Vancouverizing Seattle?


A recent Wall Street Journal article (“For Chinese buyers, Seattle is the new Vancouver”) reported that Seattle was replacing Vancouver as the most popular destination for Chinese buyers in North America. For years, there has been considerable concern about foreign investment in the Vancouver housing market, especially Chinese investment. This   demand is widely believed to have driven Vancouver house prices “through the roof.” In response, the British Columbia government recently imposed a 15 percent foreign buyers tax that has had the impact of significantly reducing new foreign investment in Vancouver’s housing market.

Yet the impact of the tax has still been muted. Houses remain just about as unaffordable as before. The Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver benchmark price has dropped less than four percent from six months ago, before the foreign buyers tax was imposed. This compares to an 80 percent increase over the last 10 years and 47 percent increase over just the last three years (Figure).

Clearly there is something other than Chinese investment driving up Vancouver house prices. Since 2004, Vancouver’s median multiple (median house price divided by median household income) has risen from 5.3 to 11.8. This means that that the median house has increased in price more than six times the annual median household income.

The primary cause of Vancouver’s difficulties is a rigged housing market. For decades, Vancouver has had some of the strongest urban containment policy in the world. Regional land-use authorities have prohibited  housing development from being built on a large agricultural reserve. This land is hardly needed for such use in a nation that has increased its gross agricultural output more than 150 percent since 1961, while reducing its land in farms by three times as many acres as is occupied by all urban settlements combined, according to the 2016 Canadian census. Of course, urban containment restrictions on new housing have driven up house prices, just as Middle East oil supply reductions used to drive up gasoline prices, before the recent supply increases from Canadian and US oil production.

Vancouver has literally become the third most unaffordable city (metropolitan area) in the nine nations covered by the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. This makes a mockery of the Vancouver’s frequent citation as one of the most livable cities in the world. The first principle of livability is affordability --- you cannot live where you cannot afford. Most young families of normal economic means cannot hope to ever buy a modest detached house with a yard as their parents or grandparents did decades ago in the Vancouver area. Only Hong Kong and Sydney are less affordable.

In a recent column (“Not much can or will be done to make Vancouver housing more affordable”) by Gordon Clark in The Province (Vancouver newspaper) describes how things have changed, in a story similar to what you will hear in Sydney, San Francisco and others of the world’s most unaffordable cities. In 1941, his postal supervisor grandfather purchased a house on Oak Street (a main central arterial leading toward downtown) for 1.5 years of income. In 1979 his teacher mother purchased a house in the city of Vancouver for 2.5 times her income. Now with houses costing nearly 12 times incomes, Clark regretfully concludes that nothing can be done: “because the solutions are unacceptable to most people.”

This illustrates what is perhaps the most powerful characteristic of urban containment regulation --- that it creates a strong lobby of support among those who have seen their house values irrationally escalate as a result of unwise government policy. In this environment, public officials simply wring their hands, decry the problem and implement nothing of substance to change the essentially flawed policies. 

With this rigged market, it should not be surprising that people with money from outside Vancouver, and abroad, would seek to buy houses in Vancouver. After all, the policies all but guaranteed strong returns to anyone with enough capital to enter the market.   It is as if a “Speculators Welcome” banner has been hung from Lion’s Gate Bridge. Not so welcome are those middle-income households being driven out of the market

Lessons for Seattle

All of this is a cautionary tale for the Seattle metropolitan area, which also has urban containment policy, but of more recent vintage. Just 140 miles or 225 kilometers south of Vancouver, Seattle’s has housing affordability that already as bad as Vancouver’s  only 12 years ago.

Seattle has a severely unaffordable median multiple of 5.5, slightly worse than Vancouver’s 5.3 in 2004. In the late 1980s, before Seattle imposed its metropolitan- urban containment policy, the median multiple was as low as 2.4 (Table). Today, a Seattle household with the median income must pay three additional years of income for the median priced house.

Rising housing demand with severely constricted supply is associated with higher house prices compared to incomes. In this regard, Seattle has multiple risks, from households escaping California to escape from the even higher prices, Seattle is a bargain compared to the “dogs breakfast” of unaffordable housing associated with California where median multiples now exceed 8.0 in all of the major coastal metropolitan areas (Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose). Prices are so high in California that a seller can buy a comparable house in Seattle for hundreds of thousands less. There may not be as much sun in Seattle, but there’s plenty of money left over for umbrellas and other goods and services.

Now the pressure is likely to increase as foreign investors who shop the world for rigged housing markets promise quick profits now turn their attention to the Puget Sound. In this environment, it would not be surprising for additional serious house price escalation to be in the offing, and Seattle to indeed become the new Vancouver in the next decade or two.

Given these forces, we can expect Seattle housing prices   will continue to increase disproportionately to incomes unless there is land use policy reform. Sufficient supply must be allowed on greenfield land to keep house prices from rising farther. And “building to the sky”--- which is very expensive and not very family friendly ---  is not likely to restore housing affordability in Seattle any more than it has anywhere else. For example, the Manhattanization of central Toronto, with its many new residential towers, has not prevented its median multiple from doubling from 3.9 to 7.7 in the last 12 years. Nor has it prevented a far less obvious (at least to the press) 80 percent share of population growth to be in the suburbs between 2011 and 2016.

Lost in all of this are ordinary middle and working class people, who routinely take a back seat in public policy to planning obsessions over urban form, and a “sense of place.” Middle-income households are far more in need of a “decent place” to live at a reasonable price. Architectural marvels or sleek streetscapes are no substitute. The issue is not ideological, it is rather practical and human. Nor is it about property rights, or free markets. The issue is that people are being denied the housing they desire by urban containment policy and its distorted priorities. As Paul Cheshire, Max Nathan and Henry G. Overman of the London School of Economics have pointed out, “people rather than places” should be the focus of urban policy.

It is ironic that progressive metropolitan areas, like Vancouver, where inclusionary zoning drip feeds housing to lower income households, have become, large exclusionary zones where average income households cannot afford houses. Seattle is headed down the same path.  Soon it may be time to hang a “Speculators Welcome” banner from the Space Needle.

Photograph: Downtown Seattle (by author)            

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.