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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She’s got Mike Davis eyes

Apologies if that title brings back bad memories of ’80s synth-pop (as it does for me).

Last week in my “Great Urban Thinkers” class, we discussed the well-known urban author and critic Mike Davis. In the “Fortress L.A.” chapter of his book City of Quartz, Davis writes

The neo-military syntax of contemporary architecture insinuates violence and conjures imaginary dangers. In many instances the semiotics of so-called “defensible space” are just about as subtle as a swaggering white cop. Today’s upscale, pseudo-public spaces….are full of invisible signs warning off the underclass “Other.” Although architectural critics are usually oblivious to how the built environment contributes to segregation, pariah groups – whether poor Latino families, young Black men, or elderly homeless white females – read the meaning immediately.

Although Davis was writing about the L.A. of the late ’80s, there are certainly examples of upscale pseudo-public spaces in contemporary Vancouver (e.g. Pacific Centre) as well as abundant signs and signals meant to thwart the presence of poor people in our downtown core areas (not to mention selectively enforced bylaws).

Knowing that, I decided to pursue a Davis-related short assignment: to walk around the Downtown Eastside (DTES) with Davis’s words in mind and notice both the overt and the subtle signs of inclusion and exclusion, as well as any barriers, obstacles and warnings related to security and policing.

I had no specific plan when I got off the bus on Hastings, just west of Carrall; I just wanted to wander and see where my eyes and interest took me. It took all of two minutes for a theme to develop. This is hardly an original observation, but wow – so many metal gates. Everywhere. At first I thought I might count them, but it quickly became apparent that it would be easier to count the ungated doorways. These are just a few of the gates I noticed within a few blocks of each other.

 

Actually paying attention to all these metal gates made me think about the messages they send to neighbourhood residents. Yes, some are more aesthetically pleasing, arguably less intimidating than others, but ultimately, don’t they all convey the same messages?

Keep out.

This is not for you.

Go away.

We don’t want you here.

How would it feel to spend all one’s days in this kind of environment? I think it would put me in a bad mood – or at the very least contribute to a chronic underlying crankiness and tension. These are feelings I can easily imagine turning to hostility and aggression. Supposedly the gates are sending the same messages to all who pass them, regardless of income, social status or relationship to property, but that’s not really how it works. If the keys to one or more of those gates jangle in your pockets as you walk around, if you’ve been behind those gates or know you could go there if you really wanted to (without breaking the law), the gates you can’t pass through are going to bother you a lot less.

The ubiquity of the gates also made me wonder about the minority of ungated properties. I’d be interested to know why those ones don’t have gates. Is it that they can’t afford to install them, or is it a deliberate decision not to contribute to the siege atmosphere that the gates produce? Perhaps some of the gated businesses inherited their gates when they moved into their spaces and they’d just as soon not have them, though removing them is not a priority. Or perhaps an inventory would show that the ungated properties are the ones that house businesses at low risk for break-in, or that don’t have much to steal. I didn’t keep a tally, but I noticed that the Potluck Café (run by the Portland Hotel Society) and Bean Around the World Café were not gated (unless they have internal gates not visible from the outside). Are the gates concentrated in particular sections of the neighbourhood? I think these are interesting questions and I wonder if anyone has researched them. Seems like a good topic.

All this is not meant to criticize or single out individual businesses for gating their premises. I don’t live or work in the DTES (though in the past I’ve volunteered at two neighbourhood nonprofits). Nor am I familiar with its latest crime stats. I’m sure if I had a business anywhere and I’d been broken into even once, I would at least think about taking steps to prevent it from happening again. No one wants to feel afraid and no one wants to lose money. I should also make clear that I don’t think having a gated property in the DTES and being a socially responsible business owner are mutually exclusive. There may be many examples of gated businesses with owners who hire locally, proactively work with local service agencies and who know and welcome low-income residents to their premises. Kudos to all of them. The points I’m trying to make are about the pervasive presence of metal gates, how that presence and materiality must shape both the psychology and everyday experience of low-income residents, and also how different that is from my experience of my own neighbourhood.

And of course, actual metal gates are not the only ways that messages of belonging, exclusion and defensiveness are communicated. As I walked around, I also thought about fonts. I’m no type designer or historian, but I do have a thing for fonts (particularly of the arts and crafts style). It comes with the word nerd territory. How do the fonts that signs are written in tell people whether they belong somewhere or not? I don’t know exactly, except that we’re all immersed and in the process of interpreting our visual and written culture each day, all day – even those of us who are illiterate or struggle with literacy (perhaps they even more so, since they can’t extract information from the textual content of signs.) Again, I didn’t keep a tally, but I can tell you that as I walked around, I saw very few fonts like this or this:

IMG_3017

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3018

 

 

 

 

And a lot more like this.

IMG_3029

 

 

 

I’d argue that if even if things were switched around so that the sign using the hip, postmodern font said “all-day breakfast,” low-income people would still be receiving a “stay away” message.

Seeing all the upscale restaurants and stores selling expensive clothing, furniture, jewellry and shoes, I also thought about times I’ve visited ritzy shopping districts in major cities such as New York. Sure, it can be fun to check these areas out and indulge a few fantasies, even though I can’t afford to purchase the items for sale. But would I want to live in an area like that, surrounded by things I can’t afford and by people so much wealthier than I? No way. Actually, I always keep my forays to such areas short because walking around feeling envious is no fun – it puts me in a bad mood. It’s true that some of that bad mood comes from exposure to what I consider to be obscene overconsumption and inequality, but I crave beautiful objects at least as much as the next person. And if I’m prone to fall into an envy-induced funk when I visit places like that for just a couple hours, what must it be like to have to deal with that all the time in your own neighbourhood? Especially when you can’t afford to live anywhere else. Especially when you have had little to no say in the rapid changes taking place around you. Obviously, these are points that DTES residents have been making themselves, loudly and for a long time. They are part of why the recent DTES community planning process (and its results) have been contentious.

Overall, walking through the DTES while trying to see through “Mike Davis eyes” yielded plenty of signals of exclusion and defensiveness – ones I’m certain are instantly decoded by those whom they’re meant for. But they are sign-makers too.

 

street painting

On the pavement of the alley between Hastings and Cordova at Cambie.