Notes on the “Myth” of housing supply

Much has been made of a recent study purporting to demonstrate that adding to supply has done little to nothing to bring greater affordability to Canada’s most unaffordable cities. Though I’m loathe to keep it in the limelight, I feel some responsibility to respond to the study, both because I was quoted in its initial media roll-out (despite not having had a chance to see the study), and because once the study was finally written and released it cited me – kind of – through an old press release for my book (To the author: thanks for citing me, though I might also recommend actually reading my book!).

Unfortunately, I need to start by noting that the study itself is not high quality, either theoretically or methodologically. The terms supply and demand are not conceptualized in the way the economists who more or less invented them use them (i.e., as terms in the balancing equation that constitutes the market pricing mechanism), but rather in somewhat idiosyncratic fashion. In part as a result, I initially found it a little confusing to respond to the study. I certainly agree that widening inequality makes our general reliance upon market-distribution of housing problematic for insuring equitable outcomes. In other words, the whims of rich people for a second or third home carry way more weight in the market than the shelter needs of poor people. That is a real problem that would be entirely consistent as an interpretation of the study’s findings. But that’s not the same as arguing that supply doesn’t matter, and indeed would even suggest that adding lots of non-market housing (new supply!) would be a direct way of insuring the housing needs of poor people outside of the market.

It would seem to me that the only reason to suggest supply DOESN’T matter is to effectively take off the table many policy options that might help address our current housing affordability issues. It’s kind of like we’re all in a sinking boat. Most of us are saying, “we’ve got to bail out this water and plug that leak in order to stay afloat!” But someone in the boat is picking a fight, arguing, “No! Look, we’ve tried bailing out water. Look at all the water we’ve bailed out! But now we’ve still got water in the boat. We should stop bailing out and just focus on plugging the leak.” That’s an interesting strategy, but I’d rather stick with bailing out and plugging up at the same time. (I’ll leave the economists out there to keep providing other metaphors).

So yes, I’ll continue to argue for more supply – especially by enabling more housing options on all that single-family residential (RS-zoned) land in and around Vancouver currently reserved only for millionaires. But I’ll ALSO continue to suggest we should be doing things to make the housing market work better, including (but not limited to):

  • Taxing Vacant Homes (and vacant lots!) like Vancouver’s new Empty Homes Tax
  • Raising Property Taxes, esp. in progressive fashion
  • Rebalancing tax burdens from income to property, as with the clever BC Housing Affordability Fund proposal
  • Cap the currently unlimited tax exemption of capital gains from sale of primary residence

All of these things would make investment in housing as a commodity less profitable and help remove some incentives currently in place to sit on empty properties, without renting them out, in order to accrue the capital gains by doing nothing as the property appreciates (e.g. speculation). But if we’re truly concerned about housing affordability, let’s not tie one hand behind our backs. Let’s keep bailing out water and plugging the leaks in our housing market at the same time.

What about the methods of the study themselves? They need some work. For instance, the author uses different measures and different data sources to compare affordability across time, with the most recent data (taken from Demographia – not gonna link to them) also the least transparent. The author also only focuses on market purchase price (as opposed to rent and/or cooperative share price), effectively setting aside those for whom affordability is a more life and death matter. I’m not going to do a deep dive here, in part because with respect to purchasing affordability, even had the comparison been carried out more carefully, the same results would obtain. There’s no doubt Vancouver has gotten more expensive in recent years!

But what about that supply issue? Have we been overbuilding as much as the author suggests, adding an eye-popping 1.19 dwellings for every new household created since 2001? I replicated this result based on census data I gathered right after the first media report came out, and it deserves its own blog-post (up next! spoiler: I’m pretty sure we’re not overbuilding). Before I get there let me leave you with recent vacancy rates for rentals in Metro Vancouver. If we’ve got too much supply, it sure hasn’t hit the purpose-built rental market. Latest update just came out. Good news! We’re almost back up to 1%.

Vacancy-MetVanHouseBook

 

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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:

 

 

The World Comes to Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can-Arrivals-2016-World-Pop

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

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

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

  • Eastern Asia
  • Southern Asia

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

Can-Arrivals-2016-World-Pop-by-City

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

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

Canada-gateways-Origin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.