Demographically Speaking – Interview with Andrew Ramlo
By David Allison, UDI Editor-at-Large
Mention the subject of demographics in most settings, and watch how fast eyes glaze over in anticipation of a boring slew of data. This is an unfair reaction: who is doing what and when and why is the key to unlocking opportunity. Demographers can, admittedly, be a dull bunch, and nothing can put you to sleep faster after a plate of banquet chicken and mini-vegetables than an hour or two of statistics. However, some demographers have such passion for what they do, and an ability to make the numbers mean something more than just numbers. Andrew Ramlo is one of these.
For Ramlo, a demographer by training and the new head of market intelligence for Rennie Group, 2017 is one helluva exciting time: demographers live for fresh data, and 2017 is a census year. It means the facts can be revised and made current again, refreshed and full of new insights. “I’m a data nerd so I’m looking at this stuff all the time,” he says with a laugh.
Parsing census data is just one part of his role as Vice-President of Market Intelligence of the Rennie Group. An animated, self-professed data ‘nerd’, his unit is responsible for forecasting the changes that drive housing in the region. And this year, his forecast is focused on two drivers: record low interest rates and the continued influx of new residents into the market, which has kept pressure on prices high. In January, Ramlo and his team joined Rennie Group after signing a partnership that would create an in-house data shop for the firm. As the long-time Executive Director of the Urban Futures Institute, Ramlo has supplied Rennie with market and demographic data and analysis for years, much of which made it into his annual addresses.
Part of his role is figuring out how and where change happens in the housing market.
“People tend to want to talk about the one thing that drives changes in the real estate market–the one thing that will have the largest and most significant impact,” he says. “I once had a professor at UBC say that simple solutions are only fitting for simple problems–and for us here in Vancouver, a problem like affordability is not a simple one.”
As a demographer, however, Ramlo is particularly attuned to population trends and their impact on the housing market in the region. No trend stands out more than the declining power of the baby boomers. “The bust is the new boom,” he says. “We’re getting to the point where the power of the baby boomers is starting to diminish, and where the ‘busters’ (born from 1967 to 1979) are now a larger segment.” And as the children of boomers look to move from rental to ownership, or look at larger units, most of the region is occupied by detached housing, most of it is still occupied by boomers whose household sizes grow smaller every year.
And for those younger households looking to enter the market, the ‘bank of mom and dad’ has had an impact on prices as well. “When you have mom and dad ponying up $80,000 so you don’t have to pay CMHC insurance–which would add an extra 20 per cent in cost–you can reduce mortgage payments significantly.” That support, however, does not always result in the most practical course of action. “Often when they get $80,000 to $100,000, they typically go for a more expensive home than they otherwise would.”
As for shrinking house sizes, look no further than Kerrisdale or West Vancouver, he says, pointing at neighbourhoods in the region that actually lost population between 2011 and 2016, according to the census results. When the kids move out and nobody replaces them, the population in these areas actually begin to fall.
There could, however, be a silver lining in some of those findings. The stark realization that some neighbourhoods were losing people has helped spark a conversation at the municipal level about a future beyond detached housing. “We don’t see municipalities jumping up and down yet to add density, but I think they will soon,” he says, pointing to mayor Gregor Robertson’s March speech to the Urban Land Institute. “Whether municipalities address traditional zoning, allowing new forms in what have been traditional single family neighbourhoods–we’re going to need to create that missing middle in terms of housing stock; like row houses and duplexes.”
Moreover, with the federal government about to launch a national housing strategy in the Fall– new opportunities to address unaffordability may be at hand. “It’s challenging however for the federal government to make policy at a local level, it’s difficult to craft policy directions,” he says. One policy that could have a more immediate impact on the market, he says, would be an increase in immigration levels, a policy that’s been trial-ballooned by the federal Liberals.
That mix of factors, some moving at faster speeds than others, adds up to a complex market where there are few easy answers for problems like affordability. “The housing market is a deep and complex thing,” says Ramlo, “in terms of developing any policy, we have to be relatively thoughtful about its complexity, but that’s not human nature.”
Ramlo does a better job than most at uncovering and describing that complexity. And luckily, he also knows how to tell a good story.
Come see Ramlo speak and hear his insights at the Urban Development Institute Luncheon on Thursday April 20, 2017 at 11:30 AM at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel.
A collaboration between UDI and David Allison Inc.