OnePacificNews, November 11 2018, Sunday

Ng Weng Hoong

Canadian writer Terry Glavin is the latest commentator to mis-represent and mis-use Demographia, a survey that purportedly measures and ranks international housing affordability.

In his October 31 commentary for the National Post, Mr Glavin refers to Vancouver as being “near the top of Demographia’s listings of cities with the least affordable housing markets in the world.” I’ve highlighted the last three words as they are statistically and politically significant in the context of Vancouver’s heated housing debate.

Demographia’s annual survey is published by Wendell Cox, an American urban policy analyst based in St Louis, Missouri state. Among other things, it attempts to compare the cost and affordability of housing in 293 metropolitan areas in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong.

In plain English and simple Math, it means Demographia covers a total of just NINE markets: eight countries plus Hong Kong, which is a special administrative region of China.

According to the United Nations, the world has more than 190 countries, meaning the Demographia survey leaves out at least 182 other countries.

But many reporters and journalists ignore these facts in insisting — deliberately or carelessly — on calling it a “global” survey. They are particularly fond of Demographia’s annual reports that show Vancouver always taking second or third spot in the limited sample of least affordable cities. This would be the equivalent of being the second or third best tennis player in Richmond city: noteworthy in British Columbia’s context, but what’s that on the world stage?

Hong Kong and Sydney journalists are just as happy to hawk Demographia’s conclusion that their cities respectively have the “worst” and “second or third least affordable” housing “in the world”.

These rankings are, of course, false. I’ve presented my arguments in my 2015 blogpost, Vancouver doesn’t have the world’s second most unaffordable housing.

But in the age of fake news, what’s another piece of false information?

What’s noteworthy is the obsession among the Canadian media and policy advocates over this tiny and semi-meaningful survey of nine markets. So, why do otherwise smart commentators continue to misrepresent it as a global survey, year in and year out? Given Demographia’s importance in the affordability debate, why do none of these writers and ‘experts’ look under the hood to ask serious questions of the survey’s data and methodology? In fact, why even publicise it as they are implicitly endorsing it as accurate and perpetuating its use?

Here are a few possible reasons.

Among some, Demographia likely appeals to a sense of self-importance that allows them to talk hyperbolically about living in “the world’s second or third least affordable” city.

For others, it’s an opportunity to sensationalise and exaggerate the suffering of Vancouverites from the city’s rising housing cost. From some of the accounts, you would think Vancouverites are living in conditions worse than the slums of Mumbai or Cairo. A closer reading of the housing crisis narrative reveals an angry middle class that has been priced out of that $1.5 million single-family house and having to commute 45 minutes to work from its $500,000 apartment. Today, the original and true owners of Vancouver’s housing crisis — the homeless — have to share the narrative with a bigger group that ranges from the working poor to those who feel they should be having their own single-family houses in the heart of the city.

The most troubling aspect is that Demographia has been used to fuel growing public anger against Canada’s Chinese minority and new migrants in the housing crisis story. In Mr Glavin’s commentary, the target seems to include the Chinese government, Chinese criminal gangs and Chinese migrants. All three have been frequently blamed for inflating the Canadian housing market at the expense of regular hard-working Canadians. The story is crying out for a villain, and the Chinese, in all forms, fit the bill.

According to the populist version of the housing crisis, public institutions and the various levels of governments are overrun by incompetent and uncaring officials working with developers to sell Vancouver out to the rich including criminal elements fleeing China with their offshore wealth.

Ian Young, the South China Morning Post’s Vancouver correspondent, captures the imagination with his “freak show” and “bizarro” descriptions in his on-going narrative blaming Chinese migrants and money for the city’s rising housing cost and other socio-economic problems. He was an early promoter of Demographia until my 2015 critique exposed his misreporting of the survey to sell his crisis tale. Mr Young, backed by his international editor Andrew London, complained to the NewCanadianMedia publisher, but they failed to change the essence of my story. Instead, the critique stood after publisher George Abraham ordered an Ombudsman investigation into my reporting. Readers may compare the original story on my OnePacificNews blogsite and the edited NewCanadianMedia version. Both contain an analysis of Demographia’s flaws, and the media’s mis-use of the survey.

Mr Young was forced to revise his description of Vancouver’s affordability ranking in his June 3 2015 and September 9 2015 stories. There could be others that I’m not aware of. Without acknowledging his errors, he has revised his stories to carry this meaningless footnote: “This story has been updated to include a link to the latest Demographia study and to describe its scope.”

But his erroneous reporting of Vancouver as being “the second-most unaffordable property market in the world” remains intact in another article that was republished in the BCBusiness site on February 28 2014. I’m not aware if he had tried to “update” that.

But, as mentioned, he is not alone in having misrepresented Demographia. Here’s a sample list of Canadian and international media stories that have made the same mistake over the last two years.
Vancouver is STILL the 3rd least affordable housing market globally
DH Vancouver Staff Jan 22, 2018
The 10 least affordable housing markets in the world
Kathryn Kyte, Yahoo Finance Canada,January 30, 2018
Vancouver is the least affordable market in Canada and is the world’s third least affordable city, according to Demographia’s findings.
The 10 most expensive cities to live in around the world in 2018
Alison Millington, Jan. 22, 2018, 1:57 AM
The world’s most expensive cities to live in have been revealed in a major survey of almost 300 population hubs. The destinations are named in the 14th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey: 2018.–report-236828.aspx
Vancouver is world’s 3rd least affordable city – report
by Paolo Taruc, 26 Jan 2018
Vancouver is the least affordable city in Canada and the third least affordable in the world, according to the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey. The annual report ranked Hong Kong first – for the eighth consecutive year – followed by Sydney. Auckland and Melbourne rounded out the top five. Vancouver was the only Canadian city in the top ten.
Vancouver remains third least affordable global city: Demographia
By Emma Crawford Hampel | January 22, 2018, 10:49am
For the third year in a row, Vancouver has ranked as the third least affordable city in the world in a Demographia report that analyzes home prices in nine countries around the world: Canada, the United States, Australia, China (Hong Kong), Ireland, the United Kingdom, Japan, New Zealand and Singapore.
Vancouver’s housing market third most expensive in the world: survey
The Canadian Press, Published January 23, 2017 Updated May 17, 2018
10 most expensive cities in 2017
Written by By Kate Springer, CNN, August 2 2017
Vancouver third most expensive in world for housing, Toronto 13th: study
By The Canadian Press, Mon., Jan. 23, 2017
Vancouver housing ranked 3rd most unaffordable by international study
Chad Pawson · CBC News · Posted: Jan 22, 2017
Vancouver housing ranked third least affordable in the world
Published Monday, January 23, 2017