Housing has helped attract population growth in B.C. regions

The first wave of data from the 2016 Canadian census has been released and it’s confirmed that within Canada, the West is indeed the best.

Well, if not best, at least the fastest-growing.

Compared with the national growth rate of 5% between 2011 and 2016 – the fastest pace of G7 countries over this period – the provinces and territories west of the Canadian Shield all grew faster, led by Nunavut at 13% followed by Alberta at 12%. This latter fact will no doubt surprise some, given the economic turmoil Alberta has endured over the past couple of years. That said, intercensal estimates from Statistics Canada indicate immigration to Alberta has remained strong through the tough times, with Alberta’s higher rate of natural increase buttressing its migration-led growth.

Here in B.C. our population growth outpaced the national average, at 5.6% in the five years leading up to 2016. This compares with the 7% growth that was seen in the preceding five years. Within the province, B.C.’s largest regions all grew faster than the provincial average and added the largest number of people: combined, the Greater Vancouver, Fraser Valley, Squamish-Lillooet, Capital and Central Okanagan regional districts added 211,348 residents, accounting for 85% of total provincial population growth. These regions accounted for 72% of B.C.’s 2011 base population, indicating a trend toward further concentration of population in the province’s larger metro regions.

At the other end of the growth spectrum were six of B.C.’s rural regions where populations declined, ranging from 0.3% fewer residents in Alberni-Clayoquot to a 4.1% decline in Mount Waddington. A lack of both job growth in and migration to these regions are key factors driving this trend.

In the Lower Mainland – comprising Greater Vancouver, the Fraser Valley and Squamish-Lillooet – the population grew by 6.6%, led by the University of British Columbia/Endowment Lands area (24%) and Whistler (21%). These were followed by Squamish, the Township of Langley, Surrey and Coquitlam, with these six municipalities also registering the fastest growth in their occupied housing over the 2011 to 2016 period. This points to a general observation about growth in the region: population change mirrored that of housing change. Ergo, if it was built, they came; if it was not, they did not (as was the case for West Vancouver).

Another interesting observation was that the pace of occupied housing growth (7.7%) exceeded that of population growth (6.6%), a reflection of increasingly smaller household sizes that is related to an aging population, smaller family sizes and an increase in the prominence of smaller, attached dwelling forms. This was most clearly seen in Richmond and Vancouver – two cities with constrained land bases that focus growth upward and not outward – where the number of additional persons per additional dwelling unit between 2011 and 2016 were 1.43 and 1.45, respectively, the lowest in the region.

This current census release provides but a sneak peek into the landscape of homes not occupied by usual residents, a census null space often erroneously referred to as “vacant” dwellings. The latest data indicates that 7% of all private dwellings in the Lower Mainland were not occupied by usual residents on May 10, 2016; put slightly differently, 7% of all homes were either unoccupied or occupied by foreign or non-permanent residents (including temporary workers and students). This was up slightly from the 6.9% registered in 2011. We’re now eagerly awaiting a more detailed tabulation of this information that will accompany the next wave of census data, scheduled to be released in May.

So there you have it. Thanks to the 2016 census we now have a more informed sense of who’s growing and who’s shrinking, and by how much. Future releases though 2017 will shed more light on the “whys” associated with these changes, including insights into dwelling structural types, population by age, immigration and employment. Stay tuned. 

Ryan Berlin (rberlin@rennie.com) is the Rennie Group’s senior economist.