There’s life outside Toronto, but leaving the city is harder than it used to be

OPINION: Do millennials need to suck it up and leave the city to find affordable housing? Maybe, but don’t pretend it’s that simple
By John Michael McGrath - Published on July 14, 2017
a u-haul truck along the highway
Sky-high housing costs in Toronto are starting to squeeze millennials out of the city. (***Karen/Creative Commons)

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We owe each other a better prescription for hard times than “If you don’t like it, leave.”

That, in short, is the reaction to an op-ed published earlier this week, in which columnist Matt Gurney advised millennials struggling to make ends meet in Toronto decamp to other pastures — even if those pastures aren't quite so green.

(Full disclosure: I’ve appeared on Gurney’s radio show, shared a beer with him once, and occasionally argued with him on Twitter about science fiction.)

Gurney won’t be surprised that readers think he’s a jerk for holding this view. People born and raised in Toronto understandably get their backs up at the idea that the city they love, that they’ve contributed to all their lives, is no longer theirs, thanks to the vicissitudes of global capitalism.

The problem is, jerk or not, he’s right. Here’s his thesis: “A lot of millennials, including many who grew up in or around Toronto, are probably going to have to seek work elsewhere. And you know what? It’s OK. The sooner they realize this, the better it will be for them.”

This is undeniably correct, especially the last part. What can easily be interpreted as a scolding — “You stupid millennials, learn to pack a U-Haul” — is better seen as an invitation. Toronto’s unemployment rate is currently higher than in Barrie, London, Ottawa, and Windsor. Hell, Thunder Bay’s unemployment rate is nearly a full point lower than Toronto’s, if you believe Statistics Canada. There are jobs out there, in places where homes are available for a proverbial song relative to prices in the 416.

This is the exact sort of economic calculation that brings so many people to Toronto in the first place, only reversed: come for the big-city wages in hopes of  be able to afford a nice home and start your life; leave for a smaller city where the housing is cheaper if your wages can’t keep up. As Gurney writes, the people who move first will reap the biggest rewards — and it’s easier to do that before the mortgage and the kids arrive.

Not that this is easy; but it’s also not the end of the world. If you live in Toronto, try boarding the subway (or better yet, the bus) and estimate how many of your fellow passengers were born in the city. It’s painful to leave home, but a great many people who live in Toronto already have — that’s how they got here.

Indeed, the dirty little secret of Toronto demography is that, were it not for international immigration, the GTA would be losing people: more leave the region every year than arrive from elsewhere in the province or from other provinces. Heated arguments on Twitter and elsewhere over whether people should leave Toronto are kind of silly when they already are, by the tens of thousands. Sure, some people fall in love with the city and never leave, but many others tire of the constant compromises living here demands and move on.

Where I think Gurney is dead wrong is his focus on economic opportunities elsewhere, when Toronto’s housing woes aren’t really a result of low wages. (There is, of course, real poverty in this city that needs to be addressed, but that’s even less amenable to the U-Haul solution.)

There are, relative unemployment rates notwithstanding, plenty of jobs in Toronto. Many of them pay well enough that millennials just starting their careers can fairly ask how even a one-bedroom condo is beyond their reach. The problem the city faces now isn’t a deficit of good jobs, but the opposite: there’s an army of young professionals earning decent-ish money while fighting tooth and nail for shelter. Plenty of them would look elsewhere (and many already are), but as long as employers locate in the GTA, so will their workers.

Yes, Toronto’s housing shortage will partly be sorted out by those who leave the market for other cities. But the only permanent solution to the crisis is to build enough homes to match all the workers Toronto attracts — and that’s where the city (and cities in the 905) have fallen short.

Why? Well, let me match Gurney’s unpleasant truth with one of my own: if you don’t currently own a house in Toronto, preferably a detached one, the city’s political class doesn’t care about you and doesn’t even really want you. They rail against nearly every new tower; even timid attempts to make tower-induced density work better, like the King streetcar pilot council approved last week, are watered down so as not to offend home-owning motorists. Provincial efforts to “cool” the housing market, meanwhile, are explicitly aimed at maintaining current house prices and rental rates, not lowering them.

These are structural problems in our politics, and even a market crash won’t help: look at big cities in the U.S., where prices are back in the stratosphere only a few years after their bubble burst. Toronto’s had an affordability problem for years before the recent run-up in prices, and so far the only result has been a non-solution: aping Vancouver’s foreign-buyers tax not because it’s effective, but because it’s popular.

In short: if you’re a young person having a hard time making ends meet in Toronto because of housing costs, there is no realistic chance that the situation will improve any time soon, largely because elected leaders at both the municipal and the provincial level don’t really want it to.

The sooner millennials learn that — and start voting based on it — the better.

Photo courtesy of ***Karen and licensed for commercial use under a Creative Commons licence. (See the uncropped version.)

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