Canada’s housing agency tries to slow the exodus from big cities

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) is attempting to curb the outflow from big cities.

iamge: HuffPost Canada

Toronto saw a net loss of 50,375 last year as people moved to surrounding small cities; places such as Oshawa where the population increased by 2.1 per cent according.

Municipalities around Montreal also experienced growth with Farnham seeing an increase of 5.2 per cent.

People are migrating out of Vancouver to small Interior cities, as well. In Kamloops, home sales totalled 3,044 units last year, up 6.4 per cent from 2019. Sales were brisk with homes on the market just of 2.6 months on average, compared to 5.8 months the previous year.

The pandemic has resulted in millions of new workers from home. As of December, 2020, 4.8 million Canadians worked from home. For 2.8 million of those, working from home was a new experience.

The influx of highly successful, mid-career professionals and knowledge workers has an effect on the character and culture of a small city. On the plus side, professionals have more to spend and support the arts making small cities more vibrant. Conversely, they drive the price of houses up making them less affordable for low-income wage earners.

CMHC, a Crown Corporation responsible for affordable housing, is promoting big cities. In a two-page ad in The Walrus magazine, they point to the advantages of living in denser communities:

“CMHC is also increasingly recognizing that intensification, or creating denser communities, can play a positive role in addressing not only housing affordability but other challenges — such as access to services, health status, and climate change — that factor into where people choose to live.”

Part of the appeal in moving out of a big city, it seems, is the seemingly lower rates of COVID-19 infection. But most infections in big cities have been among those working in high contact jobs, not home-work environments. And the Kamloops region is now experiencing a spike in infections.

It might seem like commute times are less in smaller cities but Vancouver isn’t much different than Kamloops. In Vancouver, the average commute time by car was 26 minutes last year. While I don’t have averages for Kamloops, most drivers had a commute time of 15 to 29 minutes according to Statistics Canada. And fifteen per cent of Kamloops drivers had commute times longer than 30 minutes.

Big cities attract medical talent to specialized clinics, making health services superior in dense urban centres. Michel Tremblay, VP at CMHC says:  “You simply can’t offer the same level of service in smaller centres; it is just not economically justifiable,”

Everyday needs such as groceries, libraries, and community support services are not only more numerous and varied in a big city, but also easier to get to by walking, cycling, or public transit. People prefer to go on foot, which is the basis for an inherently healthy, active approach to living, CMHC argues.

Personally, I’m not convinced. Despite the disadvantages of living in small cities, Kamloops was a big draw for me when I moved to here from Calgary. I like the slower pace of life and living close to nature.

But I wonder what motivates CMHC, a housing agency, to promote big cities? Is it because they are worried about a collapse in big city housing markets where they insure the mortgages?