Fleeing Millennial Zombies

We are plagued with zombie factoids. You can kill them over and over again with evidence of their falsehood, but they keep resurrecting and coming back because they fit prevalent narratives.

The “fleeing millennial” is one of Vancouver’s key zombie factoids. The basic idea is that the city is getting so expensive that it’s driving out millennials. Vancouver is sacrificing its own future! The detritus of uneaten avocado toast will ruin our tidy streets! (I kid, that’s what seagulls are for). The problem with this factoid is that it’s false. I’ve previously attempted to kill this idea here, here, here, and here. But it keeps coming back. It’s a zombie; undead and on the lookout for brains to eat.

As factoids go, this one highlights a real and pressing problem: the local unaffordability of housing. But it does so in a misleading and harmful fashion. It’s misleading because there is NO data anywhere suggesting that we’re selectively losing people in the age groups reasonably corresponding to millennials. It’s harmful because every time it re-appears, the fine print reveals that it necessarily valorizes some millennials over others.

The most recent resurrection of the fleeing millennial zombie factoid arrives via the folks at Better Dwelling, running their headline: See Ya! Local Millennials Are Abandoning Toronto and Vancouver. The valorization of a particular set of millennials receives a nod in the headline: we’re dealing with “local” millennials. Within the body of the piece, this is fleshed out: we’re dealing with intraprovincial migration patterns, between Metro Vancouver and other parts of BC, and between Metro Toronto and other parts of Ontario. Intraprovincial migration leaves out international immigration and interprovincial migration, the two other main components of migration overall (as described by Statistics Canada). Given that Toronto and Vancouver are Canada’s premier gateway cities, this is a pretty big oversight! Immigrants flood into these cities, with some staying while others move on to other parts of Canada.

I’ll come back to this problem, but let’s start with Better Dwelling’s focus, on intraprovincial migration. Can I replicate their findings drawing upon Statistics Canada components of population change data (StatCan 051-0057)? Nope.


I can get the same pattern, but not the same numbers. Here’s what I get looking at intraprovincial migration (summing net change for the years and age groups covered and adding the historical context from 2002-2007 just because it’s there!) This worries me a bit, and I asked Better Dwelling for clarification, but they have yet to respond (I also checked my numbers with the ever-helpful Jens over at MountainMath, who also couldn’t reproduce Better Dwelling’s numbers).

At any rate, the pattern is the same. But the pattern is misleading. After all, we’re only looking at a single component of migration. What happens if we add them all in?


Wow. That looks quite different! If anything, net migration from millennials (age 20-34) is soaring to all new heights in the latest five year period estimation. It’s just that intraprovincial migration has a slight drag on this pattern (compared to a more steady drag across other age groups). What to make of this?

As a gateway city, Vancouver’s population growth is driven first and foremost by international migration. Both interprovincial and intraprovincial migration play a role at the margins. We are definitely not losing millennials. But what about the claim that we’re losing “local” millennials? It’s a weird claim. It’s likely the case that many of the millennials showing up as international migrants in one period might later show up as intraprovincial or intraprovincial migrants in another. Ideally that’s what gateway cities do: take in huge numbers of migrants, keep some, and send others toward the broader set of communities in the province (and the rest of Canada) looking for workers and growth. Personally, I happen to know at least one Chinese immigrant to Vancouver now working and residing in Kelowna. It might be fun to break down intraprovincial migration by place of birth or the like, but absent that kind of careful analysis there’s no reason to imagine intraprovincial migration patterns identify “locals” or are uniquely informative about the state of millennials in Vancouver or Toronto.

As a methodological aside, it also feels a little odd to sum up the components of growth from Statistics Canada models in the time periods specified without acknowledging that they’re calibrated to the census years (2001, 2006, 2011, 2016). So 2012-2017 provides an estimated breakdown of components of change drawn from the combination of a 2011-2016 comparison with various sources of administrative data. The 2016-2017 estimations are especially subject to change! Still, it’s neat to see how Stats Can does this work. As a bonus, here’s what you get in terms of Statistics Canada’s model of population change by age group in Metro Vancouver moving forward from the the Census year (2016) to the next (2017), but setting births aside.


What really jumps out is the contribution non-permanent residents are making! They don’t show up in net migration figures here, but wow! Look at how much they’re contributing to growth, especially in the late teens. See the CMHC’s write-up about the effects non-permanent residents might be having on housing demand, but keep in mind that many will transform (like I did) into permanent residents.

And in the meantime: watch out for zombies! Don’t let them near your brains!


[UPDATE: May 25th, 2018. This blog post was combined with a couple of others in its own The Tyee article! No, Vancouver Is Not Losing Its Millennials. Thanks to awesome local reporter Christopher Cheung for reaching out and pulling that together. After the Tyee piece went up, I’m told that Better Dwelling contacted them to report that they’d used the CANSIM table 051-0060 rather than CANSIM 051-0057, as above. This seems to explain the disjuncture in specific numbers, which is good! But the problems with ignoring interprovincial and international migration of millennials remain. Also, CANSIM 051-0060 covers a HUGE amount of territory. Rather than just looking at Metro Vancouver, it looks at an economic region defined as the “Lower Mainland-Southwest, British Columbia.” Unlike a metro regions, which build their integrity largely around daily commute-sheds, economic regions seem to work more like ways of dividing up the entire country into manageable, if somewhat arbitrary, contiguously defined units. So the economic region of “Lower Mainland-Southwest” combines the Census Divisions of Greater Vancouver, the Fraser Valley, the Sunshine Coast, and Squamish-Lillooet. Full Statistics Canada map here (it’s big!). The Immigration Settlement and Integration Program (ISIP) has put up a smaller map illustrating the economic regions of BC which I borrow below, showing what nice things you can do when you work to recognize and welcome international immigrants!]


BC Regions Map



Talking cool old maps

Here’s my talk from February 2018 for the Vancouver Historical Society, now preserved for posterity! I was really delighted to receive the invitation, and the crowd was fun. I’d really encourage others to check out their series of talks.

I concentrated on the earlier sections of my book, and found an awesome old fire insurance map of land use for downtown Vancouver in 1889, available at the Vancouver Archives. I used it as an illustration of how land uses mixed in Vancouver’s early years, much to the concern of reformers and the evolving middle class. Now, of course, it’s the block of Chinatown bounded by Main St (then Westminster) between Keefer and Pender (then Dupont). I’m hopeful I can track down more of these maps soon. Tips welcome!



Overbuilding vs. Undercounting

As mentioned in my previous post, the sensational claim that Vancouver has built 1.19 dwelling units for every new household added since 2001 has been making the rounds, leading many people to suggest Vancouver has over-built for the past fifteen years. We don’t need any more supply, they suggest! First, make better use of what we’ve got!

Here I want to offer an alternative theory: We haven’t been overbuilding at all. But we have been undercounting.

First let me reproduce the numbers behind the claim. Here’s what happens when we compare counts of dwellings in 2001 and 2016 to counts of households across the same years.


Sure enough, Vancouver clocks in at a ratio of 1.19 Newly Counted Dwellings to Newly Counted Households between 2001 and 2016. BUT two things bear observing. 1) Vancouver isn’t especially unusual in this regard, and 2) I used the words “Newly Counted” rather than “Newly Built” for a reason.

It’s hard to count dwellings. I used to work cleaning up census data for public release as a post-doc with the Minnesota Population Center (beloved home of IPUMS census microdata files freely available to everyone). As a result, I have some idea how messy census data can be. Counting people is difficult at the scales at which censuses operate. Counting and classifying dwellings is only the first part of that endeavor. But every census year, the folks at Statistics Canada work toward getting better and better at their jobs. Everyone there deserves a raise!

Unfortunately, sometimes when people at the Census get better at counting, it screws up our ability to perform decent historical comparisons using the data. (A similar problem, of course, plagues homeless counts). In 2001 and again in 2006, the people working on the Canadian Census tried out some new techniques for counting dwellings. They footnoted these techniques, and raised flags about data comparability (for more follow-up on the links above), but I don’t think anyone has adequately accounted for their effects on our estimates of occupancy rates. So let’s do a little comparison. Here’s the proportion of dwellings occupied by usual residents from 1991-2016.


Notice how EVERY single one of our top fifteen metropolises shifts down together in occupancy between 1996 and 2006? By 2011, nowhere in the country had an occupancy rate anywhere near the (frankly unrealistic) highs of 1996. That’s a big old red flag that the methods Statistics Canada incorporated into the census for counting dwellings across these years underwent some pretty important changes, challenging comparability across different Censuses.

So, if friends shouldn’t let friends run historical comparisons of Dwelling Occupancy (by usual residents) using the 2001 and 2006 census years, then what data SHOULD we use to assess new supply? Fortunately, we have CMHC construction data! This is provided to Statistics Canada via surveys of municipal permits. Not all metro areas have this data made public, but metro Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Winnipeg do! Let’s test construction against some census data, shall we?

First, let’s look at completions data (referring to new dwelling units added to the market) for five year periods. How well does this compare with the number of people who report living in a new dwelling unit in the Census at the end of the period? I matched up the timelines for census data (which always uses the past five years leading up to the Census, which happens in May) and completions data (reported on a monthly basis). Are we building a lot of homes that no one reports living in?


Wow! Quite the opposite, it would seem. In early census years, more people report living in new homes than we have permitting data for.* Nevertheless, overall there’s a very close match between permitting data for new homes completed and census data on who reports living in a new home! This makes me feel better about both data sources. I read this to suggest that the permitting data is probably our best source for how much new housing we’re adding in a given metro area. For sure, it may miss internal subdivision of units and other sneaky additions that can be made to our housing stock, but it probably captures most new supply. Moreover – and this is important – very few new homes would appear to be empty – or even occupied by anything but their usual permanent residents. What do you know? When you build new homes for people, they report moving into them!

Ok, ok, so people like new homes. But what about the old homes destroyed to make the new homes? Good question. We haven’t really matched up new households between census years to new building stock yet. With both completions and demolitions data we should be able to track how many net dwellings we’re adding. I’m having a hard time getting all of the demolitions data I’d like, but drawing from the Metro Vancouver housing data books from 2010 and 2017, I can pull together enough demolitions data to get us back to 1999, and then impute the rest of the way back to 1996. Let’s compare new households counted across census years to net dwellings constructed during the same time periods** in Metro Vancouver. Just for kicks, we’ll throw in the additional number of dwellings counted during the same period.


Wow! New households occupied by usual (or normal) residents very closely tracks net construction (completions – demolitions). In recent years, the relationship is almost one to one. In earlier years, we actually added more new households than we did net permitted housing units. Why? Well, we probably found and/or counted some new households living in basement suites and other internal subdivisions not captured by the permitting data. After all, the census would appear to be getting better and better at finding these things! Yay!

Key points for the day:

  1. Census workers should be paid more.
  2. Friends don’t let friends use intercensal comparisons of dwelling counts to establish trends during years when dwelling count procedures change.
  3. People move into new housing when we build it!
  4. There is very little “slack” in the relationship between household formation and supply of housing in Vancouver – so adding new supply is definitely something we should be looking to do.


* could be a weighting issue, an inaccurate reporting issue, or an incomplete permitting data issue.

**- this time I’m being a little more conservative in matching, using net data on previous years and just ignoring the period from Jan-May of the census year in gathering completion data.

[Thanks to Richard Wittstock for sharing his spreadsheet on permitting data, which helped me track down sources for the above!]

[Addendum, Dec. 4th, footnoting sources: After some frustration trying to find dwelling and occupied by usual resident household data for 1996 and 1991, I used hard copies of Census reports for 1991 and 1996 from UBC Library to find dwelling count data, then compared to household counts from Census reports in on-line community profiles to find households occupied by usual residents. This looks notably different from results produced by Andy Yan in the Vancouver Sun earlier this year. His results – for Vancouver only – look much more realistic! The underlying issues with comparing dwelling counts across 2001 and 2006 census years remain (though the trend may vary – in Andy’s data there’s actually a marked drop in non-occupied units in 2001, which I find fascinating), but I’m following up to try and track down better stats on these years. Other sourcing and data matching should be apparent from the descriptions above, but it’s worth noting that the proportion of residents identifying themselves as living in housing built in the five years leading up to each census comes mostly from census profiles, drawn from census long-form information, weighted to reflect households. I also drew this data from on-line analyses using UBC’s subscription to the CHASS interface with public-use census micro-data for some earlier years. Then I compared these figures to Metro Area-specific construction data for the five years leading up to the Census, including the months of January-April in the Census Year itself. Censuses, of course, are usually carried out in May. I was more conservative in estimating net dwellings constructed, counting only completed units up to the year ahead of the census year rather then extending into May, which allowed me to link up yearly demolitions data from Metro Handbook(s) – linked above. This means there may be slightly more net units added over a given time period – four months worth – than are tracked here. At the same time, I’m not entirely certain how and when newly constructed units get added to Census counts of dwellings and households in the process of preparing the Census! I’d really love to get a better handle on how Census counts of dwellings work… and possibly fail to work… in a practical and time-lined sense. I’m a big fan of their illustrations for how to classify units! Aren’t they vaguely adorable?]

Media Coverage of My Book

The Death and Life of the Single-Family House: Lessons from Vancouver on Building a Livable City (winner of the John Porter Tradition of Excellence Book Award from the CSA) has now been covered by:

BOOK REVIEWS (as of Jan 4th, 2018)

  • BOOK REVIEW: Contemporary Sociology 47(1) – 2018 – Brian J. McCabe
  • BOOK REVIEW: Journal of Urban Affairs TBD – 2018 – Wayne Beggs
  • BOOK REVIEW: Canadian Journal of Urban Research 26(1) – Summer 2017 – Joshua Evans
  • BOOK REVIEW: Choice 54(10) – June Issue (2017) – M. Gunter, Jr.
  • BOOK REVIEW: Spacing Vancouver (Feb 14, 2017) – Yuri Artibise
  • BOOK REVIEW: New York Journal of Books (Nov 28, 2016) – Marilyn Gates

TV/RADIO/PODCAST (as of Sept 30th, 2017)

  • Roundhouse Radio (The Real Estate Therapist, Sept 30, 2017) – Interview with Joannah Connolly.
  • Science for the People (podcast, Apr 28, 2017) – Interview with Rachelle Saunders
  • Metropolis (Metro podcast, Nov 28, 2016) – Interview with Luke Simcoe & Matt Elliott
  • Arts on Air (CiTR 101.9, UBC Arts podcast, Nov 28, 2016) – Interview with Rachel Sanders & Brittany Duggan
  • C-FAX Radio (1070 AM, Victoria, Nov 7, 2016) – Interview with Adam Stirling
  • 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 (re-posted Jan 19, 2017, in support of piece on home prices)
  • 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]

PRINT/ON-LINE (as of Jan 6th, 2017)


Pre-sale Media Coverage: The Death and Life of the Single-Family House

A few local media outlets have picked up interest in my book since I announced it was available for pre-sale on twitter and this blog.  On the one hand, this is great!  I really welcome the exposure for both the book and the ideas it contains.  On the other hand, I worry (together with my publisher’s media rep) about too much early exposure before the book is actually available (October!).  I don’t really know what the right balance is – we don’t get a lot of media training in academia – but I’ll keep working on figuring it out.  In the meantime, I ask for patience from interested reporters with my ham-fisted efforts to manage the roll out of the book and its ideas, and I’m hopeful interest continues into when the book is actually ready to fall into readers’ hands.

For now here’s the audio clip from a recent interview talking about my forthcoming book with Stephen Quinn on CBC’s On The Coast.  (Or you can just listen to the whole August 11th, 2016 show).  I’m a regular listener, so it was really fun to meet Stephen Quinn and Amy Bell and see the inside of the CBC studio. [Update: and here’s the CBC write-up].

Prior to the radio interview, Jen St. Denis also interviewed me about the book for the Metro News, in a nice little piece posted here.  I think the piece was good, but it’s worth making two quick clarifications:

1) The 80% of land base figure speaks to 80% of land set aside to support residential uses (rather than 80% of all land as a whole), and covers the municipality of Vancouver. Metro Vancouver has data on land use broken down by municipality (and a lot of other data besides!)  Also Jens von Bergmann over at MountainMath (mentioned in the piece) has a beautiful map breaking down land use by lot within the City of Vancouver, which everyone should check out.  It really demonstrates just how much land has been set aside for single-family detached houses (almost entirely in protected RS zones, though there are also duplexes in RT zones and houses in Shaughnessy included, along with a scattering of old houses remaining in places unprotected by zoning).

2) The accompanying photo for the piece, as multiple people have pointed out, looks like it was taken at Mole Hill, which is a lovely little development preserving and rehabilitating old houses downtown by subdividing them up into apartments.  To be clear, the census would not consider these to be single-family detached houses, nor would the city.  But the ambiguity of how they LOOK like houses (and very photogenic ones at that) is really interesting.  This speaks to the focus of my first chapter in the book, laying out just what we talk about when we talk about single-family detached houses, and how the legal categories don’t always match people’s lay understandings of what counts as a house.  It also speaks to the many possibilities for subdividing existing houses to support more households – if zoning laws were modified to allow such a thing (it’s already the case, of course, that most RS zoned lots in Vancouver can now already support up to three households through secondary suite and laneway housing provisions).


Participate in the 2016 Symposium on Housing Research in BC

The Pacific Housing Research Network (PHRN) is a collection of scholars and practitioners in the field of housing in British Columbia [full disclosure: I sit on the steering committee]. It’s a great organization to be a part of, and I’ve really enjoyed and benefited from all the connections I’ve made through the Network. For the last couple of years, they’ve been working together with the BC Non-Profit Housing Conference to bring greater exposure to local housing research.  Just out now is their Call for Abstracts for those interested in participating in the November, 2016 PHRN research symposium.

PHRN is seeking housing research and examples of promising practices from community-based practitioners, academics (including graduate students), and government researchers from across housing sectors (i.e., policy, technical, cultural, health, social services, political, economic, social) who will help draw the connections between research and practice in creating affordable housing. The Symposium will include research presentations, panel discussions, and networking opportunities.

See the full details here!  Submissions due June 1st!