You know, I’ve known disappointment in my life. When I was just a little guy, I really wanted to grow up and be a ghostbuster. It seemed like a lot of fun. Cool equipment, a sweet retro ride, and, well, fighting ghosts.
Four-year-old Matt couldn’t imagine anything better. It was a tough blow when I eventually realized that it wasn’t going to happen: turns out it was just a movie franchise and there was no such thing as ghostbusters. (I have not yet had the courage to admit that Starfleet is also not likely a career option for my mid-life reinvention, either.)
All this is to say that part of growing up means coming to terms with disappointment, especially when it comes to admitting things you’d always hoped would happen simply won’t. It’s not a fun part of the maturing process, and we should never take pleasure when someone else is forced to face that kind of reckoning. But it’s a normal, healthy part of aging. And that’s why I was glad to recently read a Global News article about a Toronto-area millennial’s open letter essentially breaking up with the city. I hope her peers read it widely.
The piece quotes from a blog written by Emily Wilchesky for the real-estate website Toronto Storeys. Wilchesky is a young millennial who finds herself priced out of the Toronto market. (For disclosure, I’m actually also technically a millennial, but I’d guess I have a full decade on Wilchesky and the difference between mid-20s and mid-30s is obviously gigantic.) Her blog is a very revealing read.
“Today’s exorbitant home and condo prices,” Wilchesky wrote, “coupled with the city’s supply challenges contribute to a nearly impenetrable market, and, well, it’s just too expensive to live here now. … The millennials are heading north — and we mean really north. It’s pretty much all we can afford.”
She goes on to add, “Maybe it will be better for us,” noting the joys of a life more connected to nature.
Well, maybe. There are plenty of places to live in “cottage country” where you aren’t literally portaging from campground to lake shore each morning. Places like Collingwood, Peterborough and Lindsay, all within reasonable (or at least conceivable) drives from Toronto, are fully developed urban areas.
You have all the modern amenities, including schools, hospitals, communications, emergency services and the like. It’s not a metropolis, but it’s more than just blackflies and constellations revealing themselves one star a time. As much as this might surprise those born and raised in the Centre of the Universe, Toronto is not actually the only city known to mankind.
But the broader point is this: I actually mostly agree with Wilchesky, my admittedly somewhat glib intro notwithstanding. 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.
A further point of disclosure: I am admittedly somewhat of a jerk for writing this piece. I already have my detached home in Toronto, and in a pretty sweet neighbourhood, too. And I’ve had to wrench the silver spoon I was born with from my mouth to write this column: I have benefited enormously from luck, family wealth and connections, and a well-timed inheritance or two along the way. I didn’t hit a Toronto real estate home run, I was born on third. I’m honour-bound to acknowledge that.
But someone needs to be willing to be a jerk and deliver some hard truths. My fortunate upbringing makes it personally awkward to do it myself, so it’s a relief that Wilchesky has done it for me. She’s absolutely right: most people, let alone millennials, soon won’t be able to afford to live in Toronto (or Vancouver, for that matter). They will, at the very least, not be able to afford the kind of detached homes with big lawns and double garages that a lot of us (raises hand) grew up in. That will be for the rich, and those of less modest means will have to settle for condos or apartments or live somewhere else.
It wasn’t this way only a generation ago. But Toronto just isn’t that kind of city anymore and isn’t likely to be again anytime soon, if ever. Just like New York hasn’t been for decades and London and Paris for even longer.
Toronto, of course, is not London, New York or Paris, but the market forces at play are similar: as downtown cores become ever more powerful centres of financial and cultural might, houses (particularly single dwellings) within reasonable distance of that core become ever pricier.
Toronto is still very early in this process, too. In her piece, Wilchesky notes rising housing prices in Toronto neighbourhoods like Roncesvalles and Leslieville. Both remain far closer to downtown than you’ll find any affordable homes close to Times Square or Piccadilly Circus. If millennials think Toronto is unaffordable now, wait a generation or two. There’ll probably be a few downward price corrections along the way, but the overall trend isn’t likely to reverse itself to any meaningful degree.
And that’s actually the one point I disagree with Wilchesky on. In her conclusion, she muses that prices one day get so high that the city will “have no one. You’ll be forced to lower your absurd home prices. And you’ll be asking us all to come back. We’ll see you soon, Toronto.”
That’s … not likely. Short of a major economic shock, housing prices in the heart of the nation’s largest metropolitan area, an emerging global economic and technology hub, aren’t likely to revert. It’s fair to wonder if supply and demand aren’t currently out of whack, and speculate that housing prices will flatline, or at least return to a more modest rate of growth going forward (as much as I’ve enjoyed seeing my home value go up by what I conservatively estimate as $500,000 in three years, I’d be very happy to see more modest growth in a more stable market).
But the only kind of economic shock that would be enough to dramatically lower the housing price would almost by necessity have to be so dramatic that virtually no one, millennials or otherwise, would be able to access the credit required to buy up a suddenly (relatively) cheap home in the Annex or Forest Hill. If only a massive economic shock can help you afford a home in Toronto, you’d better hope that massive economic shock somehow leaves your finances and access to credit utterly untouched. Else you’re just as screwed.
So, alas, for many of the millennials moving out for new cities, the move isn’t likely to ever be reversed. I am truly and genuinely sorry for those who’ve had to abandon sincerely held dreams of living in this wonderful city. But this is part of growing up: both for the millennials who are realizing their Toronto dreams will only ever be that, and for the city itself, which is moving out of its sleepy 20th century suburban phase into something much more interesting and exciting.
That excitement won’t be shared equally or fairly. That’s life. The good news is, there’s a ton of other amazing places to live in this country, and they’ll be glad to see young people moving in, starting families and having homes. Canada would benefit immensely from a build out of its mid-size cities. And those moving in may come to realize that they love their new homes, too.