The sheer diversity of the housing

“[I was struck by]…the sheer diversity of the crowd… to see people across so many diverse ethnic groups celebrating side by side…[was] very uplifting.”

Seattle Times reporter Danny O’Neil
in Vancouver to watch the Stanley Cup finals from Granville St.

Anytime I’m away from Vancouver this absence of an internationally-sourced and blended population often stands out.

This summer, in Portland we enjoyed the numerous old craftsman and Edwardian era homes and neighbourhoods, many streets with 100% of the original homes, their wood-siding in tact.  We live in a similar vintage neighbourhood in (East) Vancouver, but the homes today are much less homogeneity.

A sharp colleague who spends lots of time in Portland suggested that the two phenonmenon are interrelated; Portland has experienced fewer massive waves of immigration over the past 80 years.  In thinking and reading more about the heritage of the area, I think she’s right.

Back in the 1920s, our neighbourhood would have been indistinguishable from those in Portland.  The mostly-European immigrants built their craftsman homes from kits, and using the old growth douglas fir that dominated the Pacific Northwest Landscape as a structural base, and as trim and flooring.  (In my area, and I’m sure in Portland, a few Chinese and Japanese were involved as builders or land developers but left only a limited imprint on the housing landscape).

Today in East Van, only some of those original homes exist in their original state, or restored back to it.  After world war two a wave of southern Europeans from Italy in particular arrived.  They were masons and concrete workers, and gradually covered the unfamiliar-to-them wood siding with concrete stucco.  They paved a portion of the yard with concrete, and planted tomatoes in wood pots.  Some also added grape arbours.

The next wave from Asia (southern China in particular, but also India and SE Asia) helped popularized “the Vancouver special” in the 1960s and 1970s which replaced smaller pre-war homes on many lots.  Two levels and designed to be easily split into two units or house a large extended family, these adaptable homes worked well for the changing needs of immigrant families who often arrived with no money (although often with education or marketable skills).  They could rent out half the house until financial fortunes improved, or they could house extended family to help pay the bills. (Italian and Greek immigrants as well as native born also embraced this housing type in other neighbourhoods of Vancouver for some of the same reasons).

Grander homes, square like, covered in pastel California stucco came next in the 1980s and 1990s, often purchased or developed by a new wave of wealthier immigrants and those who had come earlier and been successful.

Also at this time a more hybrid home appeared, with the two level characteristics but also craftsman-style bay windows, and a wide mix of coverings from brick to stucco to vinyl to wood siding.  These seem to appeal to a range of immigrants as well as the now-grown children of immigrants—who may well be in couples with roots from many different parts of the world and eras of immigration to Vancouver.

I don’t know if this house style has a name (if it does, someone please comment), but for now I’ll call it “The Vancouver Mix” it’s a hybrid of the sheer diversity of the housing and reflects the people.

What’s the housing mix like in your neighbourhood?

As is probably obvious, I have no architectural background (feel free to correct, comment or expand).  But in pondering this over the past few months,  I have a new appreciation for the interrelationship between housing and the cultural and immigration history of a city. Sounds like fodder for a Jane’s Walk next spring.

Demography behind occupiers discontent

In cities around the world people have been occupying key streets to express frustration over a variety of issues.  Many protesters have commented on “growing inequality” as being one grievance.  But what if the real cause of this apparent phenomenon is demographic rather than a result of economic or financial systems, or something abstract like “corporate greed.”  The baby boomer cohort has been distorting aspects of the economy since they were born, and today is no exception.

Looking at urban housing issues provides a good window into how the bulge of humanity born between 1945 and 1960 has created many of the challenges our cities and countries face today (and I’m not blaming individuals here, it’s just the fact that there are so many more people in one age cohort than in others that is unusual in human history, and the issue here)

1. Those  who bought houses before the boomers have done really well.  Many people born in the 1920s through early 1940s who bought in the late 1960s or early 1970s achieved a real estate windfall upon retirement.  The reason? One the baby boomers hit the housing market, demand skyrocketed but the preference for detached single family homes meant that supply could not increase in the best locations, and so values went up owing to increased demand.  The only place supply could expand was the suburbs.

I know many people who bought a house for $20,000 in 1970 and without taking on much or any more debt ended up with homes in the $1 Million to $2 Million range at retirement in the mid-2000s. This is in Vancouver, but I am sure similar stories can be found in places like New York, Boston, San Francisco, Sydney, Melbourne, Seattle, etc.  The earlier one got in, the better.  So the oldest boomers have done okay as well.

In Canada, this pre-boomer and older boomer group still has their wealth, whether it’s in real estate or they sold it.  In the US, some likely ended up losing at least a portion (by buying a McMansion in suburbia only to have its value plummet, or from using their house as an ATM and borrowing too much) but I also get a real sense that this group has done okay.  It is hard for younger generations to imagine buying into the same types of homes they might have grown up in.  The younger boomers and gen xers got caught in the US housing crash, is my perception (but someone please give me stats to disprove this if I’m wrong).

2.  In Employment, a similar general  story exists.  The pre-boomers ended up with the plum management jobs supervising boomers, who then filled up all of the employment making life tougher on subsequent generations, especially gen x during the economic downturns of the 1990s (until the dot com boom put people who widdled away idle time in front of computers to work).  The youngest boomers and the “jones generation”(those born 1960-1967) did well in the computer revolution because they understood it, and then could put to work this lost generation x who couldn’t squeeze themselves into a lot of the companies and organizations that employed the boomers.

3. Millennials, those born after 1980, especially those born in the late 1980s are feeling a little squeezed out of both the job market (now full of boomers, gen xers, and the oldest millennials).Boomers have not exited either the employment or real estate markets. This makes jobs a bit scarce during these uncertain economic times (unless you live in Calgary) and real estate prices remain elevated in many high-demand locations.  The suburban housing crash in the US offers options in those locales, but this housing style has not been embraced by younger generations for reasons that have been suggested and explained elsewhere.

Being shut out of the good jobs, and for those with a good job an affordable house, undoubtedly feels unequal, and unfair for millennials.  And it might be nice to blame corporate greed on an unfair economic system for this situation.  But it might be mostly a demographic phenomenon and the situation will change over the next few years.

The good news on the job front is that boomers will be exiting the workforce, creating opportunities.  They will also eventually be selling houses at a fast rate.  This will create some opportunities for younger generations to improve their standard of living.

What GMs anti-bike ad tells us

It was intriguing that General Motors ran an advertisement last week depicting the bicycle as the inferior competition to its product. Instead of trying to compete with Honda or Toyota, they chose the bicycle.

Although GM was shamed on Twitter into pulling the ads, the concept makes sense if you look at it from an automotive manufacturer`s point-of-view.  Young people are driving less, and presumably buying fewer cars than they used to.  Increasingly young Americans are saying they want to live in walkable urban communities and get around on foot, bicycle or by transit. If they need a car, they belong to Zip Car or another sharing equivalent (not much data on young Canadians, but anecdotally it seems to be similar).

Is private automotive ownership going to diminish?  Have we passed peak car? By this I mean automotive ownership per capita is probably on the way down.  Soon a typical American couple or family might only own one car–and some urbanites no cars!

We could see all of the automotive companies fighting back with ads that glorify automotive travel and ridicule the other options.  Maybe they’ll form an industry alliance to promote their sector (like more nascent groups will sometimes do).

I can certainly tell that my Walkscore-98 neighbourhood has passed peak car.  There are many more open parking spots on the street at all hours than there was when we moved here 10 years ago.

What’s happening in your community?  Has it passed peak car?  And should we shed a tear for GM?

Ordinary working people own financial districts

The Occupy Wall Street movement is spreading to financial districts across North America and the world.  Seems an appropriate time to think about who actually owns and profits from that real estate.

Union pension funds are the owners of many office towers in Canada’s financial districts

Increasingly Canadian union pension funds are buying up US office towers too. US pension funds are also big owners of real estate.

Gatherings and protests can sometimes become destructive, often against the original organizers vision. We’ve all seen the TV footage or been first hand eye witnesses when a peaceful gathering turns into something else.

Various unions are now endorsing the “Occupy” movement.

They just might want to be extra vigilant to make sure no one trashes their pension fund’s office buildings or those belonging to the pensions of fellow unions from across the country or around the world.

The banks are merely tenants–renters.  A lot of hard working ordinary people are the actual owners of the real estate via their union pension plans.

The worst sports city in North America – it matters

ESPN recently ranked Toronto as the worst sports city in North America.  They calculated this based on a ratio of ticket prices to wins by the city’s teams.  Toronto’s sports fans loyally pay top dollar to see their favourite teams lose all too often.

I think this affects the psychology of the city, including the business community’s outlook. 

No matter how well things are going for Toronto, many of my friends, colleagues and network in Toronto refuse to believe in it.  They seem convinced they’ll soon be let down—that there is no more point in believing in Toronto’s solid economy than in a 3 game win streak by the Mapleleafs.

The sad state of the Maple Leafs, Raptors, Toronto FC and other teams is about more than sports.  The inability of these teams to win consistently and live up to expectations seems to create a pattern in peoples’ heads that they expect to be repeated elsewhere–such as in the city’s economic performance.  For nearly 3 years now I’ve been hearing it when I put evidence in front of people that Toronto will do (or is doing) fine in this era of global economic uncertainty.

For example, job growth in the knowledge sector has been strong over the past three years, right through the global economic turmoil.  Finance, professional services and information and culture sectors have together added tens of thousands of jobs since 2008. Despite this many in the commercial real estate sector have been convinced that office demand will fall (that this is a mirage of some sort).  Instead absorption has been strong, especially in 2011 as companies lease space in which to put these workers.

Since the global financial crisis began in 2008, Toronto has risen up the ranks of global business and financial centres, as well as the livability rankings.  Compared to most other world cities, and even Toronto’s own past, Toronto is thriving.

And it’s not all business.  Toronto’s international film fest, TIFF, has also risen in prestige and is now *the* place to showcase a new movie.  Bollywood even held its annual award gala in Toronto last year, illustrating the international nature of this city.  With over 50% of residents foreign born, and many from Asia, it’s as connected to Mumbai and Shanghai as to many US or European cities, whether economically or culturally.

Toronto is a city to believe in.  As hard as this is for a Vancouver Canucks fan to say, I hope the Maple Leafs start winning so more of my friends and colleagues in Toronto will start believing in their city too.  

Time for micro-lots?

When they couldn’t sell their large lots for mansions in the 1910s, early real estate land developers in Vancouver’s Grandview “suburb” split them into smaller lots, and sold them to workers to build their own homes.  

Today, these lots are smaller than the legal norm in Vancouver of 33’ X 122’.  Many are 25 X 90.  Some are 30 X 60; there may even be some smaller ones.  Most have homes on them larger than what would be allowed today—they nearly fill the lot, offering only a tiny back yard or patio.  But over the decades these houses on small lots have allowed people who otherwise couldn’t afford a home in the area to enter the housing market (my husband and I included).   They also helped create the higher density of people per sq. mile that supports the vibrant retail and restaurant scene on nearby Commercial Drive.

You would have a hard time getting City Hall to approve sub-dividing properties into lots this small today (assuming you could assemble a few bigger ones, and then re-divide them). 

But maybe smaller lots are what we need, with houses that nearly fill them—and not just in Vancouver.  I suspect similar issues exist in the older neighbourhoods of other North American cities where there is growing demand to live there and prices are rising because it`s hard to increase supply.

Small homes on small lots also suit the lifestyle preferences of many people today, including the generation x and y urban “workforce” who are not that interested in keeping up a yard.  They’d love their own outdoor space, but maybe more of a patio that requires minimal maintenance. They might prefer to go to a larger park when they want grass. 

This attitude toward spending less time on home maintenance is partially what’s driving the condo-living boom.  But not everyone who doesn’t really enjoy yard work wants to live more than 1 storey off the ground; what options do they have if they cannot afford a detached single family home?  Even those in townhouses (or condo towers) sometimes find strata rules and councils frustrating and even intrusive.

Solution:  why not detached homes on very small lots?  For example, what about having 1000-1200 square feet of house, on a 33’ X 40 foot lot—likely in 2.5 storeys. There’d be enough outside space for small patio, or tiny garden or yard, whatever the home owner wanted.  Basically it would be a small townhouse, but “fee simple” –you own the land and the house–and you could get three such properties on corner lots where today currently one house stands.  This adds density, which is great for amenities, keeps in the low-rise character of an area, and adds housing that is more affordable than a single house or duplex on a lot.

In the 1910s, somehow lot owners were able to subdivide lots to create workforce housing.  Creativity came into play when the mansion-sized lots proved to be too expensive for ordinary folks.  Although there seem to be many willing to pay over $1,000,000 for a home in East Vancouver, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look to what worked in the past to create less expensive housing that more people want and can afford.

So tell me, where do you know of where you can buy new homes on tiny lots with no strata council?

I’ve heard of one such project in Victoria, and that it has been very popular with the strata-fatigued, but would love to learn more about it and other examples.

Keeping people honest

Jane Jacobs once commented that “eyes on the street” was an effective deterrent against crime.  And it is.  But it’s how it works that’s important.  Lots of eyes tend to keep those marginal criminals honest.  Committing a crime without getting caught is too difficult, so they’ll go elsewhere.

The advent of video surveillance and now “crowd-sourced” policing or evidence gathering (as happened in Vancouver during the riots) is another layer of “eyes on the street.”   Now even if there are only a few witnesses, they might be photographing or video taping you.

Professional or determined rioters will not be deterred by this, of course.  They show up at crowded events in gas masks, obscuring their identity.

Unlike the editorial in the Harvard Business Review, I am not alarmed by citizen evidence gathering.  It’s how people who don’t feel strong enough to confront a criminal directly can fight back and it could well serve as a big preventative tool for the future.

Time for lessons in urban mob temptations

If more North Americans are going to live in dense urban areas–and celebrate together–there are some good lessons and insights to take away from the Vancouver riots.  I’m not talking about lessons in policing (I’m sure those will come), but lessons about appropriate behavior in large crowds in the 21st century, and the dynamic of crowd-sourced evidence gathering.

Behavior in large crowds:

Clearly, a lot of young people were not prepared to make appropriate decisions when faced with the challenging situation of a large crowd, disappointment over the hockey game, and some determined trouble makers–as well as the temptation to stay and watch or even participate.

A lot of people with no prior criminal histories got caught up in the moment and others wouldn’t get out of the way, instead hanging around filming or just watching. As mentioned in a previous post, many of them were recent high school grads all primed for craziness because it was grad week.  They came downtown hearing there might be a repeat of the 1994 riot. They didn’t think of the consequences.Three lessons here:

1. This could have happened anywhere you had a large crowd suddenly swelled by a large number of 17-18 year olds (esp. teenaged men) hyped up with grad.

2. This isn’t some exceptional generation clash or a sign that today’s 17-20 year-olds are somehow more angry on alienated that teens of the past.  I don’t know too many people who can honestly say they never got caught up in something rebellious when they were 18 +/- (smoked, drank, graffiti, minor shop lifting, steeling a street sign, skipping school for a day, joined a protest, etc).  In Vancouver hundreds feeling rebellious all ended  up in the same place at the same time–when everyone was saying there was going to be a riot.

3. Most important: Everyone needs some education on mob behavior in the 21st century–both what not to do, and what to expect.

Throughout history “large crowds” have been able to act to bring down governments or express displeasure.  Or, groups of people have rioted simple to release some energy.  By being part of a crowd, there has traditionally been safety in numbers but also anonymity. There is nothing particularly exceptional that a crowd got out of hand in Vancouver on June 15. What was different was that it was all caught on about a thousand different cameras by participants and witnesses.  The police have over 1 million images of the rioters and looters.

As more people live in urban areas, and urban spaces are taken from cars and given to people for special events (as happened in Vancouver), all citizens will need to be educated on mob behavior 21st century style.

Think of it like drinking and driving education.  Friends who parent kids in their late-teens or early 20s are all impressed at how determined these kids are to not drink and drive. The message has been loud and clear.  And even for seasoned adults, people of all ages today typically plan ahead (to a much greater degree than in the past) and incidents of drinking and driving is way down. We’ve all been educated as to the consequences and to avoid the temptation.

Acceptable behavior in a large crowd needs to be taught.  One lesson for young people is that you may be tempted to join in anti-social or criminal behavior when others are doing it–but don’t.  The long term consequences are too great (as they are with drinking and driving).  You will be caught in photos and video, whether people’s iPhones or HD surveillance video.  You could be charged by police, but even if you avoid that, everyone will know what you did.  The young Vancouver rioters face having their name on a permanent list that will forever be on the internet of those who looted stores or burned cars.

Another lesson in being in large urban crowds is that when the police say “this is now an unlawful assembly; you must dispurse” – it means “go home now!”  The tear gas or pepper spray or rubber bullets are coming. Too many young people didn’t seem to understand that they needed to get out of the way and let the police do their job.  The riot kissers were an example–they were not rioting or looting, but they were blocking the way of the anti-riot police.

No one should ever forget how many peaceful parties with 50,000 to 100,000 or more Vancouver has hosted over the past decade–I can think of dozens in just the past 18 months.  Almost every other time all has gone well–fun family events.  But when things start to unravel, as they did on June 15, 2011, a better prepared crowd would have made a huge difference–a crowd trained to resist temptation and to recognize when to clear out.

Thoughts on Vancouver Riot (part I)

Working on a longer essay, but here are some thoughts….

I wish people would stop politicizing what happened in Vancouver last week — or calling it class warfare. A lot of those involved trashing cars looked awfully well dressed and groomed and those $300 Canucks jerseys are not the normal attire of the poor.

It also had nothing to do with what politicians did or did not do.  Unless you think that closing roads and supporting street parties is a bad thing, in which case you could blame all of them since no one spoke out against it.

A group of organized anarchists planned to take advantage of the large crowds to create mayhem. T

In the large crowds were a larger number of young males.  In fact, probably more than over the previous weeks because high school just finished.  It’s “Grad party time.”

Young men are well known for being reasonably pre-disposed to joining in to violent movements.  In much of human history, they have been the soldiers or the warriors.  The people you send into battle.  They can be convinced to follow anyone and do things that they have been raised not to.

Young men have energy, feel immortal, and can be swayed.  That’s why they make great soldiers.

But put thousands of them, full of emotion from 8 weeks of playoff build up, into a crowd.  Add disappointment (or the failure of rising expectations for that cup), and then add a catalyst like cars being trashed and looting starting, and you get what happened in Vancouver.

Hundreds joined in as a way to shed emotional energy.  (Others dealt with disappointment by playing hockey, going for ice cream, or just for a walk or home).

It is a tribute to the city and its citizens–and how so many of the young people were raised–that only a few hundred out of thousands joined in the riot.  Most resisted any temptation to join.

Many more young people, including many young men, showed up instead the next day to help clean up.  To them I say good job. I’m proud to live in the same city as you, and look for more great things from you in the future.

Industrial Space and Great Downtowns

Vancouver BC and Portland Oregon are known for their beautiful and livable downtown districts where people live, work and play.  But are these downtowns so great because they are so important economically? or, is it because they are less important to the region economically, they have become urban playgrounds with office space?

Intriguingly enough, both the Portland and Vancouver metropolitan areas (cities and suburbs combined) share a high ratio of industrial space to office space (over 4 square feet of industrial to each 1 square foot of office, using CBRE statistics).  Most of this industrial space is not downtown, but in more suburban areas.

In the case of Vancouver (and likely Portland, but I’m not an expert on the Portland economy), this industrial space supports a crucial import-export and logistics sector. Trade between Asia and North America comes through these west coast ports and it drives a substantial part of the Vancouver economy, directly and indirectly.

With so much of the economy dependent upon industrial lands, did this allow–or even force–more people to live and play in higher density urban areas?

By contrast, places like Seattle and Calgary have traditionally been less known for their downtowns, although this is changing, and both have a much lower ratio of industrial to office space (approximately 2)–or put in reverse, a higher ratio of office to industrial than Vancouver and Portland.  Could it be that office space is–or has been–so important for the economies of these cities that perhaps it crowded out residential, retail and other uses?

Thoughts welcome!

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