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‘Space is the new luxury’: Could the coronavirus prompt an urban exodus in Ontario?

Traffic on the 401 looks a lot different since the COVID-19 pandemic, a far cry from how we're used to seeing Canada's busiest highway operate.
Traffic on the 401 looks a lot different since the COVID-19 pandemic, a far cry from how we're used to seeing Canada's busiest highway operate. Aaron Streck/ Global News

As Ontario’s economy slowly begins to reopen and the novel coronavirus pandemic rages on, one real estate brokerage says it’s seeing an uptick in Toronto buyers interested in purchasing property outside the city.

In fact, the brokerage says it’s busier than it was before COVID-19.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Escaping the ‘city’ during pandemic not recommended by Ontario health officials

“Space is the new luxury,” said Max Hahne, broker of record and licensed partner of Engel and Völkers Collingwood Muskoka and Bruce Peninsula.

“Collingwood is becoming very, very popular now… (Clients) tell us it’s because they want to have some space around them, and they’re blaming it on the pandemic.”

Much of Hahne’s clientele is purchasing pricey properties. As of Thursday, he noted his brokerage had sold 22 properties worth more than $1 million over the past 90 days.

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“We’ve had a couple of people who are saying, ‘We were planning on retiring over the next three or four years, and we had our eye on Collingwood, and now we both sort of retired early,'” Hahne said. “Other people are saying, ‘We just want a second place to come to, especially if a second (COVID-19) wave comes in the fall.'”

One of Max Hahne’s property listings in the Blue Mountains, Ont.
One of Max Hahne’s property listings in the Blue Mountains, Ont. Provided/Chris Gardiner

But there are also others who are able to work remotely and looking to relocate outside the city.

“Those people are now bringing their families up to Collingwood,” Hahne said. “They’re inquiring about schools… I know that families are going to be moving up here more and more.”

Now more than ever, people are able to work remotely. This past Thursday, tech giant Shopify announced that most employees will continue to work from home even after the coronavirus pandemic ends. Social media conglomerates Facebook and Twitter have also announced that some of their staff will be able to work from home indefinitely.

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While Hahne’s clients are investing in pricey properties, their migration outside the city poses some broader questions: could their movement be emblematic of a wider shift of people relocating outside large municipalities? And could the coronavirus pandemic act as a catalyst in exacerbating potential changes?

READ MORE: Most Shopify employees won’t return to office after coronavirus pandemic, CEO says

“There’s a very interesting and controversial debate going on about whether the pandemic finally marks the death of cities,” Shauna Brail, an associate professor and director of the University of Toronto’s urban studies program, told Global News.

“As soon as things start to move more online and we’re told to stay more and more in our own private spaces, it could be hard to remember why it is we wanted to live in a city in the first place.”

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there have been reports of some New Yorkers leaving the city. According to a recent New York Times article, hundreds of thousands — about five per cent of residents — predominantly from the Big Apple’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, left the city mostly for surrounding counties between March 1 and May 1.

“It’s a confirmation that wealth buys choice,” Brail said of the Times’ analysis.

LISTEN: Shauna Brail joins Global News Radio 640 Toronto

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“What we’re seeing now is a response to what ultimately is a short-term challenge. Part of the problem is we absolutely don’t know how long we’re going to be in this kind of work-from-home environment for public health reasons.”

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Since the pandemic’s onset, Cindy-Lou Schmidt, broker of record at Schmidt and Company real estate brokerage in Waterloo, Ont., said she’s noticed home buyers citing space and distance from neighbours in their moving decisions more often than usual.

“I have also received increased inquiries from realtors from the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) asking about local market data and support as they’re working to actually relocate their clients into Waterloo Region during the quarantine,” Schmidt said.

Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, real estate sales have slowed in the Kitchener-Waterloo region, but when it comes to determining specific trends and the pandemic’s full influence, it’s still too early to make any determinations, according to Schmidt.

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“It’s a little bit too early for that because we have been quarantined, and most people aren’t willing to buy a home without actually visiting it,” Schmidt said.

“They are reassessing how much space they need from the neighbours but also, because of the work-from-home situation, how much space they actually need from their family members.”

READ MORE: April home sales fall drastically in Kitchener-Waterloo but prices don’t

For Diana Petramala, a senior researcher at Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development, there isn’t enough data from past pandemics to predict how people’s behaviour could change amid COVID-19, specifically when it comes to moving outside the city.

“One thing that I think the pandemic will do is it will remove the commute. For a lot of people who are working from home and now will continue to work from home, you no longer have the commute cost,” Petramala said.

“If you’re looking for space, you can pretty much move a little bit further now.”

But not everybody is able to work remotely permanently. While many have adapted to working from home during COVID-19, doing so in the long term can bring on its own set of challenges, according to Brail.

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“Once things start to reopen three months later, I think it will be a very different environment in terms of thinking about what kinds of places we need to live in or what kinds of amenities we need to have,” Brail said.

“Over the long term, the costs of working from home — the physical costs, the psychological costs, the mental health costs, the family costs — we’re not accounting for all of those.”

READ MORE: Work-from-home ‘revolution’ possible as companies adapt to coronavirus measures, says HR expert

Even before the pandemic’s onset, there was debate as to whether people — and millennials in particular — were gradually beginning to move out of Canada’s largest cities.

In an April 2019 Royal Bank of Canada report, senior economist Robert Hogue said concerns surrounding high housing prices pushing millennials out of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are “greatly exaggerated.”

More young people are leaving big cities for nearby areas in the same province, Hogue said in the report, but the number of millennials moving into big cities from another province or country more than makes up for the intraprovincial losses.

“There has been an exodus of millennials from the city of Toronto to suburban areas,” Petramala said. “As millennials are coming more of age, they’re looking for maybe more space or family-friendly locations that might not be affordable to them in the city of Toronto.

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Petramala said millennials who are leaving Toronto are going to places like Simcoe, Hamilton, Kitchener and London.

“There’s a life cycle to housing in general,” she added. “As people move up the income ladder and the age ladder, they prefer more space.”

READ MORE: Most boomers likely won’t downsize for another 20 years — too late for millennials

While some may buy property in Ontario cottage country during COVID-19 and move out of the city permanently, Brail said she doesn’t see neighbourhoods in cities emptying out.

“In the short term, cities and places of dense activity are in for some painful times as we figure out how to return to work and to life (while) at the same time living with the threat of a very deadly disease,” Brail said.

“Looking back historically and thinking about the kinds of predictions that have been made but never come to fruition, (I) believe that we will continue to see cities, and big cities, as critical places that bring people together to live, to work, to recreate.”

Hahne, however, thinks buyers showing interest in Collingwood during COVID-19 is symbolic of a broader interest in properties with more space that are close to nature.

“They’ve always thought about it or dreamed about it, and now it’s a reality, and they’re forced to do it,” he said.

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