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episode # 323

Vancouver Hates Children with Jens von Bergmann

Does Vancouver hate children? The answer, the data suggests, is a resounding yes. Data Scientist Jens von Bergmann sits down with Adam & Matt to chart this terrifying trend that will leave you worried about the future of our city as a vibrant place for all ages. How has city policy & practice made the city inhospitable to young families with children? What does this mean for Vancouver as a dynamic city of tomorrow? Where have all the kids gone? And is it possible to get them back? This shocking episode is a must listen.

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Episode Summary


Who is Jens von Bergmann?

I moved to Vancouver 11 years ago and have enjoyed living here. I luckily have housing figured out. I moved here from Calgary and profited from a rise in property values. I used to teach mathematics and now I mostly work in data analysis around housing, demographics and transportation in Canada. I’ve developed various tools, such as Census Mapper, for this purpose. 

How did you get into housing analysis and looking at demographics and transportation? 

Growing up in Germany, I cycled everywhere for transportation. It’s how I travelled across Europe. But when I moved to North America, especially in Calgary, that was challenging. So that’s how I started researching transportation.

In Vancouver, cycling is better than it is in Calgary and it has gotten better over time. Of course, compared to Europe, there’s still work to be done. But my interests shifted to housing. It’s very quirky how things work in Vancouver’s housing market. So I got sucked in.

I had a fascination with the insistence on single family homes and abundance of tear-downs here in Vancouver. Why do tear-downs happen? That fascinated me and I did a lot of research on that. 

Demographic data has always been a big part of my analysis. I wanted to make census data more accessible, which is why I developed Census Mapper. And now that it’s more accessible, I rely on it more heavily. 

Coming from Germany, moving to Calgary and now living in Vancouver, how has that shaped your understanding of Vancouver?

Before Calgary, I studied and worked in the United States. So moving to Calgary was a move up – it was a middle ground between the US and Europe. Cycling in Calgary was better than in the US. So I was lucky to be able to make the choice to move to Canada.

Calgary is a great place to live and I do miss some aspects of that city. But every place I have lived – I also lived in Asia for a bit – shapes how I live now. I’ve learned a lot about how cities work and have seen how things could be different.

The fact that 80% of our residential land in Vancouver is reserved for low-density housing is a choice we make and double down on every year. Other cities don’t make that same choice. 

The 2021 Canadian census showed neighbourhoods in Vancouver are losing children. What does that mean for our city? 

Cities change no matter whether we intervene or not. People move, people get older and a city naturally changes and shifts. We try to measure those changes based on metrics, but sometimes those metrics are ambiguous.

Looking at children is interesting because almost everyone would agree that having children in the city is a good thing. When we lose children, that might be a problem. It’s a simple metric to look at over time.

So looking at 2001 to 2021, we see that most areas of Vancouver have lost children. Overall, the city has lost 2% of children but in many areas, it’s much higher. And we’re seeing that mainly in low density areas. We have to ask: Why is this happening and what’s going on there? 

Is Vancouver losing children because of the type of housing available? 

It’s less about the exact type of housing and more about adding housing with adequate bedrooms. In Vancouver, we can’t add more housing through additional single family homes unless we dramatically reduce lot sizes. So the only way we can add homes is with multi-family denser housing. 

But we’ve been timid in how we do this in Vancouver thus far, with things like laneway houses and duplexes. The only places we’re seeing an increase in children in Vancouver is where we’re seeing an increase in density. 

Why is Vancouver losing children? Why are families leaving Vancouver? 

Looking at the neighbourhoods in Vancouver, it’s obvious that low-density neighbourhoods have lost children. We haven’t added enough housing. 

So why are families with children leaving Vancouver? For one, people are living longer. Baby Boomers are getting older and want to continue living in their homes in Vancouver. As the population gets older and they stay in their houses, there are less houses available for younger families. 

These demographic effects are quite strong. Older people are staying in Vancouver and we’re not building enough new homes for young families.

Another demographic factor at play is how attractive Vancouver is to 30-something year old professionals. These people come into the city for work while living in Vancouver becomes more exclusive. 

The third factor is our declining fertility rate in BC. BC now has the lowest fertility rate across all of the provinces in Canada. This is seen more strongly in metro areas like Vancouver and Victoria.  

The fourth factor is economics: People have been getting richer in Vancouver. Richer people consume more housing. They will be overhoused or remain overhoused for longer. And that puts pressure on the housing stock. 

So how do we counteract these factors without kicking people out? We need to build more housing. 

What areas of Vancouver have seen an increase in children? 

If we look at the areas where we have added more children in Vancouver in the last 20 years we’re talking about Olympic Village, Yaletown, Coal Harbour, parts of the West End, the River District, Joyce Collingwood, Marine/Gateway, 33rd and Arbutus, and UBC. Those are the places where we have added multi-family housing and they’re teeming with kids. We’ve seen that in the Cambie Corridor recently as well. 

What’s the risk of losing children from Vancouver’s population?

If we decide that we don’t care that the number of children is declining because we like the current aesthetics of low-density housing, we can go that route. But that’s not the direction I want Vancouver to go in.  

How do we increase housing in Vancouver and keep families in the city?

I do think there has been a shift in thinking about housing supply but it requires a lot of effort to fix this. We need to diagnose the problem, agree we need more housing and then figure out how to do it. So far, we’ve decided to mostly leave single-family homes untouched and go tall in the remaining few places. 

Another option to increase housing in Vancouver is to densify single-family areas. The land they sit on is so large. There’s a six-plex proposal currently before council; we could also allow apartment buildings or subdivisions for smaller houses. There are many different options. 

History has shown that when these proposals get put forth in Vancouver, they’re designed to limit uptake because people are afraid of too much change at once. We’ve had a lot of timid changes that aren’t enough to change the tide. We need to be bold if we want to reverse this pattern of losing children. I’m not sure if Vancouver is ready for that. 

Are we seeing any bold density plans in Vancouver? 

The current plans for the Sen̓áḵw project by Burrard Bridge do seem very bold and ambitious. But the decision making process there is different. The Nation whose land that is, they’re making decisions with very little input from the City of Vancouver.

We also saw boldness at Oakridge. There’s a bold vision for what is happening there. The plans in Jericho are quite bold too. The new Broadway plan is a bit timid. It’s moving in the right direction but only in very small parcels. These small moves make it hard to stem the tide. 

Are these new housing projects in Vancouver built for children and families?

If you build units with two or three bedrooms, kids will come. When you look at Yaletown and Coal Harbour, were these projects built for kids? Yes and no. They weren’t built specifically for kids but they are suitable to raise a family. And they’re in areas with great access to jobs and amenities. 

We don’t always know who will move into a project but we do know that people will move in. These places won’t stay vacant. Some people want to control who will move in. They want more control. But that’s not how it works – housing is a system. 

New housing will always be more expensive and more exclusive. New housing won’t be accessible for the average Vancouverite. But people think we should be building new housing for the average Vancouverite. I don’t think that’s realistic. 

What has the resistance from the NIMBY community to dense housing in Vancouver been like? What is the reaction to bold moves for density?

There are people who argue that we don’t need more housing in Vancouver. Some people want us to move slowly and manage growth. But what we’re seeing is this squeezes out certain groups, like families with children. Most people who say they want to limit growth don’t understand that they’re saying we want to squeeze out families with children. 

We need a lot more housing but people doubt that. That’s where discussions get stopped and led astray. 

The data shows that we have a lot of dogs in Vancouver. What does that mean for the health of the city?

We do have more dogs than children in the City of Vancouver. It’s similar to the ratio in San Francisco. Part of that is down to demographics. Older people are more likely to have dogs than small children. So as we age, we will have more dogs.

But I’m not concerned about the number of dogs. I’m personally not a fan but it’s fine that they’re here. But I am a fan of children and it’s sad that we don’t have more of them. The council and planners have led our city into one that is declining with children. They’ve sat back idly as schools empty.

We’ve been talking about this for at least 10 years. There are issues with schools emptying out in low-density areas and schools overflowing in high-density areas. And it seems like no planners or council members want to do anything about it. 

There’s a stable growth trajectory narrative in Vancouver where people are confident the city will keep growing and we’ll never be able to keep up with housing. And then there’s the story of Vancouver losing kids and a city on the decline. How do we reconcile these two stories of Vancouver?

I actually think those are tow sides of the same story. When we look at the housing shortfall in Vancouver, I see two big factors that are impacting us. 

The first is the impact of housing on mobility and migration. Do people get pushed out because there isn’t enough adequate housing in Vancouver? 

The second factor is delayed household formation. As people form households, they start to take up more housing. But this process has been delayed in places like Vancouver and Toronto. Just to accommodate this type of household formation housing, we’d need 80,000-100,000 more housing units in Vancouver. At the current pace, that’s like five years of construction. And that doesn’t factor in migration into the city. 

These two factors underlie the story of Vancouver. 

Are all the families with children leaving Vancouver for Surrey? Where are the families with children going when they leave Vancouver?

Yes, there are more kids in Surrey than Vancouver but some areas of Surrey are seeing a decline in kids too. Kids are actually exploding in areas like Abbotsford and Chilliwack. Those areas actually have some of the highest fertility rates in the country. It’s beyond Surrey at this point. 

Fertility rates are a complex issue. We know that if you go to university, you have kids later. It’s not all down to housing, but housing does play a part. 

How does housing and population relate? 

The key observation is that as a population ages and as people consume more housing, the average household size shrinks. So just to keep your population the same, you need to add more housing. In low-density areas of Vancouver, it’s not just that they lost children but they lost population overall. 

Bottom line: If you don’t add housing, you will lose population. 

Where are we at with vacancy rates and rental prices in Vancouver?
CMHC only gives us the vacancy rate once a year. The vacancy rate in Vancouver recovered a little bit in the first year of covid but dropped back down in the second year of covid. We saw a similar story with rents in Vancouver throughout the pandemic. 

In the summer and fall of 2021, we saw rental prices in Vancouver shoot up again and now they’re well above pre-pandemic levels. 

How do we keep families with children in Vancouver? How do we get out of this decline?

There’s a simple formula that we know to counteract the problem of losing children in Vancouver: We need to add housing, especially two and three bedroom units. But how are we going to do this and how will we do it at scale? Not every two or three bedroom unit will be occupied by families. So we need to add more options.

The conversation needs to be about how we add this housing and not whether we should. We need to get to the next level. If we can do that, we’ll be in a good place. 

How does the pace of development affect housing affordability in Vancouver? 

It’s easy to build as the market goes up. Development is quite delayed in Vancouver because it’s so slow to get something built. It’s slow because our focus is on big things, like towers, and because the approval and construction processes are so long. 

Our goal should be to remove the scarcity bonus from our city. You should not be able to charge for the pleasure of living somewhere. But when scarcity is as bad as it is, you have to charge. However, our goal should be to drive down scarcity. 

The city needs to allow prices to fall. We have the tools but we need to use them strategically. There’s tension between how much we tax newcomers, by keeping CACs high, and how much we tax residents, by raising property taxes. Some people on council understand this and are happy to keep the load on newcomers. 

We can charge upfront with high CACs or we can charge over a lifetime through property taxes. But if we charge up front, it makes everything in the city less affordable. And the people collecting that fee are the landowners. Property taxes, on the other hand, are paid for by everyone. It’s a more effective way for the city to collect money but property taxes are unpopular. 

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