Toronto used to be the place that everyone flocked to. But the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how unsustainable it is to live here. Six months into the crisis, many people have left, are leaving or are about to leave.
Unemployment is high. Housing is unaffordable and tenuous. Now that the eviction moratorium was lifted on August 1, it’s expected that the number of eviction notices will rise. The things that have always made the city so attractive – restaurants, culture, festivals, sports – have been scaled back, cancelled or adapted to online versions. And with the coronavirus making remote work mandatory in many jobs, people – especially those in creative industries and the arts – are beginning to wonder why they need to live here at all. Why not go somewhere roomier, friendlier and less expensive?
“When the pandemic hit, we realized how little we utilize what Toronto offers,” says Cristina, a mono-named blogger and SEO consultant who lives in Annex North. Currently on maternity leave, she gave birth to her second child in February.
“Having more green and outdoor space, more indoor space, fresher air and calmer surroundings would be great,” says Cristina. “It’s not something we can find in our price range here in the city.”
Although she enjoys being within walking distance to restaurants and shops, she and her family are looking to buy a home elsewhere in the next year. Cities or towns they’re considering include Orangeville, Cobourg, Innisfil, Brooklin and Belleville.
“There are closer-knit communities [in these places], more easy-going people and a less pretentious attitude,” says Cristina. “There’s more green space, less pollution, more outdoor activities for the kids, a slower pace. And more bang for your real estate buck.”
Artists hit hard
One of the pandemic’s hardest hit industries has been the performing arts. The Toronto Alliance of the Performing Arts (TAPA) estimated that a minimum of 10,000 artists were affected by cancelled events in just the first two months of the pandemic. And many of the jobs these artists rely on to make ends meet between gigs are in the hospitality industry, which was also shut down.
Although Toronto just recently premiered its first live, in-person play since lockdown, there are no plans to reopen the city’s medium- and large-sized theatres any time soon. So it’s no surprise that actors have been packing up and moving elsewhere.
Actor Geoffrey Pounsett and his wife, Madeleine Donohue, moved from their east-end townhouse to Stratford earlier this summer, following friends Sarah Wilson (a frequent Soulpepper actor) and Lorenzo Savoini (a noted theatre designer), who made the move a couple of months earlier with their family.
“We’ve got two children, so we knew we were going to have to buy a bigger place one day,” says Pounsett. “But it came down to: Do we buy a place in Toronto and stress out, or do we move somewhere else – with a lot more room – and not have to worry about money all the time?”
It helps that most acting auditions are done from home – which was the case even before the pandemic hit and is now definitely the case.
Pounsett says he’d have to wait until after 9:30 pm, when his kids were asleep, to make sure the auditions went uninterrupted. Now he has the privacy – and room – to do them at any time.
“I do most of my auditions – voice, TV and film – from home,” he says. “Even for theatre, more than half of them I tape from home. If it’s a local casting director, I still submit from home.”
And once Pounsett books a TV or film gig, and he’s required to be in the city for a few days, he figures he has family here and enough friends that he can couch surf for a few nights rather than commute.
Since the pandemic, his children – who are five and seven – have been away from their friends and school, so he and Donohue felt it was less disruptive for them to move now than when the city returns to normal.
Better quality of life
Actor Nathan Carroll has also just bought a house in Stratford. He’s lived in Toronto for 13 years, and loves it – especially the biking culture, the island, the arts and the fact that he has dozens of friends here. But for the past year, he’s felt anxious about the long-term feasibility of living here.
He’s lived (with a roommate) in a rent-controlled basement apartment since 2011, and has saved aggressively for over a decade. But if he ever lost the apartment, he doesn’t think he could afford to re-enter the market. (In the 13 years he’s lived here, rents have doubled.) And he says buying a home here is way out of his price range. As a self-employed artist without a stable income, he can’t access a mortgage on his own, but his parents are willing to co-sign on financing.
As an actor, Carroll has also benefited from self-taped auditions, but with his new Stratford home he’ll be able to make them in natural light. He also has lots of friends in Stratford, some involved with the festival, some not.
In Toronto, he says he’s felt increasingly alienated.
“I have close friends here, but they’re all hustling so much just to make rent,” he says. “And because of the industry we’re in, we’ll often have to cancel plans at the last minute because of an audition. It’s also a city where we’re all really spread out. I’m in midtown. Many of my friends are in Parkdale, Leslieville or the Beach. It feels like I have a lot of people here, but no consistent and tight-knit social circle.”
In Stratford, on the other hand, he’s looking forward to hanging out at Revel Coffee Shop, where he says he can sit for five hours a day working or reading, and in that time run into 10 close friends and have catch-up conversations. Something like that would never happen in frazzled Toronto, he says.
Housing costs are one of the main reasons why people are leaving Toronto. In August, according to MLS stats, the average price of a Toronto house was $1.03 million. The median price the same month for houses in Stratford, by contrast, was $319,900, according to Canadian Real Estate Wealth.
But the pandemic has forced people to think about what’s really important to them in terms of quality of life.
“Right now, I’m looking out my bedroom window and my girlfriend’s son is playing on the swing set and the sunflowers are turning toward the sun,” says veteran musical theatre performer Geoffrey Tyler. “I’m looking over at our little orchard. There are four or five apple trees. The breeze is perfect and the air smells incredible. The pandemic has pushed me to the place I’ve been waiting to live for years.”
Tyler has been in the Niagara area for about a year and a half now. Up until a few weeks ago, he and his fiancée both had ties to Toronto. Tyler had held onto his rent-controlled apartment for more than two decades, subletting it to friends or other actors until he got a long-term gig in the city, and his fiancée owned a condo.
But earlier this year the rental market fell through, and they didn’t want to spend all their CERB money towards making up the missing rent. So he gave up his apartment and she sold her condo, and they bought a hobby farm. “3.5 acres for the same price as a one bedroom condo in Toronto,” he says.
They’ve been there for about two weeks. Together, they run the catering business fittoeat.com, which has focused on meal deliveries in the past few months.
What’s 90 minutes from Toronto?
Anticipating the wave of interest in leaving Toronto because of the pandemic, one couple has launched a website called 90MinutesFrom.com to help people find the right town or city for them that’s 90 minutes or less from Hogtown.
Besides housing costs, Audra Williams and Haritha Gnanaratna researched other criteria: how many POC live in the town/city? How did its inhabitants vote in the last election? How much culture is there? What’s the median age? Is there a Pride celebration? Were there Black Lives Matter demonstrations?
“It’s easy to get caught up in a place because you had a great picnic in this cute park,” says Williams. “But what if the town’s mayor personally decried BLM, or there is little diversity?”
The two – Williams is a writer and Gnanaratna runs a non-alcoholic cocktail company and is putting together a book – share a home in Parkdale, but they’re concerned that they could eventually be priced out of the housing market.
Based on their research, their list of dream towns includes St. Catharine’s (on the water, good diversity), Grimsby and other Niagara-region places like Laurel. They also like Brantford, which has a strong Indigenous community and two comic-book stores.
Like many people, they need proximity to the city, but don’t necessarily have to live here.
“One of my best friends went to university at Brock, and he’s always been a big booster of St. Catharine’s,” says Williams. “He works at the CBC, but he’s also been working remotely for a while now. And he feels that if you could work remotely four days a week and come into Toronto, say, one day a week for meetings, that would be fine.”
Gnanaratna has spent all his life in Toronto, moving around several times, and has taken its diversity for granted.
“As you get away from Toronto, the fact that you’re a person of colour becomes an inescapable fact,” he says. “You’re very conscious of it when you go to a new place. You take note of every other person of colour, consciously or unconsciously. So we’d be visiting a nice place, and see some other POC, which seemed promising. But then we realized that these people might also be visitors from Toronto. That’s why we started researching these towns in more depth.”
Diversity and access to culture is important to many. Pounsett and his wife both grew up in Toronto. They’re concerned their children might not meet people from different cultures or even economic backgrounds in their new home of Stratford.
“We decided we just have to be more active making sure it’s part of their development outside the city,” says Pounsett. “And our parents and some friends still live in Toronto. So we’ll try to get them to take advantage of that as much as possible.”
Making it work in T.O.
Still, not everyone is looking to move out of Toronto. The lowering of rents in the city helped Blake Bell move back downtown after being in Uxbridge and Newmarket for 14 years.
Bell, who works in tech and operations at the Royal Bank of Canada and has written over a dozen books about comic books, moved from his former home at Yonge and Eglinton up north so he could share custody of his son with his ex-wife. Now that the son is off to post-secondary school this fall, Bell has decided to move back downtown.
In the couple of weeks he’s been back, he’s taken advantage of all Toronto has to offer, COVID-19 restrictions and all. He’s attended outdoor movies, browsed bookstores and visited Bay Street Video. He constantly uses his new BikeShare membership.
He even estimates his expenses are less than they were living in the 905 area.
“I was paying $1,250 for a two bedroom apartment up there,” he says. “I’m paying more now. But I had to spend $22 for public transit every day in a commute that was nearly four hours round trip. And if I drove down to the city I’d have to pay for parking and gas. Sometimes I’d stay at a hotel. I’m convinced that living downtown I’ll be paying the same, or even less, than I did before.”
On the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, Glenn Sumi discusses the Toronto exodus further with 90 Minutes From’s Audra Williams and Haritha Gnanaratna, actor Geoffrey Pounsett and host Norm Wilner. Find it on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or just listen in the player below: