Housing tenure statistics for the City of Vancouver, 1951 to 2011

We’ve seen much interesting information emerge from the 2016 Census so far, but the data I’ve been most eager for is still to be released – this Wednesday. Those statistics are on housing tenure – and more specifically, how many renters and homeowners exist in a given jurisdiction. I’m keen to see this data for the city overall, as well as for its individual neighbourhoods, which vary considerably in their percentages of renting households.

For sake of historical perspective, here is a table showing what the City of Vancouver’s tenure percentages have been, back to 1951. The source is a report prepared for the city in 2010 (by McClanaghan & Associates) as background for the city’s current housing and homelessness strategy (see pg. 24, Table 7). As is shown, the percentage of renting households in the City of Vancouver peaked in 1991 at 59 percent and has been slowly declining since then. Between the 1961 and 1966 censuses and again from 1966 to 1971, the percentage of tenant households took major leaps, increasing from 39 to 53 over that ten-year period. Tenant households have made up the majority of the city ever since then.

The decline in the percentage of tenant households since 1991 has happened despite various of what I view to be important and useful city policies aimed at retaining and increasing the amount of rental housing, such as the Rate of Change policy enacted in 2007 and more recently, incentive programs such as Rental 100. It’s notable that a similar decline has taken place at the regional level, with the percentage of renting households declining from 44 percent in 1986 to 35 percent in 2011.[1]

Percentage of owner and renter households in the City of Vancouver, 1951-2011[2] [3]

Year Owning HH Rental HH
1951 63.0% 37.0%
1961 60.8% 39.2%
1966 52.2% 47.8%
1971 46.9% 53.1%
1976 46.5% 53.5%
1981 44.9% 55.1%
1986 42.3% 57.7%
1991 40.8% 59.2%
1996 41.9% 58.1%
2001 43.8% 56.2%
2006 48.1% 51.9%
2011 48.6% 51.4%
2016 ? ?

Possible reasons for the changes in the percentage of renting households

I believe the most significant factors in this decline are the nearly complete lack of new, long-term, secure rental housing that was built in the city between the (approximately) late 1980s and early 2010s, as well as the conversions of apartment buildings to condominiums that took place from the 1970s and into the 1990s (and which are generally no longer allowed).

However, especially if interest rates are low and the economy is doing well, the decrease in the percentage of renting households could also result from existing tenants becoming homeowners. Depending on your values and views on home ownership, you might see a tenure shift stemming from those factors to be positive – for the tenants and for society overall.

While no doubt many Vancouver tenants have happily become homeowners since 1991, given what we know about current incomes of tenants and the current cost of housing in relation to local incomes, I believe the decline in the percentage of renter households is a serious problem – enough so that while these conditions continue, I’d like to see governments (at each level) try to halt this trend.

Why does this matter?

Our current combination of circumstances – i.e. high housing costs in relation to local incomes, very low rental vacancy rates and the declining percentage of renter households – strongly suggests that people who can’t afford to buy homes are finding it more and more difficult to stay in or move to the City of Vancouver, and therefore that people with lower incomes (who tend to be renters) are gradually losing access to the public goods (e.g. libraries, parks and cultural and recreational events) that a city such as Vancouver has to offer. Vancouver and cities like it provide economic and cultural opportunities – for jobs, for starting businesses and building skills, and for finding like-minded others – not available in smaller communities. Vancouver tenants forced out of the city due to lack of rental housing, or rental housing that’s affordable to them, also lose whatever community connections they’ve built up over the time they’ve lived here. If we care about equity, I believe it should be a policy goal to ensure that renters continue to have ample access to these high-quality opportunities and public goods. Simply residing in a vibrant, diverse and culturally rich urban environment should not be a luxury, but declining access to rental housing puts us on this trajectory.

Another consideration is that renters are vital to the functioning of the city’s economy. If we don’t halt this trend and make more room for renters, we’ll continue to see stories about the difficulties local businesses are having with finding and keeping workers – in some cases even having to cut back on hours of service or curtail expansion plans. Wages are obviously a big part of this equation too, but one way or the other, people who can’t afford to buy a home need to be able to rent one within reasonable commuting distance of their work, or they won’t be able to participate in the economy (and many other equally important activities).

Side note: 1921 was the first time housing tenure data was collected in the Canadian national census. So, any housing tenure data you run across from before then must be from other (perhaps less reliable) sources.


[1] Metro Vancouver, “2006 Census Bulletin: Dwellings by Type and Tenure,” December 2007, http://www.metrovancouver.org/services/regional-planning/PlanningPublications/2006census_dwell_Dec2007.pdf. Page 2, Table 4. See also note 2 re: 2011 National Household Survey data.

[2] This table draws from the 2011 National Household Survey (NHS) because the 2011 Census did not include a question on tenure status. Statistics Canada has cautioned that due to differences in data collection methods between the census and the voluntary NHS, the two types of data may not be directly comparable. So a cautionary note there.

[3] Dale McClanaghan, “City of Vancouver Rental Housing Strategy Research and Policy Development Synthesis Report,” August 2010, http://vancouver.ca/docs/policy/housing-rental-housing-strategy-synthesis.pdf. p.24, Table 7. Also, Statistics Canada, “NHS Profile, Vancouver, CY, British Columbia, 2011.”

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Support for two rezonings to allow for purpose-built rental units

At tonight’s (July 12) meeting, Vancouver city council will be considering two applications to rezone land for purpose-built rental housing. The addresses of the sites are 2805 E. Hastings and 445 Kingsway. My letter in support of 2805 E. Hastings is below. The circumstances of 445 Kingsway are much the same, so I haven’t posted that letter. If approved, together the two proposals will add 200 units of purpose-built rental housing to the city’s rental housing supply.

Dear Mayor and Council,

I write to support the rezoning of 2805 East Hastings to CD-1 zoning to permit a six-storey rental building with 91 secured market rental units.

I support this application for several reasons, the main one being the city’s dire need for more purpose-built rental housing. As I know you’re aware, the city’s vacancy rate for private apartments like the ones proposed here was 0.6% as of late 2015 and in fact the city’s vacancy rate has averaged under 1% for about the last 30 years. Industry and housing experts generally point to a healthy vacancy rate being as being at least three percent. The lack of rental housing has severe and far-reaching consequences for Vancouver’s renters and also the city’s ability to have a functioning economy, as was recently noted in the “Rent Race” report published by Vancity Credit Union. That report noted that renters are dispersed “throughout the entire economy—working as health and education professionals, in construction, finance, social assistance, and other industries” and that “renter workers making median incomes in several industries face the real possibility of being priced out of the communities they call home.”

I would further like to note that renters are present in all age groups in Vancouver, making the lack of rental housing a problem that affects a wide segment of our local population. According to the report, the renter population is comprised of 33% millenials, 30% Gen X, 26% baby boomers and 11% those aged 70 or older (page 4).

While currently just over half of Vancouver’s households are renters, this percentage has declined since 1991 (when it was 59 percent, see page 24 of linked report). As a renter myself, I am concerned about this trend and what it suggests for the future of renters in our city. The city also has a low rate of purpose-built rentals per capita – less than other cities that have a lower percentage of renting households, which also points to the great need for rental housing such as is being proposed here.

PB rentals by city per capita

Source: Ian Meredith @ian_meredith, Altus Group

Adding a lot more new secured rental supply is necessary to deal with our current shortages and in the shorter-term gives more choices to renters, which makes life easier for them and gives them a bit more housing security.

In terms of this specific application, I see that the proposed building would not displace any existing renters and that it would replace a fast-food franchise and a surface parking lot.

It’s located in an area where there are many shops, services and public transit to meet the needs of the future residents. Those future residents will also be customers for the area’s many small businesses. All these factors point to this building being a great benefit to our city.

I am also pleased to see that this project includes 34 two-bedroom and five three-bedroom units, which will provide much-needed family-friendly housing. I see as well that, in keeping with the city’s guidelines for housing families at high densities, this proposal includes common amenity space both indoors and outdoors and that is another reason why I support it.

I also note and support the condition of bylaw enactment (7(iii)) that says none of the units shall be rented for less than one month at a time, because this helps ensure that these units are not rented out as short-term rentals to tourists instead of serving their intended purpose as housing for residents.

For all these reasons, I support this project and urge you to do the same.

In favour of purpose-built rental…

Remarks at public hearing for rezoning of 3365 Commercial Drive (and other lots)

June 23, 2016 

Link to video of hearing. My remarks begin at 1:20:25

Good evening mayor and council. Thank you for this opportunity to speak. My name is Karen Sawatzky and I am here to support this rezoning application and urge you to do the same.

I am a long-time renter in the City of Vancouver, in a neighbourhood right next to Cedar Cottage –– Grandview-Woodland. It’s because I’m a renter, and one who strongly believes in the need for more purpose-built rental, that I favour this proposal.

While the reasons I support more purpose-built rental in general, and particularly here tonight, are probably familiar to all of you, I would like to explain at least some of those reasons now.

Over the last three to four decades, and in the absence of the federal tax incentives for rental housing that used to exist, very little new purpose-built rental has been created. This has led to the increasing predominance of what is known as the secondary rental market – especially rented condos and secondary suites. While these units are crucial and valued, they are much more easily converted to owner occupation, or just removed from the rental stock, than purpose-built units because they are not subject to various regulations and policies to prevent their conversion or demolition, such as the city’s rate of change regulations. In practice, this means that renters living in the secondary market have far less tenure security than those living in purpose-built units. An insane real estate climate such as we have been experiencing for the last several years provides owners of secondary market units with many temptations and incentives to sell or demolish those units, or more recently, convert them to more lucrative short-term rentals. Living as a renter in Vancouver in this climate and with an incredibly low vacancy rate brings with it a constant sense of precariousness and stress. The only thing that will cure this is more rental housing. This should most definitely include lots more social housing and coop units, but we also need to address the long-standing construction deficit of market rentals. As far as I’m concerned, the more of those market units that are purpose-built, the better off tenants will be.

I note as well that the need for rental housing is clear no matter where you position yourself in the local debates currently raging over whether it is more supply that is needed to remedy our housing crises, or more controls over foreign capital – and for the record, I think we badly need both. Our chronically unhealthy and abysmally low rental vacancy rate is proof of the need for more rental housing and there is no doubt that if built, these units will quickly fill with residents who will contribute to our city in myriad ways. They will not be used merely as a safe place to park capital.

I know that some object to projects like this on the grounds that they are not affordable enough to people making low and moderate incomes. I definitely share that concern, but I also realize that in the absence of senior government subsidies or incentives, there is no way to make brand-new construction on land bought at today’s square-foot prices as affordable as units in 50- or 60-year old apartment buildings, such as the one I live in. As a renter, I do not want to wait any longer for those senior government incentives to materialize – we have already waited far too long to build more purpose-built rental.

In any case, to the charge that these units are not affordable enough, I can only say that the alternative to approving this rezoning is allowing the developer who owns the properties to build what they are already zoned for – single-family housing. That would probably please the immediate neighbours, but it would mean that instead of higher-than-average rents that the many mid- and higher-income renters who have been shut out of our “freakshow” real estate market can actually afford, this transit-friendly housing would only be available to those who can afford the mortgage on a house priced at $1 to $2 million, or even higher. I’ll take the 100-plus units of market rental housing located near transit and parks, please.

I will also point out that the city-wide proportion of renting households has declined from a high of 59 percent in 1991 to its current 51 percent – or perhaps even less as of the 2016 census. Again, as a renter this trend causes me considerable worry and it’s one I would like to see you, my elected representatives, try to halt or even reverse. I realize you have recently exceeded many of your targets for enabling new market rental units and I commend you for doing so, but I would like to see you go further and this project could be part of that. I’d like to see you calculate the number of units that are needed to reach a vacancy rate of 3 to 5 percent (which is what I see cited as a healthy rate) and also the number of units that would be needed to ensure that our city continues to be evenly balanced in terms of renting and home-owning households – and then set your new housing targets accordingly.

There are more points about the need for this type of rental housing, and this proposal in particular, that I would make if I had more time, but I know I’m nearing my limit so will conclude here. Again, thank you for your time.

***

Additional points not said at hearing

Regarding the trees and green space arguments

While of course I value the mature trees – and have passed and enjoyed them countless times over the years – there does not seem to be a scenario under which all the trees that neighbours want to be retained actually will be. It’s not reasonable to compare an unrealistic scenario to the options that actually exist. A developer owns these properties (with the exception of the city lot) and therefore has the legal right to develop single-family homes on them if this rezoning is denied. This would not result in more trees saved. And, locating housing close to transit where people can choose to lead car-free lifestyles will ultimately have a far greater environmental benefit than saving the few trees that could be retained if the lots were developed as SFD rather than apartments – if that was even the case, which I don’t think it is. Some residents have called for there to be a park on this site. The parks board has said it’s not interested, so that’s not a realistic option. With Trout Lake and Clark Park so nearby, this area has far better access to green space than my corner of East Van.

Age exclusion vs. economic exclusion

There is much talk in the housing affordability debate about making sure the city remains (or becomes) livable and affordable for young people (millennials) and too often, in my opinion, these issues are framed as if the young and young families are the only ones affected or the only ones who matter.

This annoys me, since I’m a GenXer who has been living with the consequences of unaffordable Vancouver (and Victoria) housing (and also student loans, expensive childcare and an eroding social safety net) for more than 20 years – and I have the invisible children and non-existent mortgage to prove it. While I agree that young people are the future (because it’s a truism), I’m also concerned about fairness in the present and I value the ability of (just as an example) a single 55-year-old retail or service worker (who may play a vital role in their community) to stay in Vancouver just as much as I do the ability of well-educated 20- and 30-somethings with young children to do the same.

In my view, if a city requires the labour of minimum-wage and low-paid workers to function, then that city (along with other levels of government) has an obligation to plan and do as much as it can to ensure those same workers can be housed in the prosperous city they make possible. It seems cruel and unfair that anyone should expect the people who make the least and have the most challenges in life to be consigned to spend another two hours commuting back and forth to those low-paid (and likely tedious) jobs on top of having to work them. Hard to improve your station in life (such as through starting a side business, going to school or working another job) when so much time is taken up in unpaid shadow work. Of course we need better transit and that would help affordability a lot. But a vision in which the only people who can afford to live in Vancouver (proper) are those who are childless, highly educated and with high-paying jobs and/or inherited wealth – while the rest are consigned to the outskirts and killer commutes – is what I call dystopic, as well as poor urban planning from a climate-change (and social cohesion) perspective.

Back to affordability

Finally, and again to those who say they oppose this project because it’s not affordable enough or they would support it if it were more affordable, I have to ask – How do you see that greater affordability being achieved?

The city had to take several steps – through the Rental 100 and similar programs – to get any purpose-built rental constructed at all. Condominiums and single- family homes are much more attractive options to developers, as evidenced by the fact that there was so little purpose-built rental created before the city initiated these programs. Since we’re living in a market-based society, we can’t actually force developers to build projects they don’t want to or that don’t “pencil out” for them, as much as I would love to have that magic wand. I’d much prefer a scenario where more housing was publicly owned, such as in the Scandanavian and many other countries, but that’s not what we have now.

Are you suggesting we wait to build any more purpose-built rental until senior levels of government bring back the tax incentives and subsidies that encouraged its construction in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s? I absolutely support the calls for more social housing, but I don’t see how constraining the supply or delaying the construction of what has become an incredibly scarce resource will ultimately benefit those who need social housing. Those with the most economic power are always going to win the competition for scarce resources.

If you say you support more rental housing but only if it meets your affordability criteria, please explain how you see that affordability being achieved – and please reference reality in that explanation. I hope you will acknowledge that asking for a project to be both less dense and more affordable is a contradiction under current market conditions. Again, I wish it were different, but we need to find ways to get a lot more rental built now, not in some hypothetical future. Also, I think it’s unfair and unreasonable for those who are lucky enough to be securely housed to try to set conditions for how others can achieve that state. Housing is, after all, a major social determinant of health and a fundamental need – and should be recognized as an enforceable human right.

As a resident, you certainly have a right to input into potential developments in your area (as well as do people in other parts of the city, if they consider themselves affected). But you did not buy the neighbourhood when you bought your house.

As for future directions, here’s a group and set of statements that I think provides a good model. I find it more nuanced and inclusive than the straight-ahead YIMBY stances.

Portland for Everyone

Sidewalk history

I found another of these favourite sidewalk tags the other day, this time in Mount Pleasant, which is quite far from the Clark Drive and Prior St. area where I’ve seen the others (pictures here). This one is in front of the No Frills store, just around the corner from City Hall, where there has indeed been a lot of what we often think of as  “history” take place. I’m guessing that’s not the reason for the placement though. I would like to inquire. Yet another Vancouverite I’d like to meet; maybe I should start a list. As usual, one post begets ideas for three more.

IMG_3469

If you are disappointed that this post isn’t about the history of sidewalks, I apologize. That’s a fascinating topic about which I’ve long wanted to know more. Here are some places to look into that:

This 2011 book by SFU geography professor Nicholas Blomley: Rights of Passage: Sidewalks and the Regulation of Public Flow

10 questions for sidewalk scholar Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris

Three blog posts: Simulated history: sidewalks and streetscapesSidewalks: ignored aspects of everyday life; and A brief history of black folks and sidewalks.

 Wikipedia’s sidewalk page

Also, an old friend of mine in Victoria, Janis Ringuette, has done a lot of research and writing on Victoria’s beautiful (though deteriorating) sidewalk prisms.

This all brings to mind a question: When did Vancouver get its first sidewalk? That depends, of course, on how you define sidewalk – i.e. one made of wood or one made of concrete? I’d be happy with the answer to either. If the answer isn’t in Nick Blomley’s book, I’ll bet it’s fairly easy to find at the City of Vancouver Archives (how many times have I said that about something I wanted to find, anywhere?), if I had time to go. Too bad the VPL’s Askaway service is no more. If I do find the answer in Blomley, I’ll update.

More favourite West End places

My little stint of pretending to live in the West End is over. Back to my more familiar East Van turf. I’ll miss places and views like these. The gardens are under the Burrard Bridge. I think it must require a pretty expert gardener to make such a shady spot come to life like this. I’d love to meet whoever is responsible. I don’t think this garden is a community garden in the way that I normally define it (i.e a place where members of the public tend a plot and grow food) but it is open to the public, and I believe created and managed by one person – not sure. Like I said, would love to meet whoever that person or group is.

Public talk on the history of apartments and condos in Vancouver, by Michael Kluckner

I love the topic of this talk and think I might learn some things I can use in my thesis. I also hope to eventually contribute knowledge to this topic myself, through my thesis, since I consider Airbnb to now be part of Vancouver’s housing story, especially where it concerns apartments and condos. I’m assuming Kluckner will draw on a key academic article about the history of condos in Vancouver, which I’ve mentioned elsewhereThe Condominium and the City: The Rise of Property in Vancouver, by Douglas Harris. The abstract is here.

I know Michael Kluckner is a good and well-organized speaker, based on a previous “brief history of” talk of his I attended a couple years ago, on gentrification. That was held at SFU and you can view the video here.