Urban exodus

What if, instead of looking to urban centers as the hub of creativity, culture and convenience, we found ways to bring that energy to smaller communities?

When we moved to Terrace, B.C. in August 2019, most people we met assumed the relocation was job related. We’d shake our heads. “Affordability, simplicity, closer to family . . .” we’d start to explain the myriad of pushes and pulls.

Most people probably didn’t hear past that first reason. Their eyebrows might raise as if to say: “Affordability? Really?” Of course, 10 years ago we could have bought the same large-lot duplex for half the price. No lifelong resident of this boom-and-bust industry town would describe the current market as “affordable.” But good deals are comparative and we were moving from Victoria, where friends were buying dated townhouses for half a million and our two-bedroom basement suite’s rent bill would more than cover our current monthly mortgage.

The best reason to exchange urban tenancy for rural residency became apparent about six months after our move. When the pandemic hit, we weren’t the only ones who saw the benefits of a backyard, a spare room and no upstairs neighbours. Between July 2019 and July 2020, Stats Canada reports that a record number of people migrated away from Canada’s two biggest cities, Toronto and Montreal. Medium size cities like Oshawa, Halifax, Kitchener-Cambridge-Waterloo, Kelowna, Calgary and Saskatoon reported the highest growth in that same time period.

In the most extreme cases, pandemic pilgrims didn’t just move to the suburbs, they booked flights and shipped U-hauls across the country. Former hockey player Jordan Owens and his wife and daughter moved from Toronto to St. John, New Brunswick, motivated by the chance to purchase a home for less than 100,000 dollars. My neighbours here in Terrace are renting out a home they renovated in Hazelton, B.C. to a Toronto couple who decided “work from home” might as well mean “work from the other side of the country in a village of less than 400 people.”

Meghan and her family bought their first home in the fall of 2019.

Small town flourishing

A Globe and Mail podcast aimed at millennials making sense of pandemic financial decisions has hosted half a dozen episodes on the migration of homebuyers to smaller centers. “Perhaps the outflow of people into these smaller communities will transform them,” comments host Roma Luciw. “It might take 10 years, but these people are going to bring different things.”

Looking at my own context, I see this prediction already coming true. Terrace didn’t have an app-based food delivery service before we moved here. Most people had never heard of Skip the Dishes or Door Dash and those companies wouldn’t dream of dipping their toes into towns with less than 20,000 people. Only because I dragged my entrepreneurial husband to Victoria for a number of years and only because he and his tech-genius cousin are wildly optimistic, can someone in northern B.C. now order butter chicken from their smartphone to their doorstep. It turns out we packed more than just our second-hand furniture when we moved; we also brought the ideas and experiences that can only come from living in a larger city.

What if, instead of looking to urban centers as the hub of creativity, culture and convenience, we found ways to bring that energy to smaller communities?

As more of us trade burdensome rent bills or untenable mortgages for something more manageable, maybe we’ll see a new kind of flourishing in our smaller communities. Less time sitting in rush hour traffic could mean more time chatting with neighbours. Less money spent on parking could mean more margin for generosity. Less hours at work could mean more time for volunteering.

Attending to the crisis

I also can’t help but wonder what these demographic shifts are doing to our churches. More than half of our millennial friends in Victoria are no longer there. Their moves were motivated by the usual array of reasons – work, family, housing, lifestyle. But I know that we aren’t the only ones who decided to leave the city because we wanted to own a home before turning 30.

Are our urban churches tottering on a top-heavy demographic curve as young people simply can’t afford to be there anymore? Are church nurseries in smaller towns bustling as younger families find the breathing space they need?
If intergenerational church is important to us, then we need to start caring about affordability in our urban centers. That could mean voting in favour of low-income housing, offering rental spaces below market rates, supporting the protection of long-term rental units, or speaking up in favour of policies that curtail speculative buying.

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such a multi-system problem like housing affordability. But whether we rent or own, live rural or urban, feel fearful or comfortable, we have a responsibility to make our communities more inclusive and more hospitable. The same God who sees us struggling to decide between a city we love and living somewhere affordable is the God who promised land to Abraham and encoded the year of Jubilee. Our God cares deeply about our very human need for shelter and a place to call home. Of course, feeling forced to move away and restart somewhere smaller isn’t even the hardest part of this whole housing crisis. For the sake of those who live outside, who couch surf all winter, who live at the edge of a paycheque, we hope and pray for solutions. After all, each of us are only tenants here. Why can’t there be space for all?


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