Yukonomist: Are they coming?

Yukonomist Keith Halliday

One of COVID-19’s big economic questions is whether it will prompt a migration out of the big cities to places like the Yukon.

It has been hard to be locked down in a condo or apartment. The average condo in Toronto is about 750 square feet. Many range down to 500 square feet or smaller. These often don’t have parking, a balcony or even a locker for a bike.

When the lockdowns are lifted, you get to commute to work packed into a tram or subway holding the same pole as the strangers breathing in your face.

Compare that to the Yukon, where even the small, old one-and-a-half former government houses have nearly double the square footage of a Toronto condo. Plus a yard, parking and usually easy access to a greenbelt.

According to Remax, a 600-square-foot one-bedroom condo on Yonge street with no parking and no locker sold for $669,000 in late 2020. You could take that, buy the average home in Whitehorse, and still have $100,000 left over.

The work-from-home trend makes moving to the Yukon easier than ever. Many companies have now realized that their staff can work remotely effectively from anywhere. While most big-city companies will expect employees to return to the workplace when the pandemic is over, at least for sometimes, plenty are now open to employees working from anywhere.

The Canadian job boards show plenty of openings for remote work, especially in fields such as technology.

The belated but welcome arrival of unlimited internet packages here also helps. As does the fact that our income taxes are lower.

But cities remain attractive for economic and personal reasons. There is a reason why over 70 percent of Canada’s population lives in a Census Metropolitan Area (CMA — that’s Statistics Canada jargon for a district with at least 100,000 people living around a core of at least 50,000 people).

Statistics Canada recently released data suggesting some kind of move is underway. From Canada Day, 2019 to the same date in 2020 over 50,000 people moved away from Toronto and around 25,000 moved away from Montreal. Those are record-high numbers.

So where did they go? It looks like many moved to the suburbs or communities adjacent to the big cities. Places like Oshawa, Milton, Brampton, Mirabel and New Westminster all grew rapidly.

However, there is also evidence that city dwellers are moving farther afield. Halifax, Kelowna and Moncton were all in the top 10 fastest growing CMAs. We’ll have to wait for this year’s census to see how cities like Nelson, Canmore and Squamish are doing. These are lifestyle competitors with Whitehorse for remote workers, and anecdotal evidence suggests they are doing well.

Whitehorse isn’t big enough to be a CMA so isn’t included in the same report as Oshawa and New Westminster. But a look at other Yukon population data gives some clues. In the first nine months of 2020, roughly corresponding to the pandemic period, 240 more people moved to the Yukon from other parts of Canada than moved in the opposite direction.

That’s up from 216 net arrivals in the comparable period the year before. But it’s not a huge surge, and most of the new arrivals this year came in the first quarter of the year. We actually had a net loss of 26 people in July to September.

So if record numbers of big city Canadians are on the move, why aren’t we seeing a surge in arrivals here?

There are likely a few reasons.

One is the lockdown itself. Condo dwellers in Toronto could drive to Oshawa to check out real estate, but had to isolate for 14 days if they did a house-hunting trip to the Yukon.

Nor could the Yukon do a big advertising campaign to attract people from the big cities. That would have seemed crass during the pandemic. But post-pandemic, it might be a good idea.

One of the biggest obstacles may have been our housing shortage. With the transfer payment and number of government jobs growing steadily, Whitehorse house prices have hit record highs.

The average Whitehorse home was $568,900 in the third quarter of 2020. That’s up a whopping $150,000 roughly from 2016. Whitehorse duplexes and condos have also surged. They both averaged around $415,000 in the third quarter.

This is still dramatically cheaper than Toronto or Vancouver, but more expensive than the other lifestyle communities we compete with. The numbers aren’t exactly comparable, but the Nelson Star reported that the average house in the Kootenays sold for $392,827 in October.

That remote worker with the 600 square-foot condo in Toronto could move to Nelson and have even more cash left in their wallet than if they moved to Whitehorse.

The most recent land lottery highlighted our longstanding housing crunch, which our governments have so far failed to get ahead of. This time there were 780 applications for just 250 lots.

The housing shortage is not just hurting Yukon families and making it difficult for our kids to return home to live, but now it also appears to be dissuading remote workers from moving here. These workers are the holy grail of economic development agencies. They tend to be highly paid, pay a lot of taxes and spend a lot of money, and have a minimal environmental footprint compared to a resource job.

We shall see what Statistics Canada’s figures on migration show for the last half of 2020 when they are released. It remains a big question whether migration out of the big cities is a blip or a new long-term trend.

If it is a trend, it will be a real shame if our skyrocketing housing prices end up steering potential future Yukoners to Nelson instead of here.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.

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