The Hongcouver
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Vancouver’s vacancy study, the ‘key finding’ it didn’t find and the vacant homes it didn’t count

The ‘finding’ that Vancouver’s vacancy rate is in line with other cities wasn’t in new research - it was copied from a previous study and inserted in the City’s summary of latest data

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 4:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 7:55am

When Caroline Adderson heard last week that a report commissioned by the City of Vancouver had found only about 1 per cent of single family homes and duplexes were unoccupied, she couldn’t believe it.

One in a hundred? It was a “ridiculously” low number, thought Adderson, a local author and creator of the Vancouver Vanishes Facebook page and bestselling book that mournfully documents how perfectly livable and often beautiful homes are left vacant then demolished amid the city’s soaring real estate market, to be replaced with mansions in keeping with value of the land on which they sit.

The reason the report’s results so differ from Adderson’s perceptions about the empty, darkened homes she sees across the city are quite clear: many simply weren’t included in the study.

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Ecotagious, the company that produced the long-awaited occupancy report, analysed electricity meter data to decide whether a dwelling was occupied, finding just 950 non-occupied single family homes and duplexes in the City of Vancouver in 2014.

The 2011 census tally was some 190 per cent higher than Ecotagious found

Powerless homes - including the bereft pre-demolition dwellings that so sadden Adderson and others - were excluded from consideration. After reconnection, they remained excluded for another full year.

With house and duplex demolitions running at 900-1,000 per year, the implications are clear: the inclusion of powerless and newly powered vacant homes could, potentially, have doubled or tripled the non-occupied house/duplex tally.

A closer look at the study alongside census-derived figures serves to highlight other problems, not with Ecotagious’ data, but with various other extrapolations: that the new findings are consistent with previous data; that this consistency suggests Vancouver’s non-occupancy rates are thus in line with other cities; and that Vancouver’s non-occupancy rate has been virtually unchanged for more than a decade. None escape this scrutiny unscathed.

In line with other cities?

It needs to be noted again that the problem lies not with the actual data compiled by Ecotagious. There’s no reason to doubt its accuracy. The problem is with the limited parameters of the study, what was and wasn’t measured, and how this was subsequently depicted.

To a non-Vancouverite it probably sounds arcane, but the debate over home vacancies and their role in the city’s outrageous housing unaffordability has made the subject combustible stuff, particularly so amid worries about the role of foreign money in the market.

Exactly how the claim [that Vancouver’s vacancy rates were in line with other cities] came to be highlighted in the City’s summary as a ‘finding’ of the new study, when the claim was not made in the report itself, is unclear

And last week’s Ecotagious report was touted by some as a piece of myth-busting which showed Vancouver’s vacancy rates were akin to other cities’. Indeed, the first item in the City of Vancouver’s summary of the Ecotagious report’s key findings was that “the rate of homes being left empty in Vancouver and the region is in line with other large cities in Canada”.

That sounds soothing. But the Ecotagious study found nothing of the sort.

Instead, the claim that Vancouver’s vacancy rate was in line with other cities was based entirely upon a previous study of 2011 census data, produced by the Urban Futures Institute.

Exactly how this came to be highlighted in the City’s summary as a “finding” of the new study, when the claim was not made in the report itself, is unclear. Ecotagious’ CEO Bruce Townson declined to comment; however, he said Ecotagious made no attempt to study electricity data outside Metro Vancouver.

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Asked why the “in line with other cities” claim was included in the City’s summary in spite of its absence from the Ecotagious data and findings, the City said: “The best source we found that compares the city and region to other large cities in Canada was the 2013 Urban Futures report.”

Ecotagious had referenced the Urban Futures study, to claim consistency with its own findings about Vancouver alone – namely, that both had found similar rates of non-occupancy in apartments: 6.7 per cent in 2011 according to Urban Futures’ census-derived data, and 7.2 per cent in 2014 according to Ecotagious, which found a 2011 rate bang-on the census-suggested 6.7 per cent mark.

But if we look closer, the claim of consistency between Ecotagious’ data and that of the census-derived data begins to crumble.

Urban Futures and the census found a 2011 vacancy rate for single detached homes in the City of Vancouver of 3.5 per cent. It might not sound much, but that is vastly higher than the Ecotagious finding of 1.2 per cent for both 2011 and 2014. The 2011 census tally was some 190 per cent higher than Ecotagious found, and one in 30 houses being deemed vacant sounds a lot worse than 1 in 100. The Ecotagious figure even includes duplexes, which have a higher non-occupancy rate – removing them would only serve to widen the discrepancy.

Overall, Ecotagious found non-occupancy of all City of Vancouver dwellings ran at 4.8 per cent in 2014 and about 4.5 per cent in 2011. Urban Futures and the census meanwhile found overall non-occupancy of 6.3 per cent in 2011 - some 40 per cent higher than Ecotagious.

It really shouldn’t be surprising that the census and Ecotagious data produce very different results, since they employ very different definitions of non-occupancy. The census definition required only that a home have been unoccupied on one particular day - census day, May 10, 2011. Ecotagious was rather more rigorous in deeming non-occupancy in a given year – 25 days of non-occupancy in each of the four months of August and September, then June and July the following year.

According to the census, Metro Vancouver experienced a major surge in non-occupancy of all dwellings from 2006 to 2011

In this light, the surprising thing isn’t that the overall and single-family results differ so greatly between Ecotagious and the census – it’s that there is any similarity at all between their results, since each set of data includes and excludes so many homes that the other does not. And the closeness of the two studies’ apartment vacancy rates in 2011 begins to look a lot less like consistency and a lot more like coincidence.

This is not to say that the census figures are the more reliable. They aren’t. The census employs a flabby definition of non-occupancy. But it is the “consistency” with this very data upon which hinges the notion that Vancouver’s non-occupancy is also in line with other Canadian cities.

Unchanging vacancy rates?

Another discrepancy with census figures arises with Ecotagious’ finding that non-vacancy rates have basically been unchanged across the city and Metro Vancouver since 2002, particularly so in the 2006 to 2011 period covered by census data.

But the census data (yes, the same data source upon which the claims of consistency with the rest of Canada hinge) tells a different story.

According to the census, Metro Vancouver experienced a major surge in non-occupancy of all dwellings from 2006 to 2011, with the raw number up by 43 per cent; expressed more sensibly, the actual rate of non-occupancy rose by 29 per cent in those five years, from 4.16 per cent to 5.35 per cent.

Census-derived non-occupancy figures are no longer typically published, but they can be gleaned from a November 2015 CMHC analysis which reveals 50,825 private non-occupied dwellings in Metro Vancouver in 2011, versus 7,405 occupied by temporary or foreign residents, and 891,336 private dwellings occupied by usual residents. The 2006 non-occupied dwelling tally of 35,457 is found in an archived Statistics Canada analysis, compared to 817,035 occupied private dwellings.

Once again, this is not to say that the census non-occupancy rate is the correct one. But the fact that such a major fluctuation is not even recorded in the Ecotagious data highlights the very different parameters at play.

The driving forces of non-occupancy

One undeniable conclusion we can draw from Ecotagious is that it is apartments that are the primary drivers of the overall non-occupancy rate in the City of Vancouver, because they are both the most common type of housing and the most likely to be unoccupied.

“Apartments have to be where you are looking, to deal with non-occupancy as a whole, if that’s the question you are trying to answer,” said Ecotagious’ Townson.

Townson said that in omitting powerless and newly powered homes, the study sought to eliminate what he called “distortions” created by high and low periods of demolition and reconstruction.

“Because there is variation in the number of housing starts and demolitions and renovations, on a year-to-year basis, we’ve basically tried to remove the effects of that on the data to try to provide as consistent an analysis of non-occupancy as possible.”

As for Adderson, it is those very distortions that she sees as a big part of the problem. She said it was “outrageous” that powerless pre-demolition homes, some vacant for years, be excluded from the study “because those are the empty homes.”

She questioned why homes without electricity were excluded from consideration instead of simply being added to the non-occupied tally.

“If we look at 2015, the City issued 974 demolition permits for single family homes and duplexes,” Adderson said. “And if you add the 900 or so from the previous year that aren’t being counted for a year [after they’ve had the power reconnected], then you are getting up to 2,000 a year that aren’t being figured into the numbers.”

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The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email [email protected] or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70.