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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The Regionalist: Of francophones, condos and migration flows

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Migratory flows of people registered with the RAMQ within the Greater Montreal region, 2000-2009. Source: Institut de la statistique du Québec, data processed by the MMC (from the Montréalités urbaines website)

I have to say I find the  phenomenon of “francophone flight” (to be a bit provocative) certainly very intriguing and also a little bit disturbing – it does seem strange to me that we hear so many complaints about the fact that Montreal becoming “less francophone” (which is true, at least from 2001 to 2006) and yet it is precisely the francophones who are leaving the island massively.

There’d be a lot there to unpack, but let us start with the premise that there is a so-called “francophone exodus”. So what?

Well, it’s confusing. On the one hand, we keep hearing anecdotes in the media (notably, on Radio-Canada) of suburbanites moving back to the city, and it turns out last year was a record year for the production of condo units with 12 681 condo starts. (Yes, I know, the beginning of 2012 wasn’t so hot. But that doesn’t change the fact that last year was).

On the other hand, we learnt in January that Montreal lost about 22 000 people to the suburbs again this year. These statistics are based on people’s address changes with the RAMQ, so it doesn’t include new immigrants who, incidentally, are slightly more numerous than those who leave. So Montreal’s population is actually growing (very slowly), despite the continuing exodus (of francophones, mainly).

So here comes the million dollar question: how can there be so many new condo units – which, apparently, are getting sold – when people are actually leaving the city? Some have advanced the Dubai hypothesis, according to which half of the new condos downtown would be owned by foreign investors/speculators. However, this is apparently not the case: according to McGill Immobilier, these buyer-investors make up less than 1% of the market in Montreal (vs. 40% in Vancouver). Who, then, are these people who are buying condominiums?

The only other explanation is that households are getting smaller, so that there are more households (including 1-person households) looking for housing. But it is really conceivable that this factor alone could account for the apparently insatiable appetite that Montrealers have for condominiums – especially knowing that approximately 39% of Montrealers are already living alone and another 31% are living with only one other person (according to the 2006 census)?

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between, or perhaps the stats simply aren’t capturing an important aspect of reality: condominium living is becoming (or has it already become?) a new stage of life as opposed to a new way of life. If that is the case, the condo market might suffer when (and if) the boomer-echos (people in their late twenties, early to mid thirties) echo their own parents and leave en masse.

Or maybe I’m just not connecting the dots properly. Please don’t be shy to point out the obvious to me, if you see something obvious (or not so obvious) that I don’t.





  1. I think that your 2nd explanation is the right one. This could be answered simply if we could know the age of people buying in or moving out. Possibility: young professionals and freshly retired Boomers are buying condos. Young families move to greener pastures. So we would have single people or couples buying condos, young families (1 to 3 kids) moving to the suburbs.

  2. In my Canadian City class at McGill, we were told that the ‘classic’ ring model, low-status people come into the center, and as their status increases they move out farther and farther for better neighborhoods and housing. The model for that pattern was supposed to be early 20th century Chicago. In conteporary times, this could also describe the pattern of people moving into the city in their 20s and leaving later when they have children.

    I’m not sure I completely understand these migration data, but is it possible that that’s what we’re seeing? People from outside the region move into the central regions, and people from the central regions move farther out?

    I also feel like the francophone-ness of the exodus might be a red herring. Anglophone people that move out to the suburbs tend to go to the west island, which counts as central in this analysis but is mostly suburban. Francophones, which there’s a lot more of anyway, move everywhere else.

  3. @Boutout
    openfile put up the migration report, and it shows (page 6, figure 7) that the emigration of the 0-14 year olds is as high as the emigration of 25-44 year olds, about 2%. I’d venture the guess that 0-14 year olds don’t move by themselves, so these are probably all families. Among the 15-25 year olds, there is a net immigration into the city.

    I thought the newer model is that the downtown is gentrifying; so you have the classic ring model, but with a peak in the center. The inner suburbs would be the poorest areas.

  4. I have no idea of how this impacts the numbers, but there must be a number of people who move from being renters to owners who remain in the city. I know this is my own situation and reflects that of a number of my peers and colleagues. We got older, stable jobs and decided for whatever reasons that we should no longer be renting. Condos are the entry way into the housing market if you want to live in the city.

  5. I think there is also probably an effect of people moving out of rental accomodation on the island and into their own homes. That would make sense considering the little population growth you have pointed out. 

  6. I think this is the result of four separate movements.
    1) Francophone renters are finally rich enough to buy homes. I know francophones who are the first members of their family in generations to buy a home. ;
    2) People are willing to drive until they can buy, especially former West Island kids going to Ste. Eustache and Vaudreuil;
    3) Boomers/elitists/empty nesters are moving into the city or setting up pied a terres;
    4) People are buying condos close to university for their children’s use, with plans to rent them out at a later date.

    But part of me wonders if someone somewhere isn’t deliberately misinterpreting data. If a francophone moves from the Plateau to Pointe Claire, can you really say they have left Montreal?

  7. @Kevin, I agree – I meet your Pointe-Claire, and I raise you Laval! It’s about time we built psychological bridges as well as physical ones. Laval and the Shores are a part of Montreal. Let’s get real, and let’s start managing our region.

  8. While as an individual citizen I agree with Pointe-Claire/Laval being part of a certain definition of Montreal, we must keep in mind that the exodus greatly affects the City of Montreal as an administration (with lower tax incomes), which explains the calls for tolls on bridges and gas taxes. The fact is that while psychologically people consider, say, Kirkland to be part of Montreal, our current administrative structure encourages competition between Montreal and its “villes liées” and an even greater one with municipalities outside the island (think of the Longueuil / Laval / Montreal dispute over subway fares being different depending on the city).

  9. I sell real estate and what I see is that younger individuals and couples buy them as a kind of transitional property. People are buying the condos in the areas serviced by the Metro because they want to be in walkable neighbourhoods and because they want newer properties. They can’t afford houses yet. I notice a real obsession with ‘newer’ condos – even though they are usually smaller than renos. Another condo driver is divorce. The other spouse wants to live in the same area so that the kids can be less disrupted. I think this is what drives suburban condo development especially. People also buy condos as ‘an investment’ to rent out – not that great an idea if you factor in the condo fees but people figure it’s better than leaving it in the bank at 0% interest.

    The ‘Franco flight’ argument is simply ridiculous, in my view. The Greater Montreal area is…Montreal so this is just linguistic fear-mongering. Price is a huge factor. Houses are a good 100k less off-island for the same thing. Young families searching for lawns cannot afford more than about 250K typically and there is almost nothing house-wise on the island (except in RDP and townhouses in DDO).

    Basically, there is a young-family flight off the island….anglo and franco. In the meantime, older boomers are actually buying larger houses on the island (and not so much condos). A mess – in short.

  10. This hardly surprises me at all. Unlike Toronto and Vancouver there is never going to be a particularly large market for condos in Montreal because house prices are low and commutes are short. The main market for condos in Montreal are people without children who want to live downtown. Neither Laval nor Longueuil are very far from downtown Montreal and both are pretty affordable. The only part of Montreal Island that has a lot of suburban single family housing is West Island and it does not make sense to live there if you work downtown because it is a longer commute than Laval/Longueuil. In comparison in Toronto the cost of a house is way higher than Montreal, housing near downtown is very expensive, housing near the major suburban job centres (e.g. Mississauga, North York, Markham) is very expensive, the greenbelt pushes up prices and Toronto traffic is absolutely brutal so families living in condos is becoming common.

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