This article is excerpted and adapted from a more broad-ranging essay, Time to Start Thinking with Your Bloody Heads. Herschel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Canada’s inflated immigration level is now proving destructive in all kinds of ways. It lends itself itself to even further entrenchment of inequality, as well as to the housing crisis, health crisis, declining relative prosperity, declining quality of life, the undermining of demographic diversity in Vancouver (and perhaps the Greater Toronto Area) and the furthering of global warming. They are all related to the bulking up of Canada’s population.
Nor are these downstream negative consequences mysterious or unknown. They are quite common knowledge and widely regretted. Yet nobody with any political oomph will actually come out and say that the inflated immigration numbers need to be dramatically cut back, at least in the near and intermediate term.
Some things are indeed taboo. On the other hand, irrational taboos are meant to be broken.
Buddy, can you spare a shack?
The failure of the left to face up to the increasing level of immigration as a factor in making housing unaffordable for many, if not most, in Greater Vancouver has long bothered me.
Over and above a general egalitarian concern with unaffordability, I’ve had a personal interest, knowing a couple of people on disability allowance whose housing options are highly restricted. The impact of the spiralling cost of housing only hit me in the gut, however, on reading an interview with writer and poet George Bowering in the Vancouver Sun protesting that young creative people – writers and artists in particular – could no longer afford to live in the city.
Bowering and I are of the same generation and we’ve long had our own houses, in my case going back 55-odd years. The current generation of young writers and artists, however – and even in later life most are of low or modest income – are just plumb out of luck.
“These are my people being driven out of the city,” I said to myself. “My people,” I repeated the phrase again, for there I was, too – young, poor and with playwriting aspirations. This was in the 1960s and 1970s, however, when there was room for me and my crowd in town and no housing crisis. Vancouver in those decades, moreover, was an extraordinarily creative cultural place. No longer.
In 2019, the Eastside Cultural Crawl Society published a report on higher rental costs, “A City Without Art,” highlighting artists being displaced or otherwise giving up on Vancouver.¹“Pricedemic” is what they call the relentless rise in the cost of space, its declining availability, and artists being evicted.
It’s a class thing. Not just wealthy offshore house- and condo-buyers but also hundreds of thousands of others from elsewhere are now being added continuously to Greater Vancouver, quite a few of them wealthy or high-earning as well. They add pressure in turn to the cost of housing, with writers and artists being squeezed out because the housing interstices and studio space of an open city are no longer there or are increasingly impossible to find.
And what’s a city without its writers, artists, and poets?
The figures for buying a house or condo, or renting, give a glimpse of what has happened.
The average price for a condo in Vancouver, based on February–March 2023 sales, is now in the $892,000 range. For a townhouse it’s $1.4 million. A detached house costs on average $3.0 million; the median price for a detached house, perhaps a more accurate reflection of the market, is lower, at $2.35 million. For all three categories (houses, townhouses, condos) taken together, the median price is $1,516,000. For Greater Vancouver, extending eastward to the Fraser Valley and west to Bowen Island, the median price, including tiny condos in the mix, is $1,185,000.
This is consistent with patterns in U.S. cities where higher urban densities are associated with worse housing affordability.
Rental rates follow the same pattern, increasing relentlessly. A particularly large increase was noted last fall. Rent for one-bedroom housing in Vancouver, across all housing types, was $2,575 as of October 2022, the highest in the country and an increase in a year of 17 per cent. For two-bedroom housing it was $3,521, a year-to-year increase of 16 per cent. The annual increase in average hourly wages of employees in British Columbia, by comparison, was only 3.4 per cent for the same period.
Okay, we’ve always had upscale neighbourhoods and less costly “working-class” neighbourhoods. Now, however, those who are doing well but aren’t wealthy are out of necessity buying homes in those less costly neighbourhoods and pushing modest- and low-income people farther out. I know of a downtown lawyer, for example, no doubt earning considerably more than most people, moving with his growing family into the Main Street area, formerly as working-class as it comes, because he could not afford anything on the west side. Each such purchase by someone in the upper-middle-class cohort helps to price out ordinary wage-earners.
House rentals in the former working-class neighbourhood have followed the same trajectory.
Mind you, we’ve known for a long time that in Vancouver proper we’ve slowly been creating a city for the well-heeled, rather than a city with a mixed and diverse population favoured by urban planners. Based on median income and median prices, metropolitan Vancouver, that is Greater Vancouver overall, is the third least affordable place in the world, after Hong Kong and Sydney, according to the latest figures available (for the third quarter of 2022) from Demographia International.² Toronto is tenth.
RBC Economics, illustrating the point, reported late last year that, at the end of the third quarter of 2022, a buyer, to qualify for a mortgage on the purchase of a typical home in the Vancouver area, needed to earn a minimum of an “astounding” $268,000.³ Even a decline in prices won’t change those dynamics.
For many people, home ownership is slipping out of reach in the suburbs as well, and to a degree even in the exurbs like the Fraser Valley as far away as Chilliwack, as “people move from Vancouver to Surrey, Surrey to Abbotsford, (and) Abbotsford to Chilliwack,” as one realtor explained it.
On the one hand, we have, in Vancouver, a city largely for the rich with the convenience of preferred location. On the other hand, we have others who find that so much of their income is going to their mortgage or their rent that they don’t have the discretionary spending for much else, and yet others, buying in the suburbs, with longer and longer commutes that eat into their time, including the time to participate in any democratic exercise. Nor is this to mention a low-wage underclass whose spending options have long been severely limited.
Well-known veteran Vancouver newspaper columnist Pete McMartin described it as a “coming class war” – “the huge gulf between owning a home and renting one, a gulf (that) will not only bedevil the next generation, (but) will grow wider in generations to come.” He noted that his children will eventually inherit from himself and his wife, including the value of their home. But what about the others who aren’t so lucky?
McMartin cited Tsur Somerville, director of the University of British Columbia Centre for Urban Economics and Real Estate, on the underlying implications:
That’s the thing I’m most worried about: the division between the landed owner occupying class and everybody else. And in this economy, the rich are getting richer.
You can’t have a democracy where there is a stark, huge difference in the wealth and opportunity for one group where their parents are homeowners and wealthy and between the people who are not. Our society is based on the idea that you have a reasonable opportunity for self-improvement – you know, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. But you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if your boots are nailed to the floor.
Earnest attempts to offset the trend are no match for the pressure of so many new people.
Justin Trudeau, almost single-handedly with his inflated immigration numbers, has imposed a virtually intractable housing problem on the Lower Mainland and has done so with smug assurance because nobody politically has taken him on over it.
Culture of cities: Vancouver nears the tipping point
The pressure on housing, stoked by the high immigration levels, also affects the culture of cities. The planning imperative is no longer what kind of city or cities we would like to have, but how to create more housing. Whatever side of the debate about high density you may be on – are we going to have highrises everywhere in the end or are there other options? – the debate has become largely academic. The pressure for housing, and the high prices now deeply embedded in the cost of land, dictate the answer.
David Eby, now B.C. Premier, was previously the minister responsible for housing, and in both capacities he has pushed that envelope hard, lecturing municipalities for not doing enough to match zoning to population growth and hinting that if they did not shape up the province might have to intervene. “Eby wields the hammer,” read the newspaper headline reporting on an early speech on the subject.
Watch out what you wish for.
The pressure on community planning, if not with a hammer, then with a vise, has been building all the while, as plans for massive projects followed plans for massive projects, touching off controversy and protests. Vancouver, for example, approved the “clearcutting,” as urban historian Michael Kluckner put it, of a huge swath of midtown – 36 streets by 15 streets, or 540 city blocks altogether (the Broadway project). The Vancouver General Hospital complex and some major office buildings will survive, but quite a lot will go down. In the same vein, the Squamish First Nation, along with a private developer (and an Ontario pension plan), is erecting 11 highrise towers, some of them 59 storeys high, on a narrow piece of land in Kitsilano, about as plain case of overdevelopment as one could imagine (Sen̓ákw). And so on, with more and more to come.
Critics of these developments – and there is a lot to criticize, both conceptually and in detail – were inevitably accused, by proponents, of NIMBYism and, in the case of Sen̓ákw, racism.
The first victim of the pressure of immigration on Vancouver, in these developments, is the organic growth of a city and its neighbourhoods, and the quality and diversity of life that goes with it.
Kluckner has compared megaprojects like the Broadway plan to the ones Vancouver rejected in the 1960s and 1970s, which at that time involved a proposal for a thruway through Strathcona and Chinatown into the heart of downtown. The blocking of the plan due to fierce protest and the consequent saving of neighbourhoods helped make Vancouver a great city, admired throughout North America.
Move forward to today’s mega development projects. Kluckner comments,
With the extreme arrogance of architects and planners, they’re saying, “We can build a city. We can just do it, because we know what we’re doing,” as opposed to a city being this thing that evolves slowly … (where) some old things remain and some new things are built, and it evolves in an incremental way.
Former planner Yvonne Harris points to the demolishing of trees and natural sound to create heat islands of concrete, steel and glass, following an “unlivable” strategic regional plan. Luthar Wiwjorra, a retired urban designer and architect, remarks that “Vancouverism,” the nickname for Vancouver’s brilliant urban model, “is vanishing in the shadow of condo towers, rampant greed and overdensification.” He condemns the “anesthetized esthetic” being produced by the “same steel and glass frontages, facing each other up to 50 storeys high along city streets,” with the population already living in Vancouver “seen as a disposable mass.” He argues that “there will never be enough density. No city in the world can win that particular race.”
As long as excessive immigration continues, however, all this discussion, whether on target or not, falls by the wayside. The unaffordability crisis from population pressure fills the air like a virus and infects everything, smothering intelligent resolution. Patrick Condon, an internationally known professor of sustainable urban design at UBC, came out with a book entitled Sick City in 2021. It covered mostly developments elsewhere, but the metaphor has increasingly become apt for Vancouver as well
The Vancouver of demographic variety that made for its greatness is now on the road to destruction. It may just be at the beginning of that road historically speaking, taking the long haul into account, but that’s where the current road leads.
The proliferation of highrises creates other problems as well. Lower-profile buildings lend themselves more to quality of life, especially for families. Then there’s the high “embodied” carbon emissions of concrete-intensive and glass highrises compared to low-rise buildings of six storeys or fewer. According to a Wikipedia entry (List of tallest buildings in Vancouver), Vancouver has more residential highrises per capita than any other city on the continent.⁴
Maybe Vancouver – the Vancouver with its unique ambiance, demographic mix and originality – is further down the road to destruction than we think.
Waiting for affordability (waiting for Godot)
Large multitower projects, for all their size, aren’t going to resolve the unaffordability crisis either. Take, for example, the giant Oakridge Park luxury project – 3,323 “homes” covering more than three million square feet. Only 13 per cent of the units fall in the “affordable” category, with the rest going to luxury buyers, including offshore buyers. Similarly, a 39-storey tower going up at Broadway and Granville, with 223 units – in effect, the first part of the Broadway plan – has designated only 20 per cent for “below-market” rents, which would qualify as affordable. Ditto for Sínàkw: Only 20 per cent of its units at most will be “affordable” (although, even then, not affordable for lower household incomes).
Patrick Condon has pointed out that Vancouver has added more housing units per capita than any city in North America over the last 30 years, yet housing prices have increased faster than in any other North American city. Adjoining municipalities like Burnaby, Coquitlam and Surrey also have seemingly endless new highrise towers (over 45 storeys is a growing fashion) and hence added capacity, while affordability only gets worse – gets worse in the metropolitan area which is already the third least affordable city in the world.
Meanwhile, David Eby, now Premier of B.C., is continuing with his campaign to generate more and more housing. The irony is that, like Sisyphus, he is not going to be able to push that particular rock up to the top of the mountain, no matter how hard he tries. The pressure on the cost of land of so many new arrivals will keep pushing the rock down.
The volume of new households generated by large immigration numbers is outstripping the economy’s ability to accommodate them and existing residents at the same time. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, in an October 2022 report, concluded that B.C. would have to double the number of attainable housing starts to get the supply to where it needs to be by the end of the decade.⁵ Ontario, the largest immigration destination in Canada, is in even worse shape. The author of the report, a CMHC economist who should have seen things coming, allowed that he was surprised by the severity in the two provinces.
And as if that weren’t enough, Justin Trudeau keeps on increasing the number of immigrants, hiking it from 400,000 annually to half a million. When Eby began the frantic drumbeating for new housing, the figure for new immigrants arriving in Greater Vancouver was an estimated 30,000 to 40,000. That had already changed by the end of 2021, when the net inflow of people to B.C. was 100,797. Of those, 33,356 people came from other Canadian provinces and territories and the remaining 67,141 from abroad, with most ending up in Greater Vancouver. Not all of them would have been immigrants; net non–permanent residents like “temporary foreign workers” and net foreign students would be in the total.
In the subsequent year, 2022, the inflow into B.C. from international migration increased to 150,783, of whom 98,763 were non–permanent residents. Canada’s population overall increased by 1,050,110 people; almost all the increase – 96 per cent – came from international migration.
Eby has mentioned what lay behind what he was facing – federal immigration policy. No wielding of the hammer on that one, however. The new housing minister, Ravi Kahlon, has belatedly gone as far as to argue with Ottawa that immigration should be tied to housing availability. But without his tackling the underlying premises impelling Trudeau and company – without even following through on his own argument – he hasn’t, as of this writing, made much headway.
The taboo is great.
Nor is Eby the only one who shies away from speaking directly to the root issue.
With some exceptions, almost everyone publicly tearing their hair out over housing unaffordability or what the attendant pressure is doing to Vancouver avoids mentioning the “i” word as something that needs to be tackled first and foremost, in the same way that everyone, except a little boy, wouldn’t say out loud that the emperor had no clothes.
What’s really behind high immigration numbers
What underlies immigration to Canada and the current numbers is not humanitarianism but economics. Indeed, immigration to Canada, save for refugees, has always largely been economic. The argument is that immigrants boost the Canadian economy and are even needed to keep the Canadian economy going. That this might be a dubious argument doesn’t discourage its promoters.
Immigration Minister Sean Fraser was quite straightforward about this in a statement to Reuters late in 2021. “Canada needs immigration to create jobs and drive our economic recovery,” he said, as if simply saying so made it true.
Fraser has since doubled down on his message box, again without in fact making the case and again without addressing housing affordability and additional pressures on health care.
The need for immigrants to keep the economy going has now become a mantra, repeated casually at large (an “economic imperative,” a National Post columnist called it), to which has recently been added a submantra: the need for immigrants to fill unfilled job positions. It’s economics – unquestioned economics – again.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has also, naively, claimed we are dependent economically on immigration. He and the political left in Canada, captive to their routinized thinking on immigration, have failed to understand the dynamic at work. It’s important to realize that open immigration to serve economics isn’t left-wing at all. The free movement of labour is part of classical right-wing neoliberal doctrine, complementing free trade. If community is harmed or destabilized by the application of the doctrine, whether by free trade or inflated immigration levels, “So what?” says the market-doctrine right-winger: “It’s the market at work. You shouldn’t object.”
It’s not surprising, then, that the original recommendation for hiking the level of immigration to Canada to 450,000 annually came from the federal Advisory Council on Economic Growth, circa 2017, replete with neoliberals and with nobody as awkward as even a pale socialist or environmentalist to show any dissent. The Council was chaired by Dominic Barton, a former senior executive of management consulting firm McKinsey and Company.
The Council also recommended that Canada aim for 100 million people by the end of the century. This was without reference to the environment. The connection between another 60-odd million people in a northern, high-consuming country and its impact on global warming and the environment is not part of the neoliberal frame. The doctrine on this score – justifying immigration for economic reasons outside of the environmental context – is no different, schematically and ideologically, from justifying increased oil sands production and otherwise boosting the oil patch overall for economic reasons.
There’s a further irony underlying these other ironies. The economic rationale for immigration – the majestic declaration that newcomers are the key to the future – is faulty taken by itself.
It’s false to claim that increased immigration is essential to the Canadian economy in any ordinary sense; the evidence doesn’t sustain that and it doesn’t meet the standard of common sense.
There is nothing to prevent an economy with a stable or slowly growing population from functioning well. Indeed, it is arguable that the more stable a population, the more focus can be given to employment engagement, training and education, and downstream allocation of the workforce in order to produce the maximum economic, social and environmental payoff per capita and, at the same time, enhance the quality of life.
It also begs the theoretical question of whether Canada, and every country in the world, have to keep compounding their population growth forever and ever until Doomsday if they wish to prevent their economies from falling apart. The world’s population, then, would have to increase to 15 billion people, and then 20 billion, and so on, just to keep economically afloat – a notion that we know is absurd.
In the here and now, the argument for inflated immigration to Canada is also a counterproductive notion, economically speaking, because it measures by mass rather than by per capita economic performance and quality of life. Canada (using the International Monetary Fund measure) is 26th in the world rankings of GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP), as of current estimates. Denmark, which has strictly limited immigration, is 11th. Norway is seventh, Switzerland sixth, the United States eighth and so on. All the Scandinavian countries are higher than Canada; so are Austria and Taiwan. Singapore is second.
In 1986, just prior to immigration to Canada spiking, Canada was 15th; we’ve lost 11 places since. Our GDP per capita in 1986, again adjusted for purchasing power parity, was 89 per cent of the American one; since then it has fallen to 75 per cent.
Perhaps more instructive are the IMF’s projections through to 2027, where Canada is projected to fall to 28th place. It will also have lost, once more, a few percentage points to the United States, which itself is predicted to fall a few places in the IMF rankings. By way of explanation, the OECD has Canada dead last among the 38 OECD members in GDP per capita growth for 2020–30 (and also dead last for 2030–60).
Don Wright, former deputy minister to B.C. Premier John Horgan and a Harvard-trained economist, takes this one step further in a recent paper for the Public Policy Forum. Wright points out that by counting on immigrants and foreign workers for low-wage jobs, average per capita income and what goes with it (from quality of life to per capita tax revenue) are lowered and the professed desire to help the middle class is betrayed. He references stagnant real wages, their direct relationship to housing unaffordability and the coincidental ascendancy of neoliberalism. Raising the per capita standard of living should be the goal, he argues. He goes on to debunk the argument of the open-ended need for more and more labour:
When businesses complain about having difficulty finding enough workers, what this really means is that they cannot easily find the workers they want at a wage they want to pay. But, within reasonable limits, this is a good thing. It forces employers to pay higher wages, provide better working conditions and drives the creative destruction that leads to higher productivity, more valuable products and better business models.
A subsequent study in Policy Options by labour economists Fabian Lange of McGill, Mikal Skuterud of the University of Waterloo and Christopher Worswick of Carleton elaborated on the argument, focusing in particular on the economic case against low-wage temporary foreign workers.⁶
The submantra that we need inflated immigration levels to fill unfilled jobs nevertheless keeps resurfacing, cited as a given both by ostensible experts and by politicians desperate to rationalize consequences like the housing crisis. David Eby himself, just before being sworn in as B.C. Premier, mentioned it by way of explaining why he needed to act aggressively on housing.
It overlooks how the necessary adjustment in the labour market would happen, per Don Wright’s thesis. It’s as if there is no alternative to the neoliberal ideological fix behind the current excessive immigration level.
Well here, schematically, is the alternative, as would happen in a normal economy. Jobs are posted and if they’re more important relative to other jobs, the market or public allocation rises until they’re filled. At the same time, other jobs that cannot compete, because they’re relatively unimportant or not important at all, so that they don’t have sufficient competitive draw on the market or on public revenue, disappear. Over time, one ends up with a far more productive economy and a far more appropriate economy that dynamically follows market demand and public need.
But none of the alternatives to the current immigration level can be properly discussed, nor can a proper public debate take place, until we bury for good the neoliberal legend that we need immigration to keep our economy going. Once we do that, we can then get started on framing public policy accordingly, dramatically cutting back immigration and freely charting another course. We might even conclude that what makes most sense, for a high-energy-use country like Canada, is a stable population. But that’s for another analysis.
² Urban Reform Institute and Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Demographia International Housing Affordability, 2023 Edition.
³ RBC Economics and Thought Leadership, Focus on Canadian Housing: Housing Trends and Affordability, December 2022, p. 1.
⁵ Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Housing Market Insight Canada: Labour Capacity Constraints and Supply Across Large Provinces in Canada, October 2022, p. 3.
⁶ Fabian Lange, Mikal Skuterud and Christopher Worswick, The Economic Case Against Low-Wage Temporary Foreign Workers, Policy Options, April 27, 2022.