# Fact-checking Vancouver’s Swamp Drainers

Swampy facts: the dark, broken, and ugly side of housing talk in Vancouver.

Down south of the border, a politician who shall remain nameless campaigned on “draining the swamp” of Washington D.C., trafficked in countless conspiracies, and lied his way into office. His lies painted a picture of a United States turned dark, corrupt and menacing. He promised to fix it, Making American Great Again, mostly by shutting down globalization and kicking out the immigrants.

In Canada, we like to think we’re immune to this kind of rhetoric. But a strain has made its way into discussions concerning Vancouver, where the intersection of real estate, politics, and globalization are increasingly portrayed as a swamp in need of draining. We don’t believe most of those portraying Vancouver as swamp-like are intentionally lying (and in real life they surely favour the preservation of environmentally sensitive wetlands). Nevertheless many commenters are muddying the discourse with poorly sourced claims as a means of scoring political points and attacking various aspects of globalization.

It’s tricky to track down the spread of all the false claims out there. Fortunately a bunch of them were concentrated in a recent piece on “Dirty Money” in Macleans by Terry Glavin that views Vancouver as “a case study in the dark, broken and ugly side of globalization.” Recognizing that getting facts and interpretations right is often difficult for even the most well-intentioned, let’s work toward correcting a few misperceptions, line by line:

#### “At least 20,000 Vancouver homes are empty, and nobody’s really sure who owns them.”

Variations of similar statements permeate the media, with various degrees of factual accuracy. The most common misrepresentation is to refer to the 25k homes not “occupied by usual residents” as “empty”, which the above quote avoids by using an appropriately lower number.

The main issue with the above quote is that it’s portraying those “at least 20,000” homes as problematic vacancies, neglecting that that count includes moving vacancies around census day, empty suites (about 4000 of them), and units in buildings that completed around census time and did not have the time to fill in yet.

Accounting for these types of vacancies, we arrive at the ballpark of the Ecotagious Study based on BC Hydro data that found between 10,800 (for year-long vacancies) to around 13,500 (for four-month vacancies) and now the 8,481 empty homes through the empty homes tax declarations, although some of those empty homes found via the EHT are outside of the universe Ecotagious reported on.

When quoting these numbers, the key question is what are the numbers supposed to be used for. If it’s to highlight “problematic” vacancies, then the Ecotagious numbers probably get us the best estimate for that point in time. Since then the number has likely dropped due to Empty Homes Tax pressure, we will have to wait until the repeat of the Ecotagious study to get confirmation on by how much.

And the reason we don’t know who owns them is not for some nefarious reason but simply because the methods we have for estimating empty homes (other than the ones caught by the Empty Homes Tax) do not allow for the identification of units.

#### “Another 25,000 residences are occupied by homeowners whose declared taxable household incomes are mysteriously lower than the amount they’re shelling out in property taxes, utilities and mortgage payments.”

That’s plain false, we have looked at this before. The 2016 census counted only 8,940 owner households with higher shelter costs than income. An additional 14,510 renter households paid more than their income in rent and utilities, making for a total of 23,450 households in the City of Vancouver that had higher shelter cost than income, most of which were renter households.

The wording of the sentence, followed by the next talking about tax avoidance in British Columbia real estate, seemingly suggests that the majority of these 23,450 households were cheating in some way. Let’s take a closer look at these households with shelter cost higher than income.

One of us (Jens) is partially responsible for bringing this stat into circulation and failing to provide more extensive context from the get-go.

Looking more closely, we see that the bulk of these households are non-census-family households, probably roommates in many cases. Students likely account for a lot of the data. Single parents are also common. While there are some indications of irregularities in the data worth investigating further, broadly suggesting all these households are tax cheats is irresponsible.

#### “Freeland could have been describing Vancouver: ‘Median wages have been stagnating, jobs are becoming more precarious, pensions uncertain, housing, child care and education harder to afford.'”

This is plain false. To its credit, back in February the NDP government moved to make childcare much more affordable for British Columbians. Why ignore this progress? Moreover, Vancouver has seen strong jobs and income growth. To gauge wage growth, we look at full-time employment income for couple families, lone parent families and unattached individuals and compare the trajectories to Metro Toronto.

We see that Vancouver CMA has overtaken Toronto for non-family individual income and lone-parent median income, and almost closed the gap on couple family income.

This shows how Vancouver’s labour force participation rate has increased with respect to Toronto while the unemployment rate decreased. Lastly we can look at the regional job vacancy rate for the respective economic regions to see how Vancouver’s job market is much stronger than the labour force is able to fill.

### Afterword

In our hyper-polarized environment it is probably not enough to simply point out factual errors without further comment. So we take this opportunity to state that we strongly support stricter oversight and enforcement of money-laundering, as well as implementing measures to increase transparency in property ownership. We are also gravely concerned about Vancouver’s affordability problems. We’ve supported a number of housing policies recently put forward by local governments, including the empty homes tax, the school tax, and the boost to social housing investments, all aimed at fixing regulation and providing more housing to those most in need. It’s important to separate out what governments are doing right from where they might be failing. This is where swamp imagery fails us, blending everything together and dragging it all into the mud.

We think fixing our affordability problems is going to involve making tough choices and policy tradeoffs, and we should approach them with a clear sense of what’s at stake rather than mixed up facts, vague swamp-ish imagery and the sense it can all be blamed on the dark, corrupting forces of globalization. We’ve all seen where that last route can take us.

As usual, the underlying R Notebook for this post that includes all the code for the graphs and numbers in this post is available on GitHub. Feel free to download it to reproduce the analysis or adapt it for your own purposes. Hopefully this kind of transparent and reproducible analysis can help establish a shared base of facts. And reduce the amount of guessing needed to make sense of people’s numbers and statements.

### Update (July 27, 2018)

Several people have pointed out via Twitter and comments that inflation-adjusted income growth might be a better metric to use. And that’s a good point. In the context of housing we often have nominal housing prices in mind, so nominal income can be a good metric in this context. But inflation-adjusted incomes add another important perspective.

Here we used Canada-wide inflation estimates, Vancouver’s income growth looks even stronger when normalizing by CMA-specific CPI. (Digging into the reasons for this would probably make another interesting blog post.) The two graphs show the inflation-adjusted incomes, as well as change in adjusted incomes indexed to 2000. We can clearly see the growth in all categories, both in absolute terms, as well as in relative terms compared to Toronto. Despite this, the notion of “stagnant incomes” in Vancouver is quite pervasive in news stories.

### PS

This was written jointly with Nathan Lauster and cross-posted on his blog.