Demographia has released their new "international" housing affordability survey (pdf), picked up locally here and here. Local readers will no doubt be attuned to the survey consistently showing that Vancouver is indeed unaffordable compared to most other North American cities. The thing to keep in mind about the Demographia survey is that they are openly advocating for less restrictive land use. This is done by showing how cities with "restrictive" land use guidelines are generally less "affordable" than those with "less restrictive" guidelines.
There are some obvious flaws in the study as it pertains to affordability on which I will now elaborate.
Owning != Living
The study shows how house prices and affordability are correlated to the degree of land restriction. Yet it is not just housing affordability that should be looked at for a city's overall affordability. While many choose to own property, there are alternatives, namely renting. For the survey to truly gauge a city's affordability in terms of its population's ability to afford to live (not necessarily own), we must also include the rental option. Property values are subject to swings due to speculation and in themselves are a poor measure if rents are not increasing as well.
The survey does argue that land restriction can more easily lead to speculation. Maybe. Though some cities were notably absent from their data set (more below).
Affordable in the Rust Belt
p. 20 of the report has the evil red "unaffordable" cities lined up on the same chart as the haloed green "affordable" cities. Let's look at the green cities a bit more closely. Notables are: Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. Is it too obvious to say that these cities have flat to decreasing populations and high unemployment? No wonder their land restrictions are so loose. The local authorities need to pull out all the stops to PREVENT people from leaving!
Cart and Horse
A question to ask, again a pretty obvious one, is whether restrictive land use is causally linked to affordability. The survey certainly shows correlation but seems to gloss over causation.
As hinted above, the survey seems to leave out other first world cities and concentrates on only English speaking cities. Why not include Paris, Stockholm, and Frankfurt? Could it be that these cities have restrictive land use policies but more favourable affordability?
Restriction? What Restriction?
Check out mohican's last post on CMHC construction data. If Vancouver has "restrictive" land use policies, it seems there may be a few loopholes, given the MASSIVE housing supply coming online. How could a city with such tight reins on land use produce such oversupply? It blows the mind.
Overall I am surprised the survey is given so much press. Their exclusion of data is suspect, their conclusions not well backed by logic, and their basic premises around what "affordability" really is are not discussed in their analysis. Every year there is a debate on local blogs about this survey. Sure, Vancouver is severely unaffordable. We all know that and this survey confirms the obvious. (Another annoyance is the types of data used for certain markets vary so the affordability number for Vancouver is not apples-apples with other cities) But this survey is not really about displaying the data and I'll stick to a more holistic combination of Case-Shiller, rents, and incomes, without the suspect analysis, thanks very much.