Income, affordability draw newcomers to rural centres

Written By Keith Norbury

“More and more people will work remotely … [living] in this giant house in the hinterland enjoying a full and proper lifestyle. That’s what’s coming.”

––Richard Kurland

While the majority of British Columbia’s new immigrants are still landing in Metro Vancouver, more and more are settling in the northern and rural areas of the province. 

In 2021, B.C.’s population rose by more than 100,000 – two-thirds from out-of-country – and between 2016 and 2021, 22 per cent reportedly moved to non-metro Vancouver, nearly 10 per cent more than did so in the 1990s.

“While the trend of increased geographic diversity is positive, we know there’s more we can do to attract and retain newcomers outside Metro Vancouver,” a Ministry of Municipal Affairs spokesperson said in an email to Northern Beat.

“We know there’s more we can do to attract and retain newcomers outside Metro Vancouver.”

Ministry of Municipal Affairs

The ministry objective is to have 30 per cent of nominees settling outside the Vancouver area. Both the federal and provincial governments have ranking programs that variously award points for age, education, language proficiency, Canadian work experience, special skills in health care and technology and whether they study or work outside the Lower Mainland.

There’s more to immigration than points. A recent report by the Community Development Institute at the University of Northern B.C. in Prince George reveals what’s fuelling immigration and what could be leveraged to encourage people to make their home in places beyond Metro Vancouver.

Comparable income, cheaper housing in rural centres

Crunching data from the 2021 Canadian Census, the report’s authors studied 38 communities in B.C., ranging in size from Valemount, just over 1,000 population, to Prince George with more than 76,000 residents.

The median annual household income in Valemount is $30,000 below Vancouver, but village shelter costs are considerably lower. [Photo Valemount Visitor Centre]

The report states that average annual shelter costs were about $19,500 in Metro Vancouver versus about $13,000 in non-metro B.C. and 40 per cent less for rural homeowners (about $14,000 versus just under $24,000).  

Median family income on the other hand, was only 11 per cent less in non-metro B.C. – $80,566 compared with $90,000 in Metro Vancouver.

Those factors reveal a significant gap in housing vulnerability, defined as spending more than 30 per cent of household income on shelter. 

The portion of households in Metro Vancouver considered vulnerable was higher than in rural centres – 39 per cent of renters versus 31 per cent. 

For homeowners, the difference was more dramatic, with 24 per cent of Vancouver homeowners considered vulnerable compared to 11 per cent in non-metro areas. Statistics Canada defines non-metro areas as communities of fewer than 100,000 people.

Within that, the degree of housing instability varies widely. For example, Chetwynd and Tumbler Ridge had higher average household incomes in 2021 than did Metro Vancouver, but very low housing vulnerability. 

Tumbler Ridge, with a median household income of $101,000 in 2021, had only five per cent of homeowners and 10 per cent of renters characterized as vulnerable.

It was a similar story for Kitimat where the median household income was $103,000 with only six per cent of homeowners experiencing housing vulnerability. 

For Kitimat renters, that proportion was 26 per cent, still markedly lower than for renters in the Vancouver area.

Housing vulnerability on Vancouver Island at par with Vancouver

On rural Vancouver Island and parts of the Okanagan, however, it’s a much different story.

In the Okanagan’s Penticton, Summerland and Vernon, more than 40 per cent of renters were paying above 30 per cent of their household income for shelter.

On mid-Vancouver Island in Parksville, which had a median household income of $66,500 in 2021, 48 per cent of renters fell into the vulnerable category – nine per cent higher even than for Metro Vancouver. 

Parksville homeowners fared better with just 13 per cent deemed housing vulnerable.

Parksville Qualicum beaches stretch out one kilometre at low tide. [Photo Parksville Qualicum Beach Tourism Association]

Port Alberni, Nanaimo, Ladysmith, Courtenay, and Campbell River all had renter shelter vulnerability of 38 per cent or more – equivalent or worse than in the Vancouver area. And that despite average mid-to-north island rents being around 20 to 30 per cent less than Vancouver.

Marleen Morris, co-director the UNBC Community Development Institute and co-author of the report, attributed the vulnerability of island residents to the high proportion of seniors in those communities. 

“The older the population, the more precarious their situation is going to be if they’re renters.”

Marleen Morris

“Even people who have a pension inflation-adjusted will often lose ground over time,” she said. “So the older the population, the more precarious their situation is going to be if they’re renters.”

Born and raised in Alberta, Morris moved to Vancouver to attend university in 1978 and lived there until just over a decade ago when she came to Prince George.

Prince George: housing options improved with UNBC arrival

“Prince George has been going through significant change since I’ve lived here,” Morris said. “It has grown significantly. When the university was announced and opened, it opened a whole new range of possibilities in Prince George and attracted a bunch of people to come and work at the campus.”

Housing options have also improved, including those “geared for a younger demographic and an older demographic, as well as the family demographic that has always been strong,” Morris said.

Rural homes are older, need repairs, have lower equity

Nevertheless, the institute in its most recent and earlier reports notes that houses in non-metro areas are older and more likely to need major repairs. 

Lower house prices in non-metro areas also have a downside: Lower equity “implies more affordable home ownership, but also future financial limitations and vulnerability for those home owners,” stated a 2020 report from the institute. 

In the meantime, rural community homeowners have access to a much more affordable housing market.

The median sale price of a single-family home in northern B.C. was $460,000 in July 2023.

That compares with a median price of $1.2 million for a single family home in Greater Victoria, and a benchmark price of $2 million for Metro Vancouver.

Despite the disparities, the largest cities remain the biggest draw, even as some changes loom on the horizon.

Vancouver a ‘net loser’

Metro Vancouver’s regional growth strategy, published in February 2022, is forecasting that by 2050 the region will need to accommodate another million people, increasing its population to 3.8 million.

“If you look at interprovincial migration – so that means people in British Columbia moving to other places in British Columbia – Vancouver is a net loser of population to other places in British Columbia,” Morris said.

Meanwhile, in 2022, Canada’s population increased by more than one million – the highest annual increase ever, Statistics Canada announced in March. That resulted in a national population growth rate of 2.7 per cent, the highest since 1957. International migration accounted for 95.9 per cent of that growth.

“For the year 2022, Canada welcomed 437,180 immigrants and saw a net increase in the number of non-permanent residents, estimated at 607,782,” Stats Can reported.

“[2022] marks the first 12-month period in Canada’s history where population grew by over 1 million people.”

Canada’s Population Estimates, Statistics Canada

“Tread carefully,” Vancouver policy analyst, Richard Kurland, said of those figures. An immigration lawyer and partner at the law firm, Kurland, Tobe, Kurland alleged the government retroactively rejigged the number of foreign students and temporary foreign workers “to reduce the total number of temporary status people.”

Kurland said the government has allowed the number of temporary status people to balloon in recent years from 1.2 million to 4.3 million.

“That’s the pressure on housing supply, the temporaries,” he said, debunking “the myth of a housing shortage created by half a million immigrants coming to this country, which was false, because these are people already living here.”

Foreign student cap could mean boon for ‘hinterland’

Nevertheless, Kurland noted, the federal government recently floated the notion of applying a first-ever cap on foreign student enrolment as a way to alleviate the national housing crisis. 

“Which is huge,” Kurland said. “Because if you cap it, and then you have these hinterland universities pop up, the housing supply in the hinterland is going to experience increased demand.”

At the same time, “because of zero sum,” housing demand should decrease in metro areas, he said. “So it should be interesting.”

In any event, the Canadian government is aiming to increase the country’s population – which surpassed 40 million this June – through immigration in the coming years. 

Were 2023’s growth rate of 2.7 per cent to continue, Canada’s population would double by 2048, and hit 100 million by 2056. Even at the more modest rate from 2016 to 2021, when the population rose 5.2 per cent, it would reach 67 million in the next 50 years.

Housing supply will meet new demands

So where are all those extra people going to find housing?

“We live in a capitalist system,” Kurland said. “It’s supply and demand. And you live where you can afford to live. There’s nothing mentioned in any religious text I’m aware of that says you have to live in downtown Vancouver. You go where you can afford to go.”

He expects that more people will choose to live outside major urban centres because of a radical shift in the workplace.

“The reality check post-COVID is that the combination of information technology and changing workplace behaviour is ultimately going to severely modify the traditional housing matrix,” Kurland said.

“There’s nothing mentioned in any religious text I’m aware of that says you have to live in downtown Vancouver.”

Richard Kurland

More and more people will work remotely or only occasionally have to travel into the office. “And you spend the rest of your time in this giant house in the hinterland enjoying a full and proper lifestyle. That’s what’s coming,” Kurland said.

In fact, it’s already happening with all the tools in place, he said. Governments don’t even need to publicize immigration programs or spend anything on marketing, he said.

“People want to come here,” Kurland said. “They pick up their own socks and do their own research. You don’t have to attract people, there’s already a steady supply of takers.”