Having worked on Parliament Hill, one of the cool things about working in that environment is that sometimes you meet people you might never have or get exposed to cool ideas that you never probably hear of. In my opinion, that phenomena comes down to three factors. One is having specific responsibilities for certain portfolios, things that you may not have known much about before or things that you need to become subject matter experts on.
The second is from House of Commons committees and the responsibilities an MP has there. Depending on your committee, you can meet some extremely interesting people and hear a whole range of ideas, from sensible to down right wacky. I still remember the day in 2016 that we had one person come before the House of Commons Natural Resources committee and suggest that to help solve the problem of access into the Ring of Fire, that a Hyperloop be built from Nakina (population of approximately 500 on a good day) into the Ring of Fire. Needless to say, as the guy from Northwestern Ontario, a region where we’ve been fighting for the province of Ontario and federal government to twin the TransCanada Highway, from two total lanes to four, for the better part of a few decades, the idea of that anyone would spend the billions it would take to build a Hyperloop through the bush into the Ring of Fire caught my attention, for all the wrong reasons. And I wasn’t alone on that day.
The final factor is that people love to send all kinds of stuff to the offices of MPs. Workers, students, entrepreneurs, professors, unions, organizations, companies, industry associations; you name it, they send it to MP offices. Studies, research, talking points, all kinds of stuff in all kinds for formats. Sometimes some real interesting, and revealing stuff would come in, stuff that would be useful later but sometimes just cool to know.
So since my time on the Hill, I’ve always kept an eye open for interesting information and tidbits from obscure or different sources. Tonight I came across one such study, one that I found very interesting, that caught my eye and honestly spoke to my reality. The topic? One way Canadians are dealing with the rising cost of housing in major cities. The source of the study? Well that’s the unique part:
Yep folks, U-Haul. Yeah, that U-Haul, the company known for their fine rental moving vehicles and trailers of all sizes. It turns out that they used their own data to create a list of the top cities and towns that Canadians are moving too when can’t afford living in urban centres. As we know, the cost of housing in places like Toronto, Vancouver and other large cities has been constantly on the rise, where renting has gotten more and more expensive and the idea of hoping to some day buy your own home is simply completely out of reach. This is an issue that many political parties have been trying to deal with, so it’s interesting to look at the list of the top “Canadian growth cities” for 2019 according to the moving company. According to U-Haul, here are the top 5:
- North Vancouver, BC
- Trenton, ON
- Saint Thomas, ON
- Brockville, ON
- North Bay, ON
Of the top 25, 19 of the communities are in Ontario and they are not major centres. They’re smaller communities like Elliot Lake, Lindsay, Hanover and North Perth, all within reasonable driving distance of larger centres. This jumped out to me because, frankly, it spoke directly to my own lived experience. 5 years ago, my wife and I lived in a small two-bedroom apartment in Ottawa with a growing two-year-old. Paying a lot of money in rent to deal with the cost of living in the city, there was no way we were going to be able to afford to purchase a home in Ottawa. So in late 2014 we started to look outside of Ottawa, to the south of the city. We found beautiful homes in small communities up and down the St. Lawrence, in places like Cardinal, Prescott and Maitland. But in the end, we found the perfect spot in Brockville, where we bought our first home. From there, I started to commute back and forth to Ottawa every day, driving into the city. Amazingly, the cost of living in Brockville and commuting to Ottawa was less than living in Ottawa itself, and I spent about the same amount getting home everyday as I did while living in Ottawa. Not only was it more affordable for us as a family, we got further ahead and we’ve had a better quality of life.
Since making this move, I’ve had a few different reactions to it, revolving between stunned surprise at commuting 120 kms each way each day and from people wanting to know more about it. Since doing it, I’ve met more and more people who are doing the same, either commuting back and forth or using some combination of telecommuting. I’ve also met seniors who have sold their home in the GTA, bought a nice home out here and pocketed the rest to live off of.
But for me, from a public policy perspective, data like this is interesting because it shows how Canadians are coping with the high cost of living in the large cities, the lengths that they are going to do deal with it, and the potential policies that could help it along. A great example living in Brockville would be regional transit. Living in Eastern Ontario, it simply doesn’t exist. No GO Trains, no nothing. We are right on the Via Rail, and with a brand new LRT in Ottawa with a station at the train station (when the LRT actually works), having commuter trains going into Ottawa would make Brockville that much more of an affordable option for families and seniors alike. And now that the federal government seems to be moving on Via Rail’s high frequency rail service proposal (fingers crossed it still happens), communities like Brockville might actually get that.
The point I make here though is that not only was my family and I ahead of the curve (pat on the back for that), but look at the list of those communities and think of the lack of government investment in them. The lack of infrastructure investments in them, the lack of transit, local or regional, the lack of everything. Canadians are moving to these places as their way of trying to find the Canadian dream not because of government, but in spite of governments of all stripes.
Wouldn’t it make sense for governments to invest more in these centres, to make it that much easier for people to live in them? I think it would, but at the very least it’s some good food for thought. In the meantime, I really hope that some eager policy person in Ottawa sees this study and sees the potential ideas and solutions that could come from what this data is seeing. Sometimes it comes from the strangest places that you’d never expect, like from U-Haul.