‘I’m not bumping into other people and there’s fresh air’: COVID-19 is accelerating the flight of Toronto families to smaller centres

When the pandemic hit Toronto, longtime resident Mary-Margaret Jones didn’t expect to finish it in Peterborough — but she couldn’t be happier.“We realized we weren’t getting ahead in Toronto,” said the civil servant, who last week moved into a four-bedroom Peterborough home with her partner Wendi Percival and daughter Finley, 4.“We’re two people with great jobs who can’t manage to put anything aside for a house in Toronto, ever. That’s the same story for a lot of people.”Experts say an exodus from Toronto of families with young kids, happening for years, is being accelerated by people learning to work from home and employers, public and private sector, newly open to staff contributing from a distance.The trend will have an impact on post-pandemic Toronto, after years of booming growth and success as well as housing unaffordability and glaring inequities.Predicting those impacts is tricky and depends, city watchers say, on how governments and local leaders capitalize on new opportunities and try to fix the problems that saw people like Jones leave once an escape hatch opened.Jones loved the Bloordale Village community around their three-bedroom, second-floor apartment when COVID-19 locked down her family, which also includes an 18-year-old university student daughter.“What COVID did is shrink Toronto for us into our neighbourhood, and we realized everything we liked was more of a smaller-city vibe,” and they didn’t need the huge expensive metropolis around that neighbourhood, she said.When they realized remote work was possible if they can drive to Toronto when necessary, they bought a four-bedroom house with 165-foot-deep treed lot in an established Peterborough neighbourhood.They are paying about $1,000 less per month for their mortgage than they were paying in rent and included utilities for their Toronto apartment. “My 4-year-old can toboggan in our back yard and every morning I take our two dogs on a 30-minute walk where there are trees and birds and a babbling creek, where I’m not bumping into other people and there’s fresh air and it’s so much calmer,” Jones said.Statistics Canada reported that between July 1, 2019 and July 30, 2020, Toronto lost more residents to other parts of Ontario than it gained — a net loss of more than 50,000 people.Toronto’s population grew overall thanks to immigration, albeit slowed by the pandemic. Mike Moffatt, an assistant professor in the business, economics and public policy group at Western University’s Ivey Business School, said young Toronto families have for several years been leaving the city for smaller centres such as Hamilton, Woodstock, Oshawa, London and Peterborough.“It’s ‘drive until you qualify’ for a mortgage,” said Moffatt. “We don’t have data since July but anecdotally there are signs it’s escalating during the pandemic. “Toronto is also seeing a big drop in the number of foreign students and foreign-born workers, which is relatively new and almost certainly caused by the pandemic.”Those numbers are expected to rebound post-pandemic, although some foreign students studying at Toronto universities via online technology could opt to continue doing so.Shosanna Saxe, a cities expert at the University of Toronto, said: “I think Toronto’s population will continue to grow rapidly, but potentially slightly less rapidly than it had been before.”The long-term trend of urbanization, in Canada and other countries, has continued through pandemics, wars, crime waves, disasters and more.“Cities bounce back strong every time,” Saxe said. “There’s a very strong human instinct to be together and there are a lot of advantages of congregating big groups of people in one place.”Toronto will emerge from the pandemic retaining what Mayor John Tory often calls “good bones” — a diverse and strong economy, walkable neighbourhoods, strong ethnic communities that help foster immigration and a vibrancy increasingly noted in global conversations.COVID-19 has, however, exposed the city’s growing inequality, disproportionately infecting and killing Torontonians in low-income and racialized neighbourhoods. Many people there have crowded homes and essential jobs that require transit trips to workplaces, with no option for home offices and Zoom calls.Toronto has a choice in how it emerges from the pandemic and decides to address those issues, along with housing affordability and infrastructure such as bike lanes and green space that have not kept up with the city’s growth, Saxe said.The public hunger for on-street patios, the closure of some roads on weekends to vehicle traffic and the increased winter maintenance of parks to give Torontonians more exercise options are signs of deficits that could help push families out.“Our parks are more full than they’ve ever been before, which could mean that we start to value them more than we ever had before,” Saxe said. “I hope that we will see investing in our infrastructure and our shared space, our public amenities with more enthusiasm, see the

‘I’m not bumping into other people and there’s fresh air’: COVID-19 is accelerating the flight of Toronto families to smaller centres

When the pandemic hit Toronto, longtime resident Mary-Margaret Jones didn’t expect to finish it in Peterborough — but she couldn’t be happier.

“We realized we weren’t getting ahead in Toronto,” said the civil servant, who last week moved into a four-bedroom Peterborough home with her partner Wendi Percival and daughter Finley, 4.

“We’re two people with great jobs who can’t manage to put anything aside for a house in Toronto, ever. That’s the same story for a lot of people.”

Experts say an exodus from Toronto of families with young kids, happening for years, is being accelerated by people learning to work from home and employers, public and private sector, newly open to staff contributing from a distance.

The trend will have an impact on post-pandemic Toronto, after years of booming growth and success as well as housing unaffordability and glaring inequities.

Predicting those impacts is tricky and depends, city watchers say, on how governments and local leaders capitalize on new opportunities and try to fix the problems that saw people like Jones leave once an escape hatch opened.

Jones loved the Bloordale Village community around their three-bedroom, second-floor apartment when COVID-19 locked down her family, which also includes an 18-year-old university student daughter.

“What COVID did is shrink Toronto for us into our neighbourhood, and we realized everything we liked was more of a smaller-city vibe,” and they didn’t need the huge expensive metropolis around that neighbourhood, she said.

When they realized remote work was possible if they can drive to Toronto when necessary, they bought a four-bedroom house with 165-foot-deep treed lot in an established Peterborough neighbourhood.

They are paying about $1,000 less per month for their mortgage than they were paying in rent and included utilities for their Toronto apartment.

“My 4-year-old can toboggan in our back yard and every morning I take our two dogs on a 30-minute walk where there are trees and birds and a babbling creek, where I’m not bumping into other people and there’s fresh air and it’s so much calmer,” Jones said.

Statistics Canada reported that between July 1, 2019 and July 30, 2020, Toronto lost more residents to other parts of Ontario than it gained — a net loss of more than 50,000 people.

Toronto’s population grew overall thanks to immigration, albeit slowed by the pandemic.

Mike Moffatt, an assistant professor in the business, economics and public policy group at Western University’s Ivey Business School, said young Toronto families have for several years been leaving the city for smaller centres such as Hamilton, Woodstock, Oshawa, London and Peterborough.

“It’s ‘drive until you qualify’ for a mortgage,” said Moffatt. “We don’t have data since July but anecdotally there are signs it’s escalating during the pandemic.

“Toronto is also seeing a big drop in the number of foreign students and foreign-born workers, which is relatively new and almost certainly caused by the pandemic.”

Those numbers are expected to rebound post-pandemic, although some foreign students studying at Toronto universities via online technology could opt to continue doing so.

Shosanna Saxe, a cities expert at the University of Toronto, said: “I think Toronto’s population will continue to grow rapidly, but potentially slightly less rapidly than it had been before.”

The long-term trend of urbanization, in Canada and other countries, has continued through pandemics, wars, crime waves, disasters and more.

“Cities bounce back strong every time,” Saxe said. “There’s a very strong human instinct to be together and there are a lot of advantages of congregating big groups of people in one place.”

Toronto will emerge from the pandemic retaining what Mayor John Tory often calls “good bones” — a diverse and strong economy, walkable neighbourhoods, strong ethnic communities that help foster immigration and a vibrancy increasingly noted in global conversations.

COVID-19 has, however, exposed the city’s growing inequality, disproportionately infecting and killing Torontonians in low-income and racialized neighbourhoods. Many people there have crowded homes and essential jobs that require transit trips to workplaces, with no option for home offices and Zoom calls.

Toronto has a choice in how it emerges from the pandemic and decides to address those issues, along with housing affordability and infrastructure such as bike lanes and green space that have not kept up with the city’s growth, Saxe said.

The public hunger for on-street patios, the closure of some roads on weekends to vehicle traffic and the increased winter maintenance of parks to give Torontonians more exercise options are signs of deficits that could help push families out.

“Our parks are more full than they’ve ever been before, which could mean that we start to value them more than we ever had before,” Saxe said.

“I hope that we will see investing in our infrastructure and our shared space, our public amenities with more enthusiasm, see them as more important that we have in the past.

“On the flip side this has been a time when safety has meant being separate and there is a danger of people going full-bore on that in a way that undermines our cities — I don’t think that’s the way it will go, but if we’re not conscious of the risk and make future choices accordingly, it’s a risk.”

Like Saxe, prominent urbanist Richard Florida, an American who has lived in Toronto since 2007, doesn’t believe the flight of a growing number of Torontonians to smaller Ontario centres heralds an end to the extended boom of Canada’s biggest city.

“I think what will happen — and this is good for Toronto, San Francisco, New York — is that the people who live in cities but really wanted to live in smaller places — they’ll leave,” said Florida, distinguished scholar-in-residence at U of T’s School of Cities.

“Cities are going to become more for city-dwellers. This reset in rents, this movement of certain people to remote work — if we take advantage of it and are strategic, convert some of the commercial buildings to affordable housing and put our nose to the grindstone, we could make cities better and more affordable.”

The biggest question mark for Toronto is what happens to the “central business district” — the downtown core currently full of empty office towers, he said.

But what keeps him up at night is concern the pandemic, which has dramatically enriched America’s wealthiest elite, could increase Toronto’s economic disparity.

“Without strategic and intentional action on the part of the feds, the province and the city, we could get more unequal, not less,” Florida said.

“We could come out of this pandemic with a strongly rebounding economy, the ‘roaring 2020s,’ with our cities becoming increasingly unequal and I see very little happening to mitigate that.”

Jones said she knows her family will miss things in Toronto. Her partner’s work computer needs a part that would be a short walk away in Toronto but presents a bigger challenge in Peterborough.

And while her new home has great biking trails, she’s going to learn to drive a car in the spring, something that wasn’t necessary living near Lansdowne Avenue and Dufferin Street.

But now, a week in her new home, Jones has no regrets about leaving Toronto behind.

“I didn’t plan to leave but when something is staring at me and I can get a better quality of life overall, I took it.

“Also, we researched the amount of COVID here and it’s quite low and people take it seriously,” Jones said.

“My daughter is about to go back to school so that’s a definite plus.”

David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider

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