Census data on income levels paints troubling picture for Vancouver: Analyst

SFU City Program director Andy Yan | Photo: BIV files

The latest census data on Canadian household incomes paints a troubling – but not surprising – picture of Metro Vancouver’s lack of affordability, even among top Canadian cities with similar issues.

The data release isn’t without positives. The 2021 census released this week did show that the Lower Mainland’s median household income in 2020 – after being corrected for inflation – jumped significantly from the last census in 2016. Vancouver, for instance, saw its median household income jump more than $11,000 from $70,500 to $82,000.

A jump of a similar scale was also observed in Metro Vancouver – from $78,500 to $90,000 – according to data analysis completed by SFU City Program director Andy Yan, one of the leading urban-planning and housing analyst in B.C.

But even with the spike in household income in the last five years, Vancouver falls well behind other major Canadian cities when it comes to people’s earning power. Among Canada’s biggest cities, for example, Vancouver’s median income of $82,000 is only higher than that of Montreal ($63,600) and Winnipeg ($80,000) - and behind the likes of Toronto ($84,000), Calgary ($98,000), Edmonton ($90,000), Ottawa ($102,000) and even Hamilton, Ont. ($86,000).

In fact, Metro Vancouver’s overall median household income sits between Regina/Saskatoon ($89,000) and Hamilton/Abbotsford ($91,000), according to Yan’s data analysis. Comparable metro areas in Toronto ($97,000), Calgary ($100,000), Ottawa ($98,000) and Edmonton ($96,000) again fared significantly better.

“What this says to me is, you better bring a lot of money if you want to live in Vancouver,” Yan said, noting the lower incomes combined with Canada’s highest home prices create a gloomy picture for affordable living and economic vibrancy. “You better bring a lot of money. It shows you really how disconnected our housing costs are to income, in terms of both home ownership and rent.

“It really shows the kind of pressure this might mean for a lot of people here who don’t have access to external wealth outside sources of income... and that’s not particularly healthy.”

The report shows municipalities with very small populations within Metro Vancouver as the ones with higher household income – Anmore ($162,000) and Lions Bay ($140,000), outweighed by larger jurisdictions with lower median incomes like UBC Endowment Lands ($63,600), White Rock ($73,000), Langley City ($77,000) and Richmond ($79,000).

More concerning, Yan said, is the area’s Gini index – a coefficient that calculates income inequality in a given area on a 0-1 scale (0 being most equal and 1 being most unequal). The City of Vancouver’s 0.413 score based on the 2021 census is only behind Toronto’s 0.437, with even cities of higher incomes (Calgary, 0.376; Ottawa, 0.345; Edmonton, 0.334) faring much better in terms of the equal spread of wealth among the populace.

Within Metro Vancouver (Gini index 0.366), West Vancouver, UBC Endowment Lands and Vancouver saw the most unequal income distribution, while Langley City (0.282), Pitt Meadows (0.284), Maple Ridge (0.286) and Port Coquitlam (0.287) performed the best in terms of income equality.

Yan said the data shows that Vancouver saw its income level growth fall well behind of housing prices growth in the mid-2000s, indicating that the current lack of affordability – despite Vancouver’s reputation – wasn’t always in the dire straits that it is in at the current moment.

“Yes, Vancouver has always been a bit more expensive, but it’s always been back-and-forth between Vancouver and Toronto [historically],” Yan said. “It’s just the fact that, here, incomes just don’t come close to the housing costs. 

“It’s just a clear indication of how uncoupled income has become from housing costs here in Vancouver, particularly in the City of Vancouver... And when you combined that with the Gini index, Vancouver is the second most unequal place in Canada. Even Calgary is significantly more equal as a city.”