Why COVID-19 has city-dwellers trying to get out of Dodge

With telecommuting on the rise, realtors say more and more urbanites are looking to escape the noise, crowding, and traffic that come with city life
By Diane Peters - Published on Jun 18, 2020
As COVID-19 has forced many employees to work from home, it’s made moving out of big centres more feasible for some. (iStock.com/Jeff Manes)

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After Dawn Weaver leaves her apartment in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, she often finds herself crossing the street several times to avoid walking too closely to other pedestrians. Nearby green spaces, such as High Park, are packed. Warm evenings bring noise, as neighbours host small but loud backyard barbecues on her densely populated block.

She’d been planning to move out of Toronto for some time. Since COVID-19, though, she’s become even more keen to find a more affordable, smaller, and quieter city or town. “I already felt like it was too busy here,” she says. “Too many people, too much traffic, and too much noise. The pandemic just made it worse.”

Weaver was expecting to find a new place somewhere in the Golden Horseshoe this fall, but COVID-19 has complicated her plans. She works in theatre building sets and props and juggles short-term contracts in the city and in places such as Burlington — she was supposed to be at the Blyth Festival this summer. Now she’s not sure where her next gig will be, or when. 

For many, the pandemic has made big-city living seem too crowded, expensive, and stressful. The best parts of the city experience — transit, restaurants, live events, and street life — are either temporarily gone or could come with risks. The majority of Ontario’s current COVID-19 cases are in the greater Toronto and Hamilton areas; many smaller centres have mere handfuls of new cases or none at all. 

“My phone has been ringing off the hook,” says Kate Broddick, of the Kate Broddick Team, in Brantford. Her real-estate company is expecting one of its best years ever, she says: she’s heard from prospective buyers from Toronto, Hamilton, and the Kitchener-Waterloo area who are drawn by Brantford’s affordability, slower pace, and proximity to nature. With a population of just more than 100,000, it’s arguably easier to social distance there — easier still on the outskirts or in a nearby small town.

“People are ready to move on,” she says of those living in larger, pricier, and more hectic cities. The average house price in Toronto is $870,000; in Brantford, it’s $499,910.

As COVID-19 has forced many employees to work from home, it’s made moving out of big centres more feasible for some. Andrew Galvin, of the Galvin Team, in Peterborough, says he’s been getting calls from telecommuters and that he, too, looks to be on track for a record year. Recently, he’s been spending his weekends doing deals and (carefully and safely) ushering prospective buyers around the region: he’s been doing virtual tours and showing properties as little as possible — and cleaning a lot. 

Peterborough is booming: it saw 3.1 per cent population growth between 2016-17 and the following year — making it the fastest-growing town in the country by percentage, according to Statistics Canada. Galvin says that growth was previously fuelled by retirees moving in, both to the city proper and to nearby small towns and lakefront homes in the Kawarthas. Now, though, he’s getting calls from young families keen to raise kids closer to nature while keeping their big-city jobs. “They’re telling me they don’t want to be stuck in buildings with elevators. They don’t want to wait in big lines at grocery stores,” says Galvin. 

The suburbs and smaller cities in the Golden Horseshoe have been attracting Toronto and Hamilton residents for years, says Shauna Brail, the associate director of partnership and outreach with the School of Cities at the University of Toronto, and an associate professor at the university. “It’s not a new pattern.”

She notes that, while London, Ottawa, the Waterloo Region, and Windsor are growing rapidly, smaller cities are not attracting vast numbers of new people: Peterborough gains just more than 4,000 new residents a year. Compare that to the 127,575 people who moved to the GTA in 2019 — most of them immigrants — making it the fastest-growing area by real numbers in all of North America, according to a new report out of Ryerson University. “In many ways, it’s a blip,” Brail say. “These smaller places are not going to grow to an extent that they compete with the bigger cities.”

Galvin says that these newcomers don’t have a substantial effect on the Peterborough economy. “The employment options here are not great,” he says. The city used to be a manufacturing hub, and now its biggest employer is the local hospital. “It really is a bedroom community,” he says, noting that he expects that trend to continue as telecommuters arrive. 

Renters such as Weaver won’t find the same dramatic deals as buyers. According to Rentals.ca, one-bedroom apartment goes for $2,103 in Toronto,  $1.547 in Barrie, and $1,435 in Guelph. Apartments themselves are scarce. Agents in both Peterborough and Brantford report a nearly 0 per cent vacancy rate

And, of course, if you live in a small town and want to check out a movie, play, or sporting event, that can mean limited choices or a long commute. “If you move to a smaller city and you have growing children or you can no longer drive, there are not the kinds of services like transit in these places,” says Brail, adding that small-towners often own a second car and have to travel to a city to access some medical services.

“There are still some things I like about the city,” Weaver says. “But, whenever I’m away, the only thing I miss is the food.”

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