February 12, 2016

Ohrn Words: 'Losing our young?' – A Prof begs to differ

From Ken Ohrn:


Ryan Holmes of Hootsuite and Gary Mason in the Globe and Mail are both in the conversation the last few days over assertions that we have a mass outward migration of young’uns in full stampede due to housing unaffordability.
Mr. Mason quotes Mr. Holmes:

Vancouver risks becoming an economic ghost town, a city with no viable economy – other than the service industry catering to wealthy residents and tourists,” Mr. Holmes wrote.

Here’s a contrary opinion, rooted in 2006-2011 census data, from Nathanael Lauster, Associate Professor in Sociology at UBC.

What about the City of Vancouver?  For those in their late teens and early twenties, the phrase “pouring in” is simply inadequate.  We have a tsunami on our hands.  Why?  Probably in part because Vancouver is a university town – in fact it’s MY university town.  But also because central cities tend to attract young people, provide them with jobs, and provide the diverse kinds of housing stock able to support them.
It’s true that the balance shifts between the City of Vancouver and the rest of the metropolitan region as people age.  The City of Vancouver is a net loser for people in their thirties and beyond.  No doubt many of them are looking for more spacious and affordable housing, and they would stay in the City if they could find it there.  But crossing the border into Burnaby, or down to Surrey, or out to Coquitlam, seems like pretty normal circulation.  The type experienced by central cities everywhere (yes, I checked, and Toronto experiences it too).
2016 is upon us, and soon we’ll have a new census.  We’ll all be eagerly awaiting the results (well, anyone who has bothered to read this far, anyway).  Who knows?  It’s possible patterns will have shifted by then.  But it’s also worth holding on to a healthy dose of skepticism.  Vancouver has at least 99 problems associated with housing affordability, but losing our lifeblood ain’t one.

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  1. I think this was a very interesting choice of topic. In all metropolitan areas or cities where the economy booms, expenses rise resulting in the emigration of some long-nested people. It is very common and your interest shows that people care! Vancouver is known to be a beautiful place and I’m sure new stats will be heartening 🙂

  2. Funny how the very successful Ryan Holmes complains that salaries in Vancouver are too low to attract eligible employees. So pay your employees more Ryan! Do you pay your people in London or New York too little too?

    1. To be clear/fair … he indicates more that the issue isn’t attracting them, its keeping them, as the $ to pay them to continue to stay and build a family is too much even for him to pay, let alone people that aren’t him.

  3. It feels so good just hearing the census is coming back.
    People come and go. Depending on a city’s economy, it will attract or lose people with different skills. I think there’s a fear by people like Ryan Holmes that we are brain drain losing high tech workers and some other white collar type jobs. But, I’m pretty sure young people in construction and real estate industry jobs are doing well. BTW, I lump urban planning in with the real estate industry (ie zoning, development, construction, sales, etc — pretty much anything with an end product that’s a condo).

  4. With due respect to Lauster for running the numbers, Mason and other worried Vancouverites are referring to a different, more damaging problem than the general absence of young people. The city is witnessing a flight of young professionals and their families because there is insufficient housing stock at too high a price. An influx of Millennials to Vancouver is not surprising (I’m 31). Young people want to live in cool, walkable neighbourhoods like Mount Pleasant and Gastown. Throw in the remarkable fact that Vancouver has the highest price-to-rent ratio in the country, with real rents equal to Toronto but cheaper than any other major city on the West Coast of North America, and the city becomes attractive to people in their happening 20s. If you’re renting, it’s not that hard.
    This changes rather quickly when two young people are looking to start a family and buy a home. They quickly find they are unable to make a life in Vancouver. Sometimes they make a toehold in the condo market and make it work for the first couple years of a child’s life (I guess that’s what “den” or “flex space” is for?). There are tons of curiosity stories about 30-something Vancouverites trying to make it work with children in glass boxes. But the reality is that most young couples with good education and children decide to leave Vancouver permanently. It is a direct result of housing types and cost. We should not accept that a whole category of the population, key contributors to our economy and community, simply should not live here because we don’t have the vision to provide places they can live. It is a failure of governance and vision, not some market inevitability.

    1. “But the reality is that most young couples with good education and children decide to leave Vancouver permanently. It is a direct result of housing types and cost. ”
      What specifics do you suggest ? Higher land transfer taxes – for all or only for non-Canadians ? Higher property taxes for non-Canadians ? Capital gains taxes on gains ? Making home ownership illegal for non-Canadians, or perhaps even for non-BC-residents (incl. folks from USA, Alberta, Ontario, Europe, ..) ? Disallow foreign ownership – like Australia – of single family houses but not of condos ?
      Or more land creation ? Amalgamation of New West, Burnaby, Richmond & Coquitlams into “Vancouver” to bring average house prices way down ?
      In many big cities single family house ownership is difficult, be it New York, Boston, San Francisco, Berlin, London, Toronto or Rome ! What is happening in Vancouver is not atypical.

      1. Let’s start with what the city can do. More than half of our land is zoned for single-family homes, now approaching $2 million apiece. Vancouver does not suffer a land shortage. We suffer a zoning shortage. It is absurd that the majority of our city is zoned for housing that few people live in and no one can afford. Even the lucky owners of these single-family homes recognize the problem. Refer to the recent post by Frances Bula and the many comments on various articles. We have a “missing middle”, as has been discussed by Gordon in many previous posts, and it starts with regressive zoning.
        With regards to the intense pressure of speculation on our housing market, sadly this is an issue that can only be dealt with by the province and the feds. You have more ideas than me, and we deserve a public discussion about the best options. Keep writing letters to Victoria and Ottawa.

    2. It’s been said again and again and again, but it bears repeating. Vancouver needs family-ready alternatives to the now out of reach detached home and ubiquitous two bedroom condo.
      The world also doesn’t end at Boundary Road. The Metro’s economy binds 21 cities together, though Vancouver’s will always exert a huge gravitational pull.
      Then there are demographics. Great vats of ink and bytes have been used up writing about “family housing.” But just how many housing units contain families? Only a few years ago there was hard census info stating that more than half the population are singles, and again more than half of singles are seniors. Family housing, which I presume to mean three or more bedrooms, is expensive to build and we already have an overheated market. So, where is the balance knowing that kids always grow up and elderly parents usually don’t appreciate mowing 5,000 ft2 of lawn and vacuuming a big empty suburban house and look for smaller alternatives?
      I suspect most people in the city put as much value on walkable neighbourhoods with a plethora of jobs, schools and amenities as they do on providing a range of housing types to meet the demand of all age groups.

      1. Part of the reason there are so many singles in Vancouver is because there are not adequate housing forms for families. Further, many aging homeowners are unable to downsize without leaving Vancouver altogether, because there are no smaller alternatives nearby. Families leave Vancouver because they don’t want to crush their lives into a two-bedroom condo. Seniors stay in huge RS-1 homes because they don’t see ground-level alternatives in their neighbourhood. Both demographics feel they have no choice due to zoning. We are failing the long-term interests of the city by protecting vast tracts of suburban-density residential lots.
        Building massive FSR-maximizing homes on the west side is expensive, yet investors and developers still do it. Why are we not actively encouraging them to add mixed housing stock, providing FSR bonuses for multiple units and heritage retention? Because of zoning. Are our leaders really that frightened of the backlash of allowing duplexes in Dunbar and Kerrisdale? We need leadership on this issue.

      2. With my elderly parents, they downsized to high-rise and then low-rise condos with elevators. I see elevators as a private transport vehicle. What was most important to them was a level floor plan without stairs, not ground access.

    3. Chris, Very well put, and articulated viewpoint.
      As long as this proper diagnostic will not be shared, it is pointless to try to look at solution, which could miss the point totally.
      To answer to Thomas,
      first we have to accept Vancouver is not an Alpha city as is New-York, Paris or London.
      so the property tenure expectation could be different here and there.
      In the Vancouver category, you could find Boston, San Diego…
      Those are the direct competitor to Vancouver when it is time to attract “key contributors to our economy and community”, those are the “professional”, (whose generally, with a Master+ degree aspire to something else than rent a laneway). It is not an “entitlement issue as we had read here and there, but just a global compeitition issue in an age where those professional can be very mobile (henceforth their employer too).
      It is in that sense, as Chris and the Hootsuit CEO, pointed out, that the affordabilkity crisis can be very damagable to the Vancouver eocnomy…
      Chris is rightly pointing out that the heart of the affordability crisis is very local, concentrated on a specific segment of the market,…and so the answers to it lie esentially in the hand of the city council…which so far seems to have been in denial and prefer to focus on redherring.issues.

      1. I have to somewhat disagree to this. I don’t think we are competing with Boston or San Diego. Vancouver historically was never a professional/knowledge economy. It was mostly the Port and mining and forest companies keeping everyone employed. So, we were sort of like a more scenic Calgary — very resource based. It’s only in the last few years that some people have been trying to change us into a knowledge based economy, and they’re having a hard time doing it.
        If you think about it, although forestry and mining are suffering, we are still very much a resource based economy. Only, instead of selling what’s in the ground, we sell the ground itself. Think of a condo as a mine site. Someone buys economic rights to the land. They bring in heavy machinery. Lots of young men are employed as labour. They extract the value out of the land. There’s lots of economic spinoff. And, when they’re done, they move on to the next hole in the ground. In a sense, it’s even a renewable resource because we are able to sell the same ground over and over again. It’s like tree planting.
        For sure, like any given city, there will be the odd Ryan Holmes making a success out of himself, but a guy with a pickup truck and a bunch of tools will always be the basis of our economy, not a bunch of professionals with Master degrees.

  5. Lauster seems to be arguing that becoming a waystation for twentysomething renters is a good thing. It strikes me as facile (as did the post arguing that craft breweries, which cater to the same demographic, are markers of a great city). How much commitment does someone make to the city knowing they will be leaving in a few years to escape it’s unaffordability?And once they leave you can bet cars become a bigger part of their life in the burbs.
    I wonder how many of those 14-24 year olds are the children of astronaut parents esconced in a purchased home or condo while they go to school here. Not really something to be celebrating.

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