No, Everyone Isn’t Actually Fleeing to the Suburbs

With not much else to do during COVID, it’s become a favourite evening pastime of my husband’s to prophesize about the End of Vancouver as he simultaneously enjoys all of the fruits of urban life.

“Everyone’s leaving, everything’s closing. The city is dying,” he’ll say sadly, eating take-out from our favourite local Korean joint and drinking craft beer made down the block, moments after having chatted with some neighbour-friends who had taken a stroll by our balcony to tell us their offer on a cute Victoria Drive condo had been accepted. “I really think we need to seriously consider moving to Ladner.”

He’s not alone in this sense of doom and gloom. Despite everything we’re lucky enough to still get to do (see: eat bulgogi tacos, wave at a pal’s dog), there’s an undeniable fear in the air that the pandemic has irreversibly damaged our community, and that our city life is being ruined. And if city life is ruined, well, why pay out the nose for your 600 square feet? Why not admit defeat; why not move to Ladner?

Much ado has been made over the supposed great urban exodus, with panicked stories popping up everywhere from the Georgia Straight (“Will the Pandemic Persuade More People to Move Out of Urban Centres?”) to CTV (“Canadians Leaving Big Cities in Record Numbers!”). Pew Research Center—ever the drama queen—managed to really get everyone going with an alarmist statistic saying that 22 percent of U.S. adults have either moved because of COVID or knew someone who had moved. (Hang on, Pew: what if everyone in the study knew the same people?)

But, in reality, reports of the city’s death have been greatly exaggerated.Yes, it’s true that the ’burbs are popping off right now. According to the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver, as of October, Port Moody was experiencing an 83.3 percent sales increase in the past year; in Tsawwassen, sales were up a whopping 200 percent. Demand overall is absolutely up across Greater Vancouver, particularly for single-family houses and townhomes.

Here’s the thing, though: alongside this celebration of suburbia, Vancouver proper is doing just fine, thankyouverymuch. As of last fall, REBGV officially declared the City to be a good ol’ fashioned seller’s market: comparing the ratio of home sales to listings, demand is outpacing supply. Back in June (I know, a lifetime ago), a full 21 percent of detached homes sold in Greater Vancouver were located within Vancouver city limits. That same month, 37 percent of the region’s condo sales were Vancouver addresses.

Maybe people are skipping town. But more are slotting right into their place. “We know that people, when they’re looking for housing, are making a trade-off between accessibility and space,” says Peter Hall, professor of urban studies at Simon Fraser University. “There is a well-established model that explains housing preferences this way, and it also predicts that people, over their life, tend to migrate away from the city centre and then back toward it.”

After so much time spent in the, um, cozy confines of our homes this past year, it’s not surprising that some Vancouverites would reconsider that trade-off, and perhaps look to trade a small downtown apartment for greener, suburban-er pastures. But on the flipside, Hall argues, you have some people living on the outskirts who have felt isolated and now want to be closer to amenity-rich urban environments.

Here’s the thing: not everyone can—or wants to—work from home. Different types of people in different parts of society have been affected by COVID in uneven ways. For some, choosing where to live is about preference (do you want to settle down in a walkable ’hood, or are you hankering for a backyard to call your own?) but for many in B.C., that decision is dictated by affordability or proximity to work. And sometimes that means the city is the only option.

“It isn’t all one-way traffic,” says Hall. “It’s a whole lot easier for the media to do a story on how professional couples are moving to the suburbs than it is for them to do one on how some subset of recent immigrants are moving into the downtown core. This is where it’s easy for a distorted image of the process to filter to the public.”

Downtown isn’t being abandoned: it’s just changing. Yes, rents have dipped 5 to 10 percent compared to last year, according to the BCREA, with an increase in stock primarily driven by a loss of foreign students. But as landlords adjust their rents to better suit demand, that just opens up the city’s Kits basement suites and Yaletown micro-units to a previously pushed-out socioeconomic class of residents. Service workers and labourers—who may be better off living downtown, close to their restaurant or construction sites—will be there to take their place… maybe even with a few roommates in tow.

Vancouver has physical, geographic limitations, so its housing supply is concentrated, without much farther to go. People need to live somewhere, and the fact is, the city is where the supply exists. “When housing supply is constrained and there’s no evidence that we’ve reached the limits of housing demand, there’s no reason to assume it’s going to be all one-way traffic,” says Hall.

In fact, we may be looking at a long-term shift that brings back some economic balance to the city. For the past 40 years, Vancouver has become more and more attractive to wealthier households, shifting away from its industry-town roots to a new identity as a moneyed international hub. But as urban density becomes less desirable to some, there may be more room for young creatives to build a city that caters to their interests and incomes—not just to the whims of upscale condo developers.

Canadian cities in general seem to be weathering any purported COVID migration just fine. October 2020 saw sales up by double digits in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. (It was Vancouver’s second-best October ever, in fact, with benchmark prices hitting $1.045 million.)

Even in U.S. cities that have experienced similar suburbs-or-bust fearmongering, critics liken any exodus to past disaster-inspired waves of migration, like the 9/11 attacks or the 2008 housing collapse: many who left returned within a year or two. On Zillow, a popular American real estate site, the number of prospective homebuyers looking at suburban areas has changed infinitesimally from previous years.

Because here’s the truth: in general, we’re not a very transient bunch. In any given year, says Hall, only a very small fraction of homeowners move at all. “Even if COVID was to double the rate, it’s still an incredibly small proportion,” he says. “Residential patterns, they change pretty slowly.”

There’s not a lot we can count on in these strange times. But if the housing market stays this course, our fair city may be its vibrant self again soon. Much like how Vancouver bounced back after the devastating 1918 Spanish flu into the Roaring ’20s, maybe we’re about to enter a new age of creativity and celebration that builds something great from the ashes of our pre-pandemic world—and I want a front row seat. Ladner’s gonna have to wait.