Target Practice: The treacherous trail from number to NIMBY


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by Sal Robinson

Join me in a journey through the land of statistical trickery!

We'll begin with the 2017 approval by a Vision-dominated Council of the Housing Vancouver Strategy.  That plan set a target of 72,000 new homes to be built over the next ten years. “Target” or its plural appeared 68 times in the 80-page document.  “Fact” appeared not at all, but “affordable” or “affordability” was sprinkled in 244 times.

To address the affordability crisis, just under half of these new homes were intended for residents whose annual household income was under $80K. The majority of them were to be had at the going rate, and included market rentals, laneways, condos, townhouses and coach houses.  It was not clear that the affordability target could be met without support from senior levels of government. (As of the 2021 update, fewer than a third of approved projects will provide relief for low income households.)

Who would occupy 72,000 new homes? Just about a quarter of the city’s residents. Seems like a lot, and it is.

The average household size according to the 2016 census was 2.2.  So, the ten-year target was to house nearly 160,000 people, at 2.2 per dwelling.  This implies an expectation of that many people moving to Vancouver over ten years.  They would either move into the new places, or current residents would move in and new people would fill the vacancies they left, or some combination of those scenarios would ensue. 

How would you choose a target, if picking it out of the air seemed unwise?

A rational way to estimate how many people might move to Vancouver would be to look at population growth over time, and project something similar.  In the ten years leading up to the 2016 census, Vancouver’s population had grown by 53,472. The rate of growth was not quite 1% a year. In fact, the average rate of growth has been under 1% for the last fifty years!  So why would anybody forecast a rate virtually triple that for the next ten? It’s not even a good guess. But it’s the target, and the strategy is grounded on it.

The baseless ten-year target of the Housing Vancouver Strategy informs both the Broadway Plan and the Vancouver Plan.  It has been used to rationalize ultra-dense spot rezonings, such as those at 2538 Birch and 1477 West Broadway.

Let’s now step gingerly into the mire that is the City of Vancouver Housing Needs Report.

Three years ago, new provincial legislation required each municipality to complete a housing needs report by April 2022.  Vancouver’s was approved on April 27.  It hasn’t taken long for the targets it contains to be brandished menacingly in the direction of residents who fear for their neighbourhoods.

We'll examine the targets and, if possible, how they were derived.

As noted above, Vancouver’s population has grown at an average rate of under 1% a year, and the Housing Vancouver Strategy inexplicably tripled that rate. Following in its footsteps, the Housing Needs Report projects that the next five years will bring some 91,000 new residents, again nearly triple the historical rate. 

There’s going to be some more math here, folks. Can’t help it.

An unsupported projection is bad enough, but faulty arithmetic is inexcusable. Both occur, twice, in this chart from page 128, to which I’ve added some helpful colours.

The figures underlined in green are found in census reports.  The figures underlined in blue are based on no historical trend, and those underlined in red don’t relate to any numbers appearing on the chart or in census reports.

What’s wrong with A? A population projection in line with the historical rate would be 694,450, so Figure A is inflated by more than 58,000 people.  (Not only that, but 752,942 is 13.7% more than  the 2021 census figure, not 7.7% [C]). 

What’s wrong with B?  If the historical rate continues, we’d expect the number of households in five years to have grown to 326,190, so Figure B is inflated by nearly 32,000 dwellings.  (And 358,101 represents a 17.3%  increase, not 10.1% [D]). 

Yet this is Vancouver’s submission to the provincial government, as mandated.  But is it? 

Elsewhere in the report (page 7) we find a “baseline projection of approximately 50,000 households (~85,000 people) from growth and change in Vancouver’s population over 10 years.”   What’s wrong?  Well, the average household size last July was 2.1 people.  So the 85,000 souls mentioned above should manage with about 39,000 dwellings.  What else is wrong?   This excerpt forecasts 85,000 new residents in ten years, while the chart projects 90,694 in half that time. 8,500 a year, or more than 18,000?  Get out a calculator and you’ll find both are inconsistent with the historical pace of change.

(Incidentally, the census differentiates between total private dwellings and those that are occupied by usual residents.  As of last July, Vancouver contained a whopping 23,000 dwellings not occupied by usual residents.  Let's hope the Empty Homes Tax increase will make some of them available to alleviate housing needs.)  

But the purpose of the housing needs report is to explain exactly that: what number and type of dwellings do Vancouver residents need now and in the next few years?  And what is a “need”?  These are important questions, and Vancouver planners  - and City Councillors - should not be making decisions without the reliable data to answer them.

The report estimates “approximately 86,000 existing households experiencing need because they are living in unaffordable, unsuitable or inadequate housing (based on 2016 Census data), or who are experiencing homelessness or living in an SRO.” (page 134) 

It explains that the number 86,000 includes 77,000 households falling below the census affordability, suitability, and adequacy standards. (7000 people living in SROs and 2000 without any homes make up the 86,000 total.)  The report references 77,000 existing dwellings for which residents are paying more than 30% of their income, or which may not have enough bedrooms for the number of occupants, or which need major repairs. 

The report does not suggest that 77,000 units must be replaced with new builds.  On the contrary, it variously describes 86,000 units to meet current need as “estimated” and “potential” before underlining that “While Vancouver’s Housing Needs Report uses the number of households to fulfill the Province’s requirement for an estimate of current units needed, it is important to note that the number of units actually required to address needs may not be the same as the estimated number of current households in need.  One reason for this is that some households in need may be served through actions other than a newly-built home. For instance, a household overpaying on rent but otherwise satisfied with their dwelling could be assisted through rent support; similarly a household in unsuitable housing could be assisted by finding a more suitable home in the existing stock rather than a new home.”

Think of it for a minute. If your rent is a bit – or a lot – more than you can afford, or your toddler is getting big enough to need her own room, is a newly-built apartment the only solution? Of course it isn’t, as Vancouver’s Housing Needs Report plainly states.  So why do news reports, and B.C.’s minister of housing, say it is?

How does an estimated, potential target become a mandate?  Just watch.

Two days after Council approved the housing needs report, Lori Culbert wrote in the Vancouver Sun that among  Lower Mainland municipalities, “Vancouver has the highest demand: 86,000 new units now…”  Did you notice that?  New units now.  B.C. housing minister David Eby told Postmedia he doesn’t want to take over the role of local governments, but does want to “ensure they hit those housing targets.”   And in a chilling portent of what’s to come, he added, “B.C.’s new tally of housing needs should help city councils explain to upset neighbours why they must embrace density and other new types of housing in their communities.”

Let’s connect the dots.

  • Dot one: The housing report estimates that 86,000 households are paying more than they can afford, or don’t have enough space, or have a major maintenance problem or, in the case of about 12% of them, are in serious or dire need.
  • Dot two: A variety of options could solve their problems.
  • Dot three: The only solution is to build 86,000 new dwellings.
  • Dot four: The Province wants to ensure the target is hit.
  • Dot five: The target will be used by the City to rationalize imposing unnecessary and unwanted density on neighbourhoods.
  • Dot six: If your neighbourhood, which is already short of schools, parks and community facilities,  doesn’t “embrace” the stockade of towers envisioned in the Broadway and Vancouver Plans, you’re a bunch of callous NIMBYs.

At the end of our trek, as you slog out of the swamp of numbers, look for the people demanding data, evidence, logic, and reasoning. They are on solid ground.