City councillors who represent the most homeowners tend to reject large housing projects: study

A new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business says that municipal politicians are more likely to vote against large housing developments if they represent an area that’s heavy on homeowners.

A new study from the UBC Sauder School of Business revealed that when municipal politicians represent an area that’s heavy on homeowners, they’re more likely to vote against large housing developments. It is even more likely if they live in neighbourhoods where big projects are being proposed.

The study, called “Homeowner Politics and Housing Supply,” featured researchers who used machine learning to examine 631 housing-related bills from the City of Toronto from 2009 to 2020.

In the study, they connected the data with local demographics to determine the link between city councillors’ voting behaviours and the share of homeowners in the areas they represent.

According to the study, for every 10 percentage points the homeowner rate went up, the probability that a councillor would oppose a large housing development went up by 16 per cent.

The study also noted that in areas where the councillor lived, the effect was even more amplified.

UBC Sauder assistant professor and study co-author Dr. Limin Fang said local representatives tend to cater to the wants of homeowners because they are more likely to be long-time residents and voters. It was noted that renters, on the other hand, often support new housing because additional supply can mean more options and lower rents, as well as increased amenities.

“Homeowners can pressure councillors a lot more than renters because the majority of renters are temporary — and renters may eventually become owners, but maybe not in the same neighbourhood,” said Dr. Fang, who previously worked as a planner in the City of Toronto and co-authored the study with University of Hawaii assistant professor Dr. Justin Tyndall, and Nathan Stewart, a researcher from the University of Toronto.

“In single-family neighbourhoods in places like Toronto, owners say, ‘We don’t want rowhouses, because those people are lower income. They’re poorer than us,’” said Dr. Fang. “If you build a mansion in our neighbourhood, and the house is bigger than all the rest, we welcome you, because we want richer people in the neighbourhood — and if my neighbour has a big, luxurious house, that increases my property value, too.”

The study revealed that age and ethnic background played a significant role, with older people of European descent more likely to oppose denser housing. The areas with the highest labour force participation had the greatest support for new housing.

Additionally, according to the study, homeowners in suburban neighbourhoods were more likely to oppose denser housing than those living closer to downtown.

Dr. Fang said the study revealed that homeowners have an influence on development decisions, and that if municipalities are serious about adding to their housing stock, they will need a less citizen-driven, more top-down approach.

“Cities use a lot of public consultation, mediation and facilitation to make sure neighbours are happy. But only the people who are opposed to the development show up, and the whole development application process just goes on and on. And much of the time nothing gets built,” said Dr. Fang.

“Homeowners have a vested financial interest in restricting housing supply because the less housing there is, the higher their property values. If you want to get anything built, public consultation is very important — but you can’t let the owners run the show.”

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