydney, with a median multiple of 10.8.

But what if we didn’t use ownership of a single-family house as the measure of what’s affordable? After all, why should this be the standard? To be clear, it’s not the standard for everyone, and it never has been. Poor people aren’t really part of the discussion for Demographia’s report, where the subtitle explicitly notes a focus on “middle-income” folks. The subtext for using the single-family house as a standard is that this is where middle class people should be able to live and what they should be able to afford. But as I discuss in my forthcoming book, The Death and Life of the Single-Family House, this is both unjust and generally a wrong-headed idea. Single-family detached houses are kind of bad for our cities, our lifestyles, and our planet.

But doesn’t this all trickle down? The degree to which the middle class can’t afford single-family houses – a normative life goal! – must indicate pain for everyone, right? Let’s see by looking at a different possible standard: the two bedroom apartment. What if we divided the median yearly rent of a two bedroom apartment by median household income?

Here’s what I get for major North American metropolitan areas:

Comparative-2BR-Rent-to-Income-updated

 

Changing the standard really changes the picture!

By this measure New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Miami all look like they’re converging at an exceptionally high rent-to-income ratio! By contrast, Vancouver is suddenly far, far down on the list of unaffordable metro areas, as of 2015 below both Seattle and Portland, its American sisters to the South. To be sure Vancouver remains the most expensive metropolitan area in Canada, but this just highlights the very different situations facing renters in Canada and the USA (or at the very least, different measurement issues: see more below).

To return to the theme: on the whole, different standards produce very different results. The most unaffordable metro area in North America using the “ownership of a single-family house” standard suddenly looks pretty average under the “rent a 2BR apartment” standard. The house standard makes San Francisco (3rd), NYC (7th), LA (5th), and Miami (8th) all look more accessible than Vancouver, but the 2BR rental standard leaves a decent lifestyle looking much, much farther out of reach in these locales. In fact, under the 2BR rental standard, unaffordability for Metro Vancouver looks even better than the situation for Metro Dallas or Metro Houston, each deemed perfectly affordable by Demographia’s house standard. It’s no wonder we’re not really seeing the flight of the millennials from Vancouver. The rent’s not too bad.

None of this is to suggest that Vancouver doesn’t have issues with affordability. It most certainly does. And renters also face a very tight market, with extraordinarily low vacancy rates (0.8% in 2015!) But Vancouver looks much better when we use a 2BR rental standard than when we use an owner-occupied single-family detached house standard. Once again, this speaks to the detachability of the detached house market in Vancouver from what’s going on elsewhere.

Why? Well, Vancouver is moving away from the single-family detached house as a standard and toward a different model – potentially a much better, more urban and more sustainable model. To be sure, it still has a long way to go, and all sorts of crazy things will keep happening in the single-family house market along the way. But the story of Vancouver, overall, is less about a painful housing market destroying EVERYONE’S hopes and dreams and more about providing an alternative model for how we should build cities and encourage people to live. Not everyone is going to like that new model, and we should keep tinkering with it to make it more just and more sustainable. But there are good reasons we shouldn’t be using the single-family detached house as a metric of where we want to be. It’s a dead end. When we use different metrics, Vancouver looks better and can keep improving.

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Now where did my data come from and should you believe it? As noted on the chart, for US metro areas, I drew upon median rental data for 2BR apartments available from Zillow a not entirely disinterested commercial provider. For Canadian metro areas, my rental data came from the CMHC. Here I used averages because I could easily find this data for multiple cities. Using medians would actually make Canadian cities look even more affordable compared to their US counterparts, since median rents tend to be lower than average (see Metro Vancouver’s posting of median rents in the area). For median household incomes, I drew upon Census reports in the US and Statistics Canada data (in this case bringing together economic families and people not in economic families to more or less equate with households, though this may (?) result in understating the household incomes of unrelated roommates) [*update: the link broke on the StatsCan data, so I’m now using CMHC data, for real median pre-tax household income, and have updated the chart accordingly – this actually improves Vancouver and other Canadian cities affordability. Thanks for note from Jens at Mountain Math for making me check this!*].  Census and Stats Can data is pretty solid, but I cannot fully vouch for comparability of the data from Zillow or the CMHC. In the former case, it’s because the data is proprietary, though it seems modeled mostly based on listings. In the latter case, it’s because of the restrictions placed on where the rental data comes from (“privately initiated apartment structures with at least three rental units”), an artifact of CMHC’s attempts to keep tabs on the primary rental market (see also their secondary market data, which includes rented condo units, but doesn’t distinguish by rooms in this time series).

Fewer houses, more models

Intrepid local reporter Christopher Cheung, a former student of mine who now often walks the housing beat in Vancouver, has a new piece in the Vancouver Courier on the local scale model building industry. It’s fun! And he came to me for some quotes, so I’m mentioned in there too. Why? Because the model industry has taken off in no small part due to Vancouver’s move away from the standardized single-family detached house.

The model-building industry is important precisely because of its role in providing tangible evidence for what new developments will look like – from the wide-angle view of a towering and all-powerful giant. Fortunately, this point of view is appreciated by developers, by financiers, by city officials, planners and regulators, and even by angry NIMBY neighbors. But let’s set aside for a moment how model-builders further stoke ego-inflation. What’s also key, I think, is understanding their role in almost totemically reducing the enormous uncertainties involved in development across a wide range of parties. As revealed in an earlier (and also quite good) piece on model builders in Vancouver, by Jesse Donaldson, this includes the set of pre-sale buyers increasingly needed to make a go of condo development.

In an early draft of my forthcoming book on the single-family house in Vancouver, I actually used a brief discussion of the model-building industry’s role within the complicated development industry as an entry into describing the very limited traction we get with rational choice and related rent gap models that assume everything can be costed out ahead of time in urban development. It can’t. It’s messy. There’s just way too much uncertainty involved (see, for instance, Shelley Kimelberg‘s great stuff for more on this). And in that sense, it’s often quite different from the more highly standardized detached house building industry.

Lots to play around with here, and hopefully some day I’ll get back to it! (I had to cut out about a third of my early manuscript, which really was WAY too long).  In the meantime it’s great that people keep writing about this stuff. And it’s also worth reading both articles on model-builders, in part because it’s just awesome that B&B Scale Models (profiled in the earlier Donaldson piece) has found its fiercest competitor in AB Scale Models (profiled in the Cheung piece).  Here I wish Chris had been just a little more hard-hitting in his reporting. What I want to know is:

Did AB Scale Models really choose its name just get under the skin of B&B Scale Models (and appear earlier in the phone book)? And are there secret scale model wars that take place between the two companies on the city streets at night? If so, who wins?