Newfoundland and Labrador’s population is growing fast and homebuilding isn’t keeping up

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Appeared in the St. John's Telegram, May 2, 2024
Newfoundland and Labrador’s population is growing fast and homebuilding isn’t keeping up

Throughout its history, Newfoundland and Labrador has ridden the population rollercoaster. Indeed, the province lost more people than it gained in 18 of the 30 years since the 1992 cod moratorium, which caused the single largest layoff in Canadian history.

But according to early signs, a new chapter is being written. Since 2021, Newfoundland and Labrador’s population has been growing and reached a growth of 9,447 people in 2022—the highest single-year increase in more than five decades. Not since the 1950s and 1960s has the province consistently grown by around 10,000 annually.

Far from being an anomaly, this recent jump in population mirrors a national story. Last year marked the largest single-year increase in Canada’s population on record. In short, there’s a strong chance that Newfoundland and Labrador’s recent return to rapid population growth is here to stay.

In many ways, this is a good news story—a province marked by decades of economic and demographic stagnation is growing once again. But there’s a catch.

A fast-growing population, for all its potential benefits, must be housed. But Newfoundland and Labrador’s homebuilding trends are anchored in the province’s recent slow population growth. According to a recent study, between 1972 and 2022, the province’s average population growth over the entire period was minus-74 people per year (ranging from -9,663 in 1997 to 9,447 in 2022). Over the same period, Newfoundland and Labrador homebuilders built 2,673 homes (on average) per year, contributing to a healthy surplus of homes.

This surplus is an anomaly in Canada over that time period. But that’s all changing very quickly. The number of additional people per-home built in Newfoundland and Labrador reached 9.7 people per new home, the highest in its history and second-highest among the provinces.

Why is this happening?

Again, strong population growth and declining housing completions. During the 1970s, the number of homes built per year routinely surpassed 4,000, but since the mid-2010s the province’s builders have yet to complete more than 2,000 homes in any one year. And the Furey government projects less than 1,000 homes being built this year, a substantial decline from even 2022.

To recap, Newfoundland and Labrador is adding more people than at any other time in its recent history while building less housing than at any other time in its recent history. This isn’t a secret—the Furey government and the federal government recently announced a litany of programs and initiatives aimed at increasing homebuilding. However, it remains to be seen whether the size of the solutions will match the size of the problem. The focus must be on increasing the supply of housing (i.e. the number of new homes built) in line with the demand for housing (i.e. population growth).

Luckily for Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans, their province is uniquely positioned to avoid the errors that have plagued other parts of Canada. Having benefited from a surplus of housing for so many years, there’s still slack in the market—slack that should be jealously maintained, rather than shrunk. Local and provincial policymakers should ensure they’re not making the situation worse by opposing proposals to build more, and faster. A fast-growing population needs a fast-growing housing supply, otherwise the price of renting and buying homes rises, eroding the prospects of recent and long-standing Newfoundlanders and Labradoreans alike.

In other words, there’s still time to ensure this next chapter of the province’s long history is a success, but it’s fast running out.

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