Newspaper article The Canadian Press

More People Calling Prairies Home, despite Lower Oil Prices, Economic Downturn

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

More People Calling Prairies Home, despite Lower Oil Prices, Economic Downturn

Article excerpt

More people on Prairies, despite oil downturn

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REGINA - At the peak of the last oil boom, there were so many people living in the southeastern Saskatchewan city of Estevan that there was nowhere to stay.

"We had people sleeping in trailers -- sleeping in vehicles, if you can believe that," recalled Estevan Mayor Roy Ludwig.

Then oil prices fell, drilling activity slowed to a crawl and Ludwig figures the community lost about 2,000 people, mostly transient workers. By last fall, Estevan had a vacancy rate of 27.6 per cent, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

It's much the same situation in Alberta, where big-city vacancy rates were in the single digits five years ago.

These days, about 37 per cent of rental houses and condominiums are sitting empty in Calgary, and the comparable rate in Edmonton is about 27 per cent, said Shamon Kureshi, president and CEO of Calgary-based Hope Street Real Estate Corp.

One wouldn't know it from Wednesday's release of the first tranche of data from 2016 census, this batch focused on population and dwellings. For the second straight census period, Calgary, Edmonton and Saskatoon topped the list of fastest-growing cities in Canada, with double-digit growth rates of 14.6 per cent, 13.9 per cent and 12.5 per cent, respectively.

Alberta remains the fastest-growing province in the country at 11.6 per cent, with Saskatchewan a distant second at 6.3 per cent. Manitoba was third at 5.8 per cent.

Growth in Alberta may appear strong, but population estimates suggested a slowdown over the last two years leading up to census day, thanks to declining oil prices.

Laurent Martel, director of the demography division at Statistics Canada, said Alberta has recently drawn fewer people from other provinces than it did during the oil boom.

And what to make of those towering vacancy rates? It's probably got more to do with all the extra housing capacity that was built when the good times were at their peak.

"There's been a huge building boom -- particularly in Saskatchewan, but in Western Canada in general -- and these builders are working on all eight cylinders or all 12 cylinders," said Kureshi.

"But one of the things that's happening and causing this sort of tidal wave of rental property, is that the new homes and the new condos and the highrises that these builders are constructing, aren't selling because there's just no money and no people to take them."

People flocked to Western Canada when oil prices were high. Potash and uranium prices boosted Saskatchewan's fortunes, too. Jobs were plentiful. Saskatchewan and Alberta both embarked on aggressive campaigns to attract workers from other provinces.

"Five years ago, if you walked into a coffee shop in Saskatoon or Regina, it would be very difficult not to hear, 'Oh I just moved here from so-and-so, such-a-place,' and all these people are moving there for jobs and opportunity," said Kureshi. …

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