Empty homes not the issue in Vancouver, Urban Futures think-tank says

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      A think-tank that looks into demographic and economic issues has had enough of some of the talk around unoccupied homes in Vancouver.

      Noting that “with recent headlines speculating on the share of the City’[s] unoccupied housing stock ranging between 25 and 50 percent”, Urban Futures thinks it might be helpful to give out again its previous report on vacant dwellings in Canada.

      In a media release today (September 26) providing a link to the paper “Much Ado About Nothing: What the Census data say, and don’t say, about foreign & temporary residents and unoccupied dwellings”, Urban Futures states that “discussions around this issue have suffered from, at best, misrepresentation of the available data to consider the issue”.

      “At worst they are further entrenching misconceptions about housing occupancy in the region,” the group adds.

      The Urban Futures study notes that an average of 4.8 percent of dwelling units in 33 major metropolitan areas across Canada was unoccupied during the 2011 census.

      “With a 5.4 percent level of unoccupied units, the Vancouver CMA [census metropolitan area] was above the CMA average, but the difference was slight compared to other CMAs, such as the Victoria (7.5 percent), London and Windsor (6.9 percent), St. Catherines/Niagara and Sherbrooke (both at 6.8 percent) regions,” the paper states.

      Zeroing in on apartments, Metro Vancouver had 6.2 percent vacant, which is “below the 7.0 percent average for all 33 of the CMAs in Canada”.

      “The average of 5.4 percent of all private dwellings in the Vancouver CMA being unoccupied at the time of the Census represented underlying levels of 3.2 percent of the single detached stock, 6.2 percent of apartments, and 6.8 percent of attached ground oriented units. Single detached units accounted for 20 percent of the unoccupied units in the region on Census day, perhaps reflective of 2011’s active real estate sales market,” the paper notes.

      It goes on: “Within the Vancouver region, with an overall average of 6.2 percent, unoccupied apartments accounted for a slightly above average share in the City of Vancouver (6.7 percent) and West Vancouver (6.9 percent), and well above average shares in Pitt Meadows (8.7 percent), Surrey (9.2 percent), and in the UBC/UEL area (10.1 percent). The spatial pattern of unoccupied apartment units throughout the region is driven by a wide range of factors, from the prominence of student populations within each municipality to sales activity.”

      The authors note that there are no census data on foreign ownership or investment in housing.

      Their conclusion: “There are significant housing issues in this region—the levels of occupancy by foreign and/or temporary residents and level of unoccupied units are not among them.”

      Last year, the Straight spoke with one of the authors of the report, economist Ryan Berlin, who said at that time: “We were just trying to reframe the debate in terms of the actual numbers and in terms of the definitions.”




      Sep 26, 2014 at 11:33am

      Not that I'm suspicious of a developer-funded "think tank", but how was it determined that a unit was empty? The honesty of self-reporting by the owner? Looking in the window? If it was by inspection of the census taker, how would that work in a condo hallway? And exactly how would they get into contact with offshore owners?


      Sep 26, 2014 at 11:43am

      The numbers don't add up, and don't jibe with a simple walk around snooping in windows. Multi-million dollar real estate, supposedly almost all occupied. And remember that permanent residents *must* claim to be present in Canada for 2 years out of every 5.

      Then we get to incomes. Even if you assume lots of people who bought before the runup, and even if you assume we're in mortgage debt beyond the limits, and parental boosting, it doesn't even come close to adding up. We have among the most expensive real estate in the world, but what does the income data say?

      "The average income in Metro Vancouver in 2009, was only $41,176, according to Canada Revenue Agency statistics. In Vancouver proper, we are getting by on $43,911. However, Richmond residents are barely scraping by at $33,350 a year "



      Sep 26, 2014 at 11:52am

      There are far more empty condos, not by choice, but by the draconian rental bylaws imposed by strata corporations. Get rid of those and see THOUSANDS of rental units available, most could be affordable. THAT would make a difference. I frankly think these bylaws are an affront to our rights and freedoms,and if ever challenged might not be enforceable.

      What is to stop the Owner of a home to put it on the Market for a high rent few can afford? Will that solve anything? He can say "I'm trying". Or rent it at a nominal fee to a non-resident tenant? How would we monitor that?

      I am amused by this story being juxtaposed with a story about the howling protest of the monitoring of protest groups. So it's ok to peer in the windows of everyone, or monitor hydro use, but not ok to check on a few others? Where do we draw the line? What if a non-resident owner is also off protesting somewhere??? I am being sarcastic on purpose to convey the lunacy of this proposal.

      Be careful what you wish for


      Sep 26, 2014 at 11:54am

      @Bruce - So have you been going around "snooping in windows"? Sorry but that is creepy


      Sep 26, 2014 at 12:22pm


      "The numbers don't add up, and don't jibe with a simple walk around snooping in windows."

      And what do your 'snooping' numbers tell you? What is the percentage of unoccupied homes in the region? How are you collecting your samples? What statistical methods are you using? What types of errors are you accounting for? Sorry but if you say the 'numbers don't add up' then you'd better have some very tight and accurate statistics to back it up. Otherwise you're wasting everyone's time.


      Sep 26, 2014 at 1:32pm

      Prices are set at the margin. If we are to take the Urban Futures Institute selected vacancy metric at face value, then prices to rent or prices to buy must decline to lower the vacancy rate.

      The price to rent or the price to buy for THE ENTIRE comparable market, not just on the vacant units themselves. It takes the squeeze off.

      Look at San Francisco for a good example of what destruction such a squeeze may cause. It is very important we do not allow some few to dictate and impose what cannot happen, lest they get their share of the cream up front and with no risk.

      Raymond Tomlin

      Sep 26, 2014 at 1:36pm

      As a past administrator of the (secret, the results are never divulged) Canada Mortgage and Housing "Vancouver Condo Market Survey", year-in, year-out the survey reported that in the Coal Harbour and Yaletown neighbourhoods, up to 40% of condos were vacant at the time the survey was conducted (in July/August each summer).

      The Urban Futures study may be right when it reports that 5.4% of housing units in the Vancouver CMA are unoccupied — but such figure obfuscates the facts on vacancy rates in the Yaletown and Coal Harbour neighbourhoods, which a recent UBC study reported was more in the range of 23% to 29%.

      And how does that 5.4% figure translate into the actual number of vacant units, a figure that would have some actual relevance to readers of Carlito's otherwise well-conceived article? Does that 5.4% figure translate into ten thousand, twenty thousand, or more "units" that are unoccupied in the City of Vancouver?

      At a time when the lack of affordable housing in Vancouver has emerged as a central issue of voter concern in the current Vancouver civic election cycle, we need more - and accurate - information on the actual state of condo and single-detached housing vacancies.


      Sep 26, 2014 at 1:39pm

      Housing costs are the #1 cost living, and the #1 cost of business -- both directly, and indirectly through all their suppliers.

      The #1 cost of housing is in land price, not materials or labor.

      Hiking up front costs stifles innovation, growth, and prosperity. Just ask Mark Carney.

      Look to Singapore for a historical example of how managing land prices in an orderly way avoided their growth from being choked off and stuck in a middle income trap.


      Sep 26, 2014 at 1:39pm


      Doubting this real estate industry's willfully obtuse numbers doesn't require me to come up with competing numbers of my own. That isn't the way evidence works.

      If I show an experiment to find the value of, say, the gravitational constant is flawed, I am not required to come up with a competing experiment, for the first number to be in doubt.