Canadians should be encouraged to migrate to affordable cities

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It makes sense for the federal government to include an interprovincial mobility clause when funding provincial housing. 

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on June 3, 2024.

OTTAWA—Half of the residents in Canada’s major cities are ready to move for more affordable living.

Thunder Bay, Ont., is the best destination if you are trying to reduce the cost of housing as a percentage of your monthly income.

According to a Royal LePage affordability study released last week, you can live in that city and pay only 22.2 per cent of your income for a mortgage.

The study polled Canadians living in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver asking whether they would be prepared to move for more affordable accommodation.

Some 54 per cent of Greater Montreal residents said yes, while 51 per cent in Greater Toronto and 45 per cent in Greater Vancouver were willing to move for cheaper accommodation.

Edmonton was the only large city that made the cut as one of the 15 most affordable living locations in the nation.

Not surprisingly, it also polled at the top when people were asked which of the 15 they would move to.

In my own family, my daughter made an affordability move from Toronto to Montreal earlier this year. She purchased a duplexed apartment in Verdun with a budget that probably would have gotten her a shoebox in Toronto.

And Montreal is not even included on the list of potential destinations for affordable housing.

But the reality is that the quality of life in a major urban centre like Montreal often trumps the simple issue of affordability.

I have family living in Thunder Bay, and it is a wonderful place if you enjoy the great outdoors with easy access to fishing, hunting, and hiking.

But if you are an urban type, this most affordable community is somewhat remote. For example, I once took a train trip from Toronto to Thunder Bay, and the excursion took 17 hours. The city is also 700 kilometres away from Winnipeg, which is the nearest community with a professional theatre company, dance group, and other attractions attached to living in major urban centres.

If urban life is important to you, the choice of the cheapest mortgage is not the only reason to make a move.

But the survey does show Canadians that there are options when it comes to housing affordability.

Too bad those options are not built into the country’s public policy framework.

With every housing agreement signed with individual provinces, there is absolutely no incentive to encourage people to cross provincial borders in search of affordable housing.

If anything, the larger the local population, the more funding is focussed on providing services to that population.

When Toronto lays claim to a population larger than most provinces, it is correct.

But it would make sense to encourage people to move out of the GTA in an effort to tackle the affordability issue.

Housing prices in nearby Hamilton have long been a magnet for Torontonians who want to be able to live in an urban centre without spending a million dollars.

The investment in rapid transit between communities also makes the affordability move painless as it includes the possibility of either remote work, or actually commuting to a job in Toronto if necessary.

Just last week the federal and Ontario governments finally signed an agreement which transfers $357-million into provincial coffers for housing projects.

The agreement had been stalled for months because of a dispute over what Ontario was actually spending on social housing, which the feds alleged was less than other provinces.

The new agreement includes an “action plan” that both governments are happy with, but municipal partners in housing are asking to “fundamentally re-think the way that community housing is funded in Ontario.”

That fundamental re-think should involve a deeper dive into portability for affordability.

If it is less expensive to live in Windsor, Ont., or Thunder Bay, as evidenced by the Royal LePage survey, why not encourage people to move to those locations?

A bonus system for municipal affordability would ensure that governments are investing in the communities that provide the greatest housing return.

Why not include interprovincial movement in that equation?

It is cheaper to live in St. John’s, N.L., so why not provide incentives for people who are prepared to take the risk and make that move?

Housing solutions involve thinking outside the box.

Either you get a condo box in Toronto, or more spacious, affordable accommodation elsewhere in Canada.

It makes sense for the federal government to include an interprovincial mobility clause when funding provincial housing.

Canadians should be encouraged to migrate to affordable cities.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.