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.

 

Religion-Metro

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.

Religion-Metro-VisMin

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:

 

 

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

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

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

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

Mansions-Migrants-1-AgeLocation

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

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

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

Mansions-Migrants-2-Pob-Location

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

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

Mansions-Migrants-6-Percent-Pob-Location

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

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

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

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

 

Lottery winners of the Pacific Rim

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

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

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

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

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

Pacific-Rim-Comparison-Price

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

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

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

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

 

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

Why Keep Adding Empty Bedrooms?

I’ve been playing around with different ways to visualize bedroom data, and here I thought I’d just add one more, combining the data on housing stock by number of bedrooms by what (minimum) percent of bedrooms must be going empty for Canada and Metro Vancouver. I think this best demonstrates how Metro Vancouver has traded off its 3BR “Family Size” units for 5 BR “Super Size” units and bedrooms that largely go empty.

Bedrooms-Stock-by-Empty-2011

I won’t re-hash my previous two posts, but this is largely because of zoning forbidding the construction of townhouses and related forms of “family size” stock that could more efficiently use all the land currently being taken up by “super size” mansions. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that bedrooms are more often put to use in Vancouver than across the rest of Canada, and often times people are being creative in making the best use of mansions they can. But why not let other kinds of housing into Vancouver’s “Great House Reserve” to fill in the growing gap we’re seeing in “family size” units?

[UPDATE: My bedroom antics have now made their way into the Vancouver Sun and The Province along with my mug! And also onto Roundhouse Radio]

Empty Bedrooms?

I just can’t stay out of peoples’ bedrooms.

In my earlier post I noted how Vancouver is distinct in the degree to which it’s been trading more bedrooms within housing units (“Super Size” mansions!) for separate housing units of “Family Size.” This is an important part of the story of why Vancouver families feel like they’re being priced out of owning a home (for renting see here). When it comes to bedrooms, Vancouver really does have a “missing middle.”

With this post, I want to explore how bedrooms are getting used. Of course, we don’t have direct information about how people use bedrooms. But we can compare number of bedrooms to household size and get some sense of how empty or crowded rooms are likely to be. We can also compare bedrooms to household structure to get some sense of how creative people are being in filling up dwellings. More on that in a moment. First, let’s count some bedrooms!

Here I’m counting bedrooms as “used” if there’s at least one household member per bedroom. I count them as “extra”, or empty, if they remain left over after after all household members have been given a room. Finally, I count a bedroom as “crowded” if more than two household members would have to share it. Below I count number of bedrooms by unit size.

Empty-Bedrooms-2011

Once again, one thing that really jumps out here is the extent to which Vancouver is unusual in how many bedrooms are locked up in five bedroom, “Super Size” dwellings. Metro Vancouver is way outside the norm for Canada. By contrast, Metro Van has relatively fewer of the “Family Size” three bedroom dwellings that seem to be the workhorse for most of the nation.

What about the counts? I count 459,994 extra bedrooms across Metro Vancouver, estimating that about one-fifth of bedrooms remain empty. Compare this to the 66,719 unoccupied dwellings counted across the metro area, constituting just over one-in-twenty housing units. There are other, less conservative measures of empty bedrooms out there,* but any way you look at it, we have way more empty bedrooms than empty homes.

What’s also striking, though not especially surprising, is that the proportion of “extra” bedrooms rises with the total number of bedrooms in a dwelling in basically a linear fashion. So “Super Size” dwellings tend to have more empty bedrooms. By contrast, smaller dwellings have very few (those in occupied studio and 1BR dwellings, by definition, are always using all of their bedrooms). To put it differently, in Vancouver we have nearly twice the proportion of bedrooms remaining empty in 5 BR+ “Super Size” dwellings (28%) as have do in much smaller 2BR “Family Size” dwellings (15%). Again, this isn’t really a surprise: smaller dwellings are much more efficient ways to house people.

BUT given that we’ve reserved so much land for big, land-consuming houses, and given that so many of these have been turned into “Super Size” 5BR+ mansions, how are the residents of Vancouver dealing with the situation? Are they getting creative?

In my book, I detail the situation of one of my interviewees, a single mother who rented a mansion in a wealthy Vancouver neighbourhood. She couldn’t afford the place by herself, so she rented with a friend who was also a single-mother. Even together they still couldn’t afford the rent on their own, so to get by they also each kept boarders – mostly international students. I applauded the extremely creative way this mother figured out a solution to the housing situation she faced, re-purposing the “Super Size” mansion she lived in to make it work for her and a host of others.

How much of this creativity goes on in Vancouver? Let’s explore household type by bedrooms for residents of Canada at-large and Metro Vancouver in particular.

HHType-by-Bedrooms-2011

Here I’ve separated out in shades of drab gray the more boring kinds of households that we generally expect to find, including living alone, or living with a partner and/or children in a simple census-recognized family household. I’ve highlighted in color all of the more intriguing household combinations, including roommates, extended families, and everything in-between. Relative to the rest of Canada, Metro Vancouver demonstrates a lot more creativity in nearly every category, but it’s especially interesting how much creativity we see in filling up those “Super Size” mansions. Over 40% of residents are living in some kind of creative household, quite a bit higher than the 30% we see in the rest of the country. Lots of this may reflect the ethnic diversity of the Metro Vancouver area, and cultural practices more supportive of extended family living. But there’s clearly a lot of creativity going on in dealing with our housing shortage as well.

To sum up, we could be building in a better way to house people instead of setting aside so much land for mansions, but we also see creative responses to the housing stock we’ve got.

 

*-Empty homes have gotten a LOT of attention. Empty bedrooms less so. A previous analysis that gained some media attention in Vancouver estimated there were 800,000 empty bedrooms across the Metro Area. But the analyst assumed all couples shared a bedroom. I take a more conservative and simpler approach here that counts bedrooms as empty only if they exceed the number of people in a household. In other words: if everyone in a household gets their own bedroom, what’s left over? Adopting sharing rules definitely boosts estimates of empty bedrooms.

Too Many Bedrooms, Not Enough Housing?

So I’ve been playing around with bedroom data.

Why? Because despite Pierre Trudeau’s famous dictum, “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” we still collect data on how many bedrooms people have. And I’ve found some interesting stuff going on in peoples’ bedrooms!

Following a theme, one thing that’s really intriguing is comparing housing stock by number of bedrooms across Canada’s Big Three Metropolitan Areas. For a rough bedroom comparison, we can divide up housing stock into “Economy Size” units (studio & 1BR), “Family Size” units (2BR to 4BR), and luxurious “Super Size” units (5 BR+). Let’s look at Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver (and the rest of metropolitan Canada) across the past twenty years, comparing 1991 to 2011.

Bedrooms-by-Metro-1991-2011

 

Most housing stock is clearly in the “Family Size” category, containing 2 to 4 bedrooms. Montreal and Toronto look pretty similar in this regard, with about three quarters of their housing stock stably “Family Sized.” But look at Vancouver! Here only about two thirds of housing stock was “Family Size” in 1991, and as a proportion of housing stock it’s been dropping fast!

When it comes to bedrooms, Vancouver really does have a “missing middle” problem. What’s taking the place of the missing middle? Tiny “Economy Size” shoe box apartments in the sky? Not really. Metro Vancouver has a lot of those, but they’ve also been on the decline as a proportion of housing stock since 1991.

What about that “Super Size” housing? Hold on! That’s where Metro Vancouver’s been growing! In fact, it’s got way more giant mansions than any other metro area in Canada.

But what about the housing crisis? What is Vancouver doing adding all of these crazy giant mansions? Good question!

No surprise, mostly what we’re adding when we’re adding 5+ Bedroom housing units is detached single-family houses. In many cases, especially in the City of Vancouver, these are simply “Super Size” mansions replacing more modest “Family Size” houses. Here are the recently built (and occupied) housing units added in the five years prior to the 2011 Census. Notice nearly all new 5+ Bedroom housing units are single-family detached houses – or houses with a secondary suite (showing up as apartments or flats in a duplex). Why are we adding so many more of these? Effectively, it’s because houses are the only thing builders are allowed to construct on so much of our residential landscape. So big houses are mostly (over 80%) what takes up our residential land base. Welcome to Vancouver’s Great House Reserve!

Recent-Van-Stock-by-Type-Bedrooms-2011

Of note, there are also a fair number of detached houses being added in “Family Size” housing stock, but overall the “Family Size” category is far more diverse in dwelling type, with lots of row houses and apartments in both low-rise and high-rise buildings (with the latter categories dominating the 2BR category!) In effect, there are LOTS of different structures that can support “Family Size” housing, most cheaper than detached houses because they use less land. But the cheaper kinds tend to be forbidden across the majority of our residential landscape. So relative to other metropolitan areas, we’re replacing “Family Size” with “Super Size.” Why? Because despite the progress Vancouver has made, we’re (still) reserving a whole lot of land for millionaires. So it’s no surprise that their super sized mansions are proliferating.

Are all of our bedrooms getting used? I’ll come back to that in another post.

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Three Cities

Canada is a BIG country, with a lot of land. But it’s also an urban country, with most of its residents sticking to cities and towns (and suburbs) hovering just over the border from the United States. Over one third of Canadians live in Canada’s three big cities: Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

This is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but especially so for a housing scholar, because of the differing routes to urbanization taken by these cities. Their housing stocks, and correspondingly the way people live, are all quite distinct from the rest of Canada, and also distinct from one another. Here I’m just going to look at housing stocks in terms of dwelling types – i.e., what kind of building do you live in? Of note, I’ll also be treating the term “city” as inclusive of “metropolitan areas” as a whole, which is what we’re generally talking about when we say “Canada’s three big cities” (this is important, of course, because the City of Vancouver as a municipality, for instance, contains less than a third of its metropolitan population).

So how do people live differently in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver from the rest of Canada and from one another? Let’s look at some data from Statistics Canada.

Structure-Metros-2016-B

The big difference compared to the rest of Canada is that the big three cities have far fewer residents living in single-detached houses. Less than half of residents live in houses in each of our major metropolitan areas, compared to well over two-thirds in the rest of Canada.

But how has each metropolis managed its move away from the house?

Montreal has developed a LOT of low-rise apartment buildings (up to four storeys tall) all throughout its old urban core. The rest of its housing stock looks a lot like the rest of Canada. On the whole, its a charmingly low-rise metropolis.

Toronto has developed a LOT of high-rise apartment buildings (five stories and above), all throughout its old urban core. The rest of the its housing stock looks a lot like the rest of Canada. On the whole, its different mainly in its promotion of big, bustling high-rises.

Vancouver lies somewhere inbetween Montreal and Toronto, insofar as it’s filled its urban core(s) with a combination of low-rise (often older) and high-rise apartment buildings. But it’s also distinct from either city in renovating and re-developing such a large proportion of its stock of single-detached houses, so that a LOT of them contain two or more dwellings (e.g. basement suites).

To some extent, this last strategy speaks to Vancouver’s late-comer status. Montreal and Toronto are both relatively old cities, each having developed a sizable urban core before getting choked off by heavily protected single-family (RS) zoning in the twentieth century. Vancouver didn’t have that much of an older urban core to work with before most of its residential landscape became locked up by zoning. So many municipalities across Metro Vancouver have sneakily re-worked the definition of a “single-family residential” in their zoning by-laws to include a secondary suite – and often a laneway house too – enabling a very “gentle” form of baby-step densification. This is only part of the story of how the big three cities of Canada provide very different models for density and accommodating the move away from single-family detached modes of living.

A related question we can ask is how housing gets distributed across the life course and history. I’ve been playing around with this from a descriptive standpoint, using age-graded distribution of housing.

Age-by-Structure-Metros-2016-B

This is basically the same chart above, but played out across five-year age categories (except for under 15 and over 85, because these are the categories Stats Can gives me). It’s very clearly visible that outside of the Big Three Cities, single-detached houses are the statistical norm in Canada. They become a little less the norm during young adulthood (20-34) and for post-retirement ages (65+), but even so, more than half of the young and old alike live in houses.

For Montreal, the house is not normative – less than half of people in any age category live in a single-detached house. Nevertheless, Montreal demonstrates the same general age-related pattern of house acquisition as we see in the rest of Canada. Young adults and older adults are especially unlikely to live in a house, turning instead to the plentiful low-rise housing (in the case of the young) or newer high-rise housing (for the old).

What about Toronto and Vancouver? In Toronto, just over half of people live in houses across most age groups, but this figure drops sharply for young adults. Strikingly, there’s hardly any decline at all in this figure for older adults. In Vancouver, the figure overall is lower (<40% of people live in houses across most age groups). Nevertheless, the same age-related pattern pertains: though the young move out into alternatives, older age groups tend to hold onto living in single-family detached dwellings. What’s going on? In large part I suspect this is the result of generational shifts. Post-retirees in Toronto and Vancouver are probably transitioning out of single-detached houses like post-retirees elsewhere (Montreal and the rest of Canada) BUT they began their lives with much higher proportions living in single-detached houses than we see for later generations. (Perhaps you’ve heard that houses in Toronto and Vancouver used to be cheaper than they are now?) As a result, older residents in these cities continue to live in a much higher proportion of the detached housing stock than we’d otherwise expect. This also helps account for why many single-family residential neighbourhoods are shrinking!