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]

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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!

 

Do Families Live in Condos?

Controversy recently erupted over a new condominium housing complex being proposed in The Annex neighbourhood of Toronto. Ho-hum, pretty run of the mill situation, except that one of the complainants about the condominium was Margaret Atwood, who actually (and to her credit) responded to the many YIMBYs attacking her on twitter for NIMBYing new housing. A golden media moment!

One of the complaints launched during the ensuing debate was that “condos are not for families.” Now this provides us an empirical question, and one near and dear to my heart. So I went ahead and ran the numbers using appropriately weighted 2011 National Household Survey data. I did this quickly on my first pass, mostly because I was listening to a cranky kid who wouldn’t take his nap in the room next door (in my condo). Here’s what I got and hastily posted to twitter as my public sociology for the evening:

FamilyStatbyCondo-2011

Most condominium dwellers (over 70%) are members of families. So as a first pass, it’s ridiculous to say families don’t live in condos. That said, it is true that condos support greater diversity in household members, including more people living alone or with roommates, than other kinds of tenure arrangements. It’s also true, of course, that people living alone and with roommates need housing no less than families.

What do I mean by saying other tenure arrangement? Condos, of course, are a legal category of ownership, not a type of building. Towering apartment buildings can be condos, but so can low-rises, rowhouses (like mine), and even single-family detached houses. Condo units are mostly split – pretty evenly – between the first three of these housing types, covering about 90% of condominium units.

But by the time I posted, the complaint had already turned away from ALL condominiums. The real problem is the NEW condos. New condos are (no doubt) more expensive, on average, than old condos. And often they’re built to maximize the number of units, minimizing the space in each, to provide lots of 1BR and Studio apartments, which appeal to investors, and relatively few 2BR+ apartments, which appeal more to families. These are all fair complaints. Indeed, a variety of cities (including Vancouver) have taken to mandating inclusion of 2BR+ condo units in many new developments.

So here’s my updated chart. Do families live in NEW condos? NEW 1BR condos? NEW Studio condos?

FamilyStatbyCondo-2011v2.0

The answer is YES! Most NEW condo residents are family members (almost the same percentages as all condo residents). What’s even more striking is that most NEW 1BR and studio condo residents are still family members. That’s even a little surprising to me! But goes to show the adaptive ways people are doing family these days, even if often out of need rather than adventure. Even new 1BR and studio condos are supporting mostly residents who live in families. So if you’re keeping 1BR and studio condos out, you’re also keeping families out.

But once again, and it bears repeating, residents who don’t live in families ALSO NEED PLACES TO LIVE! Along these lines, I also fixed an issue with my first figure, where “Person not in census fam” was treated as non-family. What this category actually represents in the Census is people who don’t live in an “official” census family according to the census (defined as parent-child or partner), but still live with family members. So for instance, siblings living together, or grandparents with grandchildren. I’ve moved residents in those kinds of households down to consider them as part of the “family” category here, because seriously… those are still families!

One other note: NEW = built in the last 5 years (2006 and 2011, for purposes of the 2011 data at-hand)

“Buy a house for my daughter [or] I’m not going to let her marry you!”

Some of the people who I talked to for my book spoke directly to cultural differences in how they saw the importance of buying a house. A Chinese-Canadian interviewee, originally from Hong Kong, thought “Asians” in general were more likely to link home ownership to marriage. As she humorously described it:

They think that before you get married you have to buy a house. They’re like, “Oh, you don’t have money? Buy a house for my daughter [or] I’m not going to let her marry you!”

Of note, in Hong Kong (and across much of urban East Asia), very few people actually live in houses, and lots of people live in various types of public housing (covering about 30% of the population of Hong Kong, for instance). But setting that – and the selectivity of  just who immigrates to Vancouver – aside, the association between partnering patterns and access to housing is really interesting. In fact, changing the setting to Sweden, it was the topic of my dissertation! (See some of my old research here, here, and here)*

At some point, I hope to return to this kind of detailed research in North America. But in the meantime, I can work a quick metropolitan comparison. We all know that buying a house is pretty much impossible for most people in Vancouver. So how does it affect marriage and partnering patterns here, if at all, compared to other metros?

Here’s a comparison of partnering patterns across four big metropolitan areas in Canada, based on 2011 National Household Survey** results:

MetroMaritalStatusbyAge-2011Data

Effectively, Vancouver fits somewhere between Toronto and Calgary. Hardly the position one might expect if access to ownership of a house was really limiting partnerships. On the whole, all three of these major metropoles look pretty similar. But looking carefully reveals that people tend to partner a little later in Toronto, with a greater gap between the late twenties and early thirties, than in Vancouver. By contrast, Calgarians tend to partner earlier, with over half of those ages 25-29 no longer single. Torontonians are also less likely to spend much time in non-marital cohabitations than either Vancouverites or Calgarians. Interesting little differences which I’d guess speak as much to the multicultural mixes of Vancouver and Toronto as to housing conditions (though, as noted above, it might be the interaction between these that really matter!)

How about Montreal? As always, it’s kind of off doing its own thing. Non-marital cohabitation has been a much stronger feature of partnerships in Quebec since the Quiet Revolution, and it really shows up here. (see, e.g. LaPlante 2006). Lots of material for another dissertation, if anyone’s looking for ideas!

 

*- with apologies for the paywalls – drop me a line if you want access, but can’t get it!

**- basically our best substitute for the Census that year – thanks Harper!

This blog kills fascists

Woody Guthrie famously sported a guitar with the words, “this machine kills fascists” scrawled upon it. The American ur-folk hero knew from whence he spoke (below singing Do Re Mi to images from 1941):

But what is Fascism? Why and how should it be opposed?

One response might be: haven’t we settled all this already? After all, the Allied powers defeated the Axis in WWII. After some initial hedging, both America and Canada decided what side they were on, and it was the side of the Anti-Fascist coalition (yes, yes, “antifa”). The Nazis did terrible things, as did the regimes in Japan, Italy, and elsewhere. We won, through overwhelming force (also involving some terrible things), and the Fascists lost.*

Unfortunately, Fascism did not die with the Axis powers. It’s always been around, and today we see it resurgent with the rise of the “Alt-right.” So let’s get back to those questions. What is Fascism?

George Orwell famously answered that by 1944 it already meant far too many things, all conflated together, making it difficult to parse its meaning, except, through its opponents, as: “…roughly speaking, something cruel, unscrupulous, arrogant, obscurantist, anti-liberal and anti-working-class.”

I prefer a careful definition more along the lines of Umberto Eco, who grew up in Fascist Italy, and delineated in 1995 the many different components (aligned to those sketched by Orwell above) that tended to hold together in Fascism, each constituting unnecessary but partially sufficient components for its formation. You should read Eco. You really should. The echo of Eco is all around us (sorry).

My takeaway is that Fascism is mostly a style. I think a couple of important points follow:

  1.  As a style, Fascism is not a coherent ideology. It can still be a tool to power and guide actions (indeed, it can be quite potent in this regard). But it remains resistant to reason, intellectual attempts at “de-bunking,” and other acts of persuasion. It freely engages in lying and contradiction as weaponized propaganda.
  2. As a style, Fascism preys upon the weakness of Constitutional Democracy as a system of governance. Constitutional Democracy makes room for discussion of diverse and divergent ideas. Fascism enters discussion disguised in the raiment of its weaponized ideas, under the banner of “free speech,” but with the intent to divide (into those who adhere to style and those who do not) and undermine Democracy itself.
  3. As a style, the proper response to Fascism is not intellectual engagement, but shunning, marginalization, and exclusion. As a Constitutional Democracy, we can not open a debate about excommunicating those already included without fatally destroying Constitutional Democracy itself.**

Now I have never been accused of any great concern for fashion, but if I’m hit over the head with how absurd a particular style makes me look, undermining every important way I’d like to be seen, then I will drop that style. This is the proper response to Fascism. Shunning, marginalizing, making the adherents of this awful style look weak and ridiculous, undermining their every presentation of self.

There are many strategies for pulling this trick off. This past weekend in Vancouver we demonstrated two: 1) Ridicule them 2) And crowd them out of the public sphere, sending them, quite physically, back to the margins. Here are a few of my pictures:

 

People were still streaming in to keep the Fascists out by the time I left! It was a good day.

There are other strategies for marginalizing Fascists, of course, up to and including punching a Nazi (at least if it makes him look weak and ineffectual, rather than sympathetic). I won’t advocate for all of these. But I will note that the most successful strategy is likely to vary by circumstance, with the likelihood of non-violent approaches succeeding vastly improved by making sure lots of people show up.

So go on everyone! Get out there and make sure the Fascists feel bad about themselves! Also read some history. It might come in handy.

 

[UPDATE: meant to note that there are lots of other, smarter takes on this out there too, from people studying this kind of thing longer than me, including several great sociologists cited recently in the New York Times]

*-together with my brother and our friends, we used to regularly re-enact the battles of WWII through the boardgame Axis & Allies.

**-The brilliant and award-winning novelist N. K. Jemison puts this sentiment in its most stark form in her novel The Obelisk Gate, as her earth-shaping protagonist uses the credible threat of violence to shut down what would otherwise appear to be a democratic exercise in voting, uttering the memorable line: “No voting on who gets to be people.” (p. 335)