Toronto may never recover from COVID-19

OPINION: The pandemic has driven some formerly diehard Torontonians to pack up and leave. Is the allure of the Big Smoke disappearing into thin air?
By Melissa Alice - Published on Sep 17, 2020
With the swift adoption of telecommuting, many office workers are now considering moves outside the GTA. (iStock/diegograndi)

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Depending on whom you talk to, the pandemic and the ensuing economic meltdown have been either the best thing to happen to people or the worst thing ever. Admittedly, I isolated up north in the wilderness with my fiancé for almost four months. The Toronto I came back to was not the one I’d left. The once crowded, high-action streets were quiet and empty. A brand-new tent city had popped up on the outskirts of Trinity Bellwoods Park. Aside from the luxury-shopping and dining spots in the tonier parts of the city, stores and restaurants were sparsely populated. Toronto, the Canadian city on the cusp of becoming world-class, had changed. This should be no surprise: the economic fallout has had wide and far-reaching impacts on all aspects of the economy. What made this city so vibrant has been stripped away — and a comeback does not appear to be happening anytime soon.

According to Destination Canada, formerly the Canadian Tourism Commission, as of May 31, estimated overnight arrivals had declined 99 per cent, 770,000 hospitality jobs had been lost, and the industry’s normal revenues had incurred ongoing losses of 80 to 90 per cent. Tourism, hospitality, and sports — usually major draws and income earners for the city — have been completely obliterated. Last year, Scotiabank Arena and streets and bars across the GTA (and the country) grew more electric each time the Raptors advanced to the next stage of the playoffs. There is a certain magic that is lost when sports fans are confined to their homes to watch games, when players dribble, shoot, and score for virtual crowds and canned cheers. What is Toronto without the Maple Leafs, the Raptors, the Blue Jays, Toronto FC, and the Marlies?

And then there’s housing. Since the early 2010s, housing prices in Canada have increased 115 per cent. Yet, given the stability and security of Canada — and our immigration-friendly policies, geared toward attracting international talent — it would make sense for the GTHA (and Canada, in general) to be viewed as a safe place to be in the midst of social, political, and economic uncertainty around the world. While housing starts increased by 7 per cent in August, experts warn of a housing “cliff,” the result of the end of mortgage-payment deferrals, eviction freezes, and COVID-19 social-security benefits, such as CERB. Although experts are providing an additional time buffer of winter 2021, the signs all point to a sharp reality check in the average Canadian’s ability to withstand mortgage pressures in the face of this crisis. With the swift adoption of telecommuting, many office workers are now considering moves outside the GTA, where the cost of living is cheaper and the pace of life is more relaxed.

The city entered Stage 3 — albeit cautiously — in August, when many offices were allowed to reopen with public-health measures in place. Still, many of Ontario’s major employers announced that their employees would be telecommuting indefinitely. This makes sense, given the technological advances in videoconferencing, the overhead corporations stand to save, the proven increase in productivity (arguably at the expense of workers — particularly those with children — whose domestic and corporate duties often overlap and spiral into chaos), and minimized exposure to frequent-flyer colleagues. If there’s no longer any pressure to schmooze and put in face time downtown and at business parks across the Golden Horseshoe, then why continue to pay exorbitant mortgages and/or cram yourself and your family into shoebox condos in the core in order to maintain a reasonable commuting time?

Which brings me to a Facebook post that Mathieu Rainville, a friend and former colleague, recently wrote about his family’s exodus: “So this is it! [We] are all packed up and headed to beautiful, snowy Owen Sound for the next little while. We’re all looking forward to a change of pace, and the much bigger space after 7 years of cramped downtown condo living. It’s not supposed to feel like the end of something … but with the pandemic and all the changes that the city has been going through over the last decade, it does feel like the end of an era.”

This is from someone who, five years ago, swore that he and his family would never leave Toronto. He, like many downtown residents, had been horrified even by the thought of moving north of Bloor.

Both my mother and my mother-in-law — who live almost two hours north of the city and like to list the extra spaces in their homes as short-term rentals for extra income, post-retirement — have seen a significant uptick in inquiries from young professionals living in downtown Toronto who are interested in “trying out” a quiet, more rural life now that they’ll be working from home for the foreseeable future.

The career opportunities, social life, restaurants, sporting events, and cultural cachet are what made Toronto, well, Toronto. Without the opportunities, the shiny attractions, and the requirement to live within a reasonable commuting distance of work, people may be less willing to tolerate the sky-high housing prices and rents, traffic, pollution, noise, and family-unfriendly condo lifestyle. Unless all levels of government work together to revive old industries, create new ones, and sustainably invest in the health of Canada’s largest city, the allure of the Big Smoke may disappear into thin air.

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