by Michael Mortensen
If Socio-economic analysis was like climbing Everest, I’d want to be on the same climbing rope as demographer David Baxter.
Founder of the Urban Futures Institute , mentor to many, and longtime analyst of Vancouver’s changing scene, David has more “re-fired” rather than retired. To wit, he’s recently published four very interesting research and analysis papers (on his website here and cited below) that deserve consideration in any debate on Vancouver’s housing future. They’re fulsome, factual and engaging – a must read for anyone who wants to have an informed conversation on the current debate.
1 Vancouver is land constrained
2 Metro Vancouver’s population is growing – including Millennials
3 We need to focus on housing price stability AND targeted housing assistance
4 We can’t have low housing prices & low density
1/ Vancouver is land constrained … we’ve known for a long time that we’ll have higher land prices and we’ll need need higher density
In “Land Supply: Scarce means Dense and Expensive, April 2016“ (click here) Baxter cites a 1975 Liveable Region study which illustrates our dilemma: we have a limited and finite land supply. The urban regions of Montreal and Toronto can (and have) expanded beyond 35 miles from their cores. In contrast, Greater Vancouver – hemmed in by mountains, ocean and the US border – cannot.
Baxter says we have to face these facts:
- Greater Vancouver’s population will continue to grow;
- Greater Vancouver has a limited and finite land base;
- Greater Vancouverites have chosen not to develop valuable agricultural land; and
- Land prices and density in Greater Vancouver will be greater than those in any other region in Canada.
2/ Metro Vancouver’s population is growing …
In “Coming and Going: Intra-provincial, Inter-provincial, and International Migration to and from Metropolitan Vancouver, May 2016“(click here) Baxter concludes that the increasing housing prices of the past four years are not driving people in any age group away from the region to other provinces; he asserts: “the data show exactly the opposite, that people from other provinces have been increasingly attracted to it, perhaps because for them the opportunities of this region outweigh the costs…”
3/ We should target house price stability and targeted assistance – not a housing price crash …
In “Prices Crises: Costs and Benefits of Reducing Housing Prices, April 2016“ (click here) David explores the idea of “affordable” housing in a region that has historically been unaffordable.
He asks, how much would we have to reduce prices for them to be affordable? And what would the costs and benefits be? He uses the average house price for 2012 as a working example. Baxter notes: “this value of $646,415 is 19% percent ($153,000) lower than the 2015 price.” and asks us, “So, what do you think? If prices were 19 percent lower today, would homes in Metropolitan Vancouver be affordable?”
* 18,531 households would benefit by $153,000 each ($3B total benefits)
* 656,966 existing households would each lose $153,000 ($100B total); plus
* anyone employed in the subsequent housing industry collapse
Baxter concludes that rather than market-wide interventions, Federal, Provincial and Local governments should be seeking price stability and instead target assistance to those who need it most.
4/ The City of Vancouver cannot have a stock of low density housing at lower prices …
Want to live close to work? Some do and some don’t. But with more than its share of regional jobs, people who want to live close to work will bid up house prices in Vancouver (for proximity and for other lifestyle benefits). We need more affordable [higher density] forms of development; competition [and prices] for these in high amenity city centres will be higher; and we need a regional approach to the problem of accommodating and moving the region’s population.
“Living Close: Concept and Consequence, March 2016”, click here.
Regional Housing & Transit
I do think we need a regional approach to the problem of accommodating and moving the region’s population to respond to these challenges.
Environmental and social sustainability and urban resilience compel us to strive for a mix of housing in ALL regional centres. Vancouver for example will not have only top-tier jobs but also a mix of other important and much-needed services performed by people who earn less. I think we need to be careful of disrupting existing stocks of affordable housing and that we can involve citizens, designers and developers to enable a range of higher intensity forms of infill housing that a) fit and complement our neighbourhoods and b) are highly viable for development.
In addition to housing, the Region’s transportation planning needs need to be addressed in a more cooperative manner. New transit creates new orders of access, new geographies of housing affordability and helps to address the “all in” cost of shelter and transport. Here the Province of BC stands out for its intransigence – it needs to come to the table and allow the region to direct major transportation investments and their funding