London’s outrageous housing prices: An opportunity to sell emigration?

Canada’s cities are growing their populations, and that includes Winnipeg. But that growth is increasingly reliant not on Canadians moving around their own country, but on most cities’ ability to bring in immigrants from the rest of the world.

That was the point made by a recent Statistics Canada release, which observed that two-thirds of the population growth in Canada’s metropolitan areas in 2012-13 was due to immigration.

Here in metro Winnipeg, we welcomed 10,944 immigrants in 2012-13, while losing just 1,179 emigrants who left here to live in other countries. This is very much the opposite of the interprovincial migration numbers, where Winnipeg has been consistently losing about 2,000 to 3,000 people more to other provinces than we have been taking in during recent years.

We are hardly alone in that regard: the only Canadian metropolitan areas that pulled in more interprovincial migrants than they lost in 2012-13 were the energy-driven boom towns of Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton, and the relatively balmy retirement towns of Kelowna and Victoria. (Increasingly unaffordable Vancouver, once a big gainer from domestic migration, is seeing an accelerating exodus.)

And while metro Winnipeg gains on the whole from people moving in from other parts of Manitoba — a net gain of 689 in 2012-13 — this gain is tiny compared to the population gains we get from international migration.

If you’re intent on selling your city as a place worth moving to, it’s important to remember of course that domestic and international migrants are two very different markets. Domestic migration is largely driven by jobs, lifestyle, climate and family reasons and tends to favour boomtowns and milder climates. International migration is largely driven by an escape from poverty or war, and better economic prospects.

While many of the new Winnipeggers welcomed from abroad over the past 20 years have come from relatively poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, you might have also noticed more newcomers from relatively well-off countries such as the United Kingdom.

Some of those British newcomers, no doubt, would gladly relate the pressures arising from the high cost of living in the U.K. — particularly in Greater London — and how those costs compare to relatively inexpensive Winnipeg.

For example, to get a sense of how severe the affordable housing shortage has become in London, consider this posting on Zoopla, a British real estate site, for a room to rent in north London, about three miles from the financial district. For £390 per month ($720 Cdn.) or £90 per week ($166), you can rent this decidedly spartan-looking room, just steps away from a British Rail station:

For £390 per month, one of these beds can be yours. Your roommate gets the other one for £390 more. (Click for source.)

For £390 per month, one of these beds can be yours. Your roommate gets the other one for £390 more. (Click for source.)

Except that you don’t get the room to yourself. Note the fine print — the bolding is mine — which reads:

Ideal Move are delighted to present this single bed in double room share for 90.00 per week all inclusive. The double room is available at 180.00 per week or 90.00 per bed space with the room. The flat is shared with another 2 rooms and communal kitchen. Fully furnished, broadband internet, kitchen with all utensils.

In other words, bring a friend whom you don’t mind losing all privacy to, or face the indignity of having to share not just your home but even your sleeping quarters with a total stranger. And if the other two rooms each have two residents, get ready to share the rest of the home — likely including the washroom facilities that probably aren’t part of the room you’re renting — with the other four residents.

If you want the privacy of your own place, however, you might want to consider commuting into London — by jet.

That is exactly what one man has figured he could do. And, no, he is not a millionaire.

Last October, the Daily Mail newspaper reported, in an awkwardly worded report, that Sam Cookney, a social media manager, calculated that he could, with the ability to work from home one day a week, save £339 ($625 Cdn.) per month by moving from London’s West Hampstead area to Les Corts, a comfortable area in Barcelona, Spain — but continuing to work in London.

According to the British newspaper, it costs the equivalent of $2,780 Cdn. to rent a one-bedroom apartment — called a flat in the U.K. — in West Hampstead. Council taxes come to the equivalent of $140 Cdn. per month, and public transport to and from central London comes to $215 Cdn.

For the equivalent of $1,070 Cdn. per month, Cookney would be able to rent an apartment in Barcelona; commute to London on Ryanair, a discount airline, for $54 Cdn. round-trip — it helps if you don’t have baggage and know how to avoid Ryanair’s notorious fees — and commute to and from the airports for $35 Cdn. daily.

Sources other than the Daily Mail report that Cookney hasn’t actually moved to Barcelona — he just did a calculation as a way of illustrating the high cost of living in London.  (There are reports, however, of super-commuters splitting their weeks between London and Scotland.)

This would be a grueling commute, though. There are two early morning nonstops from Barcelona to London that arrive shortly after 8 a.m. London time; but even a relatively early 6:10 p.m. departure from London wouldn’t arrive in Barcelona until after 9 p.m. local time, leaving impossibly little time for a full night’s sleep.

Yet if London’s affordable housing crisis is so severe that commuting in from a foreign country seems like an attractive option, then it might be worthwhile for Winnipeg and other Canadian cities looking to grow their population base to market themselves as more affordable places to live.

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment (if you could find one) in Winnipeg in April 2012, for example, was $697 per month (£378) according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation — a bit cheaper than that shared bedroom in north London, and much more private. A city-wide transit pass currently costs $84.70 per month (£46), and the median commuting distance in Winnipeg is a short six kilometres or four miles.

There are trade-offs, of course. There is the shock of Winnipeg’s harsh winters to overcome, and the fact that Winnipeg (and every other Canadian city) is a huge step down from London in terms of fun and excitement. Samuel Johnson’s famous saying, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” is after all still very much the truth.

Yet, you never know. Some might consider it a worthwhile trade-off.

* – Related: A BBC report on extreme commuting.

Correction, Mar. 6: Apparently Cookney hasn’t actually moved to Barcelona; he has simply estimated the costs of commuting from Spain.

Winnipeg is a city where any sort of mention in the international media is a big deal, so Winnipeg readers of this blog might be interested to know that the city is getting a bit of publicity in France thanks to a new novel by writer Frédéric Chouraki.

Titled Un aller pour Winnipeg (“A trip to Winnipeg”), Chouraki’s 230-page fiction tells of a young man with an uncertain future who leaves Paris, arrives in Canada, and travels west by train for this mysterious place in the country’s west, called Winnipeg, which has always fascinated him. (Notably, the book’s official summary mistakenly refers to Winnipeg as “a province in western Canada”.)

According to my own rudimentary understanding of spoken French, the radio interview available through the site above suggests that the protagonist, known as Freddy Boy, meets up with a variety of fellow travellers who “all share the fantasy of Winnipeg”: a gay hockey team called the Maple Leafs (! — Is Chouraki taking a jab at Toronto? Or at Rob Ford?), an Italian actress, a retired waitress from Niagara Falls, and an “excessively sexual and large-breasted” blues singer. Along the way, Freddy finds himself in “aphrodisiac encounters in saucy circumstances”.

In the bleakness of the Winnipeg winter, this might sound very much like a fantasy indeed. But it might just send a few French readers to Google Maps to look up the location of this mysterious back-of-beyond place, and might even inspire a tourist or two to replicate Freddy Boy’s Canadian adventure.

About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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