The Tao of Andy Yan

The greatest quotes of an urban planner who wields numbers and words to explain Vancouver’s crazy development.

By Christopher Cheung 2 Apr 2019 |

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

Vancouver’s exalted urban numbers guy also has a way with words.

Andy Yan is the urban planner who coined the term “hedge city” to talk about foreign wealth in cities like Vancouver. He has also called the mix of money in the real estate market, laundered and not, a “toxic sausage.”

His quotes are Socratic, Seussian and lightly seasoned with allusions to popular culture, which, Yan says, help translate his work to a greater audience, not just “an audience of data-heads.”

He’s inspired by a diverse cultural diet that includes Charles Dickens, Toni Morrison and ‘90s hip-hop. But what might Dante have in common with Public Enemy, or Tom Sawyer with The Simpsons? “They’re all connected with an insight into the human condition,” said Yan.

Attention fell on Yan a decade ago when he began publishing startling studies of condo vacancy rates and foreign property ownership in Metro Vancouver, at a time when players in the real estate industry and decision-makers from city hall to Ottawa downplayed the role of global money in the local market. Former Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson said that one of Yan’s studies had “racist tones.”

Yan, 43, who worked as a planner for Bing Thom Architects before taking his current role as the director of the City Program at Simon Fraser University in 2016, has a wide variety of urban interests, with a sense of social justice permeating his work.

He’s a go-to for journalists as a housing analyst, but Yan is also a local history buff and a keen researcher of demographics and race, with a love of food that leads him to explore the edges of cities. Some of his quirkier reports of the urban fabric are maps of trick-or-treat hot spots and dwindling corner stores in Vancouver.

But aside from being known as the “Duke of Data,” as local blog Price Tags named him, or the “Devil,” as Yan once heard someone call him for his wicked pace at numbers crunching, Yan is a supplier of snappy quotes.

I’ve interviewed Yan about a dozen times, as have many local journalists and international press such as the New Yorker and the New York Times. I’ve heard of one editor giving a reporter a brief “Yan ban” for citing him too often as a source, but this is because Yan’s always been generous to our profession with data analyses and custom visuals — and also catchy turns of phrase that encapsulate complex ideas.

These “Yanisms,” or what the man himself once jokingly referred to as the “Tao of Yan,” have become celebrated, lively quotes on Vancouver housing that journalists often chuckle at, admire and sprinkle into data-heavy pieces.

“I like to think that I try to bring ideas across different cultures,” said Yan. “It’s about pop culture. It’s about literature. It’s about movies. It’s about mythology. It allows people to feel that behind every number is a story, and every story gives the reader an understanding of their city.”

And his approach brings reactions.

When interviewed by the Vancouver Courier’s Mike Howell for a podcast, Yan brought up the Washington Post’s slogan of “Democracy dies in darkness.”

“You, as a journalist, shine a light into that darkness,” he said. “And I, as an analyst, as an urban planner, design the lightbulbs and flashlights for you.”

“Wow. That’s nice,” said Howell.

While I have noticed Yan’s colourful use of language for a few years, I’ve also been hesitant about pulling back the curtain on the local media dependence on the smart, quotable analyst.

But Yan recently won SFU’s 2018 President’s Media Newsmaker award, and I thought it necessary to shine the light on the fact that, in addition to the data, his choice words are a reason why he’s an individual who illuminates.

“Connecting narratives with numbers has a certain power,” said Yan.

Whether it’s hedge cities, “zombie neighbourhoods,” the “phantom affordability” of suburbs or the “grey tsunami” of aging boomers, Yan captures big trends and issues in a few memorable words.

Here’s a collection of Andy Yan’s greatest hits from over the years, with prompts from an imaginary Vancouverite.

Tell me, Andy Yan, is there anything I can do to buy a house in Vancouver?

“It seems that being able to choose the right parents is the shortest path to home ownership in the city of Vancouver.” The Globe and Mail, Nov. 20, 2018.

Tell me something better than that, Andy Yan.

“We have plenty of jobs, but you might need two or three of them to be able to afford a place to live.” New York Times, June 2, 2018

This sounds hopeless, Andy Yan. Isn’t living in Vancouver supposed to be paradise?

“You are living in paradise, but your wages are in purgatory.” Vancouver Sun, Sept. 18, 2017.

Andy Yan, what do we do about foreign buyers affecting local housing affordability?

“The valuations are higher here because of Vancouver’s role as a ‘hedge city’ for global investors looking for a clean, livable, safe and climate-protected place to park their money. So let’s raise the parking fees.” The New Yorker, May 26, 2014.

Tell me Andy Yan, could micro-suites less than 300 square feet like the ones in Hong Kong be a housing solution here?

“Even a chimpanzee has a minimum requirement of 500 square feet plus a pool and some sort of tire swing.” “Missing middle” housing panel at the Museum of Vancouver, Oct. 11, 2018.

What about sprawl, Andy Yan? There are many cheap detached houses further afield.

“Transportation costs can be an iceberg to the dream of homeownership.” Richmond News, Dec. 21, 2016.

What about supply, Andy Yan? Is that the answer?

“You can’t just spray density around and pray that affordability will follow.” Vancouver Sun, Feb. 1, 2018.

You may have a point, Andy Yan. I see development everywhere in the city. Why exactly isn’t this helping?

“I enter a car dealership and there are 10 Ferraris, and I have a Honda budget. We aren’t producing enough Hondas.” Globe and Mail, Sept. 9, 2016.

Then tell me, Andy Yan, what’s the magic bullet to curing housing unaffordability?

“There’s no magic bullet, but what’s needed is a thoughtful tool kit with two trays. One is affordable housing, which is about both supply and demand measures. And the other is economic activity, the fishing and hunting for companies and attracting them, and growing them here.” Vancouver Sun, July 13, 2018,

But Andy Yan, could it also be the Russians flipping Vancouver real estate? I heard one family speaking Russian in Kerrisdale yesterday and another one today.

“The plural of anecdote is not ‘data.’” Vancouver Sun, March 23, 2013.

I’ve heard you say that people who claim raising the issue of foreign property buyers and affordability is racist are using a “social hack.” What do you mean, Andy Yan?

“You had these whispers about racism being used to shut down a dialogue about affordability and the kind of city we want to build here. It’s a kind of moral signalling to camouflage immoral actions. It’s opportunism... It’s a weird Vancouver thing. It’s very annoying. It’s kale in the smoothies or something.” Macleans, Feb. 14, 2018.

Andy Yan, you sound the alarm about massive capital from China at play in Vancouver, but you’re a Canadian of Chinese heritage. I don’t understand.

“People assume that the Chinese community is ‘vaccinated’ from the effects, but they’re just as exposed.” BC Business, Aug 9, 2018.

Andy Yan, we’ve been talking about foreign ownership for decades. Do you think our conversations have helped us better understand our housing market?

“It’s generated more heat than light.” Vancouver Sun, Jan. 12, 2018.

In spite of all this, Andy Yan, what do you think about how popular the movie Crazy Rich Asians was with Vancouverites?

“It’s talking about the dreams of class mobility, of wealth beyond dreams... in the face of a housing market where it is more like a Stephen King horror novel.” The Star, Sept. 5, 2019.

Andy Yan, we just had our civic elections last fall. I think the new councils elected are well suited to their cities.

“But how will they form a choir? And does it end up Handel’s ‘Messiah’ or the ‘Highway to Hell’?” Vancouver Sun, Oct. 17, 2018.

What do you think about amalgamating the municipalities of Metro Vancouver, Andy Yan? After all, bigger is better.

“You’ve got to balance out ‘bigger is better’ with ‘small is beautiful.’” Vancouver Sun, Dec. 27, 2018.

Andy Yan, how do we get people to accept gentle density?

“Planning and engagement in Vancouver needs to move away from being the sell job to the teaching moment.” Metro News, March 3, 2018.

Andy Yan, what will happen as our boomers age?

“We are a province headed into uncharted demographic territory, with an aging tsunami barrelling toward infrastructure and housing ill-prepared for it.” Vancouver Sun, Dec. 7, 2018.

Andy Yan, what do you think of how property values have risen?

“[What used to be] the top crust of residential real estate in Metropolitan Vancouver has now become the whole loaf.” Vancouver Sun, Jan. 9, 2018.

Andy Yan, can we officially say that the property market has cooled?

“We’ll only know moving forward, is this a break in the weather or is this climate change?” Vancouver Sun, Jan. 3, 2019.

Andy Yan, what do you think of B.C.’s move to collect PST on Airbnb rentals?

“In the housing realm of sub-one-per-cent vacancy rates, this tax is kind of like using cigarette taxes to pay for lung cancer treatments.” Vancouver Sun, Feb. 8, 2018

Tell me, Andy Yan, can we and other cities duplicate the economic development of a place like Seattle?

“The same culture that came up with Amazon also came up with grunge. How much of Amazon is actually the ‘child’ of Nordstrom and Nirvana? And how much of that ‘alchemy’ will transfer to another town?” Politico, Oct. 19, 2017. (Minor edits.)

Tell me something positive, Andy Yan. Your work on capital and inequality is depressing.

“Data points to a direction. It isn’t necessarily destiny.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Housing, Media

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