Exodus to the east: How Vancouver home prices have driven a surge of migration to the Fraser Valley

As house prices exploded, more than 26,000 people moved from Vancouver to Chilliwack, Abbotsford, and Mission over the course of just three years.

By Tyler Olsen | December 30, 2021 |5:00 am

This is the third story in The Changing Valley, an ongoing data-driven series on how housing and migration are changing the Fraser Valley.

Part 1: How growth in the Fraser Valley has accelerated

Part 2: How the gap in home prices has widened, depending on where you live

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The evidence is everywhere. So are the anecdotes. In one of Canada’s fastest-growing regions, it isn’t hard to meet someone who has recently moved to the Fraser Valley from Vancouver.

But it takes more than anecdotes and observations to decode the exact relationship between how house prices are driving migration and changing smaller communities around Canada’s largest cities.

Last winter, as residents in the Fraser Valley noticed homes selling for previously unheard of prices, a housing analyst thousands of kilometres away was pouring through spreadsheets related to the last big home-buying surge just a few years prior.

Anthony Passarelli and his colleagues at the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation wanted to know how those prices influenced where people moved within this huge country. And there, in cold, hard data, they found evidence of something many people in the Fraser Valley have seen first hand. In both Toronto and Vancouver, the figures showed waves of people fleeing places with high home prices in favour of communities where they could buy (or rent) more with less. As prices rose in the two cities, large numbers of people began moving out of them into neighbouring cities and regions.

And in British Columbia, that had a direct, observable impact, on the Fraser Valley, Passarelli and the CMHC found. Vancouver residents departed to Abbotsford, to other Fraser Valley cities, and to the BC Interior. But that’s not all that happened. As Vancouverites migrated to less urban areas, that increased demand for housing drove up the prices of homes in those destination communities.

That, in turn, led to a pronounced migration knock-on effect, that saw a city like Abbotsford both receive large numbers of new residents from the west, and lose residents to cities and towns to the east with lower home prices.

“In a market like Abbotsford,” Passarelli told The Current this spring, “even though you were getting this increased amount of people moving in from Vancouver, you were also starting to lose a greater number of the existing residents that were from Abbotsford to other areas. And that was a function of more people moving in from Vancouver and prices in Abbotsford started to appreciate faster.”

Essentially, Abbotsford-Mission began to see its own mini-exodus. It was still a net overall gainer of migrants as the number of people moving into the community from the west continued to outstrip the number departing to the east. But those Abbotsford departees helped stoke growth in places like Chilliwack, Hope, and Agassiz.

“More people from Abbotsford found it too expensive and they moved further outwards so less expensive places like Chilliwack saw an increased number of people from Abbotsford,” Passarelli said. “It was a sort of ripple effect to the market.”

And the ripple didn’t stop in Chilliwack, with Chilliwack losing residents to other cities and towns across BC.

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Waves of change

The scale of the migration is staggering.

(The figures come from Statistics Canada for three years between 2016 to 2019. Statistics from the last two years are not yet available, but anecdotes suggest the trend has only accelerated. Vancouver figures include all of Metro Vancouver, ranging from North Vancouver to Langley. Abbotsford and Mission are combined because Statistics Canada defines them as a combined “census metropolitan area.”)

An estimated 17,427 people moved from Vancouver to Abbotsford-Mission in just three years (between 2016 and 2019). Another 9,103 skipped over Abbotsford/Mission and moved from Vancouver to Chilliwack.

Many also moved the other direction—about 10,000 from Abbotsford-Mission to Vancouver, and about 3,600 from Chilliwack to Vancouver. But even accounting for those westerly moves, the net gain from Vancouver for Abbotsford/Mission and Chilliwack amounted to about 6,700 and 5,500 residents, respectively.

At the same time, Abbotsford-Mission residents were moving to Chilliwack by the thousands. Just over 5,000 people moved to Chilliwack between 2016 and 2019, with only half of that total moving the other direction.

Chilliwack also wasn’t the end of the line. That city lost 1,600 more residents than it gained to other BC communities. Those include both cities and towns in the interior, and smaller communities with lower home prices in the eastern Fraser Valley.

(Migration from Abbotsford and Chilliwack to communities outside of BC was essentially equal to the in-migration between 2016 and 2019.)

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Not a drop in the bucket

Also notable was the scale of migration compared to the cities’ existing populations.

Over the course of three years, nearly 29,000 people moved to Abbotsford/Mission from other communities. That amounts to about 14% of its population. Of course, Abbotsford-Mission’s population of those two communities didn’t grow close to that fast because people also left during that time. But the turnover of residents also continues to be a key driver in demographic, societal, and political change across the valley.

Chilliwack has seen an even-larger influx, proportional to its population. Nearly 21,000 people migrated to the city from other Canadian communities. That equates to about 17% of its current population. Like in Abbotsford, people also left Chilliwack, but the total number of departees were nowhere near the number of newcomers. Each year, the city netted 2,000 new residents from other Canadian communities, amounting to about 2% influx.

There are several catalysts for all this movement, but there isn’t much mystery around the biggest factor: the cost of housing. Anecdotes abound of people who have moved east in the Lower Mainland to find a suitable home they could afford. Some are moving to retire, many others are moving to start families. As The Current reported in our last Changing Valley piece, as home prices have grown everywhere, so too has the house price gap between Fraser Valley cities.

The Current spoke to a lawyer who had been renting a nice condominium in downtown Vancouver, but after he and his wife had children it became obvious that giving his kids a home with a yard would be prohibitively expensive.

“The price of real estate in Vancouver was just ridiculous,” he said. The lawyer, who preferred to speak anonymously, made good money at a large law firm, and had a wife who also made a good salary. “We had really good income, but we weren’t anywhere close to being able to buy a house in Vancouver. I mean, it was just completely out of reach.”

In our next Changing Valley story, we will look at the age question, and a massive group of people moving to the valley who have no say in the matter: newborns.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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