From suburbs to Salt Spring Island, Torontonians moving mid-pandemic — but will the exodus last?

From suburbs to Salt Spring Island, Torontonians moving mid-pandemic — but will the exodus last?-Milenio Stadium-GTA
Jon Keough now counts himself among the former Torontonians who left the city mid-pandemic. He recently moved to Salt Spring Island, B.C. — a bucolic coastal community more than 4,300 kilometres away. (Supplied by Jon Keough)


By now, plenty of Toronto residents have heard the stories of people fleeing the city mid-pandemic. It could be a long-time neighbour upsizing in the suburbs, or a colleague working remotely in another province. For Jon Keough, a 32-year-old marketing professional, it meant packing up his life and moving to Salt Spring Island, B.C. — a bucolic coastal community more than 4,300 kilometres away.

Toronto residential rents dropping because of COVID-19, figures suggest

Now, Keough’s time is spent working from home with a view of the Pacific Ocean, cycling along tree-lined streets at sunset, and strolling through the island’s artsy harbour communities. It’s a lifestyle he’d long wondered about, but it only became possible during the pandemic when his company allowed him to work remotely.

“I started thinking, ‘Well, what am I actually getting for paying to live in Toronto? What’s the value of that, and is it worth it?'” he said in a Zoom interview.

There’s growing speculation about how long this exodus could last, since remote work remains an option in many companies while much of the city’s culture and nightlife remains closed.

“[In Toronto], there’s concerts, there’s bars, there’s great food. Obviously, a lot of that just doesn’t exist anymore, and truthfully, I wonder if it’s ever going to come back the same way it was,” Keough said.

“I wonder what the future of cities looks like if this remote work trend continues.”

Website analyzes Ontario towns

That’s what Parkdale resident Audra Williams is wondering as well. Alongside her partner, Haritha Gnanaratna, she’s been mulling a move to a more affordable region outside the city — so much so, in fact, that she designed an entire website to unpack the options.

Called Ninety Minutes From Toronto, the site delves into the demographics, house prices and culture of towns — you guessed it — an hour and a half from the downtown core.

“We’d go to these places and [Haritha] would be like, ‘I could live here, and this is cute,'” she said.

But on summer road trips, her partner also wondered how welcoming and diverse some of those towns might be beyond the tourists.

“We’d be driving around and I’d be making note of people passing by like, ‘Oh, that’s a person of colour’ … You don’t realize you’re doing that until you leave Toronto and diversity drops,” Gnanaratna said.

The couple’s analysis factors that in, giving people a sense of what the experience of a location is beyond a quick trip, with breakdowns for towns in areas from Niagara to the Kawartha Lakes.

Based on rapidly-growing website traffic — including more than 230,000 page views, 1,000 newsletter sign-ups, and 150 thank-you emails in August alone after it launched — Williams senses the draw is strong.

Parkdale residents-Milenio Stadium-GTA
Parkdale residents Audra Williams, right, and her partner Haritha Gnanaratna, left, are considering a move to a more affordable region outside the city. To analyze the possibilities, the pair launched a website this year called 90 Minutes From Toronto. (Paul Borkwood/CBC News)

Spike in sales outside GTA

According to John Pasalis, president of Toronto-based Realosophy Realty, there’s already a clear exodus to far-flung regions.

“It’s not so much the areas that are traditionally suburbs like Newmarket and Mississauga,” he said. “It’s places all the way out to Barrie.”

Pasalis’s analysis of data from the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board found over the summer, the outskirts experienced far more sales than the core Greater Toronto Area compared to the year before.

Simcoe, for instance, saw 1,420 more home sales this year versus last year — a more than 65-per-cent jump — compared to 937 more sales in Toronto.

According to the Canadian Real Estate Association, homebuyers continue to show a preference for two things during the pandemic: more space and bigger homes just outside cities.

“The real price strength is in markets just outside (call it one-to-two hours) of the biggest urban centres,” BMO economist Robert Kavcic said in a research note, with a number of markets scattered across southwestern Ontario seeing annual gains of more than 20 per cent.

Pasalis isn’t convinced the trend will stick, since the lure of Toronto’s downtown core for jobs and support networks could rebound post-pandemic. But if it does, he hopes it opens up new sources of housing supply, potentially dropping prices locally, and giving people new options outside the city.

“Builders weren’t necessarily building in the far outer suburbs because there wasn’t much demand,” he explained.

“But if people continue to work from home and start looking in areas an hour, an hour and a half outside Toronto, that’s potentially new sources of housing supply that we didn’t have before.”

‘So many benefits’ to moving

After living with a roommate and realizing it would cost at least $1,800 to get an apartment on his own in Toronto, Keough also hopes the trend has a positive impact on people’s quality of life.

It already has for him, he says. Since settling in Salt Spring, the avid cyclist has been enjoying the outdoor trails — unlike anything in the heart of Toronto — while spending less for more space.

Sure, he now wakes up at 5 a.m. to keep working remotely on Eastern Standard Time, but that’s a small price to pay for the newfound space and freedom.

“This whole change,” Keough said, “there’s been so many benefits to it.”


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